Grace Zabriskie, Ray Wise, Sheryl Lee

In town for the Fantasia Festival world premiere of the horror-comedy Suburban Gothic, we got a chance to sit down with Ray Wise for a brief chat. Wise, a seasoned character actor, has, over the course of more than thirty years, naturally done a variety of work in film and television, but on the occasion of its forthcoming mega-Blu-ray set (available this week), we mostly discussed what’s easily his most iconic role, Leland Palmer of Twin Peaks. Wise seems eternally eager to field questions about him.

One can see our conversation below, and it should be noted that the following contains spoilers for the Twin Peaks series.

The Film Stage: You previously worked with the director of this film, Richard Bates, on his first film Excision. Did you notice a difference working with him on this title — the way he worked with actors and ran the set?

Ray Wise: He’s a little more experienced, and I think he ran things a little more smoothly, but it was basically the same approach. He tries to keep his set a kind of a happy place, a little bit laidback, very relaxed, nothing uptight about the situation, and I think he’s able to get the best from his actors that way. He allows the actors a certain space to experiment, improvise, and some great things happen that way. I like the way he works a lot, and I think he’ll only get better and better as time goes on. He’s a fine filmmaker and he’s got a great future.

This film is a blend of many genres, one of them being comedy. Have you felt an inclination towards working in comedy lately? You were really great on Reaper, as well as in your work with Tim & Eric.

Yeah, I’ve done a lot of Funny or Die stuff, too. Yeah, it’s something I’ve gravitated towards later in life, I guess. I’m kind of honing my comic chops right now, and I’ve found myself to be funny in a lot of situations and I really enjoy it. I like making people laugh and I can understand how stand-up comedians get off on it because that’s a great feeling, to say something and make people laugh. Of course, my devil was very good at that on Reaper — he was very good at making you feel good about him and yourself, which I think a true evil person has to do. A true con man has to do that: he has to make you feel good about yourself, feel confident in yourself and in him. Comedy is now something I like to experience in everything, so even now if I play a heavily dramatic character in a very sombre piece, I’ll probably try to bring humor to it.

Are Tim & Eric anything like working with David Lynch?

Yes, they are, in the sense that they have vivid imaginations, and all of their images are a bit skewed, a bit off-kilter, to make them endlessly fascinating and incredibly effective. They share that kind of sensibility, and also anything goes with him, with Tim & Eric and with David; as long as he’s in on the joke, just about anything goes. They don’t limit themselves by anything, and if you do something and it seems to fit the program, it’s great.

Speaking of David, can you talk about the difficulty of playing Leland Palmer? Because thinking of the arc that character went through, in season one you’d have your character down and then, in season two, everything changes. Was that kind of a roller coaster ride playing that role?

It really was. I couldn’t wait to get the script for the next week’s episode to see what I was going to do, because I knew that it would be challenging, it would be different, and that it would be something that I hadn’t experienced before — at least at that degree. That was always the case on Twin Peaks. I did things on that show that had never been done on television before or since.

ray_wiseThat episode, “Lonely Souls” — the one where you kill Maddie — I still can’t believe they got away with that.

On ABC! Can you believe that? I mean, that’s hard to take even in a movie theater, where you can do anything. I think that today, if Twin Peaks were to exist, it would be on HBO or Showtime, or something that wouldn’t be limited by those restrictions of censorship.

What about acting in the film? I imagine there was a whiplash acting between possessed and non-possessed states; was that very difficult, like more of a challenge than the show?

Yeah, sure; always when I went from being possessed to non-possessed, I had to use various ways and techniques to put myself in the right state of mind for that possessed side of Leland Palmer. Whatever it took, be in a corner and talk to myself in darkness. Always, once the scene began, and if I was working with another actor in the scene, it kind of took over.

The big Twin Peaks box set is coming out, and one of the special features has you doing an interview with David Lynch in-character. Being that it’s been over twenty years since you played Leland, as an actor, can you just kind of pull the character out of your back pocket, or is it a process of having to remember who that was and what you did?

Well, I was sitting at a table with David, with Grace Zabriskie, Sheryl Lee (my wife and my daughter on the show), and David sitting across from me, and that’s all that it took. He asked me the question “Leland, you’ve been dead for 25 years, how it’s been for you?” And I just started talking and it was like I hadn’t skipped a beat and 25 years hadn’t happened. I was Leland again. Yeah, it was funny; very strange. David wrote that piece that morning and gave it to us to do and I think it’s a pretty special feature on the DVD.

You’ve done a lot a television. Is it a strange experience because you’re working at such a quick pace and with a different director every episode?

Well, it’s very different from making a movie; a movie has more time, you’re working with one director who has a vision and he communicates it to you and you do the story. But in the case of Twin Peaks, we had movie directors on just about every episode. But after we did the first episode, we all knew what we were doing, it didn’t matter.

I imagine from the first day of shooting you must’ve thought, “This is different than any TV I’ve ever done.”

It didn’t matter who the director was — it could’ve been Santa Claus — we knew what we were doing, and every week just rolled out. But in television it’s a very fast process, but I think, in Twin Peaks, we took eight days to make an episode so we even took longer than the average television shoot. Everything about Twin Peaks was very well thought-out, well-plotted, well-written. So every line that everyone said had three different layers, so it was a puzzle that only David and Mark knew the answers to, and it was all put together rather brilliantly, so it was a show unlike any other up until that time and since.

Ray Wise, Grace Zabriskie, David Lynch, Sheryl Lee, Russ Tamblyn

Suburban Gothic is now screening at Fantasia Film Festival and Twin Peaks: The Entire Mystery is available on Blu-ray this week.

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