The muse of Mulholland Drive: Laura Harring on sex scenes, losing touch with Naomi Watts, and why she isn’t in Twin Peaks
David Lynch took a more direct approach to the film’s famous sex scene. “Naomi and I liked each other very much, but we were both very shy,” says Harring. “During that scene we were improvising and nothing was happening. He came and he said, ‘this is what’s going to happen – you’re going to kiss, and then you’re going to touch her breast very slowly, and then you, Naomi, are going to touch her breast very slowly – he choreographed it on the spot, very sensually. When I see it, it was very tastefully done, right? It has an element that’s beautiful and an element that’s a little melancholic.”
At the 2001 Cannes Film Festival, a star was born, and her name was Laura Harring. Already in her thirties, Harring had been acting for more than a decade, but her performance in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive – a dual role, playing Rita, an amnesiac troubled by portents of danger, and Camilla, a luscious Hollywood starlet on the rise – marked her arrival like a thunderclap.
Critics said she had been formed from the same mould as the Golden Age screen goddesses, that she was worthy of comparison with Ava Gardner or Rita Hayworth, while the swooning, enigmatic film – which has just been given a shiny digital restoration – was greeted as an instant (if inscrutable) classic.After the premiere – a roar of applause and a standing ovation – Harring joined Lynch and her little-known co-star, Naomi Watts, at a photocall. As a former Miss USA, she knew how to work a crowd. “I gave them a little show,” she says, down the line from her home in Los Angeles. “In the middle of the photocall I took my jacket off, and underneath I had on this very sexy denim vest, and I kissed David on the cheek and the photographers went crazy. I did things I had learnt to do to get people riled up and excited.
“When we walked off, the press started clapping in unison, chanting my name: ‘Laura, Laura, Laura!’ I came back on stage, I put my arms up, I sent a kiss, and they roared in excitement. The festival president said, ‘where have you been all these years?’” Later, at a dinner, she remembers turning to Watts, taking her hand, and saying, “Naomi, the tables always turn, and the sun will shine on your shoulders, one day. And it did.”
In the end, it turned out to be Watts – who had moved to LA from Australia in the early Nineties, and had been on the verge of giving up on acting when she was cast in Mulholland Drive – who ended up with the Academy Award nominations and the starring roles in £100 million movies.
Although Harring continued to work consistently – alongside John Travolta in the early Marvel adaptation The Punisher, and in Mike Newell’s version of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera – none of her later films got the same kind of traction as Mulholland Drive. She is remarkably sanguine about this. “I feel so satisfied with my career, just for that one thing. Just for having starred in Mulholland Drive.”
What she tasted of fame, she found unsettling. “One thing that I really noticed: people stare at you, and you forget that you’re in this huge movie,” she says, laughing. “You’re eating a sandwich, some mustard gets on your lips, people are staring at you, and you forget. It’s a very interesting kind of feeling. If you’re not ready to be the persona, you kind of shyly walk away. You want to eat your sandwich in peace.”
Harring is possessed of the kind of charm only observed in lifelong practitioners of meditation, or alumnae of expensive Swiss boarding schools, or gracious former pageant queens, all of which she is. Her life has the freewheeling quality of a telenovela, in which her acting career may be the least interesting episode.
When she was 12 years old, for example, she was shot in the head – collateral damage in a drive-by shooting. Later, she became a German countess, thanks to a brief marriage to Carl-Eduard von Bismarck, great-great-grandson of Otto, the Iron Chancellor.
When she won the crown of Miss USA in 1985 – Harring was the first Mexican-American to do so, in the days before Trump bought the franchise – she told the show’s presenter that she wanted to use her winnings to invest in silver. “Luckily, I kind of dabbled in the stock market,” she says, “so I don’t have to work.”
While other actors fight tooth and nail to break into the business, Harring fell into it almost by accident. She was called into her first audition because someone had seen her giving up her Miss USA crown and thought she had potential; she got the part, and on set for the first time, she “caught the acting bug”.
Her casting in Mulholland Drive was just as serendipitous. Harring’s TV career included episodes of Frasier and Baywatch, plus a long stretch on the soap Sunset Beach. But Lynch asked to see her solely on the basis of a photograph (the same was also true of Naomi Watts). She remembers being so excited when she heard that he was interested in casting her that she got into a minor traffic accident; when she learnt that her character is involved in a car crash in the first scene, she knew she would get the part.
“I wore black pants, a white shirt and a long black jacket to the interview,” says Harring. “I walked in very clean-faced. David looked at me and says, ‘pleasure to meet you’. And then he just stared at me. His mind was off – he was imagining me in the film, I’m sure, because that’s how he works. He just kept saying ‘good… good’. As I sat down: ‘Good.’” Another pause. ‘Good’. About the fifth time he said it I just burst out laughing.”
At this point, Mulholland Drive was intended to be a multi-part TV series, but when the executives at ABC watched the pilot, they rejected it. “They thought it was too dark or too slow, I don’t remember exactly,” says Harring. “David said, ‘it’s dead in the water, girls, dead in the water.’” Harring, though, is a great believer in positive thinking – growing up in Mexico, and later in Texas, her psychologist mother took her to any number of new-age motivational courses – and she felt certain that it would somehow be revived.
“Everywhere I went, I would either see David’s name or bump into the stars of Twin Peaks,” she says. “I developed this belief system, on my own, that the world gives you signs and you are meant to follow them. I went to the spa in LA and there was Sheryl Lee [who played Laura Palmer in Twin Peaks]. It was like, everywhere I went, the David Lynch family was there. I knew that sooner or later something would happen, but it did take its sweet little time – two years.”
On set, Lynch directed “like a poet”, says Harring. “It was the most beautiful thing to experience, and I’ve never had it since. At the beginning of the film it was, ‘walk like a broken doll’. At the end of the film he said, ‘walk like a kitty cat, Laura.’ David is very good at planting images in your head, and I knew exactly what that meant. If you look at a cat, you see how they elongate their muscles, and they feel so beautiful and slow and sensual and sensuous; there’s almost an air of superiority about a cat, you know. So I just walked like a kitty cat.”
He took a more direct approach to the film’s famous sex scene. “Naomi and I liked each other very much, but we were both very shy,” says Harring. “During that scene we were improvising and nothing was happening. He came and he said, ‘this is what’s going to happen – you’re going to kiss, and then you’re going to touch her breast very slowly, and then you, Naomi, are going to touch her breast very slowly – he choreographed it on the spot, very sensually. When I see it, it was very tastefully done, right? It has an element that’s beautiful and an element that’s a little melancholic.”
People still come up and ask her what the film was about, or tell her their own theories. “David made it with the intention of everyone having their own trip,” she says. “For me Mulholland Drive is about how we get lost in our dreams sometimes. And it’s about the darkness in Hollywood, which comes because there’s only a certain number of people that are successful. Everyone thinks that fame is so glorious and wonderful, but if it were there wouldn’t be so many divorces, and so much alcohol consumption, and drugs. If you become super famous, you go out and all people want to do is take photos. You feel like you’re a monkey on a leash. You really do!”
In the years after the film came out, Harring lost touch with Watts. “I’m very, very sad that we lost our friendship, because to me, friendship gives meaning to life,” she says. “But life does take different roads and sometimes there are misunderstandings and hurt feelings and sometimes love doesn’t want to flow in that direction, and that’s all fine.”
Her relationship with Lynch has been more enduring, united as they are by their adherence to transcendental meditation. She won’t, however, be appearing in the new Twin Peaks. “David and I were emailing and he was like, let’s figure something out,” she says, “but my agent wrote him and said, I don’t want Laura to do a cameo. I didn’t know there were going to be 200 cameos! I was told even some of the series regulars from the original were cameos.” Was she annoyed with her agent? “No, no, I don’t like to appear on TV shows for one episode. You’ve got to live life on your terms.”
Looking back, she wonders whether her accent – she has the slightest Mexican lilt – might have affected her career adversely. “I think it probably held me back a bit,” she says. “On American television, even if you’re playing Latin, they wanted a completely American accent.”
And she does feel like that roles have been drying up as she’s got older. “Just recently there was something very juicy that I really, really wanted,” she says. “But it was a role for someone in their 20s. I didn’t see it when I read it – it’s like, how can a 20 year-old play this? It didn’t seem right. So I went to audition anyway.” She bursts out laughing. “I didn’t get the part, but they loved it, they loved it.”