The career of Twin Peaks famous corpse has come alive on screen.
Few people enter public consciousness as bizarrely as Sheryl Lee did. Cast as Laura Palmer, the small-town murder victim in the TV series “Twin Peaks,” Lee rose to fame as a beautiful corpse.
“When the show went on the air and people started recognizing me,” the actress remembers, “it wasn’t just recognition — they were startled. They would look at me as if I were a ghost.” Unlike most of the “Twin Peaks” cast, Lee was able to springboard from that series, which ran two years, into a healthy film career. She starred in “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me,” the 1992 movie that David Lynch spun off from the series, became a German photographer in the Beatles nostalgia movie “Back Beat” and played opposite Nick Nolte in “Mother Night.”
On the New York stage, she played the title role in “Salome” opposite Al Pacino. In the film “Bliss,” which opened Friday at the Kabuki, she plays a troubled bride who takes a sexual journey with her husband (Craig Sheffer), meets a New Age sex guru (Terence Stamp) and finds redemption through intimacy and tantric sex.
On screen, Lee projects a quality that’s both voluptuous and ethereal — a sensuality that seems nearly free of narcissism. As a result, she’s frequently cast in roles that require her to be naked — a situation she claims to hate.
Sheffer, who played Brad Pitt’s brother in “A River Runs Through It,” calls Lee “one of the best actresses in Hollywood” and says, “She’s a very deep person who loves to go to those deep emotional places and just kind of let her heart be ripped out.” At the opening of the San Francisco International Film Festival, where “Bliss” was screened, Lee spoke about nudity, her love of acting and her thoughts on turning 30.
Chronicle: How did you and Craig Sheffer get along making “Bliss”?
Lee: “It was great. I felt so fortunate because you need trust, you need to feel safe in order to go to the places these two characters had to go. And I felt that with Craig . . . It wasn’t difficult to go to these intimate places with him.”
Chronicle: What are the mechanics of filming a love scene?
Lee: You always hear actresses talk about how unromantic it is to act a love scene or a sex scene — which it is. You’re doing it with all these lights on and cameras flying around and people on the set. No matter what they try to do to make it feel like a private space, it never is a private space. It’s awkward: Here you are with most of your clothes off in bed with this person who you’ve really just met. You’re strangers to each other’s bodies and you’re coming together for the first time in front of all these people.”
Chronicle:How do you work through that?
Lee: For me, it’s two things. One is the tendency to want to leave my body immediately — to sort of watch it from the ceiling — so that I don’t have to be there. But in order to act it you have to be present, you have to open your heart: So there are these two forces that kind of happen at the same time.
Chronicle: Did you and Craig date during the film?
Lee: No. We’ve never explored that. There’s a real friendship there that has lasted — we shot the film 2 1/2 years ago. But I really care about him as a person and as a friend.
Chronicle: Did you have a boyfriend at the time you made the film?
Lee: No, I didn’t.
Chronicle: Did that help?
Lee: It was a curse and a blessing. To be spending 2 1/2 weeks acting in bed with someone else, doing emotional, very intimate scenes, would be asking a lot of a partner — to have the strength to trust and be able to deal with that. At the same time it was a curse because here I was going to the set every day, opening up all of this emotional stuff in me — and I would want to go home at the end of the day and have somebody to talk to, somebody to get a hug from. And there wasn’t any of that. It was me going to a lonely hotel room.
Chronicle: What kind of research did you do for “Bliss”?
Lee: Mostly emotional research. I did go to a tantric sex workshop, which is one reason this role had a profound effect on my life. I had studied yoga for years and I kept hearing about tantric sex, but as a single person it’s sort of difficult: You don’t want to open up the Yellow Pages and look for a tantric sex teacher. There were about 75 people in the workshop, a lot of couples. And I took a male friend of mine who I had been with sexually in the past. So we were comfortable with each other. I highly recommend tantric sex workshops.
Chronicle: Which are the films you’ve been naked in?
Lee: “Back Beat,” “Twin Peaks” and the three films I have coming out this year: “Bliss,” “The Blood Oranges” (directed by Philip Haas of “Angels and Insects”) . . . and there was a shot of me across the courtyard in “David” (the recent cable-TV biblical epic). Apparently I’m the most naked that anyone’s been on TNT. My poor mother. I’m ready to run away.
Chronicle: Do you enjoy playing nude scenes?
Lee: I hate it. It’s really hard. But I’m attracted to roles where I get to really go in and explore a character. I’m interested in that journey and that’s the thing that keeps me in this business. Getting asked to play Astrid in “Back Beat,” for example, was for me a phenomenal honor and creatively such a joy and so fulfilling. I’m not going to pass on that job just because there were a couple of nude scenes. The more successful I become, hopefully the more I’ll be able to say, “This is what I will do and this is what I won’t do.”
Chronicle: How long has it been since you had a boyfriend?
Lee: Eight years. Been working a lot, I guess. But I think that’s changing now. There’s somebody who just came into my life.
Chronicle: You’ve kept busy since you made the “Twin Peaks” series. How do you feel about what’s happened to you?
Lee: I’ve had some dry spells; sometimes I’m too picky for my own good. I just turned 30 so I got really introspective as you do, questioning my life. And when I stopped and sort of looked back at the past decade, I realized I had done more work than I thought I had done.
Chronicle: Why did you become an actor?
Lee: Because I wanted to get away from myself. And in the end it did nothing but bring me right back to myself. It’s the divine cosmic joke.