“Ladies and gentlemen. The Roadhouse is proud to welcome … James Hurley!”
Depending on how you perceived the character’s soapy story lines during Twin Peaks’ original run, you either reacted to James Hurley’s “Just You” performance in Twin Peaks: The Return by hysterically laughing or clutching your heart. That sweeping falsetto! Those Donna and Maddie stand-ins! It’s like 1990 all over again!
We haven’t seen too much of James in The Return, but we’ve gleaned enough information at this point to learn a few new things about him: He’s still living in town, working at the Great Northern as a security guard by day and playing some tunes at the Roadhouse after dark. Of course, his life isn’t too normal: A mysterious motorcycle accident looms in his past, although whether it’s Black Lodge-y in nature is up to you. Earlier today, Vulture called up actor James Marshall to discuss his Twin Peaks character, how cool he actually is, and what it was like to perform that iconic love ballad again.
I’ll start by asking a very important two-part question: Do you think James is cool? And has James always been cool?
[Laughs.] First of all, it’s a weird thing. The “cool” thing, I don’t know. I don’t think of myself that way or the character that way, thinking of yourself as tough. The tough guy. That’s other people’s opinions. The character is a lot like a James Dean–esque character, that’s kind of obvious. David and Mark back then were doing amalgamations of different icons within people on Twin Peaks. To me, Lara Flynn Boyle was a Natalie Wood mixed with Audrey Hepburn. Sherilyn Fenn was the classic siren mixed with Marilyn Monroe. My character was a James Dean mixed with a few other icons that David particularly liked. Very ’50s. In a nutshell, when David handles this show, my character gets handled much better.
What do you mean by that?
Back in the day in the first two seasons, we had a lot of different directors and a lot of different writers. And I wasn’t a strong enough actor. I didn’t really have the strength at the time as an actor to hold my own, so the character kind of went funny. Initially, these directors and writers stayed true to what the character was, but it still wasn’t handled right. It just wasn’t handled the way David would’ve handled it. He’s a very individual, very unique, signature person. It’s like having a Spielberg come up to direct, or to think of music, having a Hendrix come up and play. You’re not going to get another one and you’re not going to get someone to imitate him. So that was the whole situation with the first and second season. Now, this is pure David. It’s handled exactly how it should be.
I thought it was fitting that Shelly had a throwaway line earlier this season to vouch for James’s coolness.
It really wrapped up the character in a subtle, simple way. An accident is mentioned — he had an accident. Shelly isn’t saying James has become “Fonzie cool,” what she’s saying, I think, is that he’s cool because he’s always had a straight line. Everyone has gone a little kooky, but James has always been a good guy and a good person who wants to do the right thing. It’s not like he’s a Pollyanna, but he’ll do the best he can. He’s a straight-up person and he wears his heart on his sleeve. I think a lot of people read it that way, too. There’s not a lot of time for each character — there’s so many people! So that’s what I think David was doing. To solidify what each character is, as quickly as he could, without taking too much time and doing too much exposition.
Your grand return to the show comes with a “Just You” reprise at the Roadhouse. Why do you think David wanted to reintroduce you in this fashion?
I think that song doesn’t just deal with me, but with the whole show itself. What David’s doing so much is dealing with dark and light. There’s something primal and disturbing about something that’s very, very innocent and sweet — like something horrifying is lurking underneath. When you see someone’s very earnest, heartfelt longing for a true connection with a true love, and never getting that connection, it evokes a lot of emotions. Just like Big Ed is, too, and several others. When you have that beauty and that innocence and it’s juxtaposed against all of this thrashing, horrible stuff, it’s cathartic for an artist. Life is a lot like that.
As far as my character singing it, it actually was the same track from the original series. David didn’t even use pitch correction! He couldn’t use pitch correction. There are a couple of moments in the song where it’s pitchy and everything. But that’s what David loves. It’s the sweetness of it and it’s coming from the heart. The rawness of it. You can’t really get in his head with a lot of stuff. The song is a cute, pretty little song. The way I sang it was off pitch half of the time. I don’t know how David did it, but in a new setting, he put it in a different light where you didn’t even hear how off-key it was as much. The beauty side of it was there, even though it was the same track. It really shows how good of a director the guy is. He can take that exact same song, put it in one light and it’s like, “Oh God, it’s a bunch of high-schoolers, it’s corny and hokey and in a living room.” And then you play it differently amidst a different situation and light it all differently, get a whole different mood going, and you actually don’t mind the song so much. [Laughs.]
What were the conversations like between you and David when discussing the song’s reprise? Were you on board with the idea from the beginning?
I was blown away by it and touched that he wanted to do that song again. I was like, “You’re kidding, really?” I honestly like the song and even like the way it was recorded. I didn’t at first, because I like doing music in a specific way. It was a song I thought I was going to record with [Lara Flynn Boyle and Sheryl Lee] when I got there. I’m no great singer or anything, but generally I can sing on key. So they recorded it already when I got there, and they were going to just do a singing track. I was like, “Oh, I’m not going to do the guitar and all that? Okay.” They recorded it in a key that I’ve struggled with, and to do that in a high falsetto was brutal. It was a tough key for me. That said, when David said let’s do it again, initially I was like, “Are we going to rerecord it?” And he goes, “Nope, same track, buddy.” I was like, “He’s up to something with this! This is for something special!” It has to do with the bigger picture and keeping the beauty of the show. It’s keeping the exact same recording of the exact same moment back then, but putting it 25 years later. It goes in line with what he said: “See you in 25 years.” It’s bringing the old to the new. You could only get that with David.
And you got the VIP announcer to hype up your performance! Admittedly, since he only did it for Nine Inch Nails up to that point, I thought Eddie Vedder was going to come on. But your song was definitely worth it.
[Laughs.] Yeah, I definitely thought it was cool to get that little boost.
What was the atmosphere like on set when you filmed the performance? Did all of the extras realize the significance of what was going on?
I’m allowed to say this now, but this is the extent of how David operates: He had family members and best friends of the crew and the cast come in and do extra work. So he wasn’t calling casting agencies for more people. He wanted to be able to trust everyone, so nobody was getting on phones and recording it. I watched all of them, and pretty much everyone was straight-up. Nobody went online and said anything. Nobody posted stuff on social media. They were sitting there watching all of these different acts go on. David would rotate the audience, too, to freshen the scene up. I think, initially, the crowd kind of got my song, but I’m not sure. They were doing mass amounts of bands in one day on constant rotations. These people got to watch a bunch of bands play and just weren’t allowed to talk about it. Eddie Vedder and Nine Inch Nails definitely got the biggest kick, but again, all of these people were family and friends. They already knew the protocol. They weren’t hounding them or yelling about autographs. Everything was taken care of, David went through all measures to lock it up.
Besides working at the Great Northern, the only thing we know about James is that a motorcycle accident made him “quiet.” Will the circumstances surrounding that accident be addressed?
I’m not allowed to say anything! Sorry! You’re going to have to wait and situate. This whole thing has been such a trip, that’s all I’m allowed to say.
Did you ever think about what James did in the 25-year gap between the old and new Peaks?
Kind of. David had already told me that James had a motorcycle accident, so he’s a little bit different now, but not much. And he’s different in ways that we’ll find out later. There was really little said. Life has been the way that it’s been. I just took my own life and equated it with James. What if I had stayed in New Jersey? What if I lived up in Washington state? That’s what would’ve happened in 25 years. It makes sense that he works at a hotel now. I have a lot of friends who work in hotels in the area where I grew up in New Jersey. I felt like James probably left for a long time, came back, left again for a really long time, came back after something happened to him physically, and then put his roots down again with his Uncle Ed. I didn’t do some Method acting–type thing, just a basic story line of where the character’s been.
What does it mean to you to be a part of this experience again? Did you ever imagine that Twin Peaks would return to TV?
I feel very fulfilled. It’s almost spiritual. There’s something really great about coming back and doing the entire show the way David needed and wanted to do. It isn’t just an opportunity to act again, it’s an opportunity — and I’m not blowing smoke here — to be part of history. This isn’t a really mystical thing to say, but it’s probably going to be rented and streamed and watched and downloaded for who knows how long, because it’s a masterpiece. You’re going to piss people off when you spend a lot of time on something, and people are going to get irked by it because they’re used to a certain rhythm of stuff and they’re expected to be fed in a certain way. I’ve experienced this. I’ve had friends who’ve called me and left angry messages, saying, “I’m not even going to watch another episode! This is so frustrating! They’re not tying up the characters at all! I can’t believe it!” But yet they keep on watching it. And then some answer will be given, or a character will get tied up in some way, but then another big thing will happen. So I get more angry calls. [Laughs.] It’s challenging. You have to be in the mood to watch it. Twin Peaks has four-plus dimensions. It’s really as close to an experience as you can get. It puts a big smile on my face, let me put it that way.
This interview has been edited and condensed.