Sherilyn Fenn: “In America, we are so confused about sexuality”

Twin Peaks star Sherilyn Fenn talks sexuality, Hollywood's attitude to women, appearing in Friends – and her "first love" Johnny Depp

At 16, just like all my friends in Michigan, I was smoking pot, drinking at the weekends and didn’t know what I was going to do with my life. My aspirations were that maybe I would be a hairdresser or, even more glamorous, a stewardess. It was simple, humble, really normal stuff – riding my bike, taking the bus in winters. And I am so glad I grew up that way.

I was always in love with Prince. I was living in Motown and they were playing a lot of Prince everywhere. And when I was younger, I thought I was in love with John Travolta from Grease and Saturday Night Fever. We would go to see Grease every weekend and get somebody to sneak us in. I must have seen it 15 times.

Naively, I thought it would be fun to be a movie star

I moved to Los Angeles when I was 17 and was supposed to go to Beverly Hills High – and I said NO WAY. I had been the new girl in school my whole life. So I told my mom I would act. Naively, I thought it would be fun to be a movie star.

From the perspective of my aunt [Suzi Quatro], stardom was a double-edged sword. But I remember she had the prettiest clothes I had ever seen, these glamorous things from London, and she got all this attention and love from the family. I think most actors want to be loved – it is our core, whether we are aware of it or not.

Sherilyn Fenn and Kyle MacLachlan in Twin Peaks
Sherilyn Fenn and Kyle MacLachlan in Twin Peaks

I didn’t want people to look at me. My grandfather would ask if I wanted to play an instrument, but again, I said no way. Even now, if there are a lot of people on set I get nervous. I haven’t done much theatre – I’m not extroverted . When I acted on Friends, the studio audience was frightening. At the end of a scene, Matthew Perry would mug to each camera – he knew exactly where to give a funny look – but I’d never been on a show like that. They were all very kind, I was just afraid of the audience.

The first big thing I acted in was Cheers – and my first love, little Johnny Depp, was waiting outside the door. I had to walk on and say three lines then leave. My body was shaking. I walked out to say my lines but I just wanted to run back into my boyfriend’s arms and run away. We were so young. I met him when I was 19 and he was 21. We went out for two-and-a-half years when we were just starting out in the business. He was very sweet. He was my first love.

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Finding your first love is an important part of everyone’s life. With Johnny it helped me, because as a young woman, for the first time, I had found real love. It was with someone who was walking the same path, but even if he wasn’t, the love and the connection was strong enough – cooking meals, hanging out, laughing and crying. So it is more about that than the fact he is this well-known person now. I know him as a human not a movie star.

I would tell my younger self that this is a hard business – and if you are attractive, they are going to put you in certain roles. When critics would say I was a sex kitten or comfortable with my body – anybody that knew me would laugh. Because I was this normal, goofy, Catholic girl – a little bit repressed. That is why I explore these things in my roles. We have a world that is so overly sexualised. I think sex is sacred, being with someone that way is very sacred. It is very confusing. I had sex late. It is such a bullshit that it is this rite of passage. If one were to not have sex, then meet somebody someday and fall in love and then be with them? Oh my gosh, it would be a different world. But I live in a town where 13-year-old girls have their booties hanging out of shorts.

We have a world that is so overly sexualised

The acting industry still doesn’t look after younger women. On some shows, all the women are naked. If I had a daughter, she would not get into the business until she had graduated. In America, we are so confused about sexuality. There is all the nakedness on screen, but it is very puritanical when someone is nursing their baby.

Johnny Depp and Sherilyn Fenn
Johnny Depp and Sherilyn Fenn

David Lynch wrote the role of Audrey Horne in Twin Peaks especially for me. And what a life-changing role. She wasn’t in the script. There was no Audrey. It feels like it is God making things happen in a certain way. David’s daughter Jen said I reminded David of his first love in third grade, so he wrote the role. And lucky me!

Twin Peaks was a new time in my life and my career. I had been acting since I was 18 and had been through the mill. I shot Two Moon Junction, which felt really exploitative. Then I found this wonderful teacher, Roy London, and went on the adventure with him. He showed me that acting was about going inside and illuminating your human struggle, and gave me the courage to do that. Audrey Horne was where I was – a young woman discovering her power. She had issues with her father? Hello! For me acting is about having the courage to really reveal what is going on with you through somebody else’s words.

David Lynch gleefully exclaimed: “Sherilyn Fenn, you’re a mess!” And I was like: “I know!” I’m sure that fed into Audrey for The Return.

David Lynch can see into my soul. He looks into your eyes, he sees it and he writes it. A few years ago, I was telling him all this stuff and crying and he very gleefully exclaimed: “Sherilyn Fenn, you’re a mess!” And I was like: “I know! What am I going to do?” David loved it. And I’m sure that fed into Audrey for The Return. I would write to him with ideas every day and I’m sure I made him crazy, but where he went is the place David always goes: to the most intense, trippy, weird but beautiful and uncomfortable places. It was really scary. I was frightened I couldn’t do it.

It will be down to the audience to campaign for another season of Twin Peaks. My hope is there will be another one, because so many doors have been opened. We had a great time, so if people like it, David will go back to it. He loves filming it.

I adore my children, they complete me. The most important thing is that they know they are loved and adored. I am very much a smother hugger mother, I would know their needs before they did and try to fulfil them. I feel sad for my parents, or any parents that don’t understand or embrace the complete miracle of having a child in your life. It is the best thing in the world.

I wrote a children’s book called No Man’s Land, based on my experience with my second child Christian who is on the autism spectrum. I would love this to become a bridge to me working with children, working with their emotional fluency. They have this ripe soil so I’d love to help plant seeds for them to be who they are before they get into a world that seeks to create soldiers. People feel like they are dying because they are trying to fit into something that is a lie to begin with.

Rejection is God’s protection. A lot of fame can mess up your head and I don’t know that I was ready. There are many times I wished for it, but I know I am blessed with what I have. I might have completely self-destructed. That was definitely possible. I might have gotten lost the way some people do. I know people who are hurting even though they look like they are not.

Sherilyn Fenn will be at the Twin Peaks UK Festival in London N8, October 7-8