Laura Harring: Countess von Bismarck, I presume

Miss America, soap queen, screen idol, victim of drive-by shooting; the fabulous Ms Harring is the starlet with everything ? including maturity. John Walsh meets David Lynch's new leading lady

She was a Mexican baby who became a Texan babe; a Latina teen who did A-levels in a Swiss boarding school; a social worker in India; a shop assistant in El Paso; and an American beauty queen. She's been shot at on a freeway; imprisoned in the Philippines by a love-crazed restaurateur; was briefly married to Otto von Bismarck's great-grandson; and she's a legend among American soap viewers as the sexy lady-cop Paula Stevens in Sunset Beach. In addition, she can lasso steers, milk cows and throw your I Ching. Laura Elene Harring is a woman of wide accomplishments.

What she can do really well is bewitch people. She certainly bewitched David Lynch, famously strange director of surreal and alarming nightmares – Eraserhead, Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart, Twin Peaks. She entranced him enough to be given the co-starring role in Lynch's new piece of weirdiosity, Mulholland Drive, where she plays both Rita – a mysterious dark-haired woman who loses her memory after a crash and sets out to discover why horrible people are after her – and Camilla, a creamy movie star adored by both sexes.

"They told me to wear no make-up, and I just walked in and met him," she says of her audition. "He just looked at me, this way and that, and all he said was 'Good', 'Good...', all the time. The way he casts films, I'm told, is that, if he can see the person in front of him in some of the scenes in the movie he's planning, then he's happy." But what made her so suitable to play the haunted amnesiac Rita? "There was the sadness in my eyes," said Ms Hanning, gravely. "A sad look that was perfect for Rita. And he told a journalist in Cannes that he liked the way he had no idea where I was from. That there was a quality of mystery to me, that the role needed."

Sadness and mystery aren't the first things that hit you about Ms Harring. You encounter a tornado of positive thinking and full-on femininity. Her massive deep-brown eyes bore straight through to your palpitating heart, even as you mentally note her spookily white skin, her tight white sweater and her eardrum-piercingly high laugh. She is direct, friendly, flirtatious ("No, come and sit on the sofa – I mean, you're not going to bite me, right?") and cool by turns. At 36, she is a little mature to be arriving on the stardom circuit – but she's been heading its way for years and clearly enjoys having got there. "I've been independent since I was 17," she says defiantly, when you bring up her wealthy stepfather, "and I've made my living as an actor the whole time."

Mulholland Drive, which opens in January, is a long dream of stardom, success and lesbian rapture in the mind of a three-time loser and junkie called Diane, who has been dumped by her lover, Camilla, and plots revenge on her in a doomed night-time Cadillac ride up Mulholland Drive, while she fantasies about herself as a Doris Day-like ingénue called Betty, who arrives in Hollywood seeking fame, knocks the critics on their ass and meets the baffled amnesiac Rita...

Oh, I give up. What did Laura make of it? "The script came in three parts," she said, "so I was as lost as you. But I knew that it was going to be something incredible with the writer being David Lynch, the producer being David Lynch and, more importantly, the director being David Lynch. When I first read it, I knew it was a story of Hollywood dreams and obsession, but it's so much more than that. It's a layered film, you could have a different interpretation every time you see it. I don't have the answer – I'm in the position of the viewer."

But didn't he offer advice while directing you? "He only said a few things to me, and they were all metaphors and similes," she said. "After the car crash, he said, 'Now I want you to walk like a broken doll', so I imagined a Barbie that was all broken up – and after I did it, he was really pleased, he hugged me. He was so happy. Even a simple walk is so important to him."

She and Naomi Watts, her co-star, went to Lynch's house for dinner a few times. What was he like, socially? "Oh he's so sweet," she breathed. "He's very normal. Very gentle. But it is like walking into a different era. All this Fifties stuff... You know, he designs and makes his own furniture. The chair he sits in on the set is one he designed himself – it's got a little ashtray and a little spoon for his coffee, and he takes it with him wherever he goes."

His conversation? "He says things like, 'Well, Ah'll be ding-danged,' and 'Holy jumpin' George', and you think, Oh my God he's stuck in a different era."

Indeed, I agree, he does sound refreshingly normal. A flavour of the movie that will startle audiences is the love affair that develops between the co-stars. Call it soft porn or lipstick lesbianism, but there's something slightly Channel 5 about these naked claspings and febrile caresses, undeniably delicious as they are to watch. How did Ms Harring enjoy having sex with Naomi Watts? There was a long silence. "It was... uncomfortable at first," said Laura. "I was almost crying when I walked into the bedroom. It seemed such a vulnerable thing, to be undressed and then kissing a woman. But actually it was beautiful, it was sensual. At first we were a bit stiff and like this [she mimed a frozen Ice Queen kiss], but David came over and said, 'Savour the moment'. I remember making a conscious effort to open up – it takes one of you to open up to make it feel safe – and then we were both in the moment, we were really feeling not faking it."

Goodness. And did it, you know, turn her on? "Absolutely. My character would have felt it, and so I felt it, and I think if you don't feel it, you're not a good actor."

This talk about "being in the moment" reminds you that Ms Harring is, au fond, a Californian actress, with a considerable capacity to flannel away about "working with the elements" and "feeding off harmony". Then she reveals that she learned her trade at Rada, and that her favourite actors are English, especially Vanessa Redgrave and Ian McKellen. Behind the ack-torish vapouring she's a practical girl. She was born in Los Mochis, west Mexico, "a small tropical town, very humid, lots of farms. We used to live in a hacienda, like in old movies, with stables and an orchard outside our yard". Her father Raymond was a landowner and farmer. Her parents divorced early and she and her mother Maria moved to Guadalajara, where she married a new beau, Mañuel. He paid for Laura to attend a boarding school in Texas and another in Switzerland. "No, it was not a finishing school, it was extremely academic. And no I did not die of culture shock – in Europe, they have the wrong idea about Mexico. People round here ask me, 'Did you go to school in the burro?', and I say, "No, I did not." (Burro? Doesn't that mean "donkey"? Perhaps the ignorant questioners meant "barrio"?)

Back in Texas, she was working in a dress shop when someone persuaded her to enter the local beauty contest. From Miss El Paso she became Miss USA, the first and, since then, only Latin woman to have nailed the title. A year later, as her reign was coming to an end, she had one of those finger-of-God moments when someone gazed in her dark eyes and said, "You'd be perfect for this Raul Julia movie, playing the wife. "I was innocent, I was young," she remembers, "and I didn't need acting. I was engaged, I didn't even want to act. But they offered me this thing and I said, OK, why not, and I went to Texas and did this thing and – lo and behold – I loved it."

The chap she was about to marry was Count Carl Edward von Bismarck, descendant of the Iron Chancellor. They had met in New York when Laura was room-mates with his cousin Claudia, and a pal of his brother Gregor, who introduced them. The marriage lasted two years. They split because, reportedly, he asked her to give up her movie career and frankly, mein Herr, "I couldn't do that". She remains close to the clan, and is hoping to pop over to their Hamburg castle to join in the wild-boar hunt. And she hotly challenges any foolish notions that they are stereotypical Teutons with spiky helmets and clicking heels. "They're great wits. They're so funny. Any night you're out with the Bismarcks, you know you'll have a good time."

For now, she is holed up in Brentwood, LA, single and celibate ("I know, it's crazy. But I'm a romantic and, if it's not a man I want to be with for a long time, I'm not interested") but clearly delighted with life. And when I bring up the beauty queen she once was, and mention it again, perhaps once too often, she bridles. "In my new movie, John Q, I'm playing an ugly Midwestern hick, tacky, obnoxious, trashy – with her polyester clothes, acid-washed jeans up to here, everything's short, nothing matches – I'm just this trashy suburban character, And it's really good. I just haven't played many character roles."

Oh no? Farm girl. Chalet girl. Hippie chick. Shop girl. Beauty queen. Countess. Rada theorist. Soap star. Crypto-lesbian. Visionary. Transatlantic superbabe. She seems to have been playing character parts all her life.

'Mulholland Drive' opens 4 Jan

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