David Lynch’s masterpiece Mulholland Dr. hit the Criterion Collection last week, and it’s lost none of its terrifying, dreamlike allure. (If anything, it’s gained some over the years.) Central to the film’s artistry are its two brilliant female leads, Naomi Watts and Laura Harring. Both actresses were relative unknowns at the time — indeed, both had kind of given up on Hollywood, which fits perfectly with the film’s themes of disillusionment and despair in the Dream Factory — and Mulholland’s success supercharged their careers.
Interestingly, for a while, the film itself looked like it may never see the light of day: It was originally supposed to be a TV series, but Lynch wound up reshooting and recutting it as a feature after the network rejected the pilot. Over the years Harring has starred in films like John Q, The Punisher, and Love in the Time of Cholera, and shows like Gossip Girl and The Shield. (She also reunited with Lynch for brief parts in his series Rabbits and his last feature, Inland Empire.) We caught up with her recently to reflect on the experience of making the film, how she got the part, and why she thinks it’s so creepy and great.
How did you wind up getting cast in Mulholland Dr.? I’ve heard David Lynch has an odd casting process.
He does. I had met him at a premiere of the pilot for Twin Peaks. The casting director that he often used, Johanna Ray, took me to the premiere; her son Eric DaRe was in it, and I had done a movie with him. So I met David there, but it was a very brief hello; he didn’t remember me later. About a year or so later, I got a call from my music manager at the time — I didn’t even have an acting manager — saying Johanna Ray had called him because David had seen a photo of me. And David’s creative process is such that he saw the photo, he felt I was the right girl, he called Johanna and said, “I want to see her today!” She wanted me to go see him that second.
At the time, I was doing theater, really arty stuff, and I had kind of given up on Hollywood. I was driving to the gym, I was in warm-ups, and I was so excited about David Lynch wanting to see me that I crashed my car! I couldn’t believe the coincidence when I did go see him the next day, the assistant said, “Are you aware that the script starts with your character driving, and she gets in a car accident?” I got goosebumps.
David didn’t say much when I first walked in. He just looked at me — Johanna had said no makeup — and in his deep voice said, “Good.” He kept saying, “Good.” I finally cracked up. Then we started talking, and he found out that I was a meditator. My mother had taken me to somebody to teach me transcendental meditation at 14 years old. I think, in David’s world, he thought that was a sign. That was our only meeting.
What did you think of his directorial style?
He’s very poetic — he always talks in metaphors and similes, and uses his hands and his voice to get you into that world. For example, he’ll start whispering when he wants you to be very quiet. Or he’d tell me, “Walk like a kitty cat, Laura.” He’ll give you symbols like that, and that actually makes it easy. Kitty cat: That’s graceful and fluid. I get it. David has an ability to make people feel — to put people in a state of mind and to take them on a journey — and that is true of both audiences and actors on a set. He’s very specific with his ideas. When you give him what he wants and he’s happy, you feel as an artist very fulfilled. Because he’s very true to his ideas. As he says, “You have to be true to your ideas, or you die.”
Your character is so vulnerable for so much of the movie. It’s almost nerve-racking to watch. How did you tackle that aspect of the character?
Because of the amnesia, one of the hardest things to do is to not think. When you have amnesia, there’s a certain emptiness. You know that blank space between thoughts? That’s what I tried to focus on — to slow my breath down and just listen to the sounds in the room so that my mind would be still. And then to add the image of the dark clouds that he always talked about that are always following me. This creepy, weird cloud of darkness. So that put me in a state of fear. When you’re scared, you’re a bit confused.
I was relatively young at the time, so I didn’t know how to shake it off. I would go home and feel nauseous and scared. I couldn’t get out of that Lynchian world. Now I know how to let it go — you can take a hot bath with oils, or play salsa music, to just literally get that energy off your body. But at the time I was so young that I was living in that world constantly.
What was it like when you learned that the pilot hadn’t been picked up?
I was confused. I also thought, David’s an independent thinker. His genius is beyond people’s comprehension. A lot of his work comes from the deep subconscious mind — from the collective consciousness, particularly if you’re familiar with Eastern philosophy. How do we know that this reality we’re speaking in right now is the real reality? When you’re sleeping and dreaming, maybe that’s the real reality. Of course, this is just my opinion, but I think that’s what he’s tapping into when Diane wakes up and reality is completely different from the beginning of the film. Mulholland Dr. is a journey for each person to take on their own — your own experiences and your own thoughts will project onto the screen what’s really happening within you. I think that’s why people responded so favorably to it. But that’s probably also one reason why it was so hard for the network to accept it.
What changed after that initial pilot? I know he went back and wrote and shot new scenes to turn it into a feature.
Yeah, he wrote about 18 other pages, and we shot it about a year later. I can’t remember if he wrote another ending. I kind of remember a couple of other pieces [being] written and given to us. There was just a lot of trust: The stuff that was written after, it was confusing to Naomi and myself because we didn’t know what he was going to do. But we knew to trust him because he’s a master filmmaker, and we were confident that in his mind, he knew what he wanted. I didn’t see it at first, to be honest with you. I just followed his direction, and I did what he told me. Then he and Mary [Sweeney], his editor and partner, went back and recut it — with pieces from the first part, they cut out some stuff and added the new stuff. I imagine things like the sex scenes, which have a surprising amount of nudity, weren’t part of the original pilot.
How did you respond when you first saw the film? Did your conception of it change when you finally viewed the whole thing?
I remember the first time I saw it. We were invited to David’s house. He has a big screening room in his recording studio. The whole thing — it takes so many turns and twists, and the imagery is so beautiful, and you never forget it. At the end, you’re just left speechless. When it finished, there was this silence, and awe. Naomi and I just looked at each other.
The second time was at Cannes. I remember there was this quiet immediately after, and it was hard to tell if the audience loved it or hated it. But I remember that David had prepared us. He said, “You never create expecting people to love it. You create for creating. Some people will like it, some will hate it, and some will love it.” I’ll never forget this: “Even if you get booed, you walk out with your chin up.” I really took that to heart — because there really was a long silence, which I wasn’t used to. There’s a photo I have in my memory. David peeks his head out, and he’s looking at me, and I’m looking at him. And then, a couple of seconds later, there was a roar. A roar of approval. Everybody stood up. We all felt very relieved.
I was in disbelief later when people would give me the newspaper. In Cannes, the papers compared the excitement and buzz to what Marilyn Monroe had when she went there. A few weeks later they compared me to Ava Gardner. I was very humbled by that — you can never compare anyone to Ava Gardner, or Rita Hayworth! These are legends! But I finally got what David meant when he said, “Walk like a kitty cat.” There was this strong female power there — of a character who really owns her sexuality, and sensuality. I think that’s why they were comparing me to these goddesses. That for me was enough. If I never acted again, I would have still been happy.
How did that affect your career?
Funnily enough, for a while, there was a sense that I was really glamorous — which was strange, given the kinds of things I wanted to do. But it did give me a passport for a lot of independent films and artistic movies, because I had the stamp of approval of a creative genius. I played a lot of very interesting characters. In fact, right now, I’m in the Dominican Republic,playing a crazy, evil woman. It’s a lot of fun playing the villain. For the roles that I get on television of whatever, it’s more femme-fatale-y stuff. No matter what age I am, people still think of me as this strong femme fatale. And they’re always wanting to do a love scene. But nowadays I often find myself saying, “No, this part doesn’t need a love scene.”
A lot of people in Hollywood, they want to be the top of the top, super-famous, whatever. For me, I’m very happy being under the radar, doing character roles, not being filmed everywhere I go. I would like to pick more. I would like to work with other great filmmakers. I was very happy I got to do films like Love in the Time of Cholera and work with people like Javier Bardem and William Hurt and Raul Julia, before he passed. I owe all that to David Lynch.