Live long enough, and people may surprise you. The biggest pricks you grew up with — the bullies or blowhards or preening kings of the high school — grow up, too. Sometimes they even turn out all right. Sometimes they’re even stung, a little, to hear what you once made of them.
“That was acting!” Dana Ashbrook recently insisted to me. He’s speaking of his years playing the role of Bobby Briggs, the lean/mean/teen hunk of last millennium’s Twin Peaks, that floppy-haired, thermal-layered, flannel-rocking lover-bro who looked like nothing less than the little golden man on the top of a trophy somehow turned the seediest kind of mean.
I tell Ashbrook that, years ago, as a high school kid wearing out VHS tapes of David Lynch and Mark Frost’s cosmic-horror soap opera, I never thought of him as performing the role of Bobby. Bobby just seemed to be, the Platonic ideal of the wolfish badass, that guy you either pray notices you because he makes you hot or you pray doesn’t because he might stomp you.
“No, no,” Ashbrook says. He talks fast. “I was a little geeky kid in high school, and I was a fat little kid in elementary school and junior high. I got picked on all the time by guys, so on the show I had a perfect template for Bobby. I just remembered things that people did to me.”
The enduring image of young Bobby Briggs might be the scene in the Twin Peaks movie, Fire Walk With Me, where Bobby, in a black leather jacket, flirts with Sheryl Lee’s Laura Palmer in front of the high school and then panther-dances across the campus. He’s so caught up in his own horny awesomeness that he doesn’t care that he might look like a goon, and none of the teenagers passing by would dare to point it out. He twirls, hunches his shoulders, throws some dopey thumbs-ups, boogies backward to the school’s front door. He’s the embodiment of the slippery, sinuous bassline on the soundtrack, from Lynch and Angelo Badalamenti’s band project, Thought Gang.
I ask Ashbrook how a geeky kid who got picked on so much achieved such cocksure mastery.
“Bobby’s walk was just one of those ‘I don’t give a fuck’ kind of things. I thought, ‘I’m not going to tie my fucking shoes. Bobby doesn’t give a shit, so I’m just going to show up.’ ”
Of course, time comes for all of us, even the ones who don’t give a shit. One of the most welcome and resonant surprises in this summer’s Twin Peaks: The Return, a series whose raison d’être is surprise, comes from director Lynch and co-writer Frost’s entirely earthbound understanding of what a kid like Bobby might grow into. Now fiftyish, the once predatory Bobby Briggs is still lean and handsome but also cautious, a little uncertain, a deputy and divorced dad who no longer stalks through his town like its god-king.
Bobby has become a grateful survivor, with haunted eyes and a tendency to be overwhelmed by his past. Ashbrook, like attentive fans, finds the adult Bobby an organic continuation of the character he played twenty-five years ago. In fact, one extraordinary speech in the original series predicted his arc. As the actor recalls, “The relationship between my father” — Major Briggs, played by Don S. Davis — “and I was really important to the show. It’s interesting that [Frost and Lynch] ran with that scene from the second season where my father tells me that he had seen in a dream a positive future for me. Now they’ve made that vision happen.”
Ashbrook recalls the shooting of that scene, way back in 1990. At the Double R, Major Briggs asks his indifferent son how his day at school was and offers him a slice of pie and a reminder that the work the major does for the military is too classified to discuss. Then he recounts a dream: In “a palazzo of fantastic proportions” the major glimpsed a “gleaming, radiant marble” of light and then a version of Bobby living “a life of deep harmony and joy.” The major describes embracing this vision of his son: “We were in this moment one.” At first, the young man listening to this is stunned, even a little amused. Then come Bobby Briggs’s tears.
“It was an amazing scene that I believe Mark Frost wrote,” Ashbrook says. “David directed it, and Don was so, so good in it. They shot Don’s close-up first, and then they turned around to shoot my side. Don went off and talked to David — I have no idea what they were talking about — and then when he came back to do that speech off-camera for me [to react to], he was in tears himself. And that made me cry. He was amazing. I owe that scene all to them.” (Davis died in 2008.)
We discover the truth of the major’s vision in the fourth episode of The Return. Bobby, now a deputy working in the same sheriff’s department that once jailed him, spies a photo of Laura Palmer on the conference room table. For the first time in the series, we hear Badalamenti’s mounting, melodramatic “Laura Palmer’s Theme,” and Ashbrook’s face makes like the waterfall in the opening credits. Twin Peaks has always featured copious weeping, but this was an acting challenge of another order: Ashbrook had to walk in, hit his mark, and then — before viewers have gotten over the jolt of seeing the bad boy as upright cop — believably gush.
“I think it said in the script, ‘Bobby sees Laura Palmer’s picture and cries,’ ” he says. “I knew what I had to do, and when you work with David, you just trust everything. It’s a very safe environment. I had some good makeup people giving me some spray in the eyes to get me going.”
That reintroduction of Briggs strikes me as one of the most powerful moments in all of Twin Peaks and as something almost singular in our popular culture: Where, outside of the documentaries of Michael Apted, do you have the experience of being suddenly, deeply moved by the surprise of how someone you knew years before has turned out? I’ve only otherwise felt this in real life, remaking the acquaintance of long-gone peers I had never expected much of. Bobby’s weeping, back then and now, is raw, unembarrassed, almost a little out of his control. It shows us that the decent guy he’s become has been there all along.
Ashbrook takes no credit. “I’m humbled by the whole thing,” he says. “I got lucky. They wrote great stuff for me.”
Twin Peaks: The Return airs Sundays on Showtime.