Interview: Dana Ashbrook, Star of THE AGGRESSION SCALE and TWIN PEAKS

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Dana Ashbrook is an actor perhaps known best for his role as Twin Peaks' troubled quarterback Bobby Briggs. He began his career early, following in the footsteps of his sisters Daphne and Taylor Ashbrook with appearances in a number of TV shows. In 1990 he got his big break after being cast in David Lynch and Mark Frost’s seminal TV series.

Since Twin Peaks Ashbrook has racked up a number of roles in both film and television. His latest role as a put upon hit man in Steven C.Miller’s fantastic film The Aggression Scale is perhaps his best role in years. Whip thin and greying, Ashbrook cuts an impressively menacing figure throughout the film working again with Twin Peaks alum Ray Wise.

We got to grill the actor about The Aggression Scale as well as Twin Peaks, it was an enjoyably candid chat and Ashbrook has little in the way of pretension which made for an amusing interview…

*Warning – Minor spoilers for The Aggression Scale follow.

Starburst: Let’s talk about The Aggression Scale first, if we may - your role as Lloyd is one of the two pivotal performances in the film, how did you come to be involved?

Dana Ashbrook: Well they actually offered the movie to me, I was just kind of sitting around doing nothing and they came and gave me the script which I really liked. I was in New York and they were shooting the movie in Upstate New York so it wasn’t that far for me to go and it was great. I was looking at the part of either the husband or of Lloyd and I really responded to the part of Lloyd, it’s more fun to be the guy who is beating on people than the guy who is being beat up in general, just as a rule of thumb, and so when I talked to the makers on the phone they were great and it was one of the fastest things that I’ve done. We shot it so fast and it came out so good and was one of those things that could have gone either way.

What kind of preparation did you do for the role?

Well, y’know, I spent a few months being a hitman and all that but no I didn’t prepare that much. I got it a week before I went to the set so I just kind of developed the character on my own and did my own thing. The way I work is within the parameters of the script and then try and use my imagination, that’s how I prepared.

Apart from your role, there is the other major role of Owen (played by Ryan Hartwig) as this represents such a young kid doing such incredible acts of violence were you concerned going in at all? Was the screenplay darker at all than it ended up on screen?

Wow, y’know that’s really interesting, the first time I read it I remember telling my girlfriend that it seemed like Home Alone where this kid, instead of throwing paint cans, he’s into guns and ammo and making real booby traps and fucking guys up. That to me was interesting and I found it to be justified because they killed his dad; when someone kills your dad you can pretty much kill who you want right? At least in the movies (laughs). Yeah it is a violent movie; it starts off that way from the first scene. I steered clear of violent movies for a long time but it doesn’t bother me, If I go to a movie and there is violence then I can leave, know what I mean? I just saw Killer Joe, and it’s pretty violent against women man, I mean Gina Gershon takes a beating, at times in that I thought it was too much but it doesn’t offend me or anything as it’s art I guess.

One of the things that stood out for us watching The Aggression Scale was how confident everything about it was from the first frame onwards, the music and the editing just tell you this is going to an incredibly fun ride, how was it working with Steven C.Miller as director?

He’s great I think he is the reason it came out as good as it did. It was actually a pretty cool little group, it was a really small crew and we had the writer Ben (Powell) with us and we had a good producer Travis (Stevens) and also the people who were acting in the film. It was a really fast situation and it was shooting and moving very fast. I come from TV world so it wasn’t that big a deal to do a lot of pages (of script) a day but we were doing action sequences that fast and the guys were totally great. I trusted Steven as he had everything under control always from the first day I got there. The day I arrived was the day that Fabianne (Therese) put her hand through the window, I don’t know if you know that part of the movie? That really happened! She put her hand through the window and sliced her arm open so she had to play it out and they re-wrote the rest of the movie with her having this bandage on her arm. It was crazy and in a normal movie she probably would have been re-cast and it would have been re-shot but we just went with it (laughs). I credit Steven and Travis and that whole team that was working with it in making it good. These kind of movies they make tons of them, they make tons of genre movies that come out shitty, with a super low budget you never know, we just happened to have a cool script and there was a dynamic in there that was interesting and the fact that the girl was trying to work her own angle was kind of interesting. Yeah, it’s violent but it’s still got some cool twists and was still a cool movie.

On that point, looking through your filmography you don’t really have much involvement in horror films despite being in a couple fairly early on, was that intentional on your part? I imagine that every young actor in the business gets offered roles in horror films almost constantly.

No I just kind of stopped getting auditions for those kinds of movies. It wasn’t ever a conscious choice to stop doing any kind of genre it was just as an actor you audition for a lot of shitty shows on TV and if you get one then that is the path that your career is going to take, but if you get a good show then you are going to go that way. It’s like a crapshoot, it really is, because when you’re struggling then you’re auditioning for everything whether it’s a David Lynch show or a David Hasselhoff show, you know what I mean? Honestly when you’re young and hungry it’s like you need a job and you just get lucky. I got lucky as I happened to get a show with one of the better filmmakers of our time (laughs). It was just luck honestly.

How was it working with Ray Wise again on this film?

Great, and you know it’s actually the fourth time I’ve worked with Ray. I’ve worked with him more than any other guy in Hollywood. Twin Peaks was the first time and then I did Dawsons Creek with him; I did the Twin Peaks movie with him and then this. Ray is the best, he’s like my hero, he’s my idol if I could have anyone’s career it would be Ray Wise’s honestly. The guy works all the time and he does what he wants, he isn’t like a huge superstar and just does what he wants and he’s a great guy, a great actor. He’s done a ton of plays in New York and has a really great family. I met his daughter, we hung out when we did Psych. Oh, that’s the other thing I worked with him on, Psych, we did a Twin Peaks tribute episode!

That episode was called Dual Spires right?

Dual Spires yes (laughs). The guy who is on that show (Actor James Roday) is one of my best friends, he’s a huge Twin Peaks fan and he was trying to do an episode with me and Madchen (Amick, TP actress) anyway and it turned into this Twin Peaks tribute episode. He loved the show so he wrote a tribute episode (laughs).

If we can just talk about Twin Peaks for a while, when the show first came out it was a HUGE phenomenon worldwide, you literally couldn’t block it out if you tried, whilst all that was happening were you aware at all of how big it had become or were you too busy working on the show?

No way, not like today. I mean today it seems like everything gets blown up so huge so fast here. We did the pilot and then got picked up to do the next seven episodes before the pilot even aired, so we had started before anyone even knew what we were doing. So that was the purest form of doing it before any hype. After that came the hype during the summer and then we started the new season and it was what it was and it just became like this thing, I mean I was never able to travel to like Japan or when they went round the world promoting it, I was always working on something or whatever and didn’t end up going so I didn’t get the worldwide scope until much later when I would travel. I was in Bulgaria doing a movie and I found out that they would shut down the town of Sofia when Twin Peaks was on because everyone was watching it, it was insane and bizarre. Shit went on and I wouldn’t even know. Yeah I got a little vibe of it because it was easier to get jobs back then (laughs), that was one thing that was much easier for sure.

Bobby Briggs is kind of the high school jock gone incredibly bad but also has a goofy side to him, like in the scene where he first shows up at the high school and the girl tells him the principal wants to see him and he does this crazy little walk… how much of that was in the script and how much did you bring to the role?

It didn’t say in the script that he shuffles out backwards or anything like that. I was just goofing around but I really don’t remember, I know it wasn’t in the script though. At some point I was shuffling backwards and then when I went through the door I turned around like I was going to the principal’s office. I know that David (Lynch’s) idea was then that I do it backwards, like don’t stop and turn and keep going backwards through the door which was funny I thought and bizarre and kooky. It was his idea for me to walk in and put my hands up in the victory stance like I was so great too but I don’t know if that stuff was in the script or if it was his idea on the set. I can’t remember but y’know he was awesome with ideas, you could throw stuff at him and if he didn’t like it he would shoot it down but if he did he would go with it.

You have a wonderful chemistry with Madchen Amick who played Shelly on the show, was that there off camera and how did the two of you get that going?

No actually I met her only at dinner once before, when we got cast in LA I had never met her. I had a meeting with David Lynch and Mark Frost and Johanna Ray the casting director and I just talked to them about stuff and then I went in for a rehearsal, it wasn’t called an audition it was a rehearsal and it was me and some girl who was playing Shelly and the next thing I knew I was testing and I never saw that girl again and I don’t remember her name. Madchen got cast from the other auditions they had and then we tested and that was it, so I only met her once before up in Seattle at a dinner and the chemistry we had was due to us being friends, we still are friends and she is just a great girl. She had a boyfriend at the time and they ended up married and had kids, she is still married to him and she is just an awesome person and we were both young, she was 19 and I was 22 and it just worked.

Throughout Twin Peaks, chronologically from the prequel film onwards, you get the sense that Bobby was going off the rails spectacularly and he kind of almost gets stopped in his tracks by Laura’s death and redeems himself somewhat come the ending. Whilst in production were you aware of the massive arc this character is on? 

No I don’t know, honestly I don’t know if anyone knew if we had anything like that planned for Bobby (laughs). I mean they would write for me and they would soften my character up as time went on and that was their choice. When you are on serious television they will use your personality and incorporate it into the character. Even on something as great as Twin Peaks I think they will do that when you get to know the writers and get friendly with them and they see your work and see you act in a social setting, they start to think of you when they are writing and they might try and lean more towards what they think is your strong points or whatever. They try and use a little more of your personality.

What is your opinion of the final episode of Twin Peaks?

I don’t even know the last time I saw it, maybe ten years ago! I have no idea, I don’t know what was going on there. I know that the scene we shot in the Diner which was a repeat of the scene in the pilot we had shot for a Japanese coffee commercial, the German’s are always on time thing, there were two Japanese actors in the same scene as well it was really funny. I couldn’t tell you though, I don’t know man, I have no idea. I’ll leave it up to the people that watch it, the fans.

There is always talk online that Twin Peaks is going to return in some form or another, if this were to happen would you want to be involved and how would you want to see it come back?

Of course I would want to be involved but I just can’t see it happening, not in a million years. I mean what would they do thirty years later? I don’t ever see it happening because I don’t think David wants to fuck with it. Why would you want to fuck with it? I mean they are making musicals out of every old TV show, they bring back 90210, they bring back every old series like Hawaii Five-O. I mean what are they going to do, remake it? Can’t it just be what it was and good? Feels like it would kind of cheapen it. I mean Arrested Development is back in production and I’m all for it, it was awesome and I love that show and I can’t wait to see what they do but that’s a different show and a way different vibe, know what I mean? And so many people have moved on and passed on and I would work with David on anything, don’t get me wrong, I mean if he wanted me to read the phone book in Times Square I’d do it every step.

The Aggression Scale is out now on DVD, and is reviewed HERE.

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