Twin Peaks’ Matthew Lillard on the Gruesome Fate of His Character: ‘He Was Doing It for the Chicks’

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Matthew Lillard. Photo: Getty Images

Spoilers below for episode 11 of Twin Peaks: The Return.

In Sunday’s episode of Twin Peaks: The Return, Buckhorn’s resident high-school principal, noted adulterer, and supernatural blogging enthusiast meets his brutal demise at the hands of a “woodsman.” The death of Bill Hastings is a bummer, to say the least: Matthew Lillard proved to be a perfect addition to David Lynch’s sprawling Peaks revival, portraying a falsely accused man grieving the brutal murder of his wife and lover, as well as coming to terms with the fact that there is, indeed, an alternative dimension beyond our world. Although Bill sadly never learned the true meaning of “the Major” or “the zone,” the coordinates he obtained for Major Briggs might end up being the clue to unlocking the truth about Agent Dale Cooper and his doppelgänger once and for all.

On Wednesday, Vulture called Lillard to discuss the unique experience of working with David Lynch, what Bill was like before his downward spiral, and what to expect in future episodes of Twin Peaks: The Return.

I’m so sad that you’re dead!
You and me both. But who knows that I’m dead? It’s David Lynch. You have no idea. You never know. I’d be the tallest “woodsman” ever. I remember on the day I saw that guy walking around, I was like, “What in the hell is that?!” I had no idea they would be the reason of my demise.

I’ve chatted with a few Twin Peaks actors, and they’ve each told me different stories as to how they got involved with the revival. Some had to audition, others got handed the part no questions asked. What was the experience like for you?
I had a very down-the-middle experience. I got a phone call from someone who knew about the audition and said I should audition for Twin Peaks. I was informed that there were no “sides.” You just showed up and had a conversation with the casting directors. So I did, and showed up one day. Everyone that was reading in the waiting room was such a group of characters that you would expect in a David Lynch movie: People were wearing very hipster hats and had facial hair, very skinny people who had painted nails, a very, very cool group of human beings. And then there was me in a collared polo. [Laughs.] So me and the casting directors just started having a conversation and they video recorded me. And lo and behold, four weeks later I got a call that said I got the offer to play this character, Bill Hastings, and I have to get to the casting office today to get my lines. I literally stopped everything I was doing and ran over to Lynch’s production office. I signed out the character book, which was a collection of sides, and I was like, “Hey, can I read this in the car?! Can I take it out of the building?!” They were like, “Yeah, go ahead.” So I took it to my car and read it there.

It was one of those things where in reading the script, you don’t have any sense of what’s going on. You literally just have your words and your scenes. I was reading and reading and reading, and I got to the interrogation in episode nine. You stop and wonder, “Oh my God, what a crazy scene.” You know it’s going to be hard to do. You know it’s going to be a challenge. Reading the scene, there’s a line that only says: “Breaks down hysterically sobbing.” You have a sense of an expectation of a result that David Lynch wants. When you’re working with someone at David’s caliber and pedigree and world-renowned legendary status, you know that people are going to be paying attention to that scene. I’ll never forget shooting that scene.

Since David Lynch chose to only give actors their lines and nothing else, did you find the lack of context to be a fun challenge? Or was it difficult to adapt to?
Not only that, but I’m not a Twin Peaks-er. I never watched the show! There are all of these elements of stuff that I had no connection to whatsoever. Eventually I went over to Mark Frost, and I was like, “Hey, man, you have to explain this to me.” And he was like, “I can’t really explain.” And I was like, “No, not spoilers, but I don’t even know what I’m talking about in the scene?!” So he was nice and explained things like that to me. I think it’s somewhat liberating.

There’s two things. First of all, you’re working with an artist who’s in complete control of what he wants to do. So there’s a liberating factor in the fact that, despite me not knowing David Lynch at the time, you’re working with someone who gets it. He’s very precise and he’s doing something that makes you think, “Okay, I’m going to release myself into this process.” You’re willing to give in to your insecurities if there’s a master involved. And then there’s something that’s naturally liberating about the fact that you don’t know where it is, you don’t know where it’s going, and you don’t have to worry about the type of archetype of the character you’re playing. You don’t have to satisfy anything other than what’s on that page. Like, if you’re playing a bully in a movie, you know on page ten as to who that character is and what you’re part is in the scope of that movie. In this, you don’t have that information, and you have to just be in the moment as to what’s happening. And it’s all right! You’re releasing yourself to somebody that’s a master. Those are good moments.

Were you able to at least sit down with David for a bit, to learn more about what exactly he expected for Bill Hastings?
Nope, not at all. When you walk on set, and I learned this as an actor, you catch the process quickly. There was not a lot of conversation. There wasn’t a dialogue or anything. Obviously if I don’t do something he likes, he’s going to change it. So unless that happens, I’m going to do what I’m going to do with what’s on the script, and if he wants me to be something different, I certainly will. At some point, he came out and said something like, “I want you to do it more blue.” I really feel like he gave me that direction. I could’ve made that up in my mind, but I really remember him saying: “More blue!” It was the craziest direction I’ve ever gotten. So, I just say yes to him.

Being at Comic-Con and meeting all of these people that I never worked with but were on the same show, and having conversations about their experience over the course of, like, 12 hours of interviews, you realize that actors love David. They love him so much. He has a joy about him that you very rarely see in someone. He has this sense of joy, and he’s loving and relishing this whole experience. When you go to work on Twin Peaks, you’re working on something that’s relevant. And to be led by somebody who’s full of joy? That’s a good combination in our business.

I think some people would be surprised to learn that David is this super-nice, super-charming man. His delightful personality sometimes doesn’t add up with his bizarre work.
Exactly. And if you talked to anyone who knew Wes Craven too, bless his soul, he was so sweet. He loved bird-watching. He was this wonderful, outspoken, gentle, charming man. And he made crazy things.

What do you think drove Bill to pursue and explore alternative dimensions?
He was doing it for the chicks. All of the chicks are into extra-dimensional studies! Looking at this character, he’s fascinating to me … because of the fact there wasn’t more information about him, there wasn’t too much digging about him to do. It wasn’t like we were doing a huge backstory for him. My job for that interrogation scene is to embody that moment and push the reality of what David and Mark wanted to hit. So when I think about, “What drove him to set up the zone?” I never really got that deep into it. I know it’s weird, but it was a small part that ended up doing big things. You don’t really need to motivate anything in terms of why he did it. Does that make sense?

Certainly. Some actors love to formulate backstories for their characters, but others couldn’t care less about it.
It’s funny, because I understand if you have over a hundred pages and you have to figure out why your character is doing something. Sure, that helps motivate you. But with something like Twin Peaks, I didn’t have much time to do that. And I didn’t feel like I needed to do it. I think it goes back to just doing what the master said and doing it well. Because there’s freedom within that form. And also, I think there’s so many Twin Peaks fanatics who will do all of that work for me. [Laughs.] So many people love this world and have been waiting desperately for it to come back, and the amount of chewing and layers and depths in which they’re digging, they’re loving that.

Bill’s skull-crushing death is a violent one, and I’m curious how you interpreted it. Do you see it as a man who died doing something that he ultimately loved? A man on the verge of a complete mental breakdown? Or something else entirely?
I think he’s a victim. I think he’s a pawn. The other thing is that, in doing the show, you have no idea what the hell is going on. But now watching the show, I can fill in the blanks a lot more clearly because I’m getting a better sense of what’s happening in the universe. I think that he went on a fun journey with his foxy lover, kind expecting to look for the Loch Ness Monster, and he stumbled upon this world of pain.

In both your interrogation and death scenes, those extremely dramatic moments get blended with humor. Bill’s repeated musings about scuba diving and Detective Mackley repeatedly yelling “Oh my god!” couldn’t help but get a big smile from me.
I think it’s super, too. I shot those scenes a year ago, so I never really thought about the words again until now. When I was picking up my kids from camp, my Twitter was blowing up about scuba diving and links to the Bahamas and I was like, “What is going on?!” I didn’t think it would be so funny and so horrific at the time, truly! It really is a weird blend of comedy and emotion. You’re watching a guy in this downward spiral. It’s a weird combination. At the end of the day, that is David Lynch. That’s his tone and what he does best. It’s erotic and horrific at the same time. It’s funny and horrific at the same time.

Do you have any theories as to what exactly the “woodsmen” are, or how they were birthed into our world?
Oh lord, I have zero idea. I don’t even know how to process episode eight.

Nobody does.
Nobody does! I like the whole thing with Dougie. I don’t know what that is, but there’s so much going on that I’m not the person who’s actively consuming theory and trying to wrestle it. I’m the person sitting there and letting it wash over me. I feel like I’m in somebody else’s dream, and trying to figure it out would take the joy out of it. I just watch and absorb.

There are two things I do know: It’s shot as one continuous movie that’s been broken up. There are so many times where you have to remember that this plays out over 18 hours. The other thing is, as deep as you think it is, it goes deeper. Whatever people’s hypotheses are, they’re just scratching the surface. That’s a cookie that I will give to people who are curious. Trust me, it’s deeper than anyone can expect.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Twin Peaks’ Matthew Lillard on His Character’s Gruesome Fate