The Women Of Auteur Film: A Chat With Sherilyn Fenn

What is an Auteur? Well the technical definition is a simply a filmmaker who has a singular recognisable vision, though you can guarantee they’ll also be a man as no women have been deemed important or visionary enough to become members of this elite club. As we all know, the singular vision of men is pretty much all that has been written about for basically you know … ever, so in this column I’ll be avoiding that completely and exploring the women of auteur film. The muses, the artistic partners, and the long suffering foils of these sometimes talented, often awful, and universally celebrated men.

There really isn’t anyone quite like Sherilyn Fenn, a woman with so much presence and personality that David Lynch met her for five minutes and wrote her a role that would change her life. Twin Peaks was nothing short of a cultural phenomenon, the unexpected primetime smash which sat alongside Family Matters and Full House on ABC’s roster. A murder mystery small town sitcom through the lens of David Lynch, the show and its cast would become cult hits and cultural touchstones for decades to come. Not least Audrey Horne, Sherilyn Fenn’s radical, sultry, and uncontrollable teen heroine who was an integral part in the ensemble cast that Lynch’s world revolved around.

Fenn avoided being typecast, rejecting a proposed Audrey Horne spin-off, taking unexpected and controversial roles like Boxing Helena directed by Jennifer Lynch, as an imprisoned woman with no limbs. Fenn’s vision for herself enabled her to avoid being typecast and led to a career spanning decades. It came full circle this year when she once again took on the role of Audrey in Twin Peaks: The Return. I was lucky enough to chat with Fenn this year at Long Beach Comic Con, and as always she was an absolute joy.

There’s something about her energy, kindness, and enthusiasm that’s completely infectious. When she talks about her first meeting with Lynch, you can understand exactly what the director saw in her. “First off, David wrote me a role that changed my life. Changed my career. That he could see into someone that much in 15 minutes and write you a role like that is amazing,” Sherilyn explained.

Working with Lynch was an unconventional and inspiring experience for Fenn. “He’s very abstract as a director,” she said. “He’d never line read you. He’d just take you into a mood and he’s a little bit meditative. He’d just take you into it. I think a lot of that depends on the willingness of the actors to go with him.” The director’s vision and process made a huge impact on the young actress.

So when it came to reunite with Lynch for the new season of Twin Peaks, it was an easy decision for Sherilyn. “For me, respecting his work so much and having worked with him on a few things, when we came back to Twin Peaks we just dove right in. A lot of people were saying ‘How could you do that?’ because most of us didn’t have a script. We just had pages and we just went at it. Cos it’s David, you know? You just trust him to have it covered,” Fenn enthused.

Sherilyn is radically honest about her film choices. Whereas some are driven by art and inspiration, others are just driven by survival. “Honestly, sometimes I have to take jobs to make money. I’m a single mom so sometimes I find that harder, and those are projects that make me sad a little bit, and it bums me out,” Fenn said before continuing excitedly. “Then there’s times when I read something and it scares me and I’ll throw it across the room. I know I have to do it because it’s triggering something inside me, and there’s this mix of fear and excitement.”

As for the realities of being a woman in the film industry, well Sherilyn doesn’t hold back there either. “Being an actress in Hollywood is hard, especially as you get older. I’m 52 now. I did Twin Peaks initially when I was 24, playing a 17 year old. There’s just not as many roles now,” she laid out. “Honestly though, it’s just a matter of being true to yourself and not losing yourself. In any industry, in any part of life, if you’re defining yourself by the outside you’re going to be in trouble. You’ll end up getting hurt. Everything has to come from the inside. It’s an inside job.”

On returning to Twin Peaks, Fenn’s enthusiasm was clear. “It was beautiful, it was wonderful, it was a dream come true. I never would’ve thought all these years later that anybody would care about the show, about my character, about any of it. It’s like a dream that keeps going on that you don’t wake up from. And when people are touched by your work, there’s nothing better. Nothing. That’s why you do it,” Fenn confessed.

Pursuing a creative career can be unbelievably tough, and for any young women who are struggling, Sherilyn has some advice. “Be true to you, don’t try to be like anyone else. Everyone has a unique, perfect story to share. A tree doesn’t look at another tree and think ‘I should look like that.’ Be yourself. Dive deep into your heart and soul. Find a spiritual base because we all need that,” Fenn told me.

After years of giving herself on the screen, now Fenn really wants to give in other arenas. “A lot of stuff around spirituality and God has changed my life. I’m excited to see because I’ve given my life to something bigger than me, I’m excited to see what happens. I wanna work with children. I love to teach, especially young actors and actresses. I wrote a children’s book. I wanna give back. I love signings because I get to meet people and that’s much more fun than Hollywood executives,” Fenn laughed. “I always want to grow more and illuminate that human struggle. I see it as my job. And the most I can do is explore my own, and then hopefully everyone can get something from that.”

Rosie Knight

Rosie Knight

writer. fake geek girl. makes comics, occasionally sells some.