This post contains spoilers for Twin Peaks: The Return Part 9.
When asked if there’s anything—seriously, anything—he can tell us about what’s coming up for his character on Twin Peaks: The Return, Matthew Lillard has to decline—not just because he’s sworn to secrecy, but also because, the actor admits, he doesn’t actually know.
As William Hastings, a conspiracy theorist who was exploring an alternate dimension with his partner before she was violently murdered, Lillard embodies all of the best qualities of Twin Peaks: his performance walks the very fine line between earnestness and ham. In other words, he can make you genuinely feel for him as you laugh hysterically at his character’s labored sobs about scuba diving and forgone trips to the Bahamas. Lillard made a big impression in the revival’s first and second installments, then disappeared until Part 9—but the actor admits that he’s not sure when he’ll be back again, or even if he’ll be back. In fact, as he sat down to watch the premiere with his wife, Lillard recalls telling her that he probably would not even appear in the show until Part 12.
“And then I was in the first two episodes,” the actor recalled with a laugh. After that, he was sure his big monologue scene—in which his character cries his way through a police interrogation and explains his encounter with an alternate dimension—would appear in Part 3. Little did he know, he wouldn’t be back until Sunday night. “I have no idea what’s going on,” Lillard said. “I have no idea if I’m in it again. It’s the weirdest sort of Lynchian experience of my entire career.”
Lillard is not alone. Basically every Twin Peaks actor (except for Kyle MacLachlan) was in the dark as they shot the Showtime revival: they were permitted to read their own lines, and nothing more. Lillard was given no background on his character and had no idea what his motivation was. As he prepared to film that interrogation scene, Lillard recalls pulling Mark Frost aside to see if he could get any information to ground his performance. “He was like, ‘I can’t tell you anything,’” Lillard said. “I’m like, ‘Yeah, I understand that, but I don’t have any idea what any of this means. I don’t understand any of it. So you’ve got to let me know at least what I’m talking about.’” Frost did, for the record, walk the actor through what his character had experienced.
To make matters even harder? Lillard admits he missed the Twin Peaks “moment” when the series originally aired on ABC. He’s a huge David Lynch fan—he named Mulholland Drive, Blue Velvet, and Lost Highway as some of his favorites—but alas, he still has yet to go back and watch the original series. “Does that make you hate me?” he joked. “Should I not say that? I shouldn’t say that, should I?”
“It came out at a time when I was young and dumb and running around New York City,” Lillard explained. “So I didn’t watch a lot of TV back then, and so it really sort of—I missed that moment. But I do not deny its cultural relevance and amazingness.”
Lillard auditioned for his Twin Peaks role; as he noted, “when a David Lynch opportunity comes through, you’re jumping at the chance.” When he first started reading through his lines, Lillard wondered—as actors often do—if his character would end up doing anything noteworthy, “or if it’s just going to be this kind of pedantic normal guy.” Luckily, “normal” people don’t have a place in Twin Peaks. When he got to the interrogation scene, Lillard was thrilled—but nervous. His first thought? “That’s bananas.”
“I will say that it’s the most intimidating scene I’ve ever read on the page,” Lillard said. “Because you know that the stakes are really high, because people are going to watch, and then you realize that there’s this slug line of emotional high stakes, and then none of it means anything. So you’re like, ‘Oh my God, how do you do that? . . . Can I actually pull this off?’”
The enormity of the project he was working on hit Lillard as he drove to his first day of shooting.
“I was thinking to myself, ‘Oh my God, people are going to see this scene all over the world. And it’s going to be around forever,’” Lillard said. “I was super aware of the fact that I was doing something that wasn’t an average day of work. I was crazy stressed.”
It was his first scene on the show—and the first scene in which Chrysta Bell, who plays F.B.I. Agent Tammy Preston, had performed, outside of short films and TV movies. “She’d never been on set before,” Lillard said. “So you have an actress that’s like, ‘Hi, this is my first day of acting.’ And I’m like, ‘This is my first scene that I’ve ever done.’”
Luckily, they both showed up ready for work. They got the scene done in two takes. (As Lillard put it, Lynch is “a little like [Clint] Eastwood. Clint Eastwood is like, one take and you’re out . . . You sort of know that you’re on the playing field and it’s go time.”)
It’s striking, though, how well Lillard manages to nail the balance of sincerity and absurdity that David Lynch so consistently executed throughout Twin Peaks. His understanding of that tone was evident from his first moments on screen—but in Sunday’s monologue, Lillard’s understanding of Lynch’s approach really shined.
“It’s hilarious,” Lillard said of the scene’s balance of hysterics and humor, “but I think that’s David Lynch. I mean, understanding the tone in which he operates. You have to sort of get your head around what he does. He has that level of absurdity—this earnest absurdity . . . I think that great comedy comes out of full commitment.”
For those wondering: yes, having to cry for an entire scene is just as face-achingly awful as it looks. “It’s so miserable,” Lillard said with a laugh as he recalled the scene. “It’s so horrible. We’re shooting in a real jail cell, and I realized it was echoing through this 1930s cement building. I was wailing like a beaten child.” Still, as an actor, Lillard said that’s the game: you have to be willing to commit. And for him, that’s the fun of it anyway. “I was so happy,” Lillard said. “I can feel the joy in me just talking about it. I was so happy that after the moment . . . the energy was there. People were crying—when you walked off the set, people had tears running down their face. It feels like you’ve done your job. It feels good. It’s life-affirming in a way.”
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