My desk phone rings, and it’s her. The actress who is Rita, who is also Camilla. This is the girl.
“Hi, it’s Laura Harring.”
Phones play a key role in Mulholland Dr. (2001). Their shrill ring breaks the silence in darkened rooms. They connect shadowy people in different places, but also perhaps in different timelines and dimensions, as David Lynch’s fascinating Möbius strip bends round on itself.
This particular line connects a central London office – with many of the lights already off for the evening – and a hotel in the Mexican resort town of Tulum, where Harring is on holiday.
Get the latest from the BFI
Sign up for BFI news, features, videos and podcasts.
Our attempts to speak have already fallen foul of a series of Lynchian disjunctions. The night before, the call couldn’t be placed – there’d been some confusion over Harring’s whereabouts. Today she calls early, taking me off-guard, but fastidiously rings off again when I mumble that we’re not due to speak for 45 minutes or so. These missed connections feel appropriate somehow, and, when she calls back, the line from Mexico crackles with distortion.
The day before her audition for Mulholland Dr., Harring was in a car accident – mercifully not a serious one. When she told Lynch’s executive assistant at the audition, the assistant looked stunned: “ ‘Have you read the script?’ she asked, ‘You do know your character is in a car crash in the opening scene?’”
“We both looked at each other and smiled,” explains Harring. “We knew that something strange had happened. It was a sign from the universe that I was in the right place.”
Harring’s character – let’s call her Camilla to keep things simpler – is the dazed protagonist in whose company we enter Lynch’s dark Hollywood fairytale. When we first encounter her, she’s the backseat passenger in a limo, travelling at night along the eponymous highway out of LA, as the opening credits flicker past.
Even before the imminent accident, there’s something flat and rehearsed about Camilla’s question to her mysterious driver: “What are you doing? We don’t stop here.” It’s almost as if she’s in a reconstruction of something that’s already happened.
When she emerges from the wreckage, after joyriders run the limo off the road, there’s something marionette-like about Harring’s damaged walk away from the car. “Lynch told me to ‘walk like a broken doll’,” she recalls. “I would come out of the limo kind of fragile and hurt, but he wanted it like a broken doll. So I had to do it until he got the exact look that he wanted.”
Physically, Harring already had exactly the look Lynch wanted. Like her co-star, Naomi Watts, Lynch picked her without hesitation from casting agent Johanna Ray’s pile of photos. “When he saw my photo, he said, ‘Bring her in right away.’”
“Johanna told me not to wear any makeup,” she explains, “so I was very natural: no makeup and a white shirt, black pants, because I remember seeing a photo of Isabella Rossellini, and she’s very classically dressed – white crisp shirt, black pants and then a long jacket.
“When I walked in, I tried to be very cool. Inside, I was like, ‘Oh my god, it’s David Lynch.’ But as I walked in, I just stayed grounded – kind of reserved, quiet and shy. He looked at me, and he just said: ‘Good.’” Referring to the sinister executives who insist a particular actress is cast in Mulholland Dr.’s film-within-a-film, Harring says: “It was almost like he was saying, ‘This is the girl.’”
An alluring counterpoint to Watts’ wide-eyed portrayal of the blonde ingénue Betty (“I just came here from Deep River, Ontario, and now I’m in this… dream place”), Harring’s amnesiac siren channels some of the glazed, somnambulant quality of Kim Novak in Vertigo (1958).
Harring recalls Lynch’s directions to her for this early part of the film, when Camilla doesn’t remember who she is: “‘There’s a cloud following you wherever you go, like a dark black cloud that’s very scary. It terrorises you. It’s very, very creepy.’”
There was also the cloud of mystery about where exactly Mulholland Dr.’s storyline was going. Later being salvaged and completed as a feature film, Lynch’s masterpiece began life as a television pilot. Harring was told the enigma of her character’s identity would be unravelled slowly over ensuing episodes, rather like the Twin Peaks mystery of who killed Laura Palmer. Fellow cast members have also admitted filming amid confusion about how the project’s labyrinthine narrative fitted together.
When asked what the social life on set was like, and who she’d hang out with after the crew had wrapped for the day, Harring replies: “I was always very spent because for most of the film I’m in fear, feeling all this fear. So I would go home. I was feeling nauseous. It’s almost like I took the work with me.”
Even so, she talks in beatific terms about the shoot, conjuring a kind of golden glow of good feeling. It’s reminiscent of the spiritualism-inflected way that Lynch himself talks. “There was a lot of comradeship, community, harmony, friendship, giggles, you know. And – David would call them powwows – when you’re working hard and you’re tired, he would hold our hands, and it was very, very beautiful, the way that he handled everything.
“We were all a big family. It was a lovefest. You know, we all loved each other, and I think that translated on the film. When you’re working with the energy of love, which is the most powerful energy in the world, people feel it and people like it. I think that’s part of the reason that it got such a good response, because there’s good chemistry all around.”
She remembers a time when somebody in the wardrobe department complained to her about her weight. “I felt kind of bad – kind of chubby, too voluptuous. And David looked at me and, with a very strong voice, he goes, ‘Don’t you lose one pound, Laura,’ kind of angry, you know, really reassuring. And I felt so confident after that.”
Like her most famous character(s), Harring has gone by different names herself. She was born (in Sinaloa, Mexico) Laura Elena Martínez Herring [sic], crowned Miss USA (the first Latina woman to be so honoured) in 1985, and became the Countess von Bismarck-Schönhausen when she married into German aristocracy in 1987. The couple divorced shortly afterwards, but she retains the title.
Since Mulholland Dr., she’s appeared briefly in 2 further Lynch projects, his 2002 web series Rabbits and the nightmarish INLAND EMPIRE (2006), amid a string of more routine supporting roles. But she’s content with her legacy. “If I never worked again, it’d be okay because I left my mark in Hollywood. I worked with the great David Lynch.”
“Just being in David’s company, experiencing his creativity and the peace that he exudes was quite remarkable,” she continues. “It was magical.”
“Every time I walked on set, I knew it was a different world. It was a Lynchian world. And I would dive right in.”
Originally published: 13 April 2017