We tend to miss a lot of things, overlooking the simple miracle of those little moments of fluttering chance that change everything forever. Even worse, we leave friends unmet, and conversations that may transform us are left unspoken.
This is of more than little concern to Grace Zabriskie.
She has been a visual artist, writer and actor all of her life. Appearing in over 80 movies, she is most widely known for bringing depth to eccentric characters, most recently as Lois on the HBO series “Big Love”. Her 2010 poetry anthology, simply titled “Poems”, has received unprecedented reviews for a book of limited distribution. Zabriskie sculpts from wood and designs boxes, all with intricate patterns that seem surprising in their detail.
“From the age of three I knew I would do all these things,” Zabriskie said in a telephone interview with the IN. “And I would do them as a passionate amateur because only in that way would I be truly free.”
Although originally from New Orleans, where art is innate and part of the brickwork, Zabriskie always saw herself professionally as a teacher. Her grandparents and most of her aunts and uncles were teachers, and it was expected that she would follow in their footsteps. “Our main job in life is to find our teachers, and they are rarely those that are presented to us as such,” she said. “Maybe they are someone shabby next to us on the bus–becoming what we should be…is to always know that your next teacher can be right there.”
Perhaps, the most telling lesson of the sum of her experience is that we do need to notice instruction, whether it comes from a person or a moment. Small things can make huge differences in art and in life when we are taught to recognize them.
Zabriskie has spent her acting career playing the sort of characters who haunt dreams, but nowhere has she seemed more at home than in the work of David Lynch. Lynch had directed “Blue Velvet”, and his surrealist style of filmmaking had already developed a cult following in 1990 when he cast her as Sarah Palmer, the hysterical mother of the murdered Laura Palmer in the television series “Twin Peaks”.
She shared how subtle nuances could be everything to the director. “David Lynch can walk into a room where he is to begin shooting and something will be wrong—99 other directors would say, ‘Fix that light! That fluorescent light that is flickering!’ but he will see it as a feature for the scene and make sure that it keeps doing that.”
“Twin Peaks”, when it debuted as a mid-season replacement series, enthralled Lynch fans and other artsy, enlightened types. All too soon, the masses tuned in and, assuming the show was a whodunit, grew confused and angry because they wanted the mystery solved.
The point was never who killed Laura Palmer. “Oh Pleeeease!” Zabriskie said. “That was a plot point!”
“We did half a season and that was an amazing thing,” she said. “But the ones he directed… he took a half a day longer, and well, that’s more expensive.” TV executives hired other directors and writers to save money and move the plot along.
Zabriskie had her battles with the procession of new directors. “I remember being Laura’s mom and walking to her grave. I am between my husband and Ben Horn. They are holding me on either elbow and I am drugged or drunk and can barely walk. I say to the director, “I need a cigarette!”, because the image of her…barely able to walk…devastated by her daughter’s death…but she’s still got that cigarette and how I would handle that, being held up by two people. The director’s reaction was “oh, maybe that would be a little too much.” Two hundred more of those moments…that’s what happened to the series.”
Her other famous Lynch character came from an accent–Juana in “Wild at Heart”.
“I had done a play in New Orleans called ‘The Great Big Doorstep’, and it was about Mama Crochet…” Zabriskie launches into the Mama Crochet accent that any David Lynch fan will recognize at Juana.“It was Mama Crochet and her daughter Topal and they name her Topal because Mama can’t decide between Topaz and Opal…it was an actual thing that happened to me on stage. That is when he conceived Juana.”
Lynch went back to that accent to form the character of Juana, the sadistic hit woman who kills Harry Dean Stanton in the film “Wild at Heart”. Originally, the scene included an 11-page monologue in which Juana slowly and deliberately stalks up and down with that cane and psychologically tortures Stanton to death. Test audiences were shocked.
“Apparently people complained of something wrong with their heart, or they left, they couldn’t take it,” said Grace. The result was that all but a small portion of the scene was removed.
As the interview ended, she left to work on her part for the Tennessee Williams Literary Festival in New Orleans. They gave her a monologue to read. The monologue bothered her, however, and when she went back and looked at it she realized, “They have patched together a monologue of six different speeches…It won’t read right… it’s never going to.”
Recognizing these things, across many mediums, is part of what Zabriskie, as a teacher, seeks to impart. Tennessee Williams, like all great writers, had a sense of meter and a flow of language and place, just as David Lynch might realize that the way the light flickers against a wall is important.
Zabriskie will be visiting the University of West Florida the week of March 28-April 3 to conduct workshop sessions with students of all her disciplines: theatre, art and literature. She also will make a public appearance in “Amazing Grace Zabriskie: A Life of Arts” on Sunday, April 3 at 7:30 p.m. on the main stage in the Center for Fine and Performing Arts. The presentation will be followed by a reception and book signing.
‘AMAZING GRACE ZABRISKIE’: A LIFE OF ARTS’
WHEN: 7:o0 p.m. Sunday, April 3
WHERE: University of West Florida, Center for Fine and Performing Arts, Mainstage Theatre
DETAILS: uwf.edu/cas/ or firstname.lastname@example.org