Sherilyn Fenn: Fenn and Now

Once a cult goddess famed for knotting a cherry stem with her tongue in TV's Twin Peaks, Sherilyn Fenn is gaining cult status again, this time for playing a twisted, recovering alcoholic in Rude Awakening on Showtime.

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Fifty years ago Sherilyn Fenn would have been snapped up by a Hollywood studio, run through their makeover department, and cast repeatedly as the coquettish naughty girl who schemes and claws her way into every man's heart. The maneater with killer eyes. The back-stabber with an icy smile. The vixen with one eyebrow always raised. But those studio days are long gone, and Fenn has had to fend for herself. So after she made her big splash as Audrey Horne, aka "sex in saddle shoes," in David Lynch's TV fever dream Twin Peaks, she started to jump around, hoping to find her groove. She'd already played a Southern belle who takes a hayride with a carny ( Two-Moon Junction ), and she went on to portray a lesbian who goes straight ( Three of Hearts ), a smalltown stripper ( Ruby ), a living legend (TV's Liz: The Elizabeth Taylor Story ), a woman whose obsessed lover dismembers her limb by limb ( Boxing Helena ), and a beauty who pushes John Malkovich over the edge ( Of Mice and Men ).

Perhaps if Fenn had been a better actress offscreen she would have been given better opportunities on-screen. "I was told by this agent, 'You don't play the game,'" recalls Fenn when I meet her for lunch at a bistro in the San Fernando Valley. "He said, 'If you're inspired by something, no one can touch you, but if you're not, it's painfully evident to all concerned.' But how do you pretend to be inspired by something you're not?" Fenn's plenty inspired by her latest project, the wildly irreverent Showtime comedy series Rude Awakening, in which she plays Billie Frank, a washed-up nighttime soap star who's joined a 12-step program to deal with her alcoholism but still manages to behave really, really badly.

DENNIS HENSLEY: What appealed to you about the part of Billie on Rude Awakening? SHERILYN FENN: She's flawed and has some very real problems. I wasn't doing the "Aren't I cute and funny?" kind of thing I find on a lot of sitcoms. Another element that drew me to the show was that this was actually somebody's life--producer/writer Claudia Lonow's--and she was on the set every day. Claudia's life was pretty ugly, but she turned it into something she was able to laugh about.

Q: Have you gotten much feedback from AA members?

A: I've gotten mixed responses. I got one letter from a man who said he didn't like the show because AA is a life-and-death situation for him. I was a little upset by that, but then I talked to Claudia and I realized that this is her truth. This is who she is. Who is anyone to say that's not OK? If you don't like it, don't watch it.

Q: You gotta love a show in which Lynn Redgrave uses the word "twat."

A: She's the best. You always have stumbling blocks on a job, but every scene I do with her works.

Q: Your character used to be a teenage star, right?

A: Yes, as was Claudia. She was Michelle Lee's daughter on Knots Landing.

Q: Oh my God, she must have good stories.

A: Claudia said that when the stars were on the set, the assistant director would say, "OK ladies, put your mirrors down."

Q: I noticed that Rude Awakening doesn't use a laugh track.

A: Yay! It's so much better without a laugh track. Laugh when you want. I did one episode of Friends and it was like mugging to me, waiting till the audience stops laughing to say your next line. I love having my own rhythm and not relying on jokes. I wanted it to be as real as possible. Otherwise, I might as well be on NBC.

Q: Did you ever get into trouble with booze?

A: My high school friends and I would ride our bikes to the park and drink beer. But there was never any real trouble.

Q: Do you think you have an addictive personality?

A: Definitely, that's why I was drawn to this role. I find that everyone around me in one way or another is addicted to something, whether it's cigarettes, sugar, alcohol, drugs, sex, love, whatever.

Q: What are you addicted to?

A: I can get addicted to wanting to be in love, and I think that probably just came from not having the most stable things happen to me when I was a kid.

Q: Has your need to be in love lessened as you've gotten older?

A: I'm not as needy anymore. I have a five-year-old son. I always split up my life into "before my son" and "after my son." Having him gave me a sense of completion as a woman. I wanted to be more true to myself, out of my love for him.

Q: Did these changes carry over into your work?

A: Yes. All of a sudden I felt I could do comedy. Because I hadn't done comedy, people in the business used to say, "She's not funny." And I wasn't secure with myself so I bought into that.

Q: Which of your movies will your son be able to see first?

A: He watches Rude Awakening and sings the title song. If bad words are used he says, "That's not a very good word to say, Mom."

Q: What role were you the most excited about when you got the news that you landed it?

A: Of Mice and Men. I was so happy when Gary Sinise called me.

Q: What do you remember from that film?

A: Well, my favorite memory was watching the Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill trials with John Malkovich at the house they rented for me. He was cooking and saying, "You know they fucked, you know they did." We had a great time. Gary Sinise was one of the first people who didn't see me like a lot of other people did.

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