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'Laura Palmer' Lives : But Death Takes Few Holidays in Sheryl Lee's Acting Career

February 17, 1991|DANIEL CERONE | Times Staff Writer

Sitting at lunch in a fine French restaurant in Hollywood--her elbows resting lightly on the white linen tablecloth, a shock of blond hair falling into her eyes, her husky voice filling the light airy room--actress Sheryl Lee discussed death.

"I don't think death is a negative thing at all. I think it can be very positive. I read a wonderful quote the other day that said death is like taking off a tight shoe. And I think that's brilliant. We're sort of stuck in these bodies here trying to deal, and that kind of freedom of taking off a tight shoe is truly what I believe death will be."

Lee, perhaps better known as the enigmatic Laura Palmer on "Twin Peaks," stars in the NBC miniseries "Love, Lies and Murder," airing Sunday and Monday at 9 p.m., which is based on a true Orange County case.

Lee's character, Patti Bailey, is a Garden Grove teen-ager who confessed to conspiracy in the nightmarish murder of her older sister.

"I was trying to think the other day if I had ever had a role that didn't deal with death in some way, shape or form," Lee said.

Part of that may be because of her association with director David Lynch, who puts his obsessively dark mind up for display with each new project. Lee seems to have joined Lynch's stock company of actresses that includes Isabella Rossellini and Laura Dern.

Lee, 23, made her screen debut last year in Lynch's "Twin Peaks" as the murdered corpse of Laura Palmer. She was brought back by Lynch as Madeleine Ferguson, Laura Palmer's strikingly similar brunette cousin, and then killed off a second time. Lynch used her once more last year as a garish Good Witch in his dark film "Wild at Heart."

"Society has a fascination with death," Lee said. "I mean, if Laura Palmer had lived, I don't think half as many people would know who she was. So I can understand that. There's something about death. It's like trying to understand our own mortality and immortality. That's why society is so into things like vampires, because they don't die. Well, why don't they die?"

Even though "Twin Peaks" continues to slough along with low ratings, the media seems to have a love affair with the twisted drama. As a result, Lee as Laura--she says to most they're the same person--got swept up in the romance. Esquire even selected Laura Palmer as one of the magazine staff's most-loved women of 1990.

But before Lee appeared in that fuzzy picnic video in "Twin Peaks," before she had a mysterious letter R dug from her fingernail by Agent Cooper and long before anyone, anywhere thought to ask "Who killed Laura Palmer?" Lee was a workaday stage actress paying her dues in Seattle.

She was reared in Boulder, Colo., where her father was an architect, her mother an artist and her older sister a professional pianist. Lee wanted to be a dancer, but turned to acting when a knee injury made it too difficult to continue. While living in Seattle, Lee's head shot was spotted by Lynch, who hired her for "Twin Peaks." She eventually relocated to Los Angeles and shared a house with five friends.

Now she owns her own Hollywood Hills home. But she is quick to put down the notion that her success was sudden. "The public sees it as overnight stardom," she said, "because one day they don't know who you are and the next day they do. They don't see all the years you've been working and studying and auditioning. It just sort of depends on whose point of view you're taking as to what's overnight stardom."

Lee returned to her modest beginnings during the filming of "Love, Lies and Murder," her first starring role. She rented a small hotel room at the Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles and lived in it during the entire shoot. "I knew that I needed to be alone, even feel lonely at times," she said. "I needed privacy to deal with the stuff that the role was bringing up in me."

One of the greatest challenges in producing "Love, Lies and Murder" was making an unbelievable murder case appear believable. Writer and co-executive producer Danielle Hill, who sat through the Orange County case for two years with her husband, Tim, based the miniseries on their personal notes, court records and taped recordings, including 300 single-space pages of interviews with Bailey.

The miniseries unravels the winding tale of David Brown (played by Clancy Brown), a manipulative sociopath who pressured his 14-year-old daughter, Cinnamon (Moira Kelly), into shooting her stepmother. Brown then preyed upon and married his dead wife's 17-year-old sister, Bailey.

To prepare for the role, Lee went to visit Bailey, now 23, at the California Youth Authority in Camarillo where she is serving her sentence. "I wanted to meet her," Lee said. "I made sure it was OK with her, because if it wasn't I wouldn't have pushed it. But I just thought, you know, I would want to know who was playing me, and meet them and talk to them."

Lee paused and bowed her head. "I have so much respect for her courage. I have no idea what it must feel like to have your life portrayed on national television, the most personal parts of your life. I certainly wouldn't do it. I love her for this. The main reason she supports the miniseries is because she wants to help others who might be controlled in an abusive relationship like she was."

Lee is patiently going to auditions in search of her next acting project. She hopes her role as Bailey will distinguish her as an actress, instead of a dead prom queen on a TV series.

"Love, Lies and Murder" airs Sunday and Monday at 9 p.m. on NBC.

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