Matthew Lillard Compares 'Twin Peaks' Secrecy to 'Star Wars'

Lillard discusses the unusual audition process for the David Lynch revival and his recent career "reset."
Suzanne Tenner/SHOWTIME

[Warning: This story contains spoilers through the first two episodes of Twin Peaks: The Return.]

A man murders a woman in gruesome fashion. While he cannot fathom committing the crime, his vivid dreams of the cold-blooded act cannot be ignored. Sound familiar? It was a premise at the heart of the first Twin Peaks, and history is repeating itself in Twin Peaks: The Return, the Showtime revival of the cult classic David Lynch and Mark Frost series.

The soul of Leland Palmer (Ray Wise) might be trapped inside the dreaded Black Lodge, but the soul of what that character embodied in the first season is alive and well in actor Matthew Lillard's storyline. In the two-hour premiere of the new Twin Peaks, Lillard makes his debut as William Hastings, a well-regarded high school principal with a secret: he was having an affair with local librarian Ruth Davenport — and he may or may not have butchered her to death, as her severed head (along with a separate woman's corpse) was discovered by police in Ruth's apartment, with Hastings' fingerprints all over the place. 

Following the body's discovery, local authorities place Hastings under arrest. A few cells down from his own confined quarters, we see an oil-slicked figure blink out of existence. The exact nature of this man, like so much else on Twin Peaks, is currently without explanation — but it sure looks like something straight out of the Black Lodge, doesn't it?

Of course, Lillard can't comment on the theory at all. It's well-established at this point how much Lynch wishes to preserve the mystery of the new Twin Peaks, with actors instructed to keep story details under strict lock and key. Given his role at the heart of a compelling new mystery, Lillard is under especially explicit "do not tell" marching orders. With that said, he's more than up to the task of speaking with The Hollywood Reporter about what it's like working under Lynch's terms, how the legendary Scream villain finds his way into the mind of a serial killer, his recent unexpected career choices, and more. 

What was your relationship with Twin Peaks before you joined the series? Was it something heavily on your radar when it was originally on?

I would be lying if I said yes. It was one of those things that was a phenomenon however long ago it was on — 25 or 26 years ago — and was not in my zeitgeist. It was one of those moments that didn't land on me. Obviously, David Lynch is a huge director in my life. I know Mulholland Drive and Blue Velvet. I know his films much better than I knew this TV show. When I got the opportunity to audition for the project, I was stoked. I was super excited. But I will say that walking into that audition room, you realize you're the least cool person in a 10-mile radius. (Laughs.) Everyone in there has their hipster hat and their very skinny jeans, and doesn't have any kids. They're all super beautiful and have perfect hair. I felt like there's no way I'm getting this job.

So many actors have fun stories about how they got involved in the revival, because it's so secretive. What was that audition process like for you?

The audition isn't a normal audition, in the way you don't have a set of lines. You're not doing written material. You go in and have a conversation with casting, which is funny, because you're like, "I can't screw that up." At the same time, there's no "getting the job." Either David is charmed by you and you're in, or he isn't and you're not. It puts you in an interesting place, because you want that job. You want to work with David Lynch. You want to be in something with him. I do think you know going into the moment that there's huge expectations on this show. There's huge expectations for David and the fan base. Going in, you knew it would be a great opportunity, but it's not something you could actively get. You couldn't work on your audition harder, because it's just somebody talking to you. And as they're talking to you, they sort of put a camera in your face. It was a very interesting thing. And getting it? I was just as surprised as probably anybody else is. Maybe Ashley Judd knew that it was going to go her way, and other people got offers. But to get the job was certainly surprising, and totally exciting.

When you get the job, and you're being filled in a little bit on what you're going to be doing as your character, I assume you're also being kept in the dark about the stories you're not involved in. Kyle MacLachlan has said that actors only received portions of the script relevant to their characters. With that in mind, how did you process what you were going to be involved with as William Hastings?

You do get the full expanse of the character. There's nothing that clouds you. You can't really take into account the scene that comes before. It has nothing to do with you, you know what I mean? So many times in a script you're looking at a whole world. You're trying to gather tone and vibe. All of that's removed from your periphery here. All of those tools are taken out of your toolbox. It's kind of nice, because you can just focus on the action in front of you. There was a certain point where I had to go to the producers and say, "I have no idea what these elements he's talking about mean...can you help fill me in?" And they're like, "Well...no, not really!" (Laughs.) "But we can help a little!" So it's funny. Look, there are definitely moments when I was in a scene and.... (Pauses.) You know, I can't really say that. They'll kill me. (Laughs.) Being on a David Lynch show, it's like being in a Star Wars picture, I'm sure. There's so much secrecy, still, around it, that it's not something I'm used to.

How did you tap into who William Hastings is, then? He's a school principal who's now been arrested for a crime he doesn't feel he committed, though he has vivid dreams about exactly what happened...

I think with a guy like that and the world we're in....I went back and watched old Twin Peaks. You sort of lean into what's on the page and the tone that David has. There is this earnestness about his work. It's an odd tone. Understanding a little bit about what it's been in the past and what's on the page. There's a style to David that you sort of understand going into it. You lean into the style. You do the best you can to create a real character in that very crazy tone. It's not like anything I've done before, that's for sure.

William is being set up as a potential killer. You are legendary for your turn as one half of Ghostface in Scream. How do you tap into the mind of a serial killer?

Oh, God. I don't think that hard. That's how you do it. (Laughs.) Look, I really think it's about really good pretending. The more you pretend, and the better the pretender you are, the easier it is to do. I think the actor I am now, and the man I am now, is very different from who I was when I was 26 years old, fresh out of New York and fresh out of school and hurling energy in all directions. Back then, I made things much more difficult than I do now. I do think I was a kid with a very active imagination. (Laughs.) I had to find something I was good at, and that was acting. I've done it my whole life now. Pretending like that or creating that world and those given circumstances is second nature at this point.

You have grown as an actor quite a bit, and you have made some interesting career choices lately, between appearing on Twin Peaks, Halt and Catch Fire, the work you did on The Bridge. What goes into deciding which projects you want to pursue these days?

I think there was a moment where, after Scooby Doo, I lost an element of street credibility, where I was transitioning from being a young actor into a man. It takes time and patience. To be completely honest, [my family and I] downsized our life. We changed the way we were living. I used to think I would always make money and make movies and would be famous forever. At some point, about 10 years ago, I was confronted with this growth spurt into being a man with three kids and a wife and having to transition from being a young actor into a man. We had to change the way we were living if I wanted to keep doing it, which meant taking smaller parts and working on more prestigious things and not chasing money and going back to this idea of being a great actor instead of being a celebrity. It involved crafting this path and doing good work instead of just making money. It's been a good little run. I'm proud of the work. It was a really hard moment, in terms of understanding where you're at on the Hollywood food chain. You just have to push the reset button and rebuild your life.

What are your theories surrounding Lillard's character? Sound off in the comments below, and keep checking THR.com/TwinPeaks for continuing coverage of the series.

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