The City of Absurdity Interviews & Articles
related to the works of David Lynch

Jack Nance Starlog Interview, December 1990
with many thanks to J.D. Lafrance

From atop "Twin Peaks," Jack Nance discovers that some things are even more bizarre than they seem.

by Robert Pegg

Jack Nance finds the whole situation ironic. As a longtime regular in David Lynch films, beginning with Henry, the ultimate goofball in Eraserhead (1977), followed by bad guy Nefud in Dune and psychopathic Paul in Blue Velvet, Nance has made a career out of playing Lynch-created oddballs.

But now, he finds himself in ABC-TV's Lynch-produced series Twin Peaks, playing of all things, probably the only normal guy in the whole town, lumberman Pete Martell.

"That's amazing, isn't it?" deadpans Nance.

"Ya know, people talk about Pete being the nicest, most ordinary guy in town. But to me, he's the maddest sonovabitch in the whole town. Pete is on a whole different level than everyone else, he's just not tuned in. I look at him and I see a crazy man. I think he's the craziest guy on the show!"

And in the next breath, Nance insists that in Eraserhead, Lynch's monumental epic of weirdness, loaf-haired Henry was just an ordinary guy.

"Well, yeah. One of the keys to playing Henry was that Henry was just an ordinary, not a bad kind of guy. But the more ordinary he was, there were some more extraordinary things going on in his world."

That's putting it mildly a mutant baby, a lady who lives in the radiator, the in-laws from hell, all made Henry pale in comparison.

But then, anything might seem normal compared to Nance's cameo creation in Lynch's latest film, Wild at Heart.

"I play Bozey Spool. He's a derelict, dog-loving rocket-scientist who has been drinking too much of his own rocket fuel."

Odd Looks

Nance jokes about his habit of turning up in Lynch films. "I always say, I hope David never discovers that he can make a picture without me because I might never work again."

That's not quite true. Lately, Nance has been preparing for a part in Ken Russell's next film. He has been working with his Blue Velvet co-star Dennis Hopper with some regularity, including the Hopper-directed Colors and the recent Hot Spot. Nance has also perfected his quirky character studies in offbeat films like Hammett and Barfly and genre titles like Ghoulies and The Blob.

But of course, for better or worse, it's as fright-wigged Henry in Eraserhead that Nance will be best remembered. It was back in the early '70s that the Lynch connection was formed when the young director was trying to cast that unusual film. "David and I were introduced by a mutual friend and we really didn't hit it off very well at first," recalls Nance.

"He showed me this little script he had for Eraserhead. It was only a few pages with this weird imagery and not much dialogue and this baby kind of thing."

Nance was uncertain about taking the part until Lynch showed him his short film, The Grandmother about a kid who plants a seed which grows into his grandmother.

"And it was like sitting for half-an-hour in the electric chair. I was just stunned. All of a sudden, those few pages of script that he had shown me with the weird images I could visualize all of that in my brain, and I knew that there was this mad little genius at work here and I really wanted to do the film."

Nance may have had second thoughts if he had known about Henry's distinctive hairstyle. "That kind of evolved," he observes. "I used to look like someone's pet lion and David knew that he wanted me to have this short haircut so it would be like the kid in The Grandmother, which was like a regular boy's haircut in the '50s, shaved around the ears and the back and left this mane on top, and it was Catherine Coulson, who plays the Log Lady on Twin Peaks, who teased it up on the top and front, and Lynch all of a sudden says, 'Wow, oh beautiful! Tease it up more and leave it like that.' He thought it was great. And so, suddenly, I had this haircut and Lynch says to me, 'You know, one of these days, guys are going to be wearing their hair like that.' And I'm thinking, 'Oh man, what have I done? What have I gotten into here? Why am I doing this?'

"Many people think that Henry was some real guy that Lynch got to put in the picture. I've met people who have said, 'Oh, you're Henry. Well, I was expecting the hair.' They actually expected to meet Henry. People tell me to take it as a compliment, but I don't know. I think that's why no one ever writes about the performance in the film. They only talk about the imagery and I guess it's because they figure it wasn't a performance, it was a real guy."

Throughout Eraserhead, Nance walks around as if in a dream. His facial expression is a constant flinching, as if he's about to be punched in the face. "Well, I spent years on the stage and had to do things very big and broad.

"But Eraserhead was the first real intense kind of thing I had ever done before the cameras and Lynch had to really bring me down a lot and he still does. To this day, he's always saying, 'Jack, you're working overtime again.'

"So, he really had to bring me down and fix those moments and when it was just right, he would shoot; that's the way he works. And watching it now, to me, it's very intense and exciting. There's something going on or about to happen that's very, very disturbing and you don't know what it is, and so, Henry goes around with this puzzled, bewildered look on his face."

Other directors have used Nance for the reaction shots Lynch exploited in Eraserhead. In his short cameo in The Blob (1988), as the doctor, Nance walks into the scene, pulls off the blanket covering the Blob's first victim and then gives a horrified gasp, "What is this?!" His expression and delivery is an exact mirror of a similar, but more hilarious scene in Eraserhead when he looks over at his mutant child now covered in open sores and exclaims, "Oh, you are sick!"

Nance calls it sheer coincidence. "I don't think the producers cast me just because of that one scene. They aren't that imaginative. Actually, that wasn't even the part I auditioned for. I was supposed to be the old man who first discovers the Blob.

"But The Blob was just fun to do. It was interesting to do because it was a remake of one of my favourite old movies. All those old movies like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Them!, The Thing, they're my favourites. The Howard Hawks version of The Thing, to me, was the scariest of the science fiction movies and the best of that whole genre. I saw it recently, colorized, and now it's not scary.

"All those pictures are some of my favourite movies, and they've remade almost all of them and they aren't nearly as suspenseful as the originals. But I thought the remake of The Blob was well done and I really got along well with Chuck Russell, who directed it."

Strange Sights

Nance's next project with Lynch was Dune. Originally, his character Nefud was killed off, but in the resultant mess of a movie, he just sort of disappears. "In the stuff that we shot, Nefud and some other Harkonnens are captured by these generals led by Jose Ferrer. Nefud is taken and put in this machine and ends up on a table screaming while the generals stand around laughing about it. We don't see that in the finished film."

About all audiences do see of Nance is Lynch using him to show his discomfort at being in the same room with the floating, corrupt human pustule played by Kenneth McMillan.

"The only problem I had with Dune was that it was doomed," Nance laughs today. "I had a hell of a time trying to read the book and the same kind of problem trying to watch the movie. I say that I played a doorstop in Dune because I remember standing around a lot. I was down there for months.

"What was impressive to me about Dune was that it was the first time that Lynch and I had worked together since Eraserhead, and so, we went from spending all those years of working on this backyard movie, then the very next time we work, we've got this gigantic multi-million-dollar movie studio at our command and that was really remarkable. We had an absolute ball sometimes just walking around the place and looking at all these thousands of people building these beautiful sets. It was incredibly exciting; such beautiful stuff and it was so big.

"I thought Lynch's script was just great. It read so beautifully. It was so tight and well-paced and told the story. Unfortunately, the final edit was taken away from him and you don't really know what's going on in the final film. There were armies of studio guys down there looking over David's shoulder all the time, and David doesn't work that way. He was under a lot pressure. I don't know what the politics behind it were, but I do know that David doesn't like to talk about Dune and we don't.

"To sum it all up: It was a great picture to do; I just wish it had never been released."

Still, Nance remarks, "One good thing that came out of it was that it was the first time Lynch had put Brad Dourif and myself together. For some reason, David had this real fixation about Brad and myself the first time he got us both in the same frame together. It was a real kick because we were so diametrically opposed."

The next time Lynch, Nance and Dourif teamed up was in 1986 in Blue Velvet, where Nance and Dourif appeared as psychopaths-in-training, studying under the master, Frank, played by Dennis Hopper. Nance says his character, Paul, "was a pretty sick character. But that might be because I was a pretty sick character at the time, too." He then breaks up into that wheezing, abrupt laugh that has punctuated his conversation.

He turns serious when talking about Lynch and the personal approach to filmmaking which has endeared the director to his growing stable of actors. After a 20-year association, Lynch is still using the personal approach and Nance cites as an example the scene where his character discovers the dead, nude body of Laura Palmer wrapped in plastic in the initial installment of Twin Peaks.

"There's a moment when the cameras are rolling and before the director has called 'action' that you're waiting. You're not yet committed to the scene and you're waiting for the cue and you're in a very vulnerable kind of moment. It's an intense pressure and concentration.

"And David will use that moment and start talking to you and give you verbal cues to the scene like 'wrapped in plastic' and you'll be reacting to what he's saying and do it on the spot. He has caught you, caught you unawares. It's really neat and it's really personal, a kind of intimate thing."

Needless to say, the two are friends and not surprisingly, they're even fishing buddies. "We don't socialize or run around. We were never drinking partners or whatever. But still, we're close personal friends.

"Lynch is an ordinary, smalltown guy and he just sees strange things in people. We've all got strange things about us and Lynch picks those things up.

"I guess we look at Henry or Paul in Blue Velvet and they're strange characters. And now comes Pete Martell in Twin Peaks and he's just a nice guy.

"With Pete, I guess in creating that character, David drew much of that from life. I mean, much of that is me. That's why Pete surprised me when I first saw him that he was that weird, off in his own world. I mean, I said, 'My God, you mean that's just me being myself? God Almighty, I must need some therapy, man!' Strange guy."

Jack Nance might be onto something there because much to his credit, Pete Martell seems to be the only one in Twin Peaks or anywhere else who doesn't care who killed Laura Palmer.

Related Interviews page | Eraserehead page | back to main page
© Mike Hartmann