Piper Laurie: On Twin Peaks and a New Identity

Piper Laurie (left) in
Piper Laurie (left) in "Twin Peaks"/Photo courtesy of Paula K. Shimatsu-U

Piper Laurie has enjoyed a long and illustrious career in Hollywood. As a contract artist for Universal Studios, she worked with Rock Hudson, Tony Curtis and Ronald Reagan. She was nominated for three Academy Awards (“The Hustler,” “Carrie,” and “Children of a Lesser God”) and won an Emmy and a Golden Globe. She portrayed the terrifying mother in “Carrie” and managed to confuse an entire generation of television viewers by playing the dual roles of Catherine Martell and the Japanese businessman in David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks.”

In her memoir, Learning to Live Out Loud, Piper doesn’t just dish about her career in Hollywood; she shares intimate details about what it was like being a young woman in Hollywood, about her first sexual encounter while still in her teens with a famous star, and the motivation behind her scene-stealing moments in “Carrie.” Below, Piper reminisces about creating the character of Fumio Yamaguchi for “Twin Peaks.”

For the first weeks, David was very quiet and creatively brave; like a child who had never experienced the dark. The crowning glory came after we wrapped for the first season. David called me at home and said, in his Jimmy Stewart drawl, “Rosie, I want you to give some thought to the next season. Your character was last seen at the fire in the sawmill. When we come back, I want the audience to think you died in the fire.  Everyone will think you’re dead, and we’ll take your name off the credits of the show.” It crossed my mind for a millisecond that this was David’s original way of telling me I was being fired.

But he continued, “Now, Rosie, this is the part I want you to think about. You will return in some sort of disguise as a man, and you’ll spy on the town and create trouble for everyone. You should probably be a businessman. I want you to decide what kind of businessman you would like to be. Maybe a Frenchman or a Mexican. Think about it for a while and let me know.”

I was so enchanted with the open possibilities and the power of being able to choose my part. Who was the child now? I decided I’d be a Japanese businessman because it would be less predictable. Even when I was alone, I was so filled with excitement and laughter at the thought of my task. This was joyful children’s play! There was no argument from David when I told him my choice, he simply accepted it. Then came the hard part. David wished me to keep it a secret from the entire cast and crew. Not even my family was to know. That was important to him. I wasn’t to tell a soul.

There was so much preparation involved in the subterfuge. There were secret makeup tests at a laboratory in the valley. Paula Shimatsu-u, who was Mark Frost’s assistant and one of the few people who knew, made tape recordings of Japanese friends reciting my lines. I practiced imitating them while driving to work. I had assumed that the placement of my voice would be electronically altered, but they had given it no thought and were not prepared on the morning of my first scene. I am trained to keep going no matter what, and when I realized I was on my own, I ended up going to a place in my chest and throat to get that appropriate guttural sound. It turned out to be painful to sustain, and I sipped liquids constantly between takes.

I’ve skipped the enchanting part. Paula Shimatsu also dealt with the press and released a bio about “the new cast member”: “Fumio Yamaguchi, the Japanese star who works primarily with Kurosawa, has flown over especially to work with David Lynch. His English is a little shaky; therefore he needs an interpreter and learns his lines phonetically.”

The cast, crew, and all guest directors knew nothing.  My name came off the credits, and Fumio Yamaguchi’s was put on. Because I wouldn’t talk about it when asked, my poor sister assumed I’d been fired. Sherrye was so upset that she started having asthma attacks, and I had to take her into my confidence.

I met Paula’s brother Derick, whom I hired to act as a much-needed personal assistant, and whom David later hired to appear on camera as “Fumio’s” assistant in the show. Derick would pick me up at three in the morning in Santa Monica and drive me to the special makeup lab way out in the valley, about twenty minutes from our studio. There I would spend four hours being made up and dressed for my new identity. From the moment the studio van arrived for me, I was Fumio Yamaguchi. The driver, whom I knew personally, had no idea whom he was picking up. When the long day was over, I would be driven back to the lab and spend at least an hour and a half removing the prosthetics before Derick drove me home. Wisely, they never scheduled consecutive days for me. I needed at least three days for my face to heal until the next time the prosthetics were glued on.

The enchantment continued for me. The guest directors were not told what was up and had their hands full, but I was flying! I constantly improvised conversations with Derick, my so-called assistant-interpreter on the set; I spoke fake Japanese in a very low voice, and Derick responded in real Japanese. Every time the poor director directed me, I caused a five-minute delay while my assistant and I thrashed things out. I would instruct Derick to say to the director, on my behalf, things such as “This is not the way Kurosawa works!” When it appeared that the director was about to quit or have a stroke, he would be given a heads-up, quietly. But even then he didn’t know who I was. This was my life’s Harpo moment! And I did not deny myself.

The regular cast on the set bought the act at first. They were a little intimidated initially by the strange foreigner and were told to be very respectful to me. Jack Nance, the innocent, who played my husband on the show, went to David and Mark at the end of the first day and said, “Boy ... is that new actor [itals]weird[itals]!”

I learned that suppressing laughter all day long while I stayed in character was actually physically difficult. Even if I went to a private place like the bathroom (I had a locked private one next to some offices), I could crack and ruin the makeup by laughing. So I stayed controlled, and I was too tired when I got home to whoop and holler in the wee hours.