Having starred in Grace Under Fire, E.R., Moonlighting, L.A. Law and The A-Team to name but a few, Walter Olkewicz is no stranger to successful and influential TV. But to Twin Peaks viewers, it is his role as Canadian drug trafficker and Roadhouse barman Jacques Renault that he is most noted for. With the release of the new 'Complete Mystery’ DVD set, the Twin Peaks Archive thought it was time to have a chat with The Great Went…
TPA: How did you first get into acting?
WO: Well I was actually an actor ever since I started performing in church plays way back, then in high school. After high school that I did some improv theatre in Colorado State and was part of an improv comedy group.
TPA: One of your first film roles was Steven Speilberg’s ‘1941’. What was it like landing a role in a major production like that?
WO: Well that was very interesting because I was on the staff writing. When Spielberg had everybody recorded on videotape, he took them home to watch them and hired me. I was hired for one day, with one line. But he liked me and we had some fun so the day I was supposed to work became ten days – and then 28 days. I was part of the tank brigade with Dan Ackroyd, John Belushi and John Candy - that was great.
TPA: How did you meet Chris Mulkey?
WO: Well, I studied with Chris and we took acting class together. When we met at the audition for Grace Under Fire, Chris was in before me and said ‘This part, Walter would be great in it’ even though he was testing for it. I went into read for the part and I wound up getting it. That’s the kind of guy Chris is. I’ve been watching his new show, Friday Night Lights.
TPA: How did you get the part of Jacques Renault in Twin Peaks?
WO: Well, I just got a call from my agents about the character and had an audition. When I got the part I called my agent to see if I could get a dialect coach, because I don’t know much about the Canadian accent. I got a callback and they said, ‘No, whatever you did in your audition was great.’ So I told them, ‘But the accent I did was Pepe LePew!’ And they said, ‘Okay, okay, we’ll see about a coach.’
TPA: You have starred in some of the most popular and iconic television shows of all time. Was Twin Peaks just another program? Were you surprised at the initial ratings success and hoopla surrounding the show?
WO: I wasn’t really surprised because the writing and the characters were so good. And of course I saw the pilot before I did it, and I thought it was great.
TPA: Early in the series it looked as if your character might be the killer. Did you ever think Jacques might have killed Laura?
WO: Sure. They never told us who did it or any of those things. In fact I remember there was some radio show which ran a Laura Palmer contest for their listeners and they voted Jacques as the killer.
TPA: Did you know your character would be killed off when you took the part?
WO: No, I didn’t know. In fact I didn’t even meet David Lynch until afterwards, because he didn’t direct any of the episodes I was in – that was Mark Frost and Caleb Deschanel. And I met David at the wrap party for the first time. We were talking about the show and David was talking about having Jacques back. And I said, ‘Well, that’s gonna be difficult – he got killed at the end of the season.’ David said, ‘Bullshit! I can do whatever I want – we can have flashbacks, we can have dream sequences, I’ll find a way to bring Jacques back.’ And sure enough, he did when came to do Fire Walk With Me.
TPA: The tone and mood of FWWM was much darker than the series. In particular, was it hard to film the scene at the end in the cabin with Laura, Leo and Ronette?
WO: I remember being in the cabin rehearsing… Well, we actually weren’t rehearsing – David was talking to us about cars to get us relaxed and get the atmosphere. I remember him taking great care to get the atmosphere – it was powerful. In that scene he smeared the lipstick to give the impression we’d been kissing for a long time. What I remember most is how much David took care of the actors. There’s one scene where I’m outside the cabin, Ray Wise has just hit me with a bottle and I’m lying there covered in blood. For hours, I’m just the guy lying outside in the mud, but every scene David yelled ‘Cut! Someone take care of Walter, make sure Walter’s ok’. After every take, he’s got the whole thing to think about and he wanted to make sure I wasn’t freezing in those temperatures.
TPA: Then there’s the Partyland scene…
WO:(laughs) I’m as blank as a fart!
TPA: Did Lynch give you any idea of the meaning behind lines like that or ‘I am The Great Went’?
WO: I asked David what it meant. He told me ‘It means whatever you want it to mean.’
TPA: Was much of that scene improvised or ad-libbed during filming or did it follow the script?
WO: Yeah, there was a script. In rehearsal we got to improvise, and if David liked it he kept it, but there was a script.
TPA: When the film was first shown in Cannes, it didn’t get a good response.
WO: Oh it didn’t! I was there with David, my fiancé at the time, James Marshall and his wife. People booed – it was horrible! There were some people at the front who were into it and when they applauded, other people in the audience booed.
TPA: Had you expected that reaction?
WO: No. Jamie Lee Curtis was on the panel, and I know her through her husband Chris Guest, and afterwards she said to me ‘Well, you haven’t won.’ But David loved it and there were some great parties in Cannes. The Hollywood parties you hear about where you need a police escort marshaling you through the crowd. And I remember David being asked in an interview about my part, and he said, ‘Well, we had a little midget to play Jacques, but he wanted too much money so we settled for Walter.’ He’s got a very mid-western humour. On another show he was asked what he was doing after Twin Peaks and he told them he was shooting a movie about tooth enamel!
TPA: Any interesting fan interactions around the time of Twin Peaks?
WO: Yeah. It was quite an event in America. People set aside that period to watch it and had Twin Peaks parties. My theory is that’s why the ratings weren’t great. Most people didn’t watch Twin Peaks all alone, they watched with 25 people. But that only registered as one person watching it.
TPA: Did you keep any props or costumes? Did you take any photos on the set of the series or FWWM?
WO: I’ve still got a copy of the script in a box somewhere but, no, I didn’t take any costumes.
TPA: Have you ever attended the annual Twin Peaks festival in Washington?
WO: I went 2 or 3 times. Actually, one the guys, Josh Eisenstadt, took one of my acting classes. I had my own theatre then and he came to my class, so that’s how I got involved with the festival. The festivals are great - the last one I went to was when they started running Twin Peaks again on cable so there was a whole new audience.
TPA: The complete series has finally been released on DVD.
WO: Really? I didn’t know that.
TPA: Yeah, ‘The Complete Mystery’ box set. What are your thoughts on Twin Peaks after all these years?
WO: Every time I see it there’s something I hadn’t seen before or an actor I didn’t know was in it. Like I was watching it the other night and I went ‘There’s Jed Mills!’ (Hank Jennings’ parole officer Wilson Mooney). I didn’t know Jed was in it. And there’s some great scenes in the film, like when Ray Wise is in the car and everyone’s screaming – that’s just amazing from a directing point of view.
TPA: Since Twin Peaks, have you followed Lynch’s other work?
WO: Yeah, mostly. There’s some I like better than others. The one I really like – the one everyone likes – is Blue Velvet.
TPA: His latest film, Inland Empire, seems to have left a lot of people baffled – have you seen it yet?
WO: I haven’t seen it yet, but it’s like when FWWM came out I remember telling people who didn’t get it ‘you gotta watch this 4 or 5 times to understand all that’s going on.’
TPA: Can you tell us what you’re up to these days?
WO: Well, I’ve had some surgery, so mainly I’ve been writing for theatre and scenes for actors. I’ve had nine operations on my knee as it keeps getting infected, and been in a wheelchair for the past two or three years. There’s still some recovery but it looks like in 2008 I’ll be walking and running and back up and ready. In a way it’s been a kind of a blessing.
Thanks to Walter for a great interview, and Twin Peaks Archive wishes him a full recovery and looks forward to seeing him back on the screen. Interview conducted by Graeme Larmour exclusively for Twin Peaks Archive.