Originally, she was just supposed to be there for three moments. A homecoming picture. Dead, on the beach, wrapped in plastic. And a piece of camcorder footage wherein she and another young actress danced and played together. She was so powerful in them, particularly in the footage, that she was cast to play her character’s identical cousin. Both because of her own impressive charisma and because of the general nature of the show, we all kind of took it for granted. Did it make sense? No, not really. Did anything on that show? No, not really.
It may be a stretch to list Sheryl Lee for horror. Though she did do a vampire movie once. Still, the fact remains that the role for which she is known is Laura Palmer, and of course Maddy Ferguson. Are they horror? Perhaps not really. It’s hard to put a specific genre label on most Lynch, after all. What’s more, while Lee is one of many young performers from Twin Peaks to have deserved success outside the show, surprisingly few of them had any. The show was full of attractive, charismatic, talented actors—and also James Marshall—yet few of them would go on to much else of note.
Honestly, Sheryl Lee would have made a heck of a Scream Queen, had that been where her career went. It’s impossible to say how much my image of Laura Palmer is strictly due to Lee’s performance, because I also read all the supplemental material released at the time and still own The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer. But on the show, Lee was called on to do many different things, not least because she was playing two characters at once. As Laura and as Maddy, she had to be sweet, charming, seductive, alluring, vulnerable, wistful, daring—Laura was already at least two people, after all.
All of this convinces me that Lee could still do pretty well anything she wants, if only people cast her in the roles. I’m not sure I’ve seen her be funny, which admittedly is a separate skill, but there should be more roles for her. Admittedly that’s at least partially because there should be more roles for women in their fifties; she’s the same age as Vin Diesel, Mark Ruffalo, and Benicio del Toro. It is also, however, that she showed great talent on the show and should’ve had more opportunities to do something with it.
Would Twin Peaks have been as much of a success without Sheryl Lee? Hard to say. After all, that show had a stacked cast even without her. But it’s her imagery that lingers—the photo, the footage, and her on that cold beach wrapped in plastic. Her in the room hung with red curtains. The show was always about much, much more than just Laura Palmer, but Sheryl Lee was definitely behind its initial success.