The return of cult phenomenon Twins Peaks for a third season last year was one of the great triumphs of popular culture. After 25 years, you could be forgiven for thinking creators David Lynch and Mark Frost would never finish what they started. Their possible return was the great geek pipe dream. The unicorn of Lynch-dom. A monumental “what-coulda-been”.
The twists and turns that led to the rapid rise of Twin Peaks in the early ‘90s – and then to it’s stunning burnout after two seasons – stand as one of the great examples of creative interference and the pitfalls of network pressure. So in 2014 when Lynch and Frost did announce their return to the mesmerising murk and mystery of their troubled and sleepy Washington town, suddenly one of the great wrongs of storytelling was to be righted.
Fans received 18 searing new hours of Twin Peaks, all directed by Lynch and co-written by Lynch and Frost. It was the stuff of which dreams were made. It was Twin Peaks as nature intended.
Most of the original cast returned. Amongst them was Dana Ashbrook who portrayed bad boy Bobby Briggs in the first two seasons. When we met Bobby in the ‘90s, he was a schemer of the highest order. Drugs. Murder. You name it and Bobby was up to his neck in it. And with him being the former boyfriend of slain teen Laura Palmer, he was also a suspect in the investigation of her death.
But a quarter of a century later, when we arrive at season three, things are different. Bobby’s changed his ways and become a cop at Twin Peaks Sherriff’s Department. He’s also had a daughter, Becky (Amanda Seyfried), with old flame Shelly Johnson. Bobby and Shelly are now divorced, but they’re amicably raising their child.
Ashbrook is one of the cast members heading to Australia this September for a live Q&A alongside Sheryl Lee (Laura Palmer), Kimmy Robertson (Lucy Moran), Michael Horse (Deputy Hawk), Al Strobel (Phillip Gerard) and Sabrina S. Sutherland (executive producer).
Here Ashbrook talks to Nick Milligan about returning to the phenomenon of Twin Peaks, playing the good guy, and what it’s like to work with the great David Lynch.
Hey Dana, it’s great news that some Twin Peaks stars are heading our way. Will this be your first visit to Australia?
No, I was over there in the mid-90s – I was in Brisbane. I shot a TV movie at the Village Roadshow studios (1993’s Desperate Journey: The Allison Wilcox Story). We were on sailboats and we got caught in a storm, then we were shipwrecked for two weeks in a life raft and then we got rescued. We shot in giant dump tanks of water to shoot the boat sinking. It was the perfect place to shoot it. And I learned to sail in Australia. It was awesome.
Twin Peaks quickly became a cultural phenomenon when it first aired in 1990. But its fan base never really diminished in the ensuing decades, right up until last year’s Twin Peaks: The Return. Were you surprised by how much the fans’ obsession endured?
There’s a very dedicated fan base to the show. I think it all got ramped up a bit when it came back. It was resting nicely and a well-respected thing – and I never thought it would come back. Then, when it came back, the fact that it was David and Mark writing everything, and doing everything, it was like a home run. It wasn’t somebody else trying to do it. It was the actual guys. I was just shocked. I was completely shocked. I really never thought it in a million years [that it would return].
With the show ending the way it did, after two seasons and on such a cliffhanger, was there a feeling amongst the creators and cast that there was unfinished business?
Well David and Mark had the stories in their head. I just kinda go off what they do – if they say there’s more, I say let’s go explore it. I’m just glad it was them.
There was, of course, a time when David and Mark walked away from The Return, which resulted in a backlash from fans. Would any of the cast have continued in the project without them, or were you locked in by then?
We definitely weren’t locked in. It was Easter Sunday  when I found out that David was going to walk away from the deal because they just weren’t offering enough money to get the job done. He wasn’t trying to line his pockets, he just needed the money to make the show that he wanted to do. I think he had to play some hard ball in the negotiations. When he did that I was like, “Holy shit! That took a lot of balls.” There was a lot of anticipation before that happened, so it was pretty scary and a bit of a bummer, but the cast all got together – and Mädchen [Amick, who plays Shelly Johnson] led the charge – we put together a little video saying Twin Peaks without David is not Twin Peaks. I can’t imagine that anyone [in the cast] would have wanted to do it without David. That’s all negotiating tactics.
When we meet Bobby in the third season, he’s done a 180 in his life and become a cop. When did you find out that he was no longer going to be the bad boy of Twin Peaks? Was it when you received the script?
I didn’t know until I got the pages. As soon as I got the pages, I got on the phone to everybody who had gotten their pages. I called Mädchen and I was like, “Did you read our great scene?! Oh my god!” It was completely a surprise. My friends and I, over the months, had joked around and speculated, but we never even came up with him being a local cop. Honestly. I don’t think anyone ever mentioned that.
But I think it fit. It worked out. Because there was that great scene in the original show between me and my father [Major Garland Briggs, played by Don S. Davis], where he tells me about this dream where he sees me and everything in my life has worked out, and he’s not worried about where I’m going to end up. But I think people still thought, “He’s a cop, but he’s going to be a bad cop.” I think it worked out the way it was meant to.
You’ve got some of the best scenes in The Return. In terms of backstory, did Mark and David give you many details of Bobby’s life that perhaps we didn’t receive in the screenplay?
Uh-uh, not at all, man. It’s like this thing – as an actor you’re playing a child’s game. When you’re a kid and someone says, “Hey, let’s play King and Queen! You guys are the King and Queen of this land!” Kids don’t ask for a lot of details like, “But how did I become King? Did I unseat my brother or my uncle?” They don’t get into all that stuff. They just play the King. It’s a child’s game, you know what I mean? I read what I read, and I glean what I glean, about the character from what [Mark and David] have written, and then it’s just on the page. It’s like trying to fit the puzzle together. It’s already written for us. You just trust them so much with the writing, and David’s directing, that you just do it. I don’t have to torment myself trying to figure out how Bobby became a cop because it’s already my reality.
The homework I have to do is to make my daughter important to me. That’s a new thing. I have to make sure that she’s important to me inside. So when we have a scene and she’s telling me these things, it’s not just some shallow bullshit. In that case I do my own work, I don’t have to ask them about my relationship with my daughter. I just imagine it. It’s all in my own imagination. I just make her important to me, so when I get to the set and I see Amanda and go, “Oh my god, I love this kid, I’ll do anything for her.” That’s where I come from as an actor. There’s so many better actors than me and I’m sure they do a helluva lot more, but I keep it pretty basic.
The first time we see you in The Return is an amazing moment, because you walk into the room and are confronted by a photo of Laura Palmer. You become very emotional. Where do you go as an actor to achieve that? Did you go right back to the first seasons to find that emotion?
Yeah, it’s a little of that, for sure. It’s just imagining her and our good times. Bobby and Laura did have good times, even though there were all sorts of other shit going on. So when that [moment] comes it has an impact on me. And it’s written right there in the script. “Bobby sees picture of Laura on the table and he cries.” So I just have to do whatever I have to do to make that real. And, you know, it wasn’t super hard. It was such a comfortable set and the people love me and I love them so much, that it’s very, very nurturing and respectful when you have to do a scene like that. It’s also a great laugh most of the time, but with something like that, man – and the scene where we find out about The Log Lady dying [actress Catherine E. Coulson died in September, 2015], that was not in the script. That was written after and that was something that was pretty personal and pretty intense. There was a lot of real shit going on there. Everybody loved her and it was such a beautiful thing that David did. [Catherine] was too weak to come to set, so they went to her. I broke out crying when I heard that. I knew she was sick, so I didn’t know she was going to be able to do it. And she was so excited about doing it months before, and then it took so god damn long [to get to production]. And then just hearing on the set that David set it up so they could shoot it and direct her over Skype or whatever it was – I heard it about it second-hand – that just made me cry so hard. I was like, “Oh my god…” There was some real stuff that happened, you know? And she was one of David’s oldest friends.
The scene in which Margaret Lanterman (The Log Lady) is saying goodbye to Hawk is gut-wrenching, even for people that didn’t know her.
Yeah, it reminds me a little bit of David Bowie’s last album, Black Star. It’s his goodbye, he’s telling you everything on that album. He’s saying what’s up. It was a lot like that. It was crazy. It was a crazy time, man.
There’s another great Bobby moment with Shelly and Becky in the diner, where Bobby bristles at the suggestion that Becky’s husband Steven might be violent towards her. Some of that old Bobby rage bubbles to the surface. Was that a fun scene to play?
Yeah, that whole scene… I mean. I’m working with Amanda, who is a fucking great actress. Straight-out great actress. And Mädchen, who’s everything to me. She’s so good and so professional and so beautiful – just an incredible person. Honestly. I mean, honestly. I just didn’t want to fuck up. I just wanted to make sure I didn’t mess anybody else up. It was amazing. That scene was one of the highlights.
After working with David again following a 25-year gap, could you notice anything different about his approach? Or was he just the same old David?
Same David. It’s weird because when we did the original series, it was the period of his life where he quit smoking. He wasn’t smoking cigarettes. And now he smokes again and so that was different. But other than that, it was all pretty much the same, man.
Working with him is so much fun. He does that transcendental meditation, and that’s a beautiful thing. He lends all sorts of peace and harmony out there.
You’ve worked with a number of directors in television and film. How does David compare? Is his approach as different as his work might suggest?
Oh yeah. He’s a unique person. He’s an artist. Full of life and interesting things. Such a complex person. And such an artist. I’ve done a lot of television and everybody I’ve worked with wants to do a good job and they work hard and whatever. But some people are in it for different reasons. Other people fall into it – I don’t even know why some people want to do it. Sometimes it feels like you’re just pounding out some weird product that doesn’t take any sort of artistic care. When you’re a director on a television series, you don’t even have that much artistic say – you’re going with that the show’s vibe is. Those poor guys are just turning out stuff.
I haven’t worked with a lot of the great feature directors, except David. He’s one of my top five directors in the world. But as far as comparing him to other masters, I haven’t really had my chance. But I’ve worked with some really great guys who hopefully some day will get up to that level. You never know. I love working with young people. There’s a never-ending supply of young [filmmakers] coming out of the hallways.
Having worked on the third season and been a part of the production, could you speculate as to whether it will be our last time in Twin Peaks? Might we see more episodes or perhaps even a movie? Something?
Well, you know I would have always said “no way”, but you never know. I think another series would be a lot. It took David a long time to do this one and I don’t know if he’d have enough for 18 more [episodes], it’s just so much work. But maybe a movie? I could see a little movie or something, who knows? Maybe it will be a new format that we don’t even know exists yet. Maybe they’ll do something weird. I’m never going to say never, and I’m always up for it. So that’s where I stand on it.
Twin Peaks – Conversation with the Stars is on September 1, 2018 at the Darling Harbour Theatre (in the ICC Sydney). Tickets, including meet and greet VIP packages, are available now through Ticketek.