Sheryl Lee Always Knew Laura Palmer Was More Than a MacGuffin

At the center of David Lynch and Mark Frost’s timeless mystery Twin Peaks, Lee surfaced the nuances of a character who was so much more than a dead girl wrapped in plastic.
Sheryl Lee Laura Palmer Twin Peaks

 Acting is an art form, and behind every iconic character is an artist expressing themselves. Welcome to The Great Performances, a recurring column exploring the art behind some of cinema’s best roles. In this entry, we examine Sheryl Lee’s performance as Laura Palmer across the Twin Peaks series.

When asked her thoughts on the many mysteries of the enigmatic franchise Twin Peaks, Sheryl Lee, the actress who played Laura Palmer, told Fangoria, “The reason I don’t like to talk about it isn’t because I feel so private about it, it’s that I appreciate that it means what it means to everyone else…I want them to have [the] freedom to have their own feelings and ideas about it.”

David Lynch and Mark Frost’s twisty drama is a show practically made to be debated. Since the 1990s, fans have been unpacking what the show means underneath its mix of soap opera melodrama and heady philosophical musings. But despite containing themes we can connect with together as a fandom, I find the show to be a very personal viewing experience. Because, like every great work of art, the meaning of Twin Peaks comes out of what we bring to it.

What I brought to my first visit to Twin Peaks was a blank slate. After stumbling across my parents taped copy of the season two finale as a child, they properly introduced me to the series when I turned twelve. I was an instant fan. I’d never seen anything quite like its patented brand of binge-worthy whodunnit weirdness. The impact was immediate, and it stayed with me.

When Twin Peaks: The Return premiered in 2017, I brought to it something that made this visit even more personal: my recent sobriety. I’ve written at length about my sobriety, but my recovery story literally began the day The Return premiered. I was in the hospital briefly, and on the day of my release, a new episode of a series I literally grew up on was waiting for me. And because I was able to see the foggy Pacific Northwest world through the clarity of my own mind for the first time since I was a child, the true horror of the show emerged.

Twin Peaks is a tragic story of emotional trauma fueled by abuse and addiction. Sheryl Lee brought that story to the forefront in her devastating performance as Laura Palmer. Her unenviable challenge was figuring out how to play a character conceived as a plot device. Initially, Laura Palmer was only meant to be a MacGuffin, driving the series’ mystery in disparate directions. But through her harrowing work, she cut through Laura Palmer’s contradictions, giving life to a character that was always so much more than a dead girl wrapped in plastic.

Sheryl Lee began her career in the theater. She studied with the famed American Academy for Dramatic Arts before bouncing between different acting conservatories across the country. She eventually landed in Seattle, where Lynch and Frost were casting the pilot for Twin Peaks. Lynch instantly gravitated to her headshot. At this stage, Laura Palmer was still just a dead body, but as Lynch recalls in the book Lynch on Lynch, “No one–not Mark, me, anyone–had any idea that she could really act, and that she was going to be so powerful just being dead.” 

What cemented to Lynch and Frost her keen ability to be powerfully authentic was her one actual scene. It was the picnic flashback between Laura, Donna (Lara Flynn Boyle), and James (James Marshall). This is where Lee’s life would change forever. As Lynch recalled,

“She did do another scene – the video with Donna on the picnic –and it was that scene that did it. I said, ‘Man!’, you know, ‘She has got a presence and a natural ability.’ She wanted to be an actress and she was in Seattle to act. But that scene did it all. That little dancing scene.”

What Lynch saw in that scene was Lee’s ability to exist in the present moment with unquestionable ease. On the tape, we watch Laura laugh and dance with Donna as James trains his camera on her effervescent smile. Lee beautifully expresses Laura’s enchanting vitality without any performativity. We know Laura led a secret life, but what Lee shows us here is a carefree young woman. She’s happy in the moment, regardless of the pain she’s living with. A pain that reverberates throughout the prequel film, Fire Walk With Me.

In the original series, Laura is an absent protagonist. We learn about her life strictly through the perspective of others. But we’re never given a chance to hear Laura tell her own story. This was something that Lee was dedicated to surfacing when Lynch and Frost proposed a prequel film charting Laura’s final days. As Lee mentioned in a 1995 interview for the fan magazine Wrapped in Plastic,

“I felt really great about the decision [exploring Laura’s story in Fire Walk With Me] because I never felt complete with Laura. I never got to be Laura alive, just in flashbacks, so it allowed me to come full circle with the character. Laura always had a tremendous amount of life, because everybody talked about her, yet I didn’t get to do those things and be her.” 

The first time we hear Laura tell her own story is hidden in a small monologue she delivers to Donna. “Do you think that if you were falling in space that you would slow down after a while or go faster and faster?” Donna asks Laura as they laze on separate sofas. Without turning her head, Laura replies, “Faster and faster. And for a long time you wouldn’t feel anything. And then you’d burst into fire. Forever.”

Suddenly Lee’s eyes light up, showing Laura mesmerized by the idea of inevitable destruction. But as dreams of immolation fill her imagination, her eyes silently grow cold and unfeeling. She becomes lost in the fire of her mind. This suicidal ideation is the throughline coloring Lee’s overarching characterization of Laura. She wasn’t just a prom queen leading a double life. She was a woman in unbelievable pain who thought her only relief would come in death. 

Across the series, Sheryl Lee is asked to volley between emotions in truly unbelievable ways. She switches quickly from shock to laughter to fear–often all in one scene. But despite how divorced from reality Laura seems, Lee plays each extreme emotion with genuine authenticity. Rather than languishing in the chaos of her character, she gives herself over to the truth of each scene. As she mentioned in an interview with BiffBamPop,

“For me, logically and with my mind, I can sort of develop certain aspects of a character, but when it comes to playing that character, there’s a surrendering that has to happen, a letting go. I have to get out of the way so that the energy of that character can express itself through me, and that is not a logical mind process.”

Lee completely surrenders to the given circumstances of her character. This creates a clearer picture of who Laura really is outside of how she’s perceived by the other characters. Take the scene in Fire Walk With Me: The Missing Pieces where Laura begs Bobby for blow in his basement. She maneuvers the cresting emotional waves of Laura’s rock bottom addiction with a genuine sense of despair and panic. Once she finally gets a hit, she instantly melts into utter relief as euphoria washes over her whole body. 

But Lee doesn’t conflate an addict’s euphoria with true happiness. As Laura exits the basement, Lee uses her physicality to express a hollow weariness in her character. With slumped shoulders and an empty facial expression, Lee gives us a physical representation of what Laura feels inside. 

Lee shows us this hollowness again at the end of Fire Walk With Me in a scene with James. As they fight on a stretch of rural road, Laura swings between cruel taunts and passionate declarations of love. Suddenly, she retreats inside herself, realizing James’s life could be in danger, “Open your eyes, James. You don’t even know me. There are things about me – even Donna doesn’t know me. Your Laura disappeared. It’s just me now.” 

As Lee says the words, “Your Laura disappeared,” her physicality shrinks again. At once, we see the same Laura that stood in Bobby’s living room in the prior scene. Our hearts break because we can now see that this is the real Laura, underneath the trauma, abuse, and addiction. A quiet, reserved young woman who’s known nothing but a life of pain and despair. And rather than feeling like she can ask for help, she believes her only escape will come from isolating herself even further from those who love her.

If there’s one big twist in Fire Walk With Me, it’s that Laura–like Cooper at the end of season two–is actually trapped in the Black Lodge. We discover that Laura was wearing the emerald lodge ring when she died, which spirited her away to the iconic red room where she joins the imprisoned Cooper in the final shot of the film. As his hand rests on her shoulder, and Laura wordlessly processes her new reality, a vision of an angel appears. This sign of salvation overwhelms her with joy, offering Laura a lingering sense of peace as the credits roll. And for 25 years, that was the end of her story. Until Twin Peaks: The Return rewrote the ending to the tragedy of Laura Palmer.

After seemingly escaping the Lodge, Cooper travels in time with the help of the mysterious FBI agent turned talking kettle Philip Jeffries to the night that Laura died. His appearance alters the trajectory of Laura’s life, effectively undoing her death. But as he attempts to lead Laura out of the forest, something in the air shifts, and with a staticky pop, Laura disappears. All that’s left is her deafening scream echoing through the dark woods.

Cooper subsequently tracks down Laura in what can best be described as another dimension. In this world, Laura’s name is Carrie Page, and she has no memory of her life in Twin Peaks. In true Sheryl Lee fashion, we can see the complexities in Carrie instantly, her secrets and dreams barely concealed under a steely, ethereal facade.

After finding Laura, Cooper takes her back to Twin Peaks only to discover that no Palmer’s ever lived at her home address. As they walk away from the house, Cooper asks aloud, “What year is it?”, Laura turns back. As she stares at the house she grew up in, memories begin to form in her eyes, and we hear a male voice in the distance call out her name.

Instantly, all of her trauma and pain come flooding back as abject fear envelops Lee’s face, her blood-curdling scream filling the night as the Palmer house is plunged into darkness and the screen cuts to black. If Lee shows us Laura at peace at the end of Fire Walk With Me, in the final image of The Return, she shows us that Laura may have left the Lodge, but she’ll never be able to escape her trauma. It’s an ending arguably more tragic than if she had simply washed ashore in a quiet patch of the Pacific Northwest. She would be dead and wrapped in plastic–but at least she’d be finally free from her life’s torment.

Sheryl Lee is and will always be the soul of Twin Peaks. What started as a few days of filming blossomed into a performance that captured the attention of the entire world. Through a captivating, emotionally complex performance, Laura’s story was finally given a voice, crawling off the screen and into our cultural consciousness. Lee seamlessly transformed a plot device into a complex character study of abuse, addiction, and trauma that’s still heart-wrenching and relatable over 25 years later.

Jacob Trussell: Jacob Trussell is a writer based in New York City. His editorial work has been featured on the BBC, NPR, Rue Morgue Magazine, Film School Rejects, and One Perfect Shot. He's also the author of 'The Binge Watcher's Guide to The Twilight Zone' (Riverdale Avenue Books). Available to host your next spooky public access show. Find him on Twitter here: @JE_TRUSSELL (He/Him)