Brett Gelman had no idea what was going on. He arrived on the set of “Twin Peaks” to play Burns, the supervisor of a casino where a dazed Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) was winning one jackpot after another. Other than that? Pure mystery. Somehow, the long-lost FBI agent had escaped the interdimensional “Black Lodge” where the show had left him trapped 25 years ago. Gelman’s character was tasked with confronting Cooper about his massive haul. In between takes, Gelman recalled saying to MacLachlan, “I can’t wait to see what this all means.”
“Yeah,” MacLachlan replied, “Me too.”
Lynch’s latest round of episodes with the cult show was surrounded by so much secrecy in the months leading up to its premiere that even the actors were left in the dark. Gelman only found out about his role from his Los Angeles neighbor, Johanna Ray, who happened to be the show’s casting director. When she brought him in for an audition, the actor said, “It was just a chill talk.” He wasn’t given any lines to read or even the description of a character; Lynch himself was not present. “I had no idea what the plan was,” Gelman said. “It was just a conversation.” A few days later, he was informed that he’d been cast as Supervisor Burns.
“I didn’t know what that meant,” Gelman recalled. “I don’t know what Mr. Lynch’s process was. I’d be too intimated to ask him.”
A few days before the shoot, Gelman received a physical copy of the script that only contained pages with his scenes (so far, he has only appeared in two episodes). “It was so intense,” Gelman recalled. The script contained a note emphasizing the confidentiality of the material. “It said not to share anything about your scenes and not to tell anyone you’re involved,” he said. He was required to return the material to a producer after the shoot so they could be destroyed. “That was cool,” Gelman said with a laugh.
Once on set, however, Gelman discovered a relaxed atmosphere. “There was no creepy vibe,” he said. “It was all kindhearted and open. Everybody was really happy to be a part of that. It was everybody’s dream, and Lynch is an intensely positive person.”
Gelman’s casting speaks to one notable attribute in this new string of episodes — roles for comedic actors. Michael Cera crops up as “Wally Brando,” the son of Twin Peaks police department staffers Andy and Lucy, and Jim Belushi appears as well. Gelman, who’s best known for Adult Swim comedy series and currently appears on the Amazon/ BBC series “Fleabag,” commended the decision to inject humor into the show. “A lot of times, comedic actors are discriminated against,” he said. “People just assume they can’t do something other than what they do, rather than thinking, oh wait — doing what they do normally is really hard.”
On set, Lynch gave the actor plenty of leeway. “I think he was down for it to be funny or down for it to be terrifying,” Gelman said. “There’s something really malicious about my character. But he was basically telling me, ‘You’re in real trouble. This guy just broke the bank in this casino. You don’t know what’s going on with this guy. How he could do something like that? You’re trying to find out what it’s all about.’”
Terms like “malicious” do apply to many of Gelman’s other roles, despite his comedic resumé. With his wife and frequent collaborator Janicza Bravo, Gelman has starred in a number of shorts and one feature — the 2017 Sundance premiere “Lemon,” which opens theatrically in August — in which he plays a near-psychotic loner whose very existence gives off uneasy vibes pitched somewhere between black comedy and abject terror. In “Lemon,” he plays Isaac, a self-absorbed theater director who routinely alienated himself from the world around him; throughout the movie, funny scenes often turn disturbing as Isaac’s interactions with others reach cringe-inducing extremes.
Gelman, who shares a screenwriting credit on “Lemon” with his wife, finds the roots of this multifaceted experiences in Lynch’s own work. “He’s a total hero of mine,” Gelman said. “Talk about a guy who lets a moment be a moment. He’s the ultimate. I find a lot of his work insanely funny. But some people might look at those same moments and be really disturbed by them.”
When “Twin Peaks” premiered in Los Angeles, Gelman and Bravo were in Seattle for a film festival screening of “Lemon,” so he watched the first episode when it premiered on Showtime. “I had no idea what episode I was in,” he said. “It’s a good thing I’m such a massive fan so I didn’t need to clock when I show up.” Fortunately, like many diehard “Twin Peaks” fans, he’s been satisfied with the results so far. “It is pure surrealist art on television,” Gelman said. “He fucking goes for it, even more than in the original series.”
Lynch may be the biggest name director in Gelman’s filmography to date, but he said he’s getting a different closeup view on the filmmaking process at home. “Working with Janicza is just as exciting,” Gelman said. “She’s somebody who has an incredibly strong perspective and vision of what her work should be. She’s an auteur, which is in some ways more exciting to me that I’m on the ground floor with somebody building her career.”
So will Supervisor Burns show up again as “Twin Peaks” continues its 18-episode arc? “I cannot say,” Gelman said with a grin, “but that’s not hard, because I don’t know anything.”