A young, traumatized girl walks across a bridge, her dress torn to shreds and her eyes staring vacantly into space as if trying to avoid the visual sensations that she has experienced. A ghost, an image and a tormented girl unable to speak, Ronette Pulaski is a central character in Twin Peaks, but a character that hardly ever utters a single word. Ronette, who escaped from the train car in which Laura was killed, was played by the American actor Phoebe Augustine, who has long since retired from acting, but who still receives letters on her home address from rabid fans of the show. Apart from Twin Peaks, Augustine was also a part of the prequel Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, and she has starred in TV series like Frannie’s Turn (CBS, 1992) and The Elvira Show (CBS, 1993). I interviewed Augustine, a quirky, witty and insightful actor, about Ronette Pulaski, David Lynch and Twin Peaks, and her real-life eloquence was vividly different from the tormented silence of her iconic character.
AH: How would you describe Twin Peaks as a television series? What made it stand out from your everyday run-of-the-mill television show?
PA: What I remember about Twin Peaks was the melding of deadly serious subject-matter with quirky, off-beat humor. It was risky and unique in that way, I think. Quirky and off-beat was how I was always described in casting conversations at the time so it’s interesting that I never had the chance to be quirky or off-beat in Twin Peaks. Twin Peaks is a well-crafted work of art, obviously!
AH: How did you become a part of Twin Peaks? Do you remember the casting process?
PA: My agent submitted my headshot to the local casting director in Seattle, and I got a call to come in and meet. I don’t remember having any sides to read – I may have done a monologue and then we just talked. If I remember correctly, I talked with Mark Frost and then later, I met David. I was a newlywed at the time and hadn’t updated my headshot yet which still had my maiden name printed on it. I told David that I wanted to use my married name and he told me, “No, Augustine looks better on the screen.” I don’t think he was giving me helpful advice. I think he has a vision for his work and concerns himself with every detail of it – even the credits! I think this because later, during filming, he didn’t like the way the knots in the rope around my wrists were tied and stopped filming to re-tie the knots himself.
AH: The shot of Ronette walking across the bridge has become almost iconic. Why do you think that this particular shot has become so important to Twin Peaks fans? What makes it so haunting?
PA: I don’t know why the image of Ronette’s Bridge has become so iconic but it’s nice to be a part of something like that. I’ve been told that particular image is a two page spread in a book of David’s favorite photographs! That was an interesting day that I will always remember. There was a large group of people at the end of the bridge (the crew) and I walked slowly toward them. One of the people in the crew wasn’t doing anything other than just standing there in the crowd, but he frightened me so much that I asked to speak with David between takes. I pointed out the person who was frightening me and asked who he was and if he had to be there because he was scaring me. David smiled and said, “That’s the bad guy but don’t tell anyone” – and left it at that. Of course, I’m sure you’ve heard this story before so you already know the ending – that person was Frank Silva. When I got to know Frank later, I found out that he was a lovely person and not scary at all but there was something about the day and the situation and the mood and who knows what else that freaked me out. David is good at setting a mood. By the way, Frank Silva told me that on the day of filming the bridge scene, he had no idea that he would be in the show. He was just a member of the crew at that point.
AH: Another haunting scene with you is the scene at the hospital where Ronette is having a nightmare about Laura and the occurrences in the train car. David Lynch uses a moving camera akin to The Shining, and the shots of you and Sheryl Lee are particularly frightening. Could you say a few words on that scene?
PA: What I mainly remember about the hospital scene is fighting with the orderlies and getting bruised up pretty badly. It never occurred to me to ‘pretend fight’ so those poor actors playing the orderlies found themselves in the position of having to actually fight to hold me down. I think David felt a little bad about it. Between takes he stood by the camera and held up a stick of chewing gum. He said, “See this stick of gum? When we finish this scene, you can have it.” It sounds strange, I know, but in my mind, I didn’t think of him as David Lynch – Famous Movie Director – but more like Uncle David, so the chewing gum thing seemed quite normal, like something your kindly uncle would say.
AH: Can you describe David Lynch as a director? How would you characterize his directorial style?
PA: I don’t remember getting any direction from David Lynch. That is not surprising because I never really spoke or anything. But, as I said before, he knows how to set a mood. I think the scene in Jacques’ cabin might be from the movie, but I remember David sitting in the ‘cabin set’ with the actors for a long time, maybe 45 minutes, just chatting and telling us stories. Deepak had to beg him to move on with the filming, and David reluctantly agreed. I don’t think he just enjoying hearing his own stories – I think David was trying to create, and waiting for, the right mood to arrive.
AH: You were a part of five episodes, but Ronette was largely unable to speak throughout most of the episodes. Which challenges did you face, when having to portray this traumatized, non-speaking girl?
PA: The challenges I faced were my own fault, caused by my preference for method acting. Of course there are other, less internal, ways of acting but I didn’t know them. So, I was bruised and frightened and traumatized. I had nightmares. When you see me crying, that’s me really crying. I wished that I had been given more to do in the series. I would have loved to have been one of the pretty girls who got to talk. Ha ha! But, I’m grateful for the role I was given and hope I did a good job.
Phoebe Augustine in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992).
AH: Why do you think that the ratings dropped during the second season?
PA: I can only guess that it wasn’t so interesting anymore for the viewing audience once the big question – who killed Laura Palmer? – was answered.
AH: How was it possible for a show like Twin Peaks to be aired on a broadcast network like ABC, a network which was governed by the principle called “least objectionable programming.”?
PA: I don’t know the answer to this question. Maybe the answer is because it was David Lynch – Famous Movie Director.
AH: Which role has Twin Peaks had for you personally and career-wise, and is there any chance of you coming back for the third season? In any case, what do you think of the sudden revival of Twin Peaks, and why do you think that Twin Peaks is being re-hyped by young TV audiences all over the world?
PA: I did other work before and after Twin Peaks, but that’s the one that won’t go away. It’s a singular experience to have been a small part of something so lasting. You’ve probably noticed that I stopped acting long ago yet I still receive fan letters (at my house – that’s scary) from Twin Peaks fans. I’ve met young people who are huge fans and lots of times they tell me that their parents introduced them to Twin Peaks. So, we have second generation fans now. Maybe they’ll tell their children about Twin Peaks and we’ll have another revival twenty five years from now. I would love to come back for season three, but I haven’t been contacted. I’ve been out of touch for a long time, you know. David tracked me down in Alaska for Fire Walk with Me (he called me at my chiropractor’s office, while I was there for an adjustment, and we had a long conversation on the phone at the reception desk during which he gave me an angel!), but I don’t expect him to go out of his way like that again. I guess you never know though; stranger things have happened.
Ronette’s dream from Twin Peaks, as mentioned by Pheobe Augustine: