While Twin Peaks fans may mourn the premature demise of David Lynch & Mark Frost’s series, their third television offering, ‘On The Air’ suffered an even crueller fate, being taken off the schedule after only 3 episodes had been broadcast. With the long-awaited DVD release of the cult comedy classic in the pipeline, Twin Peaks Archive caught up with Nancye Ferguson, who played Ruth Trueworthy, part of the haphazard crew of the fictitious Lester Guy show…
Twin Peaks Archive: Had you always wanted to be an actor?
Nancye Ferguson: When I was a child I was terminally shy, I used to hang out in my mother’s closet and barely went out of the house! I didn’t have any idea about acting at the time, I was much more involved in creating little books and doing drawings and art projects. I never really wanted to perform, in fact my mum used to have me take ballet classes and I refused to take them any more because we would have to do shows. I remember seeing pictures of myself where I was performing but you saw the face of fear on me.
TPA: How did you conquer your shyness?
NF: It’s funny, Richard Burton always said that acting’s a shy man’s revenge, but around high school I started to have a whole other personality come out – I was even a cheerleader (laughs). In college I started doing performance art and once I started performing live I just felt home, so it was later in life I came to it. It’s like going into your fears and loving it.
TPA: Have you any fears left to overcome?
NF: Out of all the emotions in life, fear is one that will come up for me – but not about performing. But there are other things – planes, bad government… I’m horrified and frightened if Obama doesn’t win the election – that’s a big fear!
TPA: How did you first get into ‘showbiz’?
NF: I did my performance art and the entertainment industry sorta found me. I would do plays and casting directors would see me, because in Los Angeles when people do plays all these people in the industry come to see them, so I would get called to auditions. I was self-taught as an actor and I started to realize that when I auditioned my process was not conducive to that audition experience. I started training as an actor, then I fell in love with the training.
TPA: How did the video for Trilobites happen?
NF: I had a band called Visiting Kids. It was myself and three little girls, whose ages were five, six and seven, and we had members of Devo back us up. That was a performance art project that then turned into a band and we did a record for New Rose records. Before I did the record, I wanted to do a music video, which was with Rocky Schenck. We partnered up together and had this incredibly wonderful experience creating this short film/music video and it aired on MTV on The Cutting Edge and a lot of other alternative programs that loved it – Rocky says he still gets work from people who see that video on his reel!
TPA: How did you become involved with On The Air?
NF: I always say that Pamela Skaist discovered me, because she had these photos of my band on her refrigerator and said to her husband ‘You have to get that girl and put her in your movie’. And he was doing a movie called Rockula, which he cast me in. Pamela was the costume designer, and we’ve been friends ever since. Johanna Ray had come to see a screening of that movie and she had kept me in her mind. I sent her a picture resume as she requested, and a couple of years later she tried to find me to audition for David’s show. When I got the call, it was one of those things where I just knew it was the job for me. I was such a big fan of David. I had met him before with my ex-husband Mark Mothersbaugh and we’d been to a screening of Blue Velvet where I got to tell him how much I loved the movie! He’s just an amazing filmmaker, and when I read the script, I’m like ‘Oh my god – that part is my part!’
TPA: What was it like to audition for David Lynch?
NF: I auditioned for his casting director, Johanna Ray, but David doesn’t actually have you audition for him. He just talks to you, because he thinks it’s a very difficult experience – he’s very empathetic to actors. I went in and talked to him. I remember telling him about my experience of Eraserhead when I first saw it in an afterhours theatre – for weeks I couldn’t figure out if it was part of my dreamworld, or what was real or wasn’t real. It just stayed with my in my subconscious (laughs). Then we talked about the part and I told him how I felt about Ruth Trueworthy. Then I got the call and I got the part – one of the most magical days of my life!
TPA: Had Twin Peaks finished when you began working on On The Air?
NF: No, it was still going. I remember when we had to audition for the network, David told us he was very sorry that we had to go into the network and that he couldn’t be there with us because he was still filming. He directed us for the audition, and told us if anybody treats us badly to let him know, because we were his only choice for the roles. It was so great to be able to go to the network for the first time, where you knew you were his only choice. What are the network gonna say? ‘No, David, we don’t think your choice is on!’ (laughs)
TPA: Where was On The Air filmed?
NF: We were deep in the valley for the pilot. David likes an environment that doesn’t have other people around, so we were in a bubble that becomes a world onto itself. Then when we shot the series, we shot it on the CBS lot in Studio City, the same place they were shooting Jerry Seinfeld. It was very interesting because all the Seinfeld writers were saying ‘Oh you guys are doing the cool show.’ Miguel (Ferrer) was the only one who always had an entourage coming to the set, and we had some pretty interesting people visit. Rosemary Clooney came and Ian (Buchanan) told me that George Clooney was down before he was famous, and I told him ‘You got a good look – you’ll do really well!’
TPA: How much involvement did Lynch & Frost have on the set of On The Air?
NF: That’s an interesting question, because we were kinda part of a divorce between David and Mark. I never met Mark Frost. We were so excited about him as well, but he never came to the set. I never heard any bad words spoken, but I think their relationship had come to an end before the filming of On The Air. Mark is more of a writer, so maybe he works on the scripts and then doesn’t participate much in the other aspects. David is a true visionary, so his involvement is with every detail. We would get our make-up put on and David would look at it and approve it. Obviously they’d written an incredible script together for On The Air, but I imagine that after that Mark’s participation wouldn’t be so necessary.
TPA: What was David Lynch like as a director?
NF: He’s such a special director, and such a special human being, that everyone just does their best for him, he just brings it out of you. One of the things he told the cast when we first came together was that each one of us illuminated him on the role. There was a time when Shorty and I were doing a backstage part, David just let us improvise. In the pilot, David wrote the scene where I’m describing how the situation with the dog happened on the spot. You never knew what exciting moment would happen next – it felt like you were always in a part of this wonderful piece of art.
TPA: Did you know any of the cast before filming?
NF: No, I met them all when we started filming and we all became very close. It was just a wonderful family.
TPA: There was an incredible cast…
NF: Everybody was amazingly wonderful. Ian (Buchanan) is just an incredible joy to work with – there were times late at night when we would have to do take after take because we couldn’t get through it with a straight face. Miguel is the best, he’s just one of the nicest guys. Everybody was an incredibly generous actor – we really had a true ensemble. I got to work a lot with David Lander and a few of them I’ve worked with again. It’s funny because once you’re in David’s family it seems like you’re always connected to people who have been in other David Lynch projects. I produced a play that had Russ Tamblyn in it, and now I’m doing a short pilot with Kimmy Robertson. It’s almost like a bloodline. I also worked with Richard Beymer, who is another wonderful human being. We did an improv for a music video and I’ve seen a lot of the film work he’s done. I’m in touch with Johanna Ray and we were both saying that we really need our Richard Beymer fix! I’ve worked with Carel (Struckyen) too. We did a short film recently called ‘The Book’, Carel and I play husband and wife, so it’s interesting how you keep working again with people in the David Lynch family. The people that he chooses to work with are more than actors – they’re so creative as human beings.
TPA: What was it like playing Ruth Trueworthy, who was almost a classic 40’s screwball character?
NF: It was so much fun! There was so much joy playing those parts and being part of something David creates. I remember telling my agent when I got the part ‘I don’t care what they pay me, I’m just so excited to do it’ and he goes ‘Nancye, don’t tell them that!’. The experience was just magical and wonderful the entire time – until we got, y’know, the news that ABC wasn’t behind it. That was devastating.
TPA: How long did the series take to shoot?
NF: The pilot, like with all pilots, is always a bit longer, so that one might have been a two week period, then the actual episodes themselves were done in four days. Those were very long days, because they were all done like short films. The hard part for me was when it wasn’t given a chance. I remember before we shot the first scene, David said ‘Now remember what happened to Cheers’. We were all ready to live in that experience for seven years. There was nothing in me that could believe that On The Air wasn’t going to be the biggest hit. I had total faith in it. Then we were put on Saturday night at 9.30 in the summer, which is the worst time. The summer is the worst time. Nine thirty on a Saturday night is the worst time. And that pretty much buried the show. One of the episodes actually aired on the Fourth of July.
TPA: Some people have speculated that On The Air was Lynch & Frost’s revenge on the network…
NF: I wouldn’t know that personally, but I can’t ever imagine David having the idea of revenge. They were starting to fuss with Twin Peaks and putting it on at different times and David was upset at that. Even though the network weren’t supporting him, I don’t think there was ever any element of revenge on his part. The network are, first and foremost, drawn to money, but I think if we were in today’s market and with HBO, they would be ‘We’ve got David Lynch, let’s try to nurture this show’ like they’ve done with other shows that sometimes find their audiences and sometimes don’t. But they give them a chance. And ABC at the time were under strict rules. I think it was a show way ahead of it's time and it would be very interesting if it existed in today’s world where shows are much more experimental. David didn’t really get the chance in television that he deserved because he was dealing with network television. In the beginning they may have been so excited to have him, but they didn’t nurture the fact that they had an artist.
TPA: Did you get to keep any props from the show or any of Ruth’s distinctive sweaters?
NF: I didn’t remember them giving me any of the wardrobe – I’m sure they had to keep them for various reasons – but I do tend to have clothes that resemble those 50s skirts, shoes and sweaters! Those outfits were really great – we wore the original 50s pointed bras.
TPA: What are your views on the forthcoming DVD of the show?
NF: I love that idea, because they really get wild. They’re all amazing pieces of work and they really should be seen by more people. TV Guide in America did the 100 best episodes of television and it was in the hundred, so I know there are people who remember it, just like any great television that may not have had mainstream appeal. On The Air really, really was just a dream come true. If I never do anything again, to be able to work for and with a director like David Lynch, you feel you have totally accomplished something important in your life.
TPA: Can you talk about your ‘What’s In Heidi’s Head’ short films?
NF: Again, that was something I did for Nickelodeon that I did in conjunction with my ex-husband Mark Mothersbaugh. It was their first live-action and we thought it was a no-brainer that we would get to do a lot of them. I had an idea for a modern-day Mary Poppins, or some people thought they saw a female Pee-Wee Herman, stretching imaginations for children, which was one of my own ways of surviving my childhood. In this case, I think the network truly did like them, but they have a lot of rules, and at the time Nickelodeon didn’t want any adult-hosted programs.
TPA: Do you know when your latest film, ‘A Day In The Life’ will be released?
NF: That was with rapper Sticky Fingaz and was an unbelievably creative project, I don’t know what’s happened to that. He had shown me a piece of it and it was amazing. It would’ve been the first rap musical as far as I know.
TPA: You’ve recently been working with Kimmy Robertson…
NF: We had taken dance classes in Los Angeles and we have a couple of crossovers in our lives. Kimmy had dated one of Mark (Mothersbaugh)’s brothers, so it was interesting how we always crossed paths. Kimmy and I worked on this idea, called A.D.D. – Attention Deficit Disorder, which is like a modern-day set up of a two-character comedy like ‘I Love Lucy’. She comes over to my house and we always have somewhere we have to go, and because of what she heard in the car or something she sees, it ends up we never really accomplish anything. We may actually go somewhere, but the whole thing is about not actually being able to do things! Right now, we just did it as a three and a half minute pilot and we’d like to do a series, either for a network or as webisodes, which are kind of opening up the world. I think the most important thing about being an artist, whether you’re an actor or a visual artist is knowing you can create something yourself. I think finding a home for what you’ve created is becoming more and more possible because of the internet.
TPA: Have you any other projects in the pipeline?
NF: I’m producing a documentary on the artist Robert Williams. The documentary has about 200 hours that have been shot and right now we’re seeing if we can get another rough together. It’s definitely far along, but documentaries tend to have a life of their own, so you never know when they’re going to be finished. We would love to get it finished this year if we can accomplish what we set out to do. I’m doing that with a company called Foundation Films and Rhino Films, and we have high hopes for it.
Interview conducted by Graeme Larmour exclusively for Twin Peaks Archive.
Twin Peaks Archive thanks Nancye for a great interview!
(c) 2008 Twin Peaks Archive