Spoilers ahead for the Twin Peaks premiere.
Minutes into Showtime’s Twin Peaks revival, we’re given a key mystery that’s based less in surrealism and more in high technology: We’re introduced to a young man (Ben Rosenfield) being paid to do nothing but watch a glass box in a New York City warehouse 24/7 and report if anything appears in it, and an infatuated young woman (Madeline Zima) who manages to sneak into the top-secret project when a guard disappears from his post. Perhaps unsurprisingly, fate doesn’t treat the lovers favorably, and just when they start to sex it up on the couch across from the box, something materializes and mutilates them to death. What a way to go, huh? It was pretty gruesome, even by Twin Peaks standards. Vulture recently called up Zima to discuss all things about the series — from her initial reluctance to take on the role, to telling David Lynch jokes, to being sprayed with gallons and gallons of blood for her death scene. Oh, and also to mildly shade her former sitcom The Nanny.
Walk me through how you became involved in the show. Were you and David Lynch acquainted beforehand?
No, if only. I went in for an audition. It wasn’t like a normal audition. I sat and had a conversation with the casting director, Johanna Ray, who actually casted me when I was younger in another project, but I don’t know if she remembered that or not. She’s incredible, and I’m a big fan of hers. I went in there and they asked me some questions, mainly I was just meant to talk. I avoided stuff about the industry. I’m not sure if I’m supposed to say that or not, about the process, but anyway since I’ve grown up in this industry it’s been a part of my life just because so many of my friends have been on shows or are writers on shows. They’re all involved somehow. So a lot of my stories, to give them context, involve saying all of that stuff, but I consciously decided to avoid those things and talk about the book I was reading. So I talked about Kurt Vonnegut and God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater — how I love him and loved his sense of humanity, and also how I’ve been in meditation since I was 15. I talked about stuff that I was into. I talked about my family and my sister so much. I didn’t even know what I was auditioning for, I had no idea.
So you were given a secret name, but you knew it was for Showtime?
Exactly, there was a different name and no script. There were rumors that it was Twin Peaks, but I never believed those anyway, because so much in Hollywood is hot air and b.s. I’ve just learned to be either discriminating or … not cynical per se, but wary of most projects. Especially things that sound too good to be true, like something involving David Lynch.
For your interview, were you just given vague open-ended questions?
Pretty much. I was reading Vonnegut while I was waiting for somebody to finish their interview. I brought the book in with me, so it became part of the interview process because it was all I had in my hands. You know when someone asks you a question and your mind goes blank? “What’s your favorite song?!” And of course if somebody hadn’t asked you right before you would be able to have it right on hand, but if you were put on the spot you kind of go blank. There were a few moments like that, where I totally blanked and was like, Oh! This book is in my hand right here! This is a handy thing to talk about!
It was also such a long time in between when I auditioned and got the job. It was six or seven months. I obviously thought nothing came of that. Most of the time with television or with any project you hear pretty quickly, if not that day for most shows, or within a week. Nowadays it’s so nebulous, it’s really working in a vacuum. I almost hear nothing, even if I do a good job. Casting directors are like, yeah, you did a good job, we just don’t know or it’s not moving forward. I feel honored and grateful that David Lynch saw something that he liked in me. I think I’m good at what I do, or else I wouldn’t be able to continue. It’s such a hard industry. It’s nasty. Especially to women. I’ve experienced some of that and I’m so grateful that somebody who has creative control like Lynch can say yes to somebody like me, where normally I’ve been … I don’t have the big name like Amanda Seyfried or somebody else. It’s bizarre. I don’t even know where to start, because I feel like I went into a warp-hole on the night of the premiere. I was expecting to see people like her or Naomi Watts or Laura Dern. I expected to watch those faces and then they didn’t appear. In fact, the only other face that I knew was Nicole LaLiberte [who plays Daria].
So funny, I just interviewed her about her role, too. She’s lovely.
She’s in my acting class! We knew each other from that. So when I saw her at the premiere, I was like, wow, we’re two girls from the same acting class and the two main girls from the first episode. It was crazy.
And you both get to die in such a memorable fashion!
Oh, yeah, we both get axed. And we’re both semi-nude, which doesn’t escape me. But again, if there’s anyone you would do something that’s a little bit more vulnerable for, it’s somebody like Lynch, where you get to work with somebody who’s a legend.
As soon as your character was introduced, I knew there was going to be a slow burn of something bad happening to you — nothing good ever comes from a glass box in a creepy warehouse. So, I’m curious how Tracey was described to you when you finally signed on, as Lynch was notoriously tight-lipped with actors in the revival. Were you fully aware of your short arc from the start, or did it unfold in real time when you were filming?
I got the script pages hand-delivered to me, which I had to give back. It was like being a CIA agent, it was awesome. You get these clandestine materials, review them, and return them back to your contact in this amount of time. You have until midnight tonight to let them know if you’re going to move forward with the mission or not! I had a limited amount of time to decide if I was going to say yes. I knew there was going to be some nudity. I knew I had to read the script. I didn’t get a full script. I still don’t know what’s going on in the rest of the show, so I had to go on instinct. I couldn’t share anything with anybody. I had to make the decision on my own, which is empowering, because you’re forced to trust yourself, which is one of the hardest things in life. Learning to trust ourselves and believing that we actually know best. I just had to say yes. There must have been a lot of other girls who would’ve liked to have said yes, and I’m grateful that I got to.
Was there any initial reluctance on your end with the material you were dealing with? You briefly mentioned the nude aspect of it.
I’ve done nudity before, so I know it gets … I know what the repercussions are. Okay, so, yeah, I had some reluctance. I knew it was a limited role, and I knew I was going to be dying naked, which I was not crazy about. Those kind of things definitely give me pause. What do I want to be a part of, even if it’s David Lynch? What do I want to say in the world? I had to trust that it had a broader perspective than what I was seeing. And it did. It’s connecting other parts of the story together, that glass box. I still don’t know exactly what or how the whole story about it is, but there were aspects about it that were intriguing to me, and it reminded me of stuff that I read about. Like the conspiracy theories about the Philadelphia Project or the Montauk Project, where they manifest a monster out of thin air with psychic kids. It reminded me of that, and I was like, there must be some other thing going on.
I tried to get things out of David when we were on set. For whatever reason, I wasn’t as intimated by him as other people were. Other people had this way of being around him, not that they mean to, but I don’t think they can help it. But I’m not like that — not that I’m not a fan or not that I’m not impressed by him, but everybody is a human being and I like to talk to people like they’re human beings. So I was always trying to make jokes and try to get some more information about the box, because I’m just as curious as everybody else. He would look at be and be like, “You know I can’t say a thing about the box.” And I’m like, what’s on the other side of the box? And he would go, “I still can’t say that.”
Do you have any ideas as to what, or who, killed you? Or who the anonymous person funding the box experiment is?
I have no idea. I didn’t have access to the rest of the script. Wouldn’t it be funny if it was David Duchovny’s character?
That would be great.
That would be great and a real win for the whole trans community. I really have no idea. I don’t know the world well enough. I watched some stuff of the original, but I haven’t seen all of the episodes and I haven’t watched — I hope the fans will forgive me — but I haven’t seen Fire Walk With Me either. That’s because I’m generally a scaredy-cat. That stuff sticks with me. Even watching my own scenes in the premiere, I had weird dreams that night. I’m very sensitive. But it’s weird that I ended up doing these dark scenes that involve blood and gore when I can’t handle it myself. It’s very rare in the movie industry that … say you want to play a superhero, and then you play a superhero. That never happens. It’s almost like the people who don’t want to play superheroes end up playing them, it’s just like that. It’s like that in life, too. You never quite get exactly what you were painting in your mind. So anyway, I don’t have any real ideas. It’s such an interesting world in how it makes you question and think about things. So many TV shows leave you as a participant completely out of it. David really invites everybody to lean in to use their own brains and come to their own conclusions about things. It’s like a choose-your-own-adventure and you get to find out if you’re right or not.
Logistically, how did you film that gruesome death scene? What were you and Ben reacting to in the room?
We were reacting to nothing. There was nothing there. I don’t even know if we had an X or something. Usually when you’re reacting to stuff on film, you get a tennis ball on a stand or a tape at the right eye-level, so the actors are looking at the same thing. I don’t even remember what we were looking at. I had to imagine something really gruesome in my mind, this weird demon. They ended up doing something very different; I imagined it being a lot more grotesque-looking. It was described as something a lot more grotesque. I’m happy with what the creature or entity or apparition ended up being — it was a lot more interesting, because it was almost more digital in a way. It almost looked like it could’ve been a hologram, which was a cool and smart choice on their part; it opened it up to even more avenues. If you see something like the monster in Stranger Things, that’s clearly something like an alien underworld creature, it can’t really be other things, it’s very much specific to whatever that is. This thing could be a number of different creations. It could be somebody in a hologram killing people for fun, but they don’t have to be physically there. With the death scene, it was a lot of blood. I don’t know how many gallons of blood it was, 8 or 9 or 10 or 20. Who even knows! There was a big hose.
So the blood just spewed out of a hose?
Really fun, right? I was naked and I was like, What the hell am I doing with my life? [Laughs.] I had to trust that this was all for a cooler, bigger mosaic than what I could see in my little piece. It’s all for the experience — for the rest of my life I can say that I worked with David Lynch for two days. I don’t know how many people would do anything to experience that. It was an incredible gift from the universe. So, the hose is pointing at us and we had one shot with the blood … I feel weird sharing this with you, because I’ve been under a lock and key for so long, and this is my first time sharing stories about being on set, so it’s feels uncomfortable to say things about being on set. Do you know what I mean? I’m like, Can I get in trouble now for saying this? I’m still nervous about it! I had to sign an NDA like I’d never seen before. It put the fear of god in me, I have to say. I’d never had to worry about legal action or anything like that, it’s insane. I can’t believe that I have anxiety about it. But I suggested that we do a take that was just a dry take without the blood. Because they were like, “We’re going to do the blood and that’s it!” I said it right before David was about to call action, and he paused and said: [In a pitch-perfect David Lynch accent] “That’s not a bad idea, Tracey.” I was like, Oh, good! I’m glad that I helped out! They ended up using the take that was just the blood take, they didn’t end up doing the CGI one.
It was an amazing experience. On the first day when David smiled at me, or looked at some of the footage, or was watching something I did and he liked it, I could tell. I felt like the sun was shining on only me. I felt so honored. David Lynch liked what I’m fucking doing right now, that’s crazy. He was even looking out for me on the first day. He only called me by the character name. I was thirsty one day and asked for a water. “Tracey needs a water!” He’s amazing. It’s almost like you were in a relationship with somebody that was a secret, and then it becomes public, and then it makes you more nervous.
Between the sex, murder, and faceless entities, you really hit the David Lynch trifecta here.
I know! And you know what’s weird? I watched interviews of David Foster Wallace who had this obsession with Lynch, and it goes to show how widespread Lynch’s influence is on all different artists and literature. And on our landscape and society, and definitely all art forms besides filmmaking. Music as well. I can’t wait to get the soundtrack when it’s released. Even the artists involved, the Chromatics and such, I’ve had their songs stuck in my head. So when I get the soundtrack I’ll get to play it in my car and think, Oh, man, I was on this show. I’m still pinching myself. I always feel like a little bit of an outsider in the industry, and his world really embraces the outsiders, and that’s why it resonates with a lot of people. That’s what resonates with me — the more odd and bizarre things in life are embraced and celebrated. You don’t see that a lot. You see so much cookie-cutter stuff, the same-looking girl in every show, and the same story lines and procedural stuff. It’s so boring. It’s also not reflective of other aspects of our humanity, like the darker parts or the stranger parts, or the parts where people are nervous or having an existential crisis.
I agree. I’ll look at something like CBS sitcoms and I’m like, seriously? This is what’s on right now? It’s pretty bleak.
I know, and I use to be on a CBS sitcom [The Nanny], so I really know! [Laughs.] I really know how unrealistic it is and how lacking in humanity it can be.