Wendy Robie on “Dreaming Grand Avenue,” “Twin Peaks” and More

Wendy Robie in Hugh Schulze’s “Dreaming Grand Avenue.”

There’s no program I’ve found to be more therapeutic during this exceedingly strange and despairing year than David Lynch and Mark Frost’s “Twin Peaks.” After visiting Mary Reber, the wonderful owner of Laura Palmer’s house, on Thanksgiving weekend last year, my girlfriend and I binged the show in its entirety over the past several months, beginning with its game-changing first two seasons from the early ’90s before continuing on through 1992’s shattering feature, “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me,” and finally 2017’s 18-part limited series, “Twin Peaks: The Return.” It is “The Return,” above all, that reflects our current era in endlessly provocative ways, from the onslaught of alternative facts (doppelgängers) and the blurring of time itself (“What year is this?”) to the physical limitations when in quarantine (the Red Room) and the cost of our willful denial regarding systemic racism and environmental destruction (the fire that walks with us). As I noted in my essay on the series, Lynch’s measured yet immersive pacing enables us to savor crucial details that would normally be overlooked, an ability that is utterly crucial when navigating through the sensory overload of our daily lives.

Hugh Schulze, the writer/director of the intriguing new indie, “Dreaming Grand Avenue,” also invites his audience to take a step back and contemplate the greater meaning of things. His film revolves around two strangers, Jimmy (Jackson Rathbone) and Maggie (Andrea Londo), whose lives are destined to intertwine after they encounter one another in a dream. Cast in the role of dream goddess Andromeda is Wendy Robie, the marvelous actor best known for her indelible portrayal of Nadine Hurley, the tormented wife of Big Ed (Everett McGill) on all three seasons of “Twin Peaks.” Robie and McGill were also memorably paired as the psychotic landlords in Wes Craven’s “The People Under the Stairs,” a wildly entertaining 1991 thriller that also happens to be a chillingly topical social allegory, serving as a key precursor to Jordan Peele’s “Get Out.” Over the past two decades, Robie has become a cherished member of the Windy City theatre community, earning two Jeff Award nominations for 2003’s “The Trojan Women” and 2019’s “Elizabeth Rex.” Next spring, she is set to begin filming “Relative,” the latest feature by noted “Twin Peaks” aficionado Michael Glover Smith. 

Before “Dreaming Grand Avenue” has its world premiere next Wednesday, September 23rd, at the ChiTown Movies Drive-In, I had the great pleasure of chatting on the phone with Robie about the joy she found in making the film, the transformative power of storytelling and, of course, Nadine’s bruising obsession with crafting a silent drape runner. 

What makes cinema well-suited for portraying dreams?

What a great question. I have always felt that way about cinema, ever since I was a tot. I can remember watching old black and white movies on TV from the ’30s and ‘40s, and so often, they involved some sort of dream. Dreams are part of mysteries and thrillers and travel, and it’s so interesting to see how cinematography has portrayed that depending upon what tech was available or what they could invent. Filmmakers could convey dreams just by making the image shimmer or fade from one thing to another or have something from underneath the frame come up into it. Even bodies of water have been used to visualize dreams. We’ve all gathered together in the dark—and one day, we will again—to watch a story, to be swept away, and then hopefully in that journey, we reach a deeper understanding of who we are, which is an experience akin to dreaming. 

How do you prepare for a role like Andromeda, goddess of dreams? 

That’s right in my wheelhouse! [laughs] I couldn’t wait to go in for that audition. It just sounded like so much fun. Searching through my closet to figure out what jewelry I should wear and how to give myself “a cloud of gray hair” was part of the fun. I just saw her as a spirit. She is a goddess and like all gods and myths, she is an element. The dream element she represents is maternal, it is healing, it’s gentle, but sometimes has to be brutal because some dreams are brutal, but they are there for a reason. I just saw her as a great character to play.

Were you given free rein on the visual approach to the character?

No, they had definite ideas. That “Game of Thrones” wig sure as hell wasn’t my idea. The costumes, along with all the visual elements in the film, were specifically chosen, so I just did my job as an actor.

What makes filmmaker Hugh Schulze stand apart from the pack in terms of the extent of his ambition?

Oddly enough, I’d turn that around and say it’s what he shares with directors that I feel very simpatico with. He’s both cerebral and visceral at the same time, and he has a vast knowledge about every aspect of this film. All those elements of the native land, the pulse of the city, history and psychology, philosophy, poetry, art—he has a command of all of it, and it’s not like it shows. He is telling a story, and it’s very emotional, but it’s careful. Very little is on the surface. You kind of reach down for it, and yet it seems so casual. That’s a quality he shares with directors I’ve worked with that I just adore, and I would put him right there with them. I really would.

I was struck by the indigenous presence in both “Dreaming Grand Avenue” and “Twin Peaks,” and how their spirituality is crucial in each narrative. 

Yeah, it didn’t take long for me to feel that similarity between them. It just about brought me to tears, truly, when I felt that part of it. It hits you right in your heart. You suddenly touch the land and you say, “Oh yes, oh yes.” I mean, I can just hear lines from “Twin Peaks” where characters observe that “there’s something in the woods.” There’s this spirit in the woods, and you deny that at your peril. The whole theme of healing in the film, with Maggie and the medicine lodge, suggests how we can heal these wounds. I just felt a profound connection with that material in both cases. 

What is the appeal of Chicago in terms of the opportunities it provides actors to test their range? Natalie West told me of the freedom she found here that wasn’t retrievable in LA, where she kept getting typecast as her character from “Roseanne.”

Yeah, she’s absolutely right. In the years when I lived in LA—basically the whole of the ’90s—I would have to sneak out of town to do theatre. I’d do a show in Phoenix or Tucson and then come back and apologize to my manager. LA was great, and I really enjoyed learning about what the camera sees, how it can look inside you and how it can watch a thought cross your face. You could make a nice living out there, but after a few years, I got really tired of doing crap on TV and a bunch of horror movies, even though they were fun. I had written a one-woman play that I performed in colleges and other venues around the LA area. When I had some friends come out to visit me, they encouraged me to bring the show to Chicago. And so, sometime in the late ’90s, I performed it in a little theater located in the basement of Northminster Presbyterian Church in Evanston. My friends, the Northminster players, put me up there and they packed the place. It was really fun.

A great friend of mine, Carmen Roman, who I had known back in Seattle, invited me to the Jeff Awards, and when I went to that, I thought, ‘Oh my god, I love it here! I want to play with these people.’ So I just moved here, and started working in the theatre. When I began my acting career, I wasn’t interested in being famous. I became an actor because that’s how I encounter the world. I tell human stories, and I firmly believe that through theatre—though it’s harder to believe these days, of course—if you can bring a group of people together and tell them a human story, you can change the world, you really can. We could end prejudice and bigotry in an instant by telling a human story. Once you’ve walked in your brother’s shoes, and you’ve felt your brother’s pain, you can never objectify him again. Just tell a human story and you move people with the tears that flow down their cheeks. I really believe that, and so Chicago is the place for me. I love it here.

To what extent did the Seattle theatre community provide you with a similarly fulfilling outlet prior to your screen debut in “Twin Peaks”? 

Well, sorry to say, it really didn’t. It was a place to go to get my union cards, but it was very closed off. Once I was union, it was hard to work there. If you had a union card, they weren’t really interested in you. If they could get you for free, that’s great, but if they were to pay a union salary, then they would prefer somebody from New York. I was basically part of the great unwashed in Seattle, and I understand that in the early days, it was different. But once I got there in the mid-’80s, that wasn’t the case. David likes theatre actors, and when I auditioned for him and Mark, they talked to me and just thought that I’d be good for Nadine. It was supposed to be just one day’s work, but David saw something in me that he liked, and little by little, they sort of built that character using stuff they saw in me. It was wonderful.

I love those stories of how things naturally evolve with David, such as how the character of Bob was inspired by Frank Silva’s reflection accidentally turning up in a mirror. With Nadine, you infused so much humanity into a role that, in lesser hands, could’ve just come off as a caricature. She is simultaneously very funny and deeply sad.

I have to say that I’ve never played anyone who hurts as much as Nadine in the first season of “Twin Peaks.” Playing her was like being all alone in a firestorm. As funny as she was, she epitomized pain. I can tell you exactly how I found Nadine. This was in the pilot, during the scene where she was putting up the drape runners. The cameras, along with David and the rest of the crew, were across the street from our house to capture this shot of Nadine in the window working the drapes. I had these little cords in my hand and was pulling them up and down and up and down. I thought that since Nadine is always so incredibly pissed off—she’s the angriest human on the face of the earth—that I should be really angry in this scene. So I was almost militaristic in how I kept pulling the cords back and forth. On the walkie talkie of the PA, who was crouched down nearby, I could hear David laughing.  

I think the laughter of David Lynch must be one of the most wonderful sounds in the world. I was determined to keep that laughter going, so I just kept it up, and I actually began to make my hands bleed. Those cords are very thin, so you can imagine how easily they could rip your skin, but I didn’t stop. I Did Not Stop! And I could hear that the PA was about to say, “David, she’s hurting her hands,” so as I’m doing it, I started hollering, “Shut up! Don’t say a word! Shut up!” And she went, “Okay, okay.” So I kept it up and kept it up and kept it up until I finally heard, “Cut!” I have no way of knowing for sure, but I have a feeling that David—because he knows everything or somebody must’ve seen the blood on the rope—had realized what I had done, and I think maybe that meant something. 

It certainly shows your commitment…

The commitment! [laughs] I don’t know what inspired Nadine’s jock phase in season two. I’m not a distance runner anymore—I walk a lot—but I was for years and years. They saw me running around the set, so by the time Nadine came out of her coma, they had me doing all of this physical stuff. They sent me to Bob Yerkes’ little circus school that he had in Van Nuys so I could learn how to do stunts, and that was really fun. When she awakened from her coma, Nadine thought she was 18, but I interpreted it like she was 10, and I played her like she was this irritating, bouncing puppy. She was full of energy because this was the first time she had joy in her life. This season of joyfulness she got to experience was a gift for all the pain that she had endured. Of course, she was a pain to everybody else—people would roll their eyes at her—but she was so dear. She meant well, and she just thought everyone was swell. 

Nadine’s transformation reminds me of Dougie in “The Return,” in regards to their childlike nature coupled with godlike strength.

Oh thank you! High praise indeed. [laughs] I love Dougie and his tie and his coffee cup.

What was it like embracing your character’s newfound optimism in “The Return,” which has quite the ripple effect? 

Nadine got her redemption. She earned her redemption, and I loved that. When she was walking up that road, I just pretended that she was Johnny Appleseed.

What is Everett McGill like as a scene partner?

I adore Everett. He basically taught me what to do on camera. I had never been on camera before, and Everett would explain things. He’s very tall, and when we had to do a real close two-shot, they would have to put me on boxes. I didn’t know anything about that, so when the crew would say, “Oh, bring her a pancake and a half apple,” I’d ask Everett, “Are they going to make me eat? I can’t eat before I work!” And he’d say, “No, honey, you just wait, it’s okay, you’re not going to have to eat anything.” [laughs] 

Another thing that confused me was when the crew would give us instructions before saying, “Boom back!” I didn’t know what a boom mic was, so I would ask Everett what “boom back” meant, and he’d reply, “Oh no, honey, you don’t boom, they boom.” He also taught me about eyelines and would explain all of that stuff to me so I could figure out what was going on. But what made it fun was that I was responsible for remembering all of our lines. So when we got together for a scene, he’d say, “Alright, what happens here?”, and I’d tell him what each of our characters were supposed to say and in what order. He was always right in the moment, so we really worked well together. He was perfect.

What continues to make “The People Under the Stairs” so compelling, apart from its entertainment value, is its timeliness, a trait that it shares with another early ’90s horror classic, “Candyman.”

The exploitation of children is a theme that is universal in its relevance. What happens to us when the most innocent, magical, precious part of ourselves is imprisoned and denied? The damage that is done from this violation is what “The People Under the Stairs” explores, and it’s also dealt with in “Dreaming Grand Avenue.” While Wes and I were shooting the film, I asked him, “Where did this idea come from?” He told me that it had been inspired by a newspaper article he had read in a little local Santa Monica paper. He had cut out the story, and it had been sitting in his drawer for twelve years. It detailed the true story of a house in a neighborhood—not a really bad neighborhood, not a great neighborhood—where there had been a robbery. 

Some of the neighbors called the police, so they showed up, but there was no one around. When they entered the house, they saw a room that had been locked from the outside, so they unlocked it. Inside the room, they found two children that no one had ever seen. A couple had lived in that house for years and years, and none of the neighbors had ever seen these children. They didn’t speak any language aside from one only they could understand, and they had never seen the light of day. Wes saved this story until he had the idea for this film. Of course, the film deals with racism as well, and Wes was always dealing with that. And wow—dreams were a big part of his work too. The whole “Nightmare On Elm Street” franchise is built around them.

I consider “The Return” to be one of the greatest cinematic achievements of my lifetime, and I credit it with preserving my sanity during Trump’s first year in office. What made that season especially meaningful for you?

I can answer this in a bunch of different ways. I would have to say, first off, it was a chance to see people that I’ve known and loved forever. It was a big reunion. We did this photo shoot for Entertainment Weekly, so we all came in from wherever we were—not all of us live in LA anymore—and it was just so much fun to see everyone. They all looked so great. It was a way of showing each other that we didn’t dream up this shared experience we had together and that we’re all still here, except those of us who aren’t, and our hearts broke for that. Thank god I got to see Peggy [Lipton] again, and thank goodness we have Catherine [Coulson] on camera. David found a way to put us all there, even Don S. Davis, whose image floats by. Those years of “Twin Peaks” were the most intense of my life and then to come back and see everybody again was such a gift. We sort of picked up where we left off, and it was like that for all of us.

David and Mark created a piece of art that used the passage of time as a character, and in “The Return,” David opened it all up and then he made it cosmic. He truly did. You could talk about it for hours and hours and not begin to encompass what it all meant. It’s too huge. There are so many ways to interpret every image. I think Part 8, the episode involving the atomic bomb, is the most incredible thing that I have ever seen on film, from start to finish. When I am in the presence of David, whether I’m being directed by him or listening to him or watching his work, I’m in good hands and I just take the ride. Right now, he’s doing daily weather reports on his YouTube channel, and I am a faithful viewer of them. Every day, I have to tune into the latest video. Those reports are getting me through this year because as long as there’s David, I feel like it’s going to be okay, regardless of what happens.

I particularly loved his video on August 28th in which he said, “Right now is a great time to be alive, if you love the theatre of the absurd.”

Yes! He chooses his words so carefully, and you take them like they’re a little morsel he’s served up for you. It’s wonderful. He gives you a great gift, and to bring it around, I think Hugh does this too. His gift to an actor is that he makes you feel that he has absolute confidence that you are the perfect person to play this role. You are the only person who could play this particular role, and he has complete confidence that you are going to be able to do for him exactly what he needs to do. When a director can give you that kind of faith, there isn’t anything you won’t do. Your mind opens up and you just soar. He gets the very best from his people by doing that. That’s certainly what David did and that’s how I felt working with Hugh. You know you’re just going to have the best time.  

Music Box Theatre, Elevated Films and NewCity/Chicago Film Project will host the world premiere of “Dreaming Grand Avenue” at 7pm on Wednesday, September 23rd, at the ChiTown Movies Drive-In, 2343 South Throop St., with select cast and crew in attendance. The film will begin its Chicago theatrical and virtual run at the Music Box Theatre and Showplace ICON starting Friday, September 25th. For more information, visit the film’s official site.

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