Patricia Arquette represents the third generation of an acting dynasty, and might be the most accomplished member of the family after winning an Oscar for her enduring performance in 2014's Boyhood. That film was directed by Richard Linklater, and Arquette has long been a muse of the greatest filmmakers of the past 50 years, including Martin Scorsese, Tim Burton, David O. Russell, Tony Scott—and, of course, David Lynch. The actress and auteur were an ideal match in 1997's noir thriller Lost Highway, in which Arquette played two different roles and showed a side of herself that Hollywood had previously not seen: as a devastating femme fatale.
Ever since that dual performance, which some critics compared to Kim Novak's work in Vertigo, Arquette has been a diehard fan of Lynch's, whose reboot of his cult '90s series Twin Peaks premieres this Sunday on Showtime. (Of course, the original series features a famous double performance in Sheryl Lee's roles as both Laura Palmer and Laura's cousin Maddy.) In this new interview with Lynn Hirschberg, Arquette recalls their collaboration, what makes Lynch so unique, and that moment when she won Best Actress—not to mention the time she lost, and then found, one of her statues.
I know you come from an acting family. What was the first thing you auditioned for?
The first thing that I auditioned for was a Libby's on the Label singing commercial that I ended up shooting with my family and a bunch of friends. I had to sing in the audition. We ended up booking it.
Were you nervous?
Uh, not really. But the first time that I worked on film, my older brother Richmond [Arquette] did a little film that he wrote and directed called James Long. And I was the rich lady who had her diamond necklace stolen. I was six-and-a-half or seven. That scene was shot in our living room. And we rented this really beautiful mansion, which my parents couldn't imagine why they could afford but it was because it was in Chicago. They didn't realize that they would have to heat it in the winter. So it was this elegant, formal, old kind worn beauty of a house. And I was at this picnic table, which was one of the only pieces of furniture we had, and I had this necklace ripped off me and I was, "Oh, oh, oh. Oh, my necklace."
And then they wrote parts for you.
Yeah, we lost the footage.
No. That's so sad. That was your debut.
I know. My second debut was on stage. I played at the Philadelphia Folk Festival. My dad was part of a band and also part of Paul Sal's story theater company. So we kids from the hippy communion I grew up on did a performance at the Philadelphia Folk Festival. And I was wearing this white baby doll princess dress, playing a princess. And at the end everyone started clapping, this whole hippy audience, thousands of people. And I got so shy that I lifted my dress over my face to hide my face. So I'm just standing there in my underwear. Everybody was like, "Put your dress down."
And that's a nice segue to David Lynch. No, kidding. But what was the first sort of film audition, or professional audition?
I had a lot of professional auditions at one point when I was a teenager. I think I was about 12 or 14. I decided I wanted to start auditioning, and because my dad was an actor I had watched him go through auditions.
And your sister. And your brother. I mean, everyone practically.
I started auditioning for commercials and I decided quickly that I didn't like it. There was a lot of weird stage moms. Like, sometimes a kid would go in a room and the mom would listen kneeling at the door. My parents didn't want me acting when I was a kid. They really didn't want me or any of us acting at all.
It's a hard business.
Very hard for women especially. How did you hear about Lost Highway? Did David Lynch see you in something? Did he call you and ask you to audition or was it written for you?
What I remember of Lost Highway, and I may be imagining this, but I think my agents and manager heard about the project and I was one of the people that they suggested. And David decided to meet with me. And I seem to remember we met at Musso and Frank's. But I could possibly be creating that. I think I read the script before I had the meeting. I really like to read material before I meet with directors because I like to have ideas about the part, and I like to talk to them about problems that I have with the script. Which doesn’t always go over well.
And in this case...
In this case, you know, to work with David Lynch is a very fascinating thing. Because in the case of Lost Highway I would say, "David, so am I playing two different people?" "Yes." "Are they ghosts? Is one of them a ghost? Is one of them a hallucination? Are these real people? What am I playing here?" "I don't know Patricia, what do you think?"
So I had to come up with a whole concept of what I thought Lost Highway was about. And I decided with these two different women, you know, to me there was an overarching theme of the danger of beauty and the brutality of sexuality and desire. I looked at both of these characters, Alice and Renee—Alice is the blonde one; Renee has the dark hair—and I decided I wanted to sort of model the characters as these two biblical, historical, sexually desirable and dangerous women. And then also at one point when I was talking about the Renee character, that I should have dark hair and blunt-cut bangs like Bettie Paige. David said, "Who is that?" And I was like, "Bettie Paige, David. Bettie Paige. If you don't know Betty Paige.." And then I turned him to Bettie Paige and he was like, "Bettie Paige, wow. She's the bee's knees. Wow."
And was it a fast or a slow shoot? Does he do a lot of takes?
Well, one of the interesting things about working with David is he had a very musical thing in his mind. Sometimes he would even listen to music in his headset and to the scene at the same time. The relationship between Renee and her husband was very somnambulistic. David would say like, "Take more time. No, more time. More time." And a lot of these directors are always like, "Let's pick it up. Let's pick up the pace, let's pick up the pace." David wanted it really slow and it created this artificial timing in this very tense marriage where she really didn't trust him. And she wanted to get out of that marriage and she was constantly looking at him. I saw her almost like a panther who was watching him, and he seemed more gentle then her but she knew that he was really deadly.
The other thing is you're incredibly sexy in this movie. When I watched it the first time and then when I just went back and rewatched it, I was thinking it must have been hard to do that on command, so to speak. I mean, the sexuality of that character is really intense. Was that difficult to play?
Well, I am a very, very modest person. A very shy person, even in my own life. Like, I'm very shy even taking a bath by myself—I'm not kidding. So I thought, you know, this is terrifying for me. I know there's a lot of people that are comfortable with nudity but I am not one of those people. And yet I know that people use their sexuality sometimes to get their needs met.
Yeah. I felt as a viewer very protective of you. You feel the rawness, the vulnerability of it. Was that difficult to shake? Was that difficult to do every day?
It was really difficult to do every day. I felt very protected by David and the crew and the makeup and wardrobe people. I would always have, you know, robes around me. But I remember there's this big scene in the desert that Balthazar Getty and I have at the end of the movie. And so we're getting ready and I have this robe on. And I don't have any clothes on underneath. I said to Balthazar, "Okay, when we're supposed to be having sex and I'm sitting on top of you, put your hands on my boobs and keep them there." I'm like, "Balthazar, I'd rather you touch my boobs than the world see my boobs. So keep your hands on my boobs."
But what happened right before that was, you know, the crew gets ready. And you say, "It's a closed set, everyone. If you don't have to be here leave." I have my robe on. So I say to the crew, "Okay, guys. They say 'action.' I say, 'Okay, everybody I'm about to take this robe off.' When I turn around, if I look at you and I know you're not supposed to be there, I'm going to come and punch you in the f---ing face."
So I'm like, "Ready." And 25 people run off into the desert.
That is fantastic. Other than the character you play, do you have a favorite David Lynch character in any other David Lynch film?
I love David Lynch; I love everything about David Lynch. I mean, nobody thinks like David Lynch. And there's so many memorable characters in his movies from tiny parts to major ones, and even a bunch of his short films I've been re-watching lately, they're spectacular. I mean, there is no one else like David.
We would be on set sometimes, and there's this one shot where I'm going down a hallway. And when we finished it, David said, "Cut. Print. Great. Perfect. We're moving on." And they said, "No, no, David. It's not good for camera." He said, "What do you mean?" And they said that as the camera tracked back sometimes I got closer than two-and-a-half feet, which is where I'm supposed to be. So it would be out of focus in parts. He said, "What do you mean?" And they said, "Well she came inside minimum focus so sometimes she was blurry." "Great, let's look at that." So he is completely open. He's very specific but at the same time he's very open to mistakes and accidents and perception, really. He is really one of the most open people at the same time as being incredibly specific.
Was he very specific about wardrobe? Because your wardrobe in that movie is so specific.
David has his finger in everything as far as visual elements go: The plants in a scene. The space in a room. The color of everything. Your wardrobe. What the materials made out of...
Your garter belts.
All of these things matter. David really trusts his crew a lot, but he has very specific things in every scene: "I don't like that plant. Who put that plant in there? No, not those kind of plants. Only this kind of plant." He's very specific.
And I mean, David is honest. He doesn't bullshit people. And he will keep going until he gets what he thinks he needs. But he's also really generous and lovely and all, "Arquette, you're solid gold."
Were you a Twin Peaks fan?
I was a Twin Peaks fan. I was an Eraserhead fan. I've been David's fan for a long, long time.
Eraserhead didn't freak you out?
I liked Eraserhead. I like experimental films. David is one of our great filmmakers and he's never given up his vision and he's never sold out for anything.
Like me... well, is that true?
So here are some questions for you: Where was your first kiss? And don't say on camera, which is possible since you were a child star.
I think my first kiss was at a hippie commune.
And how old were you?
First romantic kiss, then.
Hmm. I think my first kiss might have been around 12, in Santa Monica. It was a particularly cute little surfer boy. Nothing wrong with that. He was adorable.
I had never had to kiss on camera when I was a kid, but I did do a movie with Joseph Gordon-Levitt where it was like some weird comedy and some strange circumstance where I end up having to marry him, and he's like 12 at the time [1994's Holy Matrimony]. So I had to kiss him—you know, not like a totally crazy romantic kiss. Just a kiss on the lips. But his mom said to me before, "You know he's never kissed a girl before." And I’m like, "Oh god, I don't want him to have to kiss me. Go kiss a girl a real girl you like." I was just like, "I'm sorry. This is just pretend. You'll still have your own real kiss."
Who was your cinematic crush when you were growing up?
When I was really little, I really had a crush on James Cagney. And also Clark Gable. And then when I started getting interested in acting, Montgomery Cliff was a big one.
Yeah, I have a thing for Gregory Peck.
Who is your girl crush?
I think I have a lot of girl crushes. There's people growing up that I think were instrumental, like Patti Smith, Blondie, Siouxsie Sioux, Angela Davis.
What was the Oscars like for you? You probably weren't sure you were going to win but it looked good. So at least then you could go in a positive mood as opposed to people who worry that they'll have the camera on their face when they lose.
You always worry. I think you always worry that you're going to have the camera on your face when you lose. Even if people say you're the frontrunner or this is a shoo-in or a lock or whatever they say, you still are like, "This might be the big upset. This might be the one time you guys are wrong about that." But, you know, of course I never expected that, really. I mean, I did sit at home when I was a little girl with a shampoo bottle like, "I want to thank blah, blah, blah." But I never really thought it was going to happen. And I didn't strategize my career towards that goal. Even during the campaign they had great PR people for the movie, but at one point people said, "You know you should probably hire your own personal publicist for your campaign." And I just didn't feel comfortable with campaigning. So I was like, "You know, I may just lose this because of that, but I don't know that I feel right about that."
And did you get nervous before you went up or was it a blur? Do you remember it?
Well, when they said my name it was really weird. It was like somebody shot me with elephant tranquilizer or something. Really, time and space turned into this really rubbery, weird thing and it felt like 100 years till I got up the stairs. And then when I got offstage, my legs were shaking so much and I had so much adrenaline I couldn't even really think properly. I almost passed out. I was like, "I need to sit down." They're like, "No you need to—", and I was like, "I'm going to fall down." But wow, It was amazing.
And where do you keep your Oscar?
Right now, I keep my Oscar on my bedroom floor in the corner because I had to move it. And I keep having to move it around because people do photo shoots over there or people are doing something. Actually, I thought I lost one of those awards. I ended up calling a psychic and everything. And while I was talking to the psychic I'm like, "Here's my Golden Globe in this box in my messy office."