Zombies, Waxworks, Tomatoes and “TWIN PEAKS”: An Interview with Dana Ashbrook
With his heavy mop of dark brown hair, smoldering good looks and dark intensity, actor Dana Ashbrook made a massive impression as slacker and one-time football hero Bobby Briggs in David Lynch and Mark Frost’s seminal 90s TV series TWIN PEAKS (now available on Blu in its entirety); a show that deconstructed the traditional soap opera and injected it with terror and black comedy. Ashbrook seemed to make his career out of films that meshed horror and humor and he spent some time with FANGORIA to shoot the breeze and talk all things tomato, Tarman and TWIN PEAKS…
FANGORIA: ATTACK OF THE KILLER TOMATOES! is one of those camp cult classics that genre fans adore, namely because it pays homage to genuine article horror movies like THE BIRDS and JAWS. Can you tell Fango all about your experience shooting this film that spawned not only sequels, but a cartoon series and a line of toys?
DANA ASHBROOK: Well that was my first ever film role! What happened was my mother remarried and my stepfather’s son Steve Peace was one of the producers on the film. He and his friends ran a company called 4 Square Productions that would take footage of American football games for various colleges. Steve was also running for Senator in California at the time, and he would use the money made from these college football films to financially help out his political office’s campaign. Then he decided to make ATTACK OF THE KILLER TOMATOES! to boost funding!
Him and his team used the equipment they always had and they created this crazy movie! And being a kid I had no idea how this film would take off, I was just told to be somewhere at a certain time and that I’ll be doing this and doing that, and looking back at the movie now as an adult, it all come together as being something totally original, fun and cool! And what I loved most was that I got to do a scene that was a JAWS spoof scene! I think it’s a fun, smart, campy movie. Back then, being a kid, I just thought it was a weird project that my step brother had made!
But then I remember, years later, I was in Hollywood and I heard that they were making RETURN OF THE KILLER TOMATOES and I really wanted to be in that and at one point I was somewhere in the mix of playing the role that George Clooney ended up getting. At that point, my mother had divorced her second husband and I lost touch with the KILLER TOMATOES people, which for me was not just about movie making, it was all about family. But from hanging around the set of RETURN OF THE KILLER TOMATOES I got to become good friends with people like George Clooney and his friends, we ended up in the same circle, and we went bowling together loads and it was amazing period for me as a young actor auditioning and getting bit roles here and there.
FANG: RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD PART 2 is a follow up to a fan favorite that zombie devotees relish. How did you get the role in this sequel and what do you think of the original film?
ASHBROOK: I think the first film is the coolest and totally my favorite of them all. I appreciate the punk rock element, the script, the direction; everything about that film was great. As far as getting the part in PART 2, well I had to go through five auditions. It was for the real straight part, you know, I played it out like a real normal straight-laced guy, and I always thought of myself as playing the cool guy. I remember during the time I was auditioning for the film, the director Ken Wiederhorn and his wife were at the same screening of Frank Oz’s LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS, and me and my girlfriend at the time were at the same event; it was the opening at the Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. And it was packed! There were like two seats left, and right next to me and my girlfriend, and who sits in them, but Ken and his wife! It was like I was sitting next to the high school principal, I couldn’t concentrate on LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS! Thankfully I got the part!
FANG: Monster movie maestro Forrest J. Ackerman made a cameo in RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD PART 2, what was he like to work with?
ASHBROOK: Brian Peck was a huge fan of Famous Monsters of Filmland and a big Forry fan. He played some of the zombies in RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD PART 2 and he got Forry to play one of the zombies also. It was a huge thrill for him! Sadly, I wasn’t working the day Forry was on set!
FANG: What can you tell us about the creepy and yet comical WAXWORK?
ASHBROOK: I loved working on that movie, it was so much fun! And the cast was so young and vibrant and we had the best time! Anthony Hickox, the writer/director was the coolest guy! He was from England and he was intense in a great way and knew all the best clubs! I had never been to the type of clubs Anthony took me to! I mean I had gone to cheesy LA clubs but Anthony knew where to go and took me and the rest of the cast to amazing punk rock clubs. He really took us under his wing and I got to know his family and we were all real close, but sadly I’ve lost touch since. He was an amazing guy!
FANG: You have done many movies that combine horror with comedy. Sometimes that works as seen in such films as AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON and FRIGHT NIGHT and other times it simply fails, what are your thoughts on this hybrid genre styling?
ASHBROOK: I totally know what you’re saying, and the best example of this I can think of is in TWIN PEAKS where the comedy rises quite naturally and organically from the horror. But the trick is not to play it for laughs. To play it deadly serious and straight! You know, you have a scene where Grace Zabrikse is crying for like five minutes over the death of her daughter, the audience is going to laugh at some point. It’s that whole thing of, something horrible happens and after the initial shock you start to laugh.
There’s also the point in the show where I’m barking like a dog at James Marshall in the prison scene early in TWIN PEAKS, which is meant to be menacing but can totally come across as funny and ridiculous! And in horror movies that include comic elements, if it is done right and everybody involved is playing it straight, than that becomes something totally engaging. Like with RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD PART 2. It was big and brassy and loaded with blood and guts, but had that campy sensibility that made it also funny. But with TWIN PEAKS, that was dark! And from this darkness came a great comic element that worked so beautifully. And a lot of us on TWIN PEAKS laughed about a lot of the scenes on set, but we all played it straight. And this was from our wonderful direction from David Lynch.
FANG: And in regards to TWIN PEAKS, how did that come along?
ASHBROOK: The casting director was a friend of mine and she had cast the Steven Spielberg-produced anthology series AMAZING STORIES, which I didn’t have a part in. But then she had gotten me in to have a meeting with David Lynch and Mark Frost and I had read the pilot for TWIN PEAKS already. David, Mark and I got talking and I went on about how much I loved it and was like “Oh my God it’s amazing…and there’s this woman with a patch who is obsessed with quiet drapes..” and I told them how I thought it was so dark and yet hilarious, then we talked about a theatre company I was in at the time and David got the impression that I was very lighthearted and joyful, as I was. He then took me aside and said, “You know, Bobby Briggs doesn’t smile that often.” And that was the end of the meeting. But it was a great meeting. I had only seen David’s THE ELEPHANT MAN and I had no idea who Mark Frost was. But I got the part and I was extremely happy!
FANG: Bobby Briggs is edgy and has a quirky intensity, how did you prepare for such a high energy role?
ASHBROOK: It was written all in there, it was extremely clear and David Lynch would tell me what he wanted and I would do whatever he’d say. But, the beauty of working in a television series is writers tend to write for you once they understand who you are and get a feeling of your personality and characteristics; which is great!
So the character of Bobby slowly became a lot like me, I saw that happening. What was disappointing however was later in the series, the writers started to soften Bobby up a lot and made him tame, but those first ten hours are just amazing! That pilot and those first few episodes are just intense, funny, scary – just perfection all thanks to the visionary David Lynch!
You know, David was such an amazing director. I remember there was a scene in the RR Diner that I had to shoot with Don S. David, who played by father Major Garland Briggs, and it’s where he is telling me about a dream he had. And I’m supposed to cry. We did the scene but the tears weren’t coming. David yelled “Cut” and then we tried again. Don did his big speech but still the tears weren’t coming. We tried it one more time and the same thing, I just couldn’t get there, I couldn’t get to that dark place, or that sad place. David yells “Cut” again and comes up to us. Here I am thinking, “ok he’s gonna let me know what to do or motivate me in some way,” but instead he grabs Don and takes Don away. I could see him saying something to Don but couldn’t hear a word of it and then Don returned to his mark, right by side and we go back into action mode. As soon as Don finished his speech, his recollection of a dream he had, I was in tears! It was bizarre, but that’s how David worked!
FANG: Was there a very clear difference between David Lynch and Mark Frost’s direction?
ASHBROOK: That is totally it! Mark had a really great grasp of the strong foundation of narrative and flogging through a TV series. I remember seeing the first episode that he directed though, and that was the cliffhanger episode in the middle of the first season, and that was, to me, the weakest of the season. It was like a normal traditional soap – there were too many silly cliffhangers there for my liking.
FANG: You have some wonderful chemistry with Mädchen Amick. What was she like to work with and did you have similar approaches to your performances? In the other side of the spectrum, you worked with the likes of Piper Laurie, Richard Beymer, Russ Tamblyn who were stars of the golden age. What was it like being in a TV series with them?
ASHBROOK: Madchen was 19 and I was 22 and we were both very green and extremely eager to work. She was a sweetheart and was super talented and we went in there together like troopers just ready to be directed by David at all times. I remember I used to ask him “Hey David how hot do you want this kiss on a scale from one to ten?” and he would reply, “Eleven!”
Working with the likes of Piper Laurie, Russ Tamblyn and Richard Beymer was amazing! One of my favorite memories is us being on the Donahue show and having dinner parties and got drunk together and played games! It was a great time in my life.
FANG: I understand that you had your own ideas for the look of Bobby Briggs…
ASHBROOK: At that time, the late 80s and early 90s, the grunge thing was blossoming and just sweeping the nation. Every teen and person in their early twenties was listening to bands like Mudhoney and The Melvins and what not. Because TWIN PEAKS was shot in Seattle, that whole scene, which was my era really, was extremely influential. So I did the flannel shirt around the waist, the lumber shirt with a tshirt over and boots and what not.
If you look at the other characters, like Donna Hayward (Lara Flynn Boyle) and Audrey Horne (Sherilyn Fenn) they were also doing the grunge chic thing but mixing it up with a fifties stylized classic look; so the show looked like it was of the time yes, but it also looked as though it could be anywhere and anytime. My leather jacket was an add-on. Initially I was supposed to wear a letterman jacket, but I remember going to college party and seeing a fight break out between two groups and the head honcho jock had a leather jacket on with his letter sewn onto it. I thought, that’s a great idea! It makes Bobby edgy, a football hero on the wrong track.
FANG: What’s happening now in Dana Ashbrook’s life?
ASHBROOK: I’ve done some plays, some TV but mostly I’m just looking for more work! It’s been like this since 1985! Going from one job to the next and always trying to stay artistically busy!