Alicia Witt has been in show business since Van Halen released 1984, when the then 7-year-old was cast in David Lynch’s Dune. Graduating high school at 14, the piano prodigy began acting full-time at 16 and also served a teenaged stint as the in-house pianist in a couple upscale, Los Angeles hotels. She has since and gone on to direct, score and act in numerous films (directed by everyone from John Waters to Cameron Crowe), theater productions, and some truly iconic television like The Sopranos episode ‘D-Girl’ (that “Quentin is friend” line people still drop was delivered by Witt). Her return to Lynch’s world in Twin Peaks as Gerstan Hayward -who plays Leland Palmer through a musical breakdown- was one of the most memorable scenes in the show’s history. We talked to Witt about the experience, her new record, old characters and good advice.
Some of the songs on the new record Revisionary History have been in the works for ten years – where are you at with the material at this point? Is live performance bringing a new life to the songs or are you itching to write and perform new stuff?
I haven’t gotten to the point where I’m tired of playing any of my songs – it’s honestly such a thrill to play them both for people who have never heard them before and also for people who are familiar enough with them that they’re mouthing the words and requesting favorites at a show.
That being said, I’ve already written tons of new songs since I finished recording this album and I’m loving playing those at my live shows as well.
What type of piano do you write/practice on? What do you prefer in the studio and on tour?
I love Steinways and Yamahas. At home I have a Steinway Baby Grand, but on the road it just depends what the venue has. Often I’ll play a keyboard at shows, because unless the stage is placed a certain way, it’s actually easier to connect with the audience while I’m singing that way, so I’m not facing away from them.
You’ve stated you draw musical inspiration from your characters; Can you talk about the process of getting in someone’s head musically and when building a character?
That’s a great question! I’m honestly not sure what my process is when I’m getting in someone’s head for a character – it’s just something that sort of happens. The song ‘Down’ on Revisionary History was specifically inspired by my character Wendy Crowe on Justified and her experience through the season that I was on – being stuck in that world and finding herself at a crossroads of wanting to find a way to put it behind her finally, to the best of her abilities. Something about this song also somehow feels like it already existed and it just came through me while I was playing the character – but it’s really about any situation where you’re tired of being weighed down by your history and forever mired in where you came from.
With all of John Waters’ movies getting remade into musicals the time seems right for a Cecil B. DeMented revival – What kind of number would you write for Cherish?
Most definitely a song about gerbil porn.
You’ve often been cast because of your musical ability – it certainly lent itself to that very memorable episode of Twin Peaks. What was it like in the Lynch-iverse? That must have been an intense, dramatic experience at 14?
It was great to get to work with David again! He’s really the reason that I got into the acting business, and if my first experience hadn’t been so great I’m not sure I ever would’ve wanted to do it again. As a seven-year-old, I didn’t know anyone, so working on Dune was an entirely new world – and it was largely because of David and his kindness and unique vision that I knew I wanted to do this for the rest of my life. When I moved out to LA at 14 he wrote me that part on Twin Peaks to kind of help me get started again in the business I think – and then I got to work with him again in the HBO movie Hotel Room opposite Crispin Glover.
You’ve had roles in some films and television shows with very “avid fan-bases.” Without rewarding their bad behavior – what’s the nuttiest thing a super fan has done in your presence?
There have certainly been a few doozies! But one that comes to mind – which was really very sweet- was the gentleman who leapt up on stage at my London show a few years back and attempted to get a petition going to bring Falacci back to Law and Order Criminal Intent!
You had the pleasure of working with some really strong and interesting women; which lessons that you learned from them have resonated with you? Any that make more sense now or as you’ve aged?
I’ve learned as much from good examples as from examples that taught me what I did not want to be like – you’re right, I’ve worked with some incredible women. One thing that springs to mind is Christine Baranski telling me how beautiful I was and very kindly implying that I spent too much time worrying about my appearance – which was absolutely true. I think when you’re that young it’s hard not to – as I’ve gotten older it’s one of the things I think the least about and that just really frees you up to focus your energy on much more important things – which ultimately make you more beautiful inside and out.
If you could go back and tell that 14-year-old playing Sunday brunches at the Westwood Marquis Hotel anything, what would it be?
I’d say: write down these experiences and all the crazy encounters, because you’ll forget most of them! In fact that’s good advice for me right now. I’ve been telling myself that for years. And now if you’ll excuse me, I’m gonna go start a journal.