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Naomi Watts and Laura Harring
Naomi Watts and Laura Harring in Mulholland Drive

The star of Mulholland Drive on Lynch and that gay sex scene

We talk to Laura Harring about the director’s genius, how nervous she was before kissing Naomi Watts and why she turned down the new Twin Peaks

In 1999, ABC shot a two-hour TV pilot called Mulholland Drive. It was to be David Lynch’s weird, wonderful comeback to the small screen. Laura Harring and Naomi Watts were the stars. A car crash survivor stumbles into Hollywood with a blue key, a bag of money, and a blank memory. Among the mysteries are a clumsy assassin, Billy Ray as a pool cleaner, and some kind of garbage monster. Who wouldn’t watch 20 more episodes at least?

Not the executives at ABC who cancelled the project, blaming the unusual tempo, the incomprehensible storylines and everything else they should have expected from Lynch. Much of that discarded footage remains in the Mulholland Drive we know today; a studio stepped in and, thankfully, it was expanded into a standalone feature. The BBC named it the best film of the 21st century so far, and it’s returning to cinemas in a 4K resolution restoration overseen by Lynch himself. That’s quite a ride for a rejected TV show.

Mulholland Drive, for the uninitiated, is a bit of a mindfuck, and that doesn’t alter after multiple viewings. On a purely aesthetic level it’s unbeatable, and the deeper meanings one unravels is a bonus. In one elusive package, it collates Lynch’s pet themes (dreams within dreams, shifting personalities) and recurring images (burning fires, miming with a microphone). It’s a fairytale and nightmare colliding amidst a puff of smoke.

“Stop thinking,” Laura Harring instructs me. “Slow down your breathing.” The actor is teaching me how to play Rita, the film’s co-lead and unfortunate amnesiac. “For the next ten seconds, just focus on the sounds of the room. All your attention goes to listening. Three, two, one… go!” When I do it, bystanders wonder why someone in this café has such a dopey expression.

Rita is introduced as a question mark. She’s rescued, physically and emotionally, by wannabe actress Betty, as played by Naomi Watts, and the pair form a detective duo. Along with the Vertigo riff, a subplot features Justin Theroux as a tortured filmmaker. In what’s more a threat than a recommendation, he’s handed a photograph and repeatedly told: “This is the girl…”

In a way, that’s how Harring was cast for Mulholland Drive, except Lynch called all the shots. He saw an image and knew straight away. “I did a black-and-white photoshoot,” Harring recalls. “I was in jeans. Very casual. But I think there was a look in my eyes that was very mysterious, maybe a touch melancholic.” The casting director, Johanna Ray, passed the pictures to Lynch. “He put a finger on it and said, ‘I want to see her right now.’”

“I did a black-and-white photoshoot. I was in jeans. Very casual. But I think there was a look in my eyes that was very mysterious, maybe a touch melancholic” – Laura Harring

It was January 1999 when Harring received a phone call: “David Lynch wants to meet you, and he wants to meet you now. Can you go by his office?” Stunned by the short notice, Harring drove to the audition with a distracted mind and, like Rita, was involved in a car accident. “I thought that was the strangest thing,” she says of the parallel. “It’s a great induction to the David Lynch world. Everything’s synchronistic, the way it’s supposed to be in a magical world of peace, love and art.”

The audition wasn’t really an audition. “He just kept looking at me and saying to himself, ‘Good. Good. Good. Good.’” It was like he was imagining me in the movie.” They bonded over Transcendental Meditation, and that was that. “He never saw another person. He never opened that role up.”

Nevertheless, Harring didn’t hear back for a while, and in the meantime she fell in love with the script. “I imagined everything. I got goosebumps. I had teary eyes. It was so beautiful.” Eventually, the truth came out: Lynch assumed her silence signalled a lack of interest. “It was so cute he thought I’d call,” she laughs. “I wanted to jump up and down.”

Now, here’s what I’m dying to know: if the Mulholland Drive pilot was picked up, what would be the series arc? “The reason Twin Peaks became a phenomenon,” she explains, “is because of the question of who killed Laura Palmer. So throughout the season or two, everyone would be wondering: who is this character who has amnesia? That’s why there’s the red phone, the mail, ‘Find her’ and all these people looking for her. So it’s a whole mystery about my character’s past. But that’s about as far as I know.”

“Even though I was nervous, he does everything with class. He knows how to get people to react – and without any special effects. That’s true artistry” – Laura Harring

When ABC turned down Mulholland Drive, Harring received a phone call from Lynch. The pilot was, as he put it, “dead in the water”. Months later, Lynch announced it would be an international feature film. Harring remembers the moment. “He quickly said, ‘And there’s gonna be nudity.’ He took out his hand to shake, and I shook his hand. I was like, ‘Oh no!’” It wasn’t an issue, she’s quick to add. “You trust a master filmmaker like David. Even though I was nervous, he does everything with class. He knows how to get people to react – and without any special effects. That’s true artistry.”

The new material included a sex sequence between Harring and Watts. Lynch likely knew it would never make it past TV censors, but for cinema release, anything goes. “The love scene wasn’t easy,” Harring admits. “Naomi was wonderful and we were comfortable with each other. But it was the vulnerability of being undressed. I wasn’t coming out of my dressing room. I was so worried.”

To calm her nerves, Lynch promised Harring the bedroom would be dark. “He showed me how it would be lit, and I really relaxed. And then on the last take, he said, ‘Pump it up, Pete!’ referring to the light. Still, David kept his word. When I enter and disrobe, it’s still in silhouette, which is what he promised.”

As you’d imagine, Lynch’s on-set guidelines are poetic. His command to Harring following the car accident: “Walk like a broken doll, Laura.” When she’s in a daze: “You don’t remember anything, but there’s always a dark cloud hovering around, and it’s very eerie.” When she’s Camilla: “Walk like a kitty cat, Laura.”

“Naomi was wonderful and we were comfortable with each other. But it was the vulnerability of being undressed. I wasn’t coming out of my dressing room. I was so worried” – Laura Harring

The Club Silencio scene formed part of the reshoots. Betty and Rita visit a theatre reminiscent of the Red Room from Twin Peaks. A Spanish singer mimes to Roy Orbison. The crowd are mesmerised. But look closer. Sat to the pair’s left is Laura Palmer, or an intended doppelganger. So, Laura’s still trapped in the Black Lodge? Harring is unsure if it’s even her. “People have started to ask me that. They never did before. I have to check it out. It’s a whole new conspiracy theory.”

OK, even if it’s not Laura Palmer, other clues connect Mulholland Drive to the world of Twin Peaks. In fact, Sherilyn Fenn confirmed on Twitter that in 1990, between seasons one and two, Lynch pitched her Mulholland Drive as an Audrey Horne spinoff.

While fellow cast members Naomi Watts, Patrick Fischler, Robert Forster, Brent Briscoe and Bonnie Aarons (the terrifying hobo) are in the upcoming season of Twin Peaks, Harring’s name is noticeably absent. “My agent didn’t want me to be one of the 200 cameos,” she explains. Instead, her agent held out for a more substantial role that didn’t materialise. She’ll still be watching, though. “Whether there’s 300, 400, 500 cameos, anything David touches is cinematic. The original Twin Peaks ending, with the old man, was hysterical.”

So, why has Mulholland Drive endured over these years? It’s the multiple meanings, Harring believes. After all, dummies like me after still speculating over an extra with a vague resemblance to Laura Palmer. “I saw it five or six times when we were travelling to festivals,” she says. “I kept having different interpretations. It could be Rita’s dream or it could be Betty’s dream. And it’s about the disillusionment of Hollywood. It touches the core of what it is to be human, and the truth about love. And maybe we’re not sure what reality is. Maybe we’re dreaming, and that’s reality.”

Ultimately, the images, the music, the ideas, it all buries its way into your brain, into your subconscious, and leaves you wondering: “What the hell just happened? And why can’t I shake it off?” A monstrous hobo’s mouldy face can’t be forgotten, and neither can Harring’s transformation into Rita, then Camilla. The film was plunged into development hell, even before it was a film, and it somehow survived, perhaps due to the collective positivity of a set hypnotised by Lynch’s aura. Could that faith in a director be the secret ingredient?

“There was a lot of camaraderie,” Harring concludes. “It was a creative community. Just a lot of love flowing, from all the actors and crew. A platonic, beautiful, pure love. No hanky panky. No one got frisky. It was just pure love. And that’s what made the movie so magical.”

Mulholland Drive is in cinemas 14 April, and on DVD, Blu-ray & EST 22 May