Twin Peaks: The Return’s Chrysta Bell on David Lynch, Tammy Haters, and ‘Harsh’ Criticism About Her First Acting Role

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Chrysta Bell. Photo: Getty Images

With a confident swagger and an encyclopedic knowledge of the FBI, Twin Peaks: The Return newcomer agent Tammy Preston has found herself on the forefront of the show’s most tantalizing story line: What the hell is going on with Dale Cooper and his evil doppelgänger? As Tammy, deputy director Gordon Cole, and agent Albert Rosenfield trek through South Dakota, more disturbing questions seem to be popping up than answers, which culminated in last Sunday’s episode when Gordon nearly got sucked into a wormhole and a “woodsman” brutally killed Bill Hastings by crushing his skull.

Now that Tammy has established herself as a crucial member of the Save Cooper investigative team, Vulture called up Lynchian muse Chrysta Bell — who, true to Tammy’s newbie status, had never acted before The Return to discuss the mixed reaction to her character, the hidden implications of working on the series, and what it’s like to be cursed out by Laura Dern.

I like Tammy a lot, but she’s proved to be a pretty divisive character. Why do you think that is?
I love Tammy, but I realize not everybody loves Tammy. I think what happened is that … this is my first time having any experience remotely like this. I’ve been a musician for over 20 years, and I’ve really been able to conceal myself to whatever people think, or whatever people are saying. With Tammy, I was a little caught off guard with the reaction.

I really wanted to be a great Tammy for David [Lynch] and for Mark [Frost] and for the Twin Peaks world. There’s almost this “reporting for service” type thing. [Laughs.] I’m taking this so seriously, and I also want to be playful. I think I’m digressing, but what it really came down to was initially I read some things that were pretty harsh about Tammy. Not a little harsh. Like, “Tammy was the worst thing to ever happen to Twin Peaks.” Like she was bringing the end of times! I was like, “Okay, wow.”

So I started taking David’s advice. He was like, “I don’t know what people are saying.” He’s protected to some degree from all of that. If he cared about what everybody was thinking or feeling or saying, then that would take a lot of his precious energy and time. I don’t know if there’s room for that in David’s life. He acknowledges the seriousness of your energetic expenditures — if you want to plug it into what people are saying or feeling or thinking, then you can, but that’s going to take away from the energy you have. I think he uses his energy very wisely, and I figured that out on my own, maybe the hard way. I stopped reading reviews. If I saw anything with “Tammy” in the title, I skipped it for the most part. Now I have to say, I’ve come around. I can read things and I’m super curious. I’m not taking it personally. I’m seeing it as humanness and looking at people who are sharing from more of a psychological perspective and not being so personally attached to it, which I think is a beautiful thing.

If I was buddies with David Lynch and he asked me to act on Twin Peaks, even though I have zero acting experience, I’d do it. Who wouldn’t?
Oh, yes. I think it’s the same thing about people who want to be rock stars and people want to be onstage. It’s this glamorization. It’s a very narrow understanding of what all of this actually entails. I’m curious how many people would actually, really want to do it if they understood all of the implications. Maybe a lot of people still would.

What are those implications?
It’s pretty brutal. In that same brutality is profound beauty. This is my first endeavor into this realm of acting or exposure or doing something that’s attached to something people have so much emotional life association with. What’s the word? It’s sacrosanct. It’s so precious, there’s so many people, and you want to give so much of yourself to this experience, so you know how precious this is. Just by virtue of being a part of it, there’s no way that you can reach everyone’s expectations or be what everyone wants you to be. There’s so much about it that I had no idea how to prepare for, emotionally or psychologically. I’m so grateful, it’s really been something else. And like you said, who wouldn’t want to do it? When David asked, I had no idea. I didn’t even know to dream that this would happen. I felt so satisfied from all the things that we’ve done together and all of our collaborations that we’ve shared musically. I felt so complete and happy that we had shared all of the artistic connection that we had, and then to have this happen was unexpected.

Why did David want to cast you as Tammy?
I don’t know if he ever thought I was the “perfect” person for Tammy. Maybe. I think his intuition was guiding him towards asking me to play Tammy. I think that’s how David works. Maybe I said something, maybe there was a moment. I don’t even pretend to have any idea or knowledge of what goes on inside David’s head, even after 17 years of friendship. He flexes that muscle of intuition so much, and it steered him the right direction so many times, or in the direction in which he felt confident with listening to his inner guidance. I think that’s what it was. Honestly, I think this is part of what meditating for decades can bring to your life, as David has done. It’s a distinct clarity and a very firm confidence in your intuition and inner guidance. What else could be closer to the divine truth, except from what you’re receiving from within? If you’re someone who goes deep as often as David does, those connections to that deeper knowing are clearer. And he trusts them. So that’s probably how that happened. If I could use some of the things I’ve learned from Tammy in the art of deduction, I see someone who’s extremely connected to his inner guidance and I think that’s how I got the part of Tammy. [Laughs.]

Were you nervous about shooting your first scene?
Sure I was. But in order for self-preservation, it’s important to not let nervousness take up much of your valuable energy. Because you need all of the resources you can get. What I didn’t have was any tools, a single tool, that a professional actor would have for this situation. One thing Tammy and I have in common is a studiousness. I’m a prepared person. I love to be prepared. I know my lyrics backwards and forwards, I knew my lines backwards and forwards. That was one thing I could at least have in the bag. That was one area where there wouldn’t be any unknown. I would have that in my pocket. So I have these things to work with, and then my first scene that I shot was the interrogation scene.

Dear lord! The one with Matthew Lillard?
It’s like, “Are you fucking serious?” [Laughs.] I met with David a few days before I was shooting, and he let me know that was the first scene we were shooting. It crossed over into a type of comical bewilderment. “Seriously? Okay, great, why not!” This is the first time I’ve ever acted on television, I’m starting at fucking Twin Peaks, sure, let my first scene be the interrogation scene, that’ll make perfect sense. It’s so ridiculous that it’s perfect. [Laughs.] If David has confidence that I can do this, I guess I can. And then of course you have Matthew Lillard, who’s this unbelievable actor. So I’m like, “What do I do?” I just react to this guy. Thank God I have this person who’s so present in his role! It really helps me to do that, too.

If you’re there in Twin Peaks, there’s some kind of divine prophecy. Not to be too dramatic, but you’re there for a reason. You either step up and own it, or you spiral into oblivion in your own thoughts and feelings. There’s really no room for that on David’s set, because there’s this feeling of celebration of what we’re doing. I call it a high vibration! Everybody is there to be the best they can be. You think that you’re making a great leap into the unknown, but you have a lot of support. And at the peak of that overall feeling is David Lynch, who’s such a great guy and giving you so much to work with. There’s so much going on and we’re all a part of that wealth and richness, and we’re following our fearless leader. I was overwhelmed, utterly terrified, but also like, “Yeah, I can do this.”

How did you shape Tammy’s mannerisms and appearance? Were you ever concerned that she would be fetishized?
I’m not exactly sure what I can share, but what I can say is that I feel it was a very organic process. There were no actual conversations. I’ve known David for a long time now, and he knew what he was getting with me. There was no assertion of “be this” or “be that.” It was just, “Be Tammy.” David knows Chrysta Bell and knows I’ve never acted before. He’s seen many live shows of mine and we’ve been in recording studios together over the course of many years, so you’re combining all of these elements. There’s no forced thing of who Tammy would be like or how she would be received.

Some of the stuff I had read was that Tammy seems contrived or she seems overtly feminine. Like, she’s trying to be a woman or trying to do what a woman would do. I find those to be the most fascinating things, because that stuff never crossed my mind. There was never a moment when I was trying to be feminine or trying to make Tammy be this or be that. It never occurred to me that she was looking this way. But I think this is part of when you’re inside yourself, and doing what you’re doing. You’re just being who you are. Tammy came across in a certain way and I feel like that was Tammy’s destiny. [Laughs.] I didn’t make Tammy that way, that’s just how Tammy happened. Whether that’s ridiculous or genius or just a matter of me having no experience, it’s just what it is.

A lot of what this has to do with is, yes, David chose me for this part. This is how I am and this is what I do, and that’s how Tammy turned out. People will take that to mean whatever that feels to them. But as Chrysta Bell, I’m deeply triggering for a lot of people and I’ve known this all my life. Maybe there’s a lot of reasons for that. I’m a trigger, Tammy’s a trigger. We’re both triggers.

I love Tammy’s exaggerated posture. It’s almost like she’s modeling with every movement she makes.
That’s definitely a critique people have, too. I was never consciously posing or modeling. It was never even running across my mind! I don’t know if that’s what happens when you put me in a pencil skirt and heels and a little silk shirt and done-up hair, but that’s what naturally unfolds. I find that fascinating. It was never a conscious thought to pose, but in that walk-off scene in episode four, David was like, “Gimme that walk!” That’s how Tammy speaks to me. I’m so glad that it works for you.

How would you define Tammy and Gordon’s relationship? Is it romantic, familial? In an earlier episode when Gordon speaks with Denise, she makes an offhand comment about Gordon dabbling in previous relationships with his subordinates.
All I can really say is that Tammy respects Gordon and the feeling is mutual. There’s an ease to their connection, the same way there’s an ease between Tammy and Albert. I think Tammy really wants to do a great job for herself and for these two men that she really respects. Speculation is speculation, and it’s a part of the Twin Peaks fun with all of those considerations and possibilities.

Not everyone in Twin Peaks gets to act alongside David Lynch. Does he bring a different energy as an actor?
I would say that a lot of acting with David is like hanging out with David. There’s a lot of similarities between Gordon Cole and David Lynch. He’s just fun. It’s not like, “Everything is so serious and everything has to be just like this.” He gives us our blocking and we vibe with each other, we get into a zone together, and then it just happens. It’s like Gordon Cole is directing in the scenes that he’s in. And then David Lynch is directing Twin Peaks as a whole. They seamlessly phase in and out of each other because they’re both directors.

David as an actor is great. He knew all of his lines, which is pretty remarkable. He’s directing the whole thing! He was on set for 140 days straight and he had so much going on in his brain, and he still knew his lines like gangbusters. Not only did he pull it off, but he had great comic timing. His deliveries! How is he doing this? How are you doing all of these things? And he’s the most likable character on the whole show. He’s a special one. [Laughs.]

My last and perhaps most important question: What was it like being told “fuck you” by Laura Dern?
To do anything ever with Laura Dern, to be in the same room with Laura Dern, is remarkable. She’s a lovely human being and she’s really quick-witted. Laura Dern is fucking cool. She can say anything that she wants to say to me. Here’s how classy she is: When we were blocking the scene and figuring out how we were going to walk, and when we stopped for her to say, “Fuck you, Tammy,” she didn’t say it. She didn’t cloud the vibe with the line. She didn’t need to practice the line, obviously. Laura’s got it. She was conscious and thoughtful. The truth was, I was super excited for her to say it. [Laughs.] So when she finally said it, it was so satisfying. All of these months of buildup, she didn’t even let me have it in the blocking, and then she fucking let me have it while filming. And then there was the meme that was “Fuck you, Tammy.”

You know you made it big when you get a meme!
My sweetheart was like, “Baby, you got your first meme!”

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Twin Peaks’ Chrysta Bell on ‘Harsh’ Critics and Tammy Haters