Born in 1938, the American actor Richard Beymer is something of Hollywood star, even if Beymer, himself, seems to have no interest whatsoever in status and Hollywood stardom. Beymer is known for playing Tony in West Side Story (1961), yet he has starred in various different movies and television shows. In the 2000s, Beymer has chosen to withdraw from the Hollywood ‘circus’, and he, now, mostly works as a painter, writer and independent filmmaker. His most recent achievements include the satirical autobiography Impostor: or What Happened to Richard Beymer (2007) and the documentary It’s a Beautiful World (2014), which follows Richard Beymer and David Lynch on a trip to India. I talked with Beymer, and he was as funny and generous as he was insightful and deep. In our conversation, we debated Twin Peaks, different directorial styles and the difference between formulaic entertainment and art.
AH: Could you say a few words on your character, Ben Horne, and David Lynch’s directorial style. What did he say to you about your character?
RB: Let’s start with what he didn’t say. He is not a director who talks about motivation and backstory. Most directors like that, but not David Lynch.
With Ben, I didn’t have very much to do in the pilot. I read the part, and I realized he was a businessman who pulls a fast one. The first scene we did was on location at the hotel. It was with Leland. David Lynch had us sitting in a couch, and I asked him whether I could stand up and walk around. And he said, “Yes, but once you get to the fireplace, hawk a big loogie.” I was surprised because I hadn’t ever thought that my character would do something like that, but I was new to David and I didn’t know him, so I didn’t ask questions concerning motivation.
There is one scene that I would like to go back and talk about – it’s the brie baguette scene. In the script it doesn’t say that you shouldn’t hear the words. David said to me, “When you eat the baguette, don’t just nibble it. Really eat.” He stopped me many times, and he said, “No, no, no. I don’t even care whether we hear a word he says.”
You kind of have to forget about all your old schooling and learning about character development and consistency. David just says what he wants. He doesn’t give you any motivation or any traditional type of direction.
AH: It is interesting hearing you say that David Lynch was (is) more intuitive in his approach than you would usually expect. Could you mention other scenes or sequences that could illustrate the same kind of approach? I am thinking, for example, about the scene where a man says to Dale Cooper, as he comes to investigate Laura’s dead body, that he is ‘sorry about light’, that ‘it must be a bad transformer.’
RB: That scene with the light flickering – that really happened. David liked it, and therefore he used it, characters talking about the light and so on. That’s what makes an artist. Artists are constantly trying to take advantage of the happy accident. They’re not trying to cover it up. They use it. I paint, and I know painters who, when making a mistake, paint it over and start anew.
David doesn’t come to a set to direct. He doesn’t come prepared. I don’t mean that he doesn’t know what he wants to do. He’s just more spontaneous and intuitive. Most directors, particularly coming from television, come to the set with diagrams as to what is going to happen and where the actors are going to go. They have pre-planned everything, and they want to make sure that everything goes as it should. Television producers like that and call it professional, but it gets a bit boring. David isn’t like that, and I think that his spontaneity has been enhanced with his meditation. It’s just a bi-product.
Also, there was a scene in the hotel lobby – this was the second season. We’re in the hotel lobby, and people are coming in, registering. There is a scene with Cooper and me, and David came up with the ideas that he wanted yoyos. So David had a guy pick up a lot of yoyos. There was not narrative reason for it, and it was never explained.
Another scene was the tap dancing scene from the first scene. The wardrobe had given me some new shoes that were a little stiff, and when I was a kid I used to tap dance. I didn’t think anyone would notice it, but David came in and he saw it, and he said, “We’ll use that in the next scene.” I was in a pretty serious scene with Leland, but David thought that it would be perfect if I tap danced. So I got into it and started dancing, but then David said, “No, jump up and dance on the table, Richard”.
AH: The tap dancing scene is quite interesting, and, to me, it could illustrate the changing moods in Twin Peaks. Could you say a few words on that, i.e. the focus on shifting moods in Twin Peaks?
RB: The storylines could change. In one scene the mood could be very spooky, and in the next scene it could be very humorous or humorous and spooky at the same time. And it was never really about story. Everything else is about a very superficial story. It’s about a plot, it’s about a story. Twin Peaks was not about that. You didn’t want it to get some sort of completion. It wasn’t about that. And another thing is that it was done by an artist, a surreal artist who brought his sensibility to it. David is very inspired by the surrealists, and Twin Peaks is like that. He takes something which is very banal – which you’ve seen many times over – but then he just twists it a little bit – like the light flickering on – and all of a sudden a whole other thing is established.
AH: Normally, when dealing with Hollywood and television storytelling, people talk about consistency, i.e. that characters and plot elements should be consistent and always push the narrative forward. In that sense, it seems that Twin Peaks is not traditional. What would you say?
RB: The characters pretty much stayed in character, except from my character. I have never seen a central character change as much as my character through the course of a series. Normally, when a character is established, the character usually stays that way.
I suppose that’s all in the writing. These things just evolve very simply. There weren’t ever any discussions of my character.
AH: You are a visual artist yourself, and you mention surrealism and paintings when talking about Twin Peaks. Would you argue that Twin Peaks is somehow more artistic than most television shows? If so, how can we see this?
RB: When you do something abstract, it’s always easy for ten different people to interpret it in so many ways and to connect the dots in so many ways. Most Hollywood movies could be understood in only one way, and there would be no ambiguity. But that is the beauty of Twin Peaks, I think. That you can interpret it in so many ways. Twin Peaks is like poetry and abstract paintings. Stop trying to figure it out. Life does not make sense. That’s the fun of it, and that’s the beauty of Twin Peaks. It’s ambiguous, and it comes to you on so many levels. But the network could only see the most superficial level of it – the actual murder story – but for David it wasn’t about that.
AH: Why do you think that the ratings started to drop during the second season of Twin Peaks?
RB: The network deliberately put us up against Cheers. They did that deliberately because they wanted us off the air. The people who ran ABC back then were very conservative, and they didn’t like Twin Peaks. I remember talking to one of the heads of the company, and he asked me, “What the hell is this show about? What’s the meaning of it?” You could just tell that he didn’t get it.
AH: I am not sure that I get it either, but for me Twin Peaks is mostly about mood. It establishes an ever-changing and often very ambiguous mood, and, still to this day, it baffles me, it amuses me and it frightens me in equal measure. It can go from being very funny to being eerie or even downright scary…
RB [interrupts me]: Now, you have my have my number. The next time you get scared, I want you to call me, and I’ll say, “Calm down, it’s only a TV show. It’s a TV show made by two people sitting in a room and planning what the next scene will be.”
A memorable scene with Ben Horne (Richard Beymer) from the second season of Twin Peaks: