IT'S BEEN ALMOST EIGHT YEARS AND A DOZEN MOVIES SINCE SHERILYN FENN STARRED IN "TWIN PEAKS." NOW SHE'S BACK WITH ANOTHER TV SERIES, SHOWTIME'S "RUDE AWAKENING." ROB HILL VISITS HER ON THE SET.
Sherilyn Fenn is blindfolded. She's tiptoeing from the bedroom out into the living room, letting her hands guide her. They slide tentatively from the couch, to the table, and back to the couch as she takes little baby steps. She knocks a pizza box off a table, emitting an unmistakable Sherilyn Fenn giggle, the one that rises swiftly and then disappears into total silence, before rising and falling again. She finally finds her way around the couch and grabs a pack of cigarettes that are on top of the TV. She struggles to get them open, becoming flustered, scrunching what part of her face isn't concealed by the piece of red satin tied around her head. She then shakily guides herself back across the room and flops down onto the couch, where she attempts to light a cigarette and pour a diet Pepsi into a glass. She begins to giggle again, as the Pepsi dribbles all over her gray tank-top and down to spot her khaki pants.
"This is so fuckin' hard," she laments. "I can't see a thing. I'm helpless."
"Cut!" a voice booms.
No, this is not my Sherilyn Fenn dream, although it wouldn't be a bad one. This is a rehearsal for her new Showtime series, Rude Awakening. Fenn is using the blindfold to help her simulate nursing a monumental hangover as she tries to explain to her flighty mom that she doesn't have a drinking problem.
"Sherilyn," the director says, "let's try it again but try not to spill all over your top. Remember, you're supposed to be good at being hungover ... it's your specialty."
"But I can't see!" she booms back, peering out from below the blindfold that's now lifted onto her forehead like a Jimi Hendrix headband, finally revealing those arching and somewhat sinister eyebrows of hers.
"Yes," the director responds. "That's the point."
It's midsummer in Hollywood, the time of year that all the little non-descript studios off Santa Monica Boulevard become air-conditioned TV series factories, pumping out boob Tube fodder that will keep America warm and cozy in the upcoming winter. And it's here, in Studio B, that Sherilyn Fenn has decided to make her return to a TV series (well, cable, but that's just a function of the times). It's been almost eight years since Sherilyn caught America's eye as sultry Audrey Horne of David Lynch's surreal and groundbreaking Twin Peaks. Peaks was the rarest of rare on TV: a show that was a critical hit, had a feverish cult of fans, and actually had something to say, however abstract. ("David really tapped into that suburban paranoia thing that pervades the Northwest that America can identify with even if they can't quite articulate it," says Sherilyn.) Of course, it was canceled after a year-and-a-half. but those involved did not go unnoticed. Especially Fenn.
"It opened so many doors for me," she says, munching on a cobb salad in her dressing room. "The whole world seemed to just open up for me."
Like anybody in their right mind, Sherilyn walked through the parted doors. She wandered off into the wilderness of Big Pictures, but soon found out that the world can sometimes be even stranger than anything David Lynch dreams up. In fact, it's safe to say that you'd be hard-pressed to find anybody in Hollywood with a more varied or bizarre filmography than Ms. Fenn. In Wild At Heart she played "Girl in Accident," who was wandering around dying with a windshield through her head[Untrue! She just had a mortal headwound -ChrisHerr].; in Ruby, she played a stripper who gets messed up with the mob; Two Moon Junction had her naked through the whole movie having sex everywhere; and in Three Of Hearts she played a lesbian who realizes she's really straight. There were others -- over 20 film credits -- but no need to mention all of them here, because most of them never even made it to the theaters. The Hollywood and Sherilyn Fenn marriage was not going well. Depending on who you talk to, either Hollywood did not know how to use the sultry yet quirky actress or Fenn failed to pick the right parts. But the lines are hazy, as they always tend to be in these matters, especially when curvy brunettes and high-powered suits are involved.
"I would say that at that time I was a brat," she admits. "I was more than a brat. But they also have a way of putting you in a category. I wasn't into playing the Hollywood game. I only responded to certain things."
One thing that Fenn did respond to, however -- which was kind of a grand culmination of what she was going through with her career -- was the controversial role in Boxing Helena.
"When I read the script, I was like, 'Hello, woman in a box,'" she says pointing her thumbs toward herself. "I had to explore that to the end."
In the movie, Fenn played Helena, a bitchy and unlovable narcissist who is humbled after having her limbs amputated and must live in a box. Besides the fact that the movie spurred a massive lawsuit against Kim Basinger for bowing out of the project and the very liberal Madonna turned down the role, Helena's subject matter made it a pariah among critics and the industry, even though Fenn showed great range and courage in taking the part. I mean, isn't that what acting is supposed to be about?
"I thought so," she says, "But I learned a lot from that, in a career sense. But that was then, right?"
Cable is where it's at these days. It's the mid-point between the usual vacuousness of TV and well, the more weighty vacuousness of films. You can say and show almost all the stuff that's only implied on network shows but still not have to bow to the formulaic monotony of movies. Some of the most entertaining and creative shows have found homes on cable such as The Larry Sanders Show, Dream On, and, of course, Comedy Central's The Daily Show. Fenn is looking for such a home with the dark comedy, Rude Awakening, which sports its fair share of such cable mainstays as curse words, lesbianism, naked boobs, and puking.
"My character is trying to get her shit together, but is having a tough go of it," she tells me. "Perfect for cable."
Fenn plays Billie, an ex-B-movie actress "party girl" who wants to become a writer, but has two problems: one, she never writes; and two, she's a drunk who strips in bars, sleeps with the wrong men, and can't seem to stop consuming Irish coffees, no matter how many interventions her friends try. In it, Fenn gets to show her comedic sense, one of her most underutilized and unrecognized talents -- both in therms of timing and her ability to satirize herself, and the more demanding, physical stuff, where she falls from stools, down stairs, out of beds, and off tables. And if all this wasn't enough, she has to work a day job for a satin jacket-wearing sleaze (Richard Lewis) who constantly wants hugs from her.
"Now I know why guys like to hug girls," she says, struggling to chew a mouthful of salad. "You guys just want to cop a feel. I can't believe that I've fallen for it all these years!"
At this point, Sherilyn's publicist comes through the door to snatch her back to the set.
"Just a few more minutes," she says. "It's just starting to be fun."
Fun? Yeah, well here's some fun questions:
BIKINI: Where's one place you never like to be touched?
SHERILYN: That's a weird question. (laughing) It depends on who the person is. There isn't any one place.
BIKINI: Most exotic place you've been?
SHERILYN: Dubrovnik, Yugoslavia.
BIKINI: Would you ever do the Howard Stern Show?
SHERILYN: They're pushing me to do Howard. Howard's a trip. My friend made me watch the "Lesbian Love Connection" and I was like, "Oh God, get me out of here!"
BIKINI: What's your drink?
SHERILYN: Red wine.
BIKINI: What's the weirdest thing you can tell me about David Lynch?
SHERILYN: That he's really normal.
BIKINI: What's something you've done that you really regret?
SHERILYN: Oh, God! I hate that question. Bleaching my hair for Two Moon Junction, I guess. My hair was fried and I looked like an idiot.
BIKINI: Were you really on Friends?
SHERILYN: I was in one episode. I played this girl with a wooden leg.
BIKINI: So you've played a girl with a wooden leg, a woman in a box, a stripper, a drunk, a lesbian, a girl with a windshield through her head, what's next?
SHERILYN: (laughing) Hopefully something normal.
BIKINI - October 1998
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