|Chrysta Bell photographed at Hotel Providence in Paris this month. Photograph: Ed Alcock for the Observer New Review|
Chrysta Bell: ‘David Lynch is my mentor in art, music and life’
The singer and actor, on the eve of a UK tour, discusses the Twin Peaks reboot and her long history of collaborations with the director
Sun 25 Marc 2018
n 10 June 1991, in the chilling finale of the second season of Twin Peaks, Laura Palmer – or someone who looked like her – tells special agent Dale Cooper: “I’ll see you again in 25 years.” As promised, a quarter of a century later, the show written by David Lynch and Mark Frost returned with a boundary-pushing third season. It launched a thousand thinkpieces and fan theories; controversially, it was ranked second in Sight & Sound’s best films of 2017 list. At the heart of the show was new character Tammy Preston, an impossibly glamorous FBI agent played by relative unknown Chrysta Bell.
The musician and sometime actor has often been referred to as David Lynch’s muse: one of her songs appeared in his 2006 film Inland Empire, and since then they have recorded an album and an EP together. She has been making music in various guises for 20 years, and in 2017 released her first solo album, We Dissolve, produced by PJ Harvey collaborator John Parish. She goes by her full first name, Chrysta Bell, a southern-inspired spelling of Christabel, the Samuel Taylor Coleridge poem she was named after (fittingly, it deals with mysterious women and the supernatural).
When we meet at a hotel in Paris, she has just released a self-titled EP – a wistful, languid affair full of water imagery and symbolism – and is about to perform at the Philharmonie de Paris with French singer Christophe (think a more bedraggled Johnny Hallyday). She has flown in from the States the night before but bursts into the room full of energy, immaculately turned out in a 40s-style dress. While on screen she emanates a cool gothic beauty – “I thought she was like an alien, the most beautiful alien ever,” Lynch said of first seeing her perform – in person she has the air of a southern belle: unfailingly polite, warm and upbeat, with the sort of posture that makes you immediately sit upright.
Chrysta Bell first met David Lynch in 1999, introduced by an agent who thought they’d get along. They hit it off right away, talked for hours, and wrote a song together that day. “Before you meet David, he’s this icon, it’s kind of impossible to believe he actually exists. Then you see him, and he’s real,” she recalls. “We figured out that day we’re complementary as artists and as friends. Everyone was really happy.” They started making music together – he’d write the lyrics and she the melodies – resulting in their haunting, dreamy 2011 album This Train. “It became a regular thing: I’d come to the studio and we’d make music we both loved and we’d have coffee – a lot of coffee.” She laughs. “Man can drink coffee.”
On one level, it may seem obvious why the director was initially drawn to her – with her waist-length dark hair and femme fatale red lips, she looks like she’s been beamed in from the David Lynchcinematic universe – but it’s more than that: they have a compatible artistic sensibility and a shared interest in mysticism and spirituality. In the studio, she says, “we’d have these great conversations – we have similar intrigues: esoteric subjects, the great unknown”. She’s partial to digressions about the imagination and destiny, but it’s hard to be cynical about it: there’s enthusiasm and openness in everything she says, and a beguiling lack of irony or malice. When she uses phrases such as “cosmic beyondness”, she apologises with a little smile.
The day before the interview, I send an email to Lynch via his assistant, asking for a couple of quotes explaining what he admires about Chrysta Bell’s work. This is the reply: “David loves Chrysta Bell. Here’s what he has to say about her: ‘Chrysta Bell is round and fully packed, and what comes out of her reminds me of a light blue songbird with extended wings, and a shining beak.’” I read this out to her; “Wow, that’s really sweet,” she replies, and wells up.
Chrysta Bell Zucht was born in San Antonio, Texas, in 1978. It was “as good a place as any to grow up: there were a lot of trees, beautiful architecture. It was clean, safe,” she muses, “but not, you know, highly charged with artistry.” After school she moved to the more culturally vibrant Austin, and became the lead singer of swing revival band 8½ Souvenirs (named after the Fellini film and a Django Reinhardt song), with whom she recorded two albums. She now lives in Oakland, California, but has developed a newfound appreciation for Texas, its Latin culture, and – especially compared to Bristol, where she recorded her last album – its expanses of “massive, infinite” sky.
As she gets older, she says, she has started to realise what an unusual upbringing she had: she was raised by “a group of odd and eccentric parental beings who were very special and encouraging”. Her mother was a singer, her “highly psychic” stepfather a composer, producer and engineer; together they ran a recording studio. Her father was, variously: a hot air balloon pilot, a dentist, a real estate entrepreneur, president of the local Bachelors’ Club, a collector of old cars, manager of a bed and breakfast, and chairman of the board of the Texas Transportation Museum. When he died, he left her, as a business, a natural burial cemetery.
“When it happened, he said: ‘Darling, this is going to be our legacy as a family,’ and I was like, ‘What are you talking about?’” But, in time, she started to recognise the significance of the burial ground, which is now a big part of her life. She is a proponent of the ‘death-positivity movement’, which attempts to change the way death is perceived in western societies. “It’s about relieving some of the anxiety people have around death by bringing it to the conversation with a more relaxed tone. Nature has it figured out: our culture has put up a big wall around this thing that’s going to happen to everybody, and I think that has created much more resistance to it than is necessary.” She is attempting to find a way to combine this with her music: “Maybe I can bring the two together somehow. We’ll see.”
For years, Chrysta Bell’s collaborations with Lynch were confined to music. Then, while they were working on their 2016 EP Somewhere in the Nowhere, he floated the idea that there may be a role for her in his next project, although he didn’t say much more than that. When he told her it was Twin Peaks, she was incredulous: “I had no, no idea he’d ask me to be a part of it. I felt like, in the scope of what David has to offer as an individual, I’d received so much, and felt so fulfilled. I wasn’t expecting more.” She hesitated – this would be her first screen role since starring as Jet Li’s love interest in 1997’s Once Upon a Time in China and America – but soon gave in, assuming it would be a small part.
What followed was a long process, shrouded in mystery, during which Lynch gave her little teasing hints (“the character is nothing like you, you know, she’s hyper-intelligent and very professional…” she rolls her eyes, “…and then he’d smile”). Then, when she got her script, she found that hers was the eighth biggest role. She offered to get acting lessons, but Lynch said no, he didn’t want to have to un-teach her everything she’d learn. She felt a lot of pressure to get it right for the fans who had waited so long, but was excited to find she had so much screen time with Miguel Ferrer as Albert Rosenfield, Lynch as Gordon Cole, and the enigmatic Diane, who was later revealed to be Laura Dern.
On set, the sense of mystery continued. No cast member was given the full script except Kyle MacLachlan. One long, nearly silent scene in which Gordon Cole has a puff from Diane’s cigarette, with Tammy Preston looking on, was improvised. For someone who hadn’t acted in 20 years it could feel quite intimidating, but fortunately co-star Miguel Ferrer provided support. “He was really gracious – if I was wandering aimlessly he’d say: ‘Chrysta Bell, we can break now, you can go back to your trailer.’ If he had an opportunity to give me an ‘Atta girl, you’re doing great!’ he always took it.”
In January last year, Ferrer died aged 61. At the end of filming he’d told Chrysta Bell he had cancer, but she misunderstood, thinking he meant he’d overcome it. “So I said: ‘Oh how wonderful, you look so great and vibrant and now you can conquer anything.’ He didn’t correct me, because why would you? I only heard what I wanted to hear.” She takes a moment to compose herself. “I want to talk about him, but I haven’t worked out how to not blubber through it. He would tell these remarkable stories about the early days of Hollywood, of when he played drums in Duke Ellington’s orchestra. But he remained totally humble: he was a true gentleman, just an A-plus human.”
When Twin Peaks: The Return aired last May, Tammy Preston turned out to be a divisive character: while some viewers took her alluring, aloof demeanour as of a piece with the show’s surreal atmosphere, not everyone was impressed with Chrysta Bell’s acting. The backlash hurt, but led to introspection and eventually acceptance: “I’m a lot less sensitive and tender now. I’m cool with it all.” Because of the negativity, she didn’t explore the myriad online fan theories: a brief clip of her walking towards a door led to fervent discussions about space and time glitches; there was speculation about why Tammy’s initials are the same as Twin Peaks. One particularly compelling theory suggests that the two final episodes are designed to be watched simultaneously. “Wow! I will have to do that now,” she says. “Even if that wasn’t the intention I believe David is so connected, so in tune with other realms, that it would work, despite him.”
She has plenty of theories of her own, but she’s not likely to discuss any of them with Lynch. “No! No! He’d be the last person. With him it’s like: ‘Look, I gave it to you for you to figure out and have your own personal experience with it.’ I think he’d feel his ideas and thoughts might stifle my own process of discovery. I don’t know that he knows what happened to everybody – maybe he does – but it’s not about answering all the questions. I think that’s such a big, fun part of it: the choose-your-own-adventure part of Twin Peaks. Or choose your own cosmic reality.”
After the show finished, she went to visit Lynch at his workshop and found him making a desk, surrounded by power tools. “It was the perfect thing to do after this huge expansive production: bringing it in, making a functional desk that would hold his pencils, his glasses, his coffee cup.” She admires his ability to make space for work of various kinds: if he’s painting he’s not afraid to tell her he can’t talk, despite how close they are. I ask how she feels about being referred to as his muse. “I mean, I think it’s romantic, but I think it’s more accurate to call us collaborators, and to be considered his protege on some level. He’s certainly a mentor for me, not just about art or music but about life.”
Lynch is famous for creating complex, captivating female characters, and The Return is no exception: Tammy is a capable, high-ranking FBI agent, Naomi Watts’s Janey-E is spirited and moving, and Dern is exceptional in the role of Diane. Nevertheless, there was some criticism online about the portrayal of women in the season, including a shot of Tammy walking away while Albert and Gordon look on approvingly.
“I think it’s clear David appreciates and celebrates women,” says Chrysta Bell. “When I’m around him I feel cared for and considered, like he believes I could do anything. I’m always fascinated when people have issues with appreciating the female form – it’s the most beautiful thing in the world! People get so worked up.” The reason why his female characters resonate so much, she thinks, is party down to the people he chooses: “Laura Dern is an amazing human, and she brings that to her characters. There are so many of these women throughout his career.”
Not everyone in Hollywood loves and celebrates women the way Lynch does. When I mention the #MeToo movement, Chrysta Bell’s eyes light up. “I have an 11-year-old stepdaughter and my heart starts beating faster when I think that when she is my age, this could be a distant memory: ‘There was a time when women weren’t paid equally? When women had to deal, on a daily basis, with people treating them as inferior to men? That’s crazy.’” Her Twitter feed shows how politically engaged she is, about gender equality, gun control, the environment, civil rights. But, despite everything that’s wrong with the world, she remains hopeful for the future.
One way she copes with anger and hopelessness is transcendental meditation,which she practises twice daily for 20 minutes (fellow TM fans include Martin Scorsese, Jerry Seinfeld and Oprah Winfrey). Chrysta Bell took it up in 2006 after witnessing its effects on Lynch and his crew. “Everyone was so compassionate and thoughtful and I was like: ‘What’s going on in here?’ I don’t know why it does what it does: it’s the simplest thing and yet really profound. It’s like a secret weapon.” (For what it’s worth, she’s an effective ambassador for it: she radiates warmth and positivity.)
One of her priorities, she says, is making a worthwhile contribution to humanity. One way is with her father’s cemetery in Texas. Another is through art: “I’ve tried so hard to offer someone else the same medicine I’ve been given through music. That’s why I do it, even though sometimes I think it’s pretty ridiculous. Music can provide access to emotions we don’t normally have because we’re in daily routines, always doing something. Then you hear a song that stops you and opens you up.” Twin Peaks falls into this category too: “I truly believe it’s something remarkably special and a gift to humanity.” It may seem like an outlandish statement to make about a TV show, yet there’s something about the devotion Twin Peaks has attracted over 30 years that makes it sound utterly reasonable.
Music continues to be her passion, but she’s open to more acting if the right project comes along (something is in the works, though it’s very hush-hush). She’s fatalistic about the future, but less in an “everything-happens-for-a-reason” way than “let’s see where life takes us”. Whichever cosmic reality we turn out to be in, she’s open to it. “I’m always in discovery mode – if it’s my destiny I feel like it will find me. I think there’s magic in that.”
Chrysta Bell plays London on 6 April, Glasgow on 8 April, and Edinburgh on 9 April. Her EP, Chrysta Bell, is out now on Meta Hari