Our adult hero for this issue of Spilt Arts is the kind and talented actress, author, teacher, and activist, Sherilyn Fenn. Ms. Fenn has been acting in countless movies and television shows, most notably on Showtime’s “Rude Awakening,” “Gilmore Girls,” “Ray Donovan,” and “Shameless.” She has also reprised her role as Audrey Horne in the new season of “Twin Peaks” and has written a children’s book entitled No Man’s Land.
Spilt Arts: Can you please tell us about your childhood growing up in Michigan and having the courage to move out to Los Angeles? That must have been quite an adjustment.
Sherilyn Fenn: Well, like many of us, it wasn’t ideal. My mother got married many times, I think altogether 8 times in her life. There was a lot of bumping around and moving around and different fathers. She wanted to move out to LA because she had a sister here and I was 17 so it wasn’t as courageous to be honest. It wasn’t just taking off and moving alone, I was with my mother and under my mother’s wing at that point.
I think life has a plan and life always has a plan, and to us it seems like a fluke because it wasn’t something I wanted to do, acting. I just fell into it. It’s not a very exciting story.
SA: No it is because a lot of our kids get moved around a lot and have parents with multiple partners and that’s incredibly difficult to deal with. Did you have any coping mechanisms while all of that was happening?
SF: The interesting thing is that at the core, I can completely relate to what you’re saying because I felt like I was the grown up around a bunch of children. They were supposed to be the grown ups and I learned really early on that I was the one taking care of myself and figuring it out. A lot of the times, they were showing me who not to be in my life. I’ve always had a strong belief in God, not any organized religion, but I’ve always felt that they could do this or that but I could fly away. A part of me has the ability to go to a place, fly away, and be okay where all of this is just a strange, sometimes horrific, sometimes incredibly beautiful dream. So yes, I think there was a kind of fantasy life that I could just go to and maybe block things out and maybe keep me a little naïve about certain situations.
The coolest thing about what I learned about acting and how acting changed my life was that I was always going from role to role because you go to a new environment and new school and there’s almost a new person created to see where you’re going to fit in. Sometimes you have to change who you are to fit in if you want friends and I thought that was an interesting preparation for acting because who would have known?
SA: Do you have any advice for our kids who are going through that kind of upheaval or change in their lives?
SF: For me, what I learned but still struggle with at 52, is that there’s a brainwashing when we’re little and our parents or caregivers are gods and they should love us deeply and take care of us and cherish us. But often, that wasn’t done to them so they don’t have the tools. It’s just such an intense thing.
SA: Do you think growing up as a girl it was harder? Because I can see where it’s more difficult being a girl in some ways and having certain obstacles but they reach out to each other more whereas society tells boys to be stoic and silent. It’s estimated that 85% of our girls have been abused, which I think is low balling it and the boys’ numbers are even lower because they don’t report it.
SF: Yes, women are taught to be pretty and be this way or that way and live happily ever after and I learned at 52, just aren’t true. Happiness in life comes in moments. There’s always going to be sadness. I have two sons, and grew up with two brothers, and with all the fathers coming and going I had a very distorted prospective on men. But birthing and raising two boys, I saw that they are equally as sensitive as we are, and they’re almost more in their essence. They’re less sophisticated but more open. Girls are sexualized when at a young age and how do you keep that innocence safe? It’s brutal. There’s something about how we can’t change the past but we can only change how we view it. In every burden there’s a great blessing. The things that have hurt me the deepest, that pain has retreated and I’ve been filled with love.
What is our perception? If they’re so close to their teens and there’s an anger and sadness, rightly so. However, focusing on any of that will do no healing at all. No healing comes from that. Where do I go from here? Do I become another statistic or another victim? At a certain point, we have to parent ourselves, love ourselves, and take care of ourselves. If we decide to have children, that’s where we have the chance to change this cycle of abuse. It ends here. My child will not be abused, in whatever multiple forms that there are abuse.
The hardest thing I’ve ever had to do was birth my first child at home with a midwife. It was ridiculous. It was so hard and I thought was going to die but there he was and I didn’t fight it. At 52, I know that you can’t fight the reality and there is dark. But how do we negotiate it so that we don’t let it ruin us or destroy the love and joy that also exists?
SA: There seems to be an interesting dichotomy of actors being extremely sensitive and wanting to be accepted but there’s also the confidence that’s necessary to struggle and go through with auditions and being rejected. Did you have an a-ha moment for you or was it a natural progression to pursue acting?
SF: It was right after shooting the Twin Peaks pilot and I found a teacher who changed my life. That’s why I’m starting to teach acting in classes and through Skype. My a-ha moment was when my teacher said, “you know that messed up childhood? Let me show you what a gift it is.” Acting is not pretending. You have to have a more important reason for being at an audition than to get the job. It requires you to know where you are, honestly-what am I working on? What am I disappointed in?-work comes in and mirrors what’s going on. All you have is your truth. Whatever your imaginary story is will never be as good and potent as your truth and you take your literal life and breathe that into these pages so that they become something different.
When I would go when I was younger, I wanted them to like me and think I’m pretty. They would ask “do you have any questions?” And I would always ask, “well, how do you see her?” In my mind, before this teacher who changed my life, I just wanted to get the job. And I felt like an empty Barbie that they dressed up and it makes creative work seem very choppy. You find weird miracles like little things that happened in my life and would happen in work. I truly believe that an unexamined life is one that is not worth living. It could be a great reading and you still don’t get a job for factors or any multitude of reasons that have nothing to do with you. It’s a business that’s 98% rejection, but the world does that. I choose to focus on what is going right.
SA: Have you had those moments where you were so deep in darkness that you couldn’t see the world?
SF: Of course! I still have them sometimes. There’s so much going on in the world right now. Seeing the madness in the world and the things that are unseen. Having something bigger than the world, whether it’s God or whatever, helps me reach out for tools to look at things in a different perspective. A few months ago, (there were financial issues), and I had to move and get together so much money for first and last month’s rent and I didn’t realize that I had been depressed. I saw that I had a choice to get up move. Watch Tony Robbins, someone who went through so much abuse, and went on to help not just regular Joes like you and me, but huge people to ensure that they don’t have to go through the pain that he did.
SA: It seems like human beings tend to complicate things.
SF: Well, the crazy ones do. Truth is always simple, clear, and potent. It’s okay not to know things. But we just make things a lot harder than they need to be.
SA: Society doesn’t seem to allow you to not know things. It makes you think that you need some kind of game plan.
SF: It’s true. We have so many voices in our heads but you have to listen for that quiet one that whispers to you. That’s the one that speaks the truth, even if it means not knowing and just being present.
SA: Did your desire to help vulnerable people like children intensify when you became a mother?
SF: I think it’s always been there. The big problem of injustice. Probably because I was in those situations myself. When you get older and see that happening, it becomes harder to not say something. Children, we have to honor and love them and nurture them in every way. They’re so vulnerable and a time of who am I? Especially the kids (Spilt) works with, they’re old enough to know things and that’s why we need people to go against what my therapist said, “the fatal flaws of cowardice.” Martin Luther King, Jr. also said we can’t just sit by and not do things while watching them happen.
A cool thing that happened was right before I met David Lynch, I met a manager and she took me to her Christmas party. And I was a young girl from Michigan, and she said that she was watching me at a party and wanted me to know that good directors want you to know who you are and be that person. She gave me permission to be myself. The very next audition was David Lynch. I went in there with I’m shy when I meet people and it was my first time allowing myself to be myself. And I got a role written just for me that changed my life. Audrey Horne was not in Twin Peaks. She was not in the script. But David said that had I not walked into the office, Audrey Horne would not have been on the show. That was such a cool verification of be yourself and believe that your story is unique. And you can truly express that in whatever way you see fit, and it is in our hands to change things.
SA: Is that what led to you writing your book?
SF: I was inspired to write the book because my second child is on the Autism spectrum. It’s kind of about Christian because he would always say no even when he meant yes and I wanted to be connected to kids in whatever way I can. The publisher said that even we grown ups will go to “no man’s land” and we’re stuck in no. We’re afraid for some reason. But we can slowly come out of this slumber.
You can watch Sherilyn Fenn in the new season of “Twin Peaks” on Sundays on Showtime, starting May 21. You can purchase her book, No Man’s Land on Amazon and her website: http://www.sherilynfenn.love