Compiled several years ago as part of an abandoned project, this filmography represents almost every film and TV appearance made by Sheryl Lee, alongside brief contextual notes. Sheryl Lee is, far and away, most famous for her role as Laura Palmer, "the dead girl" in the TV series Twin Peaks (1990-91). More importantly, when the murder victim was resurrected for the prequel film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992), Lee gave a performance that can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with acclaimed David Lynch heroines Naomi Watts (Mulholland Drive), Isabella Rossellini (Blue Velvet) or Laura Dern (Inland Empire).
But what of Lee's non-Laura roles? Probably due in part to the dismal critical and box-office reception of Fire Walk With Me, Lee's career never went in the direction of, say, a Lara Flynn Boyle (who notably snubbed Lynch's request to appear in the Twin Peaks prequel). Sticking to offbeat independent films rather than major studio productions may have reflected her own interests as well. At times this an obscure filmography - many of these movies never got the distribution they deserved - but it's often more interesting than a conventional Hollywood career. Lee's work is regularly committed, brave, and subtle; she remains one of the film industry's most underrated actresses and hopefully her appearance in the renewed Twin Peaks can elevate her profile even more.
In the meantime, here is (most of) her film/TV since the eighties. Further context for this post follows the lineup. The descriptions may be a tad spoiler-y here and there; I wanted to point out connections to Laura Palmer which sometimes entail plot twists. Avoiding any big plot giveaways except where noted, I'd still advise you to peruse the text at your own (slight) risk. Personally I think her most interesting work is in Backbeat, Homage, Bliss, and especially Mother Night (for more on that film, check out this fantastic episode of the Projection Booth podcast). In truth, however, she's consistently dedicated to all of her roles, sometimes more than the material deserves,other times ensuring that it lives up to its promise.
Sheryl Lee Filmography (with pictures)
• To avoid the expense of flying an L.A. actress to Seattle just to play a corpse, Lynch and Frost cast an unknown local. This decision would radically alter not only Lee's career, but the arc of Twin Peaks.
• Deeply impressed with Lee's work, the writers created a recurring part for her, as Laura's "identical cousin" who investigates her death.
• Suspended from the air in a Wizard of Oz costume, Lee's cameo marks her only non-Twin Peaks Lynch collaboration - no, that's not her at Club Silencio!
• Lee met with the real Bailey before playing her in this TV movie about sexual abuse, murder, and family dysfunction. Fire Walk With Me actress Moira Kelly is her sister, and we see a picture of a white horse when she commits a murder. (Here's an article where Lee talks briefly about the role.)
David Duchovney, who hosted the erotic HBO series, also appears within this particular episode as photographer Lyons' love interest.
• Twenty-two years later, Lee shared a new poem and diary entry from the time of the production, documenting the intensity of her relationship with this character, and how it has haunted her ever since.
• The villainess of this romantic comedy, Tara is a wealthy, professional Manhattanite competing with an Italian-American girl from New Jersey for the affection of Dermot Mulroney. The look of this character is probably why Lee had to wear a wig in Fire Walk With Me.
• Having lived with a Native American tribe since childhood, Catherine initially has trouble communicating with the white townspeople. Then she forges a connection with Dr. Quinn's love interest, much to the doctor's irritation.
• A highly revisionist take on the Guinevere legend, this Lifetime miniseries is based on Persia Woolley's novels.
• A very, very nineties Gen-X indie romance, the film co-stars James Marshall and Heather Graham, who played James and Annie on Twin Peaks, plus - for further nineties Lynch connections - Lost Highway's Balthazar Getty and the sister of Patricia Arquette.
• For several years after Twin Peaks, Lee was cast in straightforward roles that didn't have much to do with Laura Palmer. This film, in which she plays a TV star murdered by an obsessive fan (Frank Whaley) who is living with her mother (Blythe Danner) on the family farm, starts a new trend of more complex Laura-inflected characters.
• This fifties-set heist film features a clash between hardened pros (led by Mickey Rourke) and juvenile delinquents in over their head. Patty initially appears to be a horny civilian caught up in the crime, but as the name suggests (again evoking Twin Peaks doubling), there's more to her than that.
• During the French and Indian War, Ingles escaped from her Shawnee captors and trekked through the woods back to her town. Lee depicts her with down-to-earth naturalness and larger-than-life fortitude.
• As a vulnerable, abused prostitute (one very different yet nonetheless overlapping with Laura), Lee - and Henry Czerna - update Dostoevsky's classic to a nineties setting.
• In half of a dual role, Lee plays the German wife of Howard W. Campbell, Jr. (Nick Nolte), a Nazi propagandist and American double agent. Glamorous, blonde...and dead, the connection to Laura is obvious...
• ...especially once Lee reappears as Helga's little sister, a down-to-earth brunette in her golden relative's shadow. This Vonnegut adaptation offers my second-favorite Lee role - poignant and genuinely funny.
• Co-starring with Twin Peaks alum Billy Zane, Lee plays a cop who gets entangled with a steamy menage a trois; again, though, Lois has secrets she hides from the audience and other characters.
• In a made-for-TV Biblical epic co-starring Leonard Nimoy and Jonathan Pryce, Lee plays the infamous object of the king's desire, helpless to avoid his obsession. This was the fourth and last time Lee played a famous historical/mythological figure. It's also one of the first of many times she played a mother (aside from her work as a teen parent in Loves, Lies, and Murder).
• A newlywed experiencing sexual dysfunction pursues Tantric treatment with her husband (Craig Sheffer). This unlocks repressed traumas, directly linking up to Lee's work as Laura and leading to a powerful monologue at the film's climax.
• As the spouse of a Meditarranean lothario who seduces his friend's ambivalent wife, this is one of the few times Lee feels slightly miscast (or perhaps misdirected); probably the other role would have been better for her.
• (spoilers) Prostitute-turned-vampire Katrina has little power in the story which is too bad - initially I expected her to be the villainous Master in disguise.
• (spoilers not that it matters - this series is presently impossible to see) Lee's only role as a series lead lasted a full season but even if the show hadn't been cancelled she probably wouldn't have come back - the character dies in the finale.
• Two frustrated L.A. professionals (William Peterson and Gary Cole) escape to a Pacific island and fall in love with an Australian tourist. At times, the absorbing story teeters on the edge of explicitly MRA midlife crisis fantasy but Lee brings a warm humanity to the role, always evoking sympathy for Andy.
• The best thing this B crime movie has going for it is the re-pairing of Lee with her Twin Peaks mom, Grace Zabriskie, who plays an eccentric motel administrator.
• Twisty and silly (but totally and cheerfully committed to its silliness), this crime comedy depicts a frumpy young woman transformed into a sleek killer to protect herself from a hitman (Kyle Chandler). Lee is paired with future Twin Peaks 2017 co-star Jim Belushi as the hitman's boss.
• In this black comedy, a jealous wife reports that her husband is missing, but the detective slowly discovers more is going on.
• A muddled adaptation of Truman Capote's story (fans decried the changed ending) nonetheless features a touching performance by Lee as a young widow, which launches what might be called the "mother" phase of her career. A scene in which she dances tenderly with her son recalls, in a less sinister vein, the dancing motif of Twin Peaks.
• The wife of a drug lord, Marlene is herself addicted to cocaine and ends up in rehab.
• The detectives begin to wonder how much the wife of a man who went missing after his high school reunion knows about his secret life.
• Lee was originally cast as the narrator of Desperate Housewives who kills herself in the pilot episode and recites the rest from beyond the grave. However, after the series was picked up, the pilot was reshot and Lee was replaced by Brenda Strong (who played Jones in Twin Peaks).
• An over-the-hill actor clashes with the cast and crew of a low-budget indie shot in his hometown; Lee plays the mother of his child co-star who takes him to task for his behavior.
• Peyton Sawyer (Hilarie Burton) finally meets her deadbeat mom. In a Twin Peaks nod, death is associated with a vinyl record rotating in a playout groove.
• The mother of a boy who believes he has been attacked by aliens, Stephanie is frustrated with his lack of treatment; it's up to the cranky doctor to figure out the situation.
• In this Lifetime movie, a woman who shelters abused women becomes a murder suspect when other abusers turn up dead.
• The mother of a woman whose daughter was killed in a drunk-driving accident discovers a shocking twist after the crippled driver is murdered in her hospital bed.
• Lee's brief appearance in Kevin Smith's adaptation of a British comedy (this American version was never picked up) is directed by a Twin Peaks director who hadn't gotten to work with Lee on that show.
• Lee plays the Russian mother of a child in therapy. This short-lived dramedy was created by Amy Bloom and stars Lili Taylor as a psychiatrist undergoing a marital crisis.
• (spoilers) On Bryan Singer's Arrested Development-style series, Lee plays a character facing death. All save one of Lee's recurring TV characters face similar fates - will Andrea get a miracle?
• Lee has a small but memorable role as the girlfriend of Jennifer Lawrence's missing dad. The film was a big success and she picked up several awards as part of the ensemble.
• Janet, the conniving wife of a governor, is drawn into a murder case and possible cover-up when a staffer is killed before a rally.
• In one of several clever twists, Dr. Gooden appears alongside dead teen Paula Merral (an anagram for "Laura Palmer"), wrapped in plastic by a lake. This loving tribute to Twin Peaks reunites dozens of cast members from the series.
• This Southern crime flick anticipates True Detective in many ways, but was unfairly savaged by critics. Lee plays the mother of Chloe Grace Moretz.
• And then, in this short feature from the Twin Peaks: The Entire Mystery blu-ray set, Lee plays another youthful spirit in a mature body, to eerier effect. Lynch interviews all three Palmers, some from beyond the grave.
• Araki, a very vocal fan of Fire Walk With Me, cast Lee in a small role as the new girlfriend of Shailene Woodley's widowed dad.
• Casting Lee as Katherine Heigl's mother (!) is a stretch; nonetheless it's nice to see Mann and Lee collaborate again in this charming, underrated romance.
• Still making festival rounds, this atmospheric St. Louis drama features one of Lee's most promising roles, as a romantic lead. (Plus Grace Zabriskie plays her mom.)
Here's the big wild card. We presume Sheryl Lee will play Laura again - somehow, somewhere - but don't really know anything about her involvement with the new series...except that she definitely is involved.
Not pictured/Additional Titles: I couldn't find any footage or even stills of Sheryl Lee in The Can (circa 1980s - 1994) or much of her more recent work, including an episode of Rosewood (2016) and her appearance in Woody Allen's Cafe Society and Dead Ink Archive (2016). If any reader can provide or point me to relevant images, particularly actual screencaps (to fit the format), I will add them to the list so it can be both complete and illustrated.
A note on awards (contains spoilers for Twin Peaks): Commendably, the Independent Spirit Awards gave Lee a nomination for her work in Fire Walk With Me (Fairuza Balk won for Gas Food Lodging that year). She was also nominated, alongside a very competitive field including Rebecca DeMornay, Virginia Madson, Winona Ryder, Sharon Stone, Meryl Streep, and Sigourney Weaver, for a Saturn Award from the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films. Lee was nominated for another Saturn as Best Supporting Actress in Vampires and for a Prism Award - honoring performances that raise awareness about drug addiction - for Kingpin.
As part of the Winter's Bone ensemble she received a nomination from the San Diego Film Critics Society and awards from the Detroit Film Critics Society and Gotham Independent Film Awards. She also won the "Spirit of Sundance" award at the Sundance Film Festival in 1995.
Lee's most unusual nomination was for "Best Death Scene: Prime Time" (yes, that is a real category!!) at the 1992 Soap Opera Digest Awards. The scene was from the second season Twin Peaks "killer's reveal" episode, when Maddy Ferguson is murdered. This is one of Lynch's most searing pieces of work, with an absolutely harrowing, devastating performance from Lee. It should be on any shortlist for most powerful TV sequences of all time...
...and it lost to this scene from Dallas. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Background for the filmography
Several years ago, following my Fire Walk With Me discussion series with Tony Dayoub and the extensive coverage of my "David Lynch Month," I planned to hone in on an aspect of the film that I hadn't been able to explore in much depth: Sheryl Lee's remarkable performance. Back in 2008, when I first saw the film, I was blown away by her work - not just because it was so good, but because I'd heard so little about the actress outside of this context. I went on to watch one or two of her other films at this time (and, as it turned out, had already seen her in Backbeat during my Beatles craze several years earlier), but there didn't seem to be that much available at this time.
In 2014, as I set out to craft an in-depth analysis of her performance (which was never written), I thought it would be a good idea to supplement it with a filmography of her work. And in the six years since my first viewing of Fire Walk With Me, many more films had become available online. Between Netflix DVD, streaming, Amazon, and other resources I was able to find almost of all her films and TV appearances, selecting images to illustrate the filmography and viewing as many as I could. As it turned out, my attention eventually shifted to interviews with Twin Peaks authors and ultimately my video series Journey Through Twin Peaks (highlighted just yesterday on the popular fan site Welcome to Twin Peaks).
Through these endeavors, I was able to address Lee's contributions to the film. I never found the time to create either the standalone acting analysis nor the other performance pieces I hoped to compile into a series (Ruan Lingyu in The Goddess and Bing Crosby in The Country Girl were among others planned). Actually breaking down and describing the alchemy of a screen performance is tricky to begin with - especially when the tenor of the work feels more intuitive than technical. I still might pursue it someday, but for now my "Great Performances" series is one of many never-quite-begun projects over a decade of Lost in the Movies.
However, I'm glad that I've finally been able to publish this filmography. Hopefully I can update it with the two missing films or anything else I've overlooked.