It’s hard to think of a performer who has aged more gracefully than Kyle MacLachlan. At 61, he’s still got that matinee-idol chin, full, robust head of hair, and the good-natured warmth to go along with it. Yet beneath the leading-man looks beats the heart of a considered, compelling character actor, a sensibility he’s brought to decades of beautifully idiosyncratic work in successes and flops alike. Even when he’s villainous, it’s impossible not to love him. (Except when he’s Mr. C in Twin Peaks: The Return, of course.)
That kind of cerebral deadpan is key to his career-long collaboration with fellow Northwestern boy David Lynch, who plucked him from obscurity to star in his sprawling adaptation of Dune, whose disastrous reception nonetheless prepared him to become Lynch’s muse for Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks. But the Emmy-nominated actor has brought an intellectual, deadpan ease to decades of roles in film and TV, from the dogged Dale Cooper to the oddball Mayor of Portlandia.
In 2020, MacLachlan is busier than ever: from a small, fun turn in Josh Trank’s Capone to his portrayal of Thomas Edison in Michael Almereyda’s dizzying, Brechtian anti-biopic Tesla. A Sundance favorite of ours, MacLachlan’s turn as one of history’s so-called Great Men is but one of the film’s many highlights. Opposite Ethan Hawke’s mercurial, cerebral genius, MacLachlan’s Edison is stentorian, authoritative, and downright petty. But there are glimmers of tragedy to him, Almereyda highlighting the frustration of having all the money in the world, and still being unable to recognize the genius of your peers.
In anticipation of Tesla‘s release on Friday, August 21st, Consequence of Sound‘s own Clint Worthington had a nice long chat with MacLachlan about the winding road he’s taken throughout his 40 years on screen: from the lows of Dune and Showgirls to the highs of Twin Peaks and Portlandia and all the strange little roles in between. Together, we talk about his relationship with David Lynch, touch on some failed TV pilots, and 10 specific years that defined his career to date.
1984 – Dune
You had a rather curious path to that role, right? You were just out of acting school, and you were doing Tartuffe.
Yeah, very good. I was just out of acting school. I graduated early, like March of ’82, to go to work immediately at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Oregon. I was lucky because I had a job right out of school, and not all of my classmates had that. I went down in rookie season there and then returned to Seattle, when I was finished in the Fall, and was cast in kind of a modern Tartuffe at the Empty Space Theater, which sadly is no longer there. It’s while I was doing that I was approached by a representative of a company called The Casting Company, this woman named Elizabeth calling around Seattle to theaters and other casting companies asking for recommendations of actors that fit the description of Paul.
I remember very distinctly getting a call on my answering machine — those old Panasonic answering machines with little tapes in them that you had to advance, bloo-loo-loop — and I thought somebody was sending me a prank call. It was kind of hard to decipher that it was a casting for a movie, that it was Dune. I was like “Why are they calling me?” It was a very confusing turn.
Turned out that yes, indeed, there was a casting agent that had come to Seattle. So I went and met her and was put on tape doing a scene in a hotel room in downtown Seattle. Kind of reading the dialogue between the two twin beds, you know, [laughs] trying to do my thing. She took that tape and showed it to David [Lynch] and Raffaella [de Laurentiis], they brought me down and I started the process.
I’d had no intention of [going into film] — I was obviously headed to New York, I was going to find a place there, start prepping and get cast out of New York for repertory theaters around the country. You know, that was my “path”. This changed things.
What was it like, then, moving from the notion of New York rep to this big, sprawling, weird science fiction epic — especially in the hands of someone like Lynch, who’d never done anything this big before.
Yeah, I think David and I were both in the same boat.
Is that where your bond started?
You know, I think we bonded in the meeting when I first met him, and we had a really nice conversation. David is the kind of person where, in the meeting, he talks about everything but the actual work. He’s really interested in the person and getting a sense of who they are, and the energy, and feel if they’re right. Are they able to do the role or not? He said to me, “You’re going to screen test,” and I said, “Okay, what’s that?” [Laughs.] I’d never been in front of a camera before.
But we hit it off, you know? It helped that we’re both from the Northwest, kind of similar upbringing — you’re young, running around with your buddies on your bikes, that kind of thing. So we shared a lot of things in common. And my knowledge of the [Dune] book was extensive, only because I was a huge fan. I’d been reading it since I was 15, so I really knew a lot about it. I tried to help in terms of scripts and bring my sensibilities to it as much as possible. Although I wasn’t that influential. But I did try to, you know, put my little stamp on it.
I love hearing that you knew the book so well, because it’s such a dense work. I remember reading that, when the movie first came out, they would hand glossaries to people in the theater, so they could get a handle on all the terms. You didn’t need that, I presume?
I remember first trying to get into the book, and a couple times I had to go back to the beginning and re-read it, just to get all the names and places in my head. But once I got a handle on it, I was good. It’s still one of my top reads. I haven’t revisited for a while, but it was quite an influential book when I was growing up. I had a wonderful English teacher who allowed me to write quotes from the book on her blackboard — Mary Craig was her name. Very understanding, you know, what it’s like to be in junior high and these intensities that come with that — the focuses and the passions.
So Dune comes out and it gets a rather cold reception, which I’m sure was a blow for you. Did you have any concerns about your career starting off on such a strange foot?
When I signed on for the movie, I was required to sign for five Dune pictures, and they expanded that to also three non-Dune pictures for The Dino De Laurentiis Company. So they pretty much owned me, which I thought, Well, this is my opportunity; not in a lifetime do these things happen. Also, I was required to not appear in a movie or television show before the movie was released; they wanted Dune to be the first thing anyone saw of me. So I basically couldn’t work. And I didn’t realize how impactful that was going to be until later. A lot of times, you run on that kind of notoriety that you have — “he was cast as the lead in this movie, there’s potential and value there.” I wasn’t able to access that, and I didn’t realize how damaging that was going to be.
Of course, when the movie came out and was not really liked by the critics and didn’t do well at the box office, I didn’t have anything to fall back on. There was no TV show or movie that could show people a different side of me or perpetuate the career. So I kinda got dropped, you know? I had an agent and started the process of auditioning in Los Angeles — not quite from scratch because I had that bit of history, but there weren’t a lot of people who were very interested in working with me at the time.
1986 – Blue Velvet
I’d read Blue Velvet while I was filming Dune and I liked it. I understood the journey of this character [Jeffrey Beaumont] and I thought it was going to be really amazing. We were supposed to do it right after Dune came out, and Dino said no. I came back home, actually, to do some theater. But David contacted me and wanted me to play the role of Jeffrey. I think I had some hesitation initially — the film was pretty creepy, with this hard-hitting script. But it worked out, which was good; it’s to David’s credit that he came back to me. He didn’t have to do that.
I’ve always read Blue Velvet as a redemption of sorts for Lynch, a return to form for a filmmaker who maybe felt a little too uncomfortable with the size and the scope of the Dune project. Did it feel that way for you at all?
I think that’s a fair assessment. David had come from Eraserhead and Elephant Man to Dune, and that’s a huge step. And I don’t think the experience was great for him, you know. I mean, I loved it; I had nothing to compare it to. But David suffered a little bit, and it was pretty apparent when we got to Blue Velvet that we was more comfortable with a story in a world he understood. We had this cast and crew, we were working away in Wilmington. It was Laura [Dern] and Dennis [Hopper] and Isabella [Rossellini] and myself. You could put your hands on the story — it was an unusual story, but much smaller. I think everybody felt much more comfortable there.
1990/1991 – Twin Peaks, The Doors
Jeffrey Beaumont feels like a proto-Dale Cooper in a way, this boyish detective with these glimmers of darkness. Did that ever come into your head when you eventually came to Twin Peaks?
Plenty of people have pointed that out — that Jeffrey seems like Cooper. I guess you could maybe make that comparison. Looking at it and looking at the themes that David likes to work with, I could see it. Cooper, for me, is a completely different guy he’s coming from a different place. It’s possible he could have grown up to become Cooper, but I don’t know if that’s necessarily true.
But again, that’s one of those things where David came back to me for Twin Peaks. There were some questions about whether I was old enough to play this role, but it was incredible. Imagine: David Lynch coming to television for the first time! Which is what I think made all of us really excited to see and participate in.
And we’ll definitely revisit Coop in a bit, here, obviously, but [Oliver Stone’s] The Doors was, I’m sure, a wild experience for you.
Oh my God, yeah. In some ways, it reminded me of the sprawling-ness of Dune, you know, and it kinda lumbers along in the same way. But I wasn’t the name guy, which was nice. It was a bow. I remember when I went to meet Oliver when he was casting; we’d actually met before that for Platoon. He was going to do that with Dino and his wife at the time, and I ultimately didn’t go forward with it. By this time, he’d done Platoon and he was a big deal, and we’d met again.
It was kind of a weird secret; not synchronicity, per se, but connection. Val [Kilmer] had actually been very close to getting a role in Dune, and then I came in here and Val was playing Jim [Morrison]. But I don’t think we knew that yet. I think all young Hollywood came out and said, “I can beat him.” I probably even felt the same way, knowing full well there was no way. But somehow, Oliver saw a Ray Manzarek in me.
He took one look at you and said “You, but in muttonchops.”
[Laughs.] Yeah, which was the most uncomfortable thing you could imagine. Awful, awful. But again, just a wonderful experience – we got to be pretend rock stars. I learned all the songs; while I was traveling through Europe at the time as I was lugging around a keyboard. And they would change all the time: Oliver would say, “We’re not going to do that song, we’re gonna do this one.” [sighs] But anyway, it was a giant, crazy show.
1994 – The Flintstones
Well, speaking of rock — segueway — let’s get back to ’94 with The Evil Cliff Vandercave in The Flintstones. That was the first time you really got to go arch with it and be a hammy villain, which was great.
Yeah, I went in to audition for Bruce Cohen and Brian [Levant], the director and producer, and I really didn’t know what I was doing. Obviously, I grew up with The Flintstones, loved it myself, but I just kind of went in and did this weird character and they loved it. I don’t think I’d ever had that kind of reception before, and I was like, “Okay, great.” And yeah, we definitely got a kind of arch character, with Halle Berry co-starring — so stunning. It was my first time working in that kind of comedy world.
I remember there were scenes where John Goodman and Rick [Moranis] would do the scene, and then huddle with Brian and take apart the comedy, take apart the rhythm, thinking about how to do it. I was fascinated by the fact that they took such an analytical approach, instead of feeling out the work. I’d never thought about that or worked that way before. And I thought, Well, maybe this is what it’s like to do comedy — that you really think it through intently.
When I look back on it now, I think of the craziness of that production, and people like Elizabeth Taylor coming to work and how all that was done. It was a special experience, and I’m still friendly with Bruce Cohen.
Read on to hear stories behind Showgirls, Sex and the City, Twin Peaks, and more…
1995 – Showgirls
Dune and Showgirls — you seem to have a knack for landing roles in movies that are savaged when they come out but find curious followings later.
Yeah, I think that’s a fair assessment.
I know you were very, let’s say measured in your press tour for Showgirls when it came out — you were no fan of it. Has your estimation for it changed in the years since?
…Not really [Laughs.] I still don’t think it’s a very good film. I think it’s found a great audience, and the kind of fun, over-the-top camp quality it has has a real appeal. But I know it wasn’t the intention Paul Verhoeven or Joe Esterhaus had; ultimately, they were trying to make a very hard-hitting expose, a disturbing story of this woman’s journey and … yeah, didn’t quite hit the mark.
But it’s one of those things where now, you know, looking back over the years and all my work and everything, and lots of other things that I’m more proud of, it’s kind of a curiosity. It’s interesting that it falls within my career, and I’ve been able to accept it. It lives on and it will always live on. Well, it’s part of who I am now. It’s part of me now. That’s just accepted.
2000 – Hamlet, Sex and the City
I actually didn’t know the version of Tartuffe when you were discovered for Dune was a modern adaptation, because that dovetails nicely into Hamlet 2000, which is obviously the first time you worked with Ethan Hawke and Michael Almereyda. What was it like playing the Bard’s work in such an odd milieu, wrangling kind of a naturalism out of the prose?
First of all, the cast was unbelievable. And we were always really an independent thing. So, we were all basically just staging up in giant green rooms where everyone was just standing around or sitting, or working on crossword puzzles or reading, whatever. So that was pretty cool. And I also felt like Almereyda was so smart about where he set the scenes and so open to the actor’s contribution.
I remember Diane Venora, who played Gertrude — I played Claudius — and in this case, we decided that Gertrude was going to be more loungey and Claudius more intentional. That really worked well, particularly in some of the scenes with Ethan, I really enjoyed working with him, as I did with Tesla. He’s an actor who really opens himself up and is really available to whatever happens in the scene. I really love that about him.
And you landed Sex and the City around this time — was this the first full TV series you’d done since Twin Peaks?
Yeah, it was.
Real quick, I saw before that you did an abortive Invisible Man pilot, which I would ironically love to see.
[Laughs.] Oh yeah, that was … it was kind of funny. I’d just done The Invisible Man; Dick Wolf had just won an Emmy, and it was a big deal. I just signed on with it. But the big problem we had was that your lead is never seen, you know? So we were like, “how are we going to resolve this?” That was an interesting adventure. Another [pilot] I really liked was The Conversation, I did a pilot for that with [Galaxy Quest director] Dean Parisot. I was using some of my Twin Peaks chips, and sadly, they weren’t coming to fruition.
Back to Sex and the City, though, I hear tell that this is the source of one of your more frequent callouts on the street by regular people [due to your character’s impotence].
Yes — used to be more, but people still remember me from Sex and the City and always offer words of encouragement to, you know, Trey [MacDougall’s] particular difficulties. Anytime you get to work in New York City and use the city as your backdrop, I mean… I loved it. It was great. And it happened to coincide with a time when I was early on in the courtship of my wife Desiree [Gruber], so that made it even more fun to be part of that.
2011 – Portlandia
Mr. Mayor’s probably one of the most anarchic characters you’ve done, which is saying something. But it seemed like you had to stretch your abilities in terms of working with improv, and use certain deadpan muscles that you hadn’t had a chance to flex in your career at that point.
I signed on to that with nothing more than, “Hey, we’re going to do a show in Portland called Portlandia with Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein and Jonathan Krisel. You play the mayor, it’s kind of an improv show.” I was like, “Okay!” [Laughs.] “You really want me for the Mayor, all right.” I think I made a good decision just to sign on with really super talented people, and then we proceeded to have a wonderful time for eight seasons on that. I would go to Portland every summer for just a few days and create this character, and work with Fred and Carrie whom I adore, and just have fun, really. It was nothing more than a long laugh track, I guess.
2015 – Inside Out
Obviously, doing a Pixar movie is a really big deal, and it’s always fun. But I mostly wanted to ask you whether you’d heard of the meme about your character from Inside Out being a hot daddy, and starting this trend of, like, hot Pixar dads.
[Laughs.] Nice! I didn’t know about that. That’s pretty cool. As you said, you’re working with the folks at Pixar, you know, Pete Doctor and Jonas Rivera, just the nicest people you could possibly meet. Such a well-thought-out, clever, beautiful script. The amount of work itself was minimal, just a few days here and there. To be able to say you’re in a Pixar movie, you know, there’s nothing they do that I don’t love. That was a pretty great experience to be part of something like that. And they take care of their people very well.
2017 – Twin Peaks: The Return
We finally come back to Dale Cooper, plus a couple of surprise guests. Did you know you were going to have to play so many different characters and permutations of characters when you returned?
Yes, I knew. David had allowed me to read a couple of episodes just for me to get a sense of what he wanted me to do. We started talking about creating these different characters. I was challenged by it, I was excited by it, I was nervous, you know? Especially recognizing that so much of the show depended upon me.
Particularly with the Mr. C character, who was just such an awful entity, I should say. That kind of power, I’d never been asked to do before, but really wanted to. I loved the idea and the challenge, and I knew with David, the experience would be great. We would mine something amazing. And I think we did, and I’m so happy about that.
Cooper was essentially trapped in a bubble for 25 years, but you weren’t. So when it came time to come back to the character, how difficult was that?
You know, I just trusted the idea that he was there, really, and that he would be again with what was written in the script. I also just allowed for the fact that 25 years had passed, and he was older, obviously, and had changed. I wasn’t really too concerned about what kind of change had happened. I just said, “it’s gonna be me; however I’ve changed will be evident, you know, on-screen, and that’s what would happen. It took a while to get to him, but he arrived. It was a nice moment.
2020 – Tesla, Capone
You’re working with Ethan Hawke and Almereyda again with Tesla, and playing another historical figure just like you did in The Doors, but in kind of a gonzo way. Much like Mr. Mayor, you have to play it completely straight, and yet you’re in a frock coat getting ice cream cones smashed on your face and playing with an iPhone. What’s it like playing with that history, and working with Almereyda in this strange miasma of time you’re in?
I love Michael’s take on things, his interpretation of things. I love where he focuses his story — he wasn’t focused on making Edison a villain. I think Edison is often painted that way — that’s the easy version, I guess. He was a shrewd businessman, a powerful force of nature. I was intrigued by that. The biggest thing was the research; someone says you’re going to be Thomas Edison and you’re like, “Oh my God, that’s a big responsibility.” Then you just dig into and read about someone who sort of know, but not very well. It was fascinating.
Working with Ethan, things come up in the scene — interpretations and ideas, and I just enjoy working with him so much. There was a lot of back and forth. The ice cream cone was there and we were talking about how to do it. And we recognized immediately that it really had to do with rhythm, and playing it absolutely straight. That’s where you find the comedy, you know, the unexpectedness of it. It was fun! [Like with Hamlet], there was no money, everyone was in one big room sitting around waiting to go to work. There was pressure every day to get it done and find a way to make it all work. And we did, and I think it turned out great.
Between Edison and I think a lot of your other roles, especially recently, whether real or fictional, you play a lot of capital-G Great Men, a lot of industrialists and powerful guys. But you have a knack for exposing their flaws in an intriguing way. Are you interested in all in the particularities of finding the humanity in these people who are propped up as important people in society?
I think it’s my job, you know, as an actor, to make these people human. In my research, I’m always looking for obviously those things you mentioned there, but there are other sides of these people that are important to at least be aware of, whether or not they’re revealed in the script. It’s my responsibility to carry that and to make them as rich, as whole of a person as possible.
I remember reading a diary that Thomas Edison wrote, not a very well known one, but it was an interesting peek inside a different side of the man. He was more fanciful, highly observational of his fellow man. His writing, his prose is in a style that’s more quirky — “this is not what we know of Thomas Edison,” I said. And yet here it was, in his own hand, written in clinically beautiful, very specific calligraphy. I was like, “Wow, okay, that’s pretty cool. Can I balance that?”
And there are these soft, tender moments that he has during his courtship you see [in Tesla], when he taps the Morse code on her hand. You see the softer side of the man, which I think is important.
There’s a sense of pathos and mourning, I think, to both Edison and your character in Capone who, like all the other people in that film, care about Fonzo a great deal and are trying to deal with his deterioration. You’re also the straight-faced character in the middle of this grotesque, powerhouse performance. I imagine it felt similar to The Doors, where you’re getting out of the way of this central performance on which it’s all focused.
Oh yeah, Tom Hardy is a force of nature, and a lot of fun, great sense of humor. I felt that it was my responsibility; I really did care legitimately about the man. And then you find out there’s another situation in there, but at the same time, I felt like the torment was that I couldn’t not care about Capone. I just had to deal with the fact that the Feds had this hammer held over me, you know, and I would just have to deal with that as best I could. But also as a doctor, you take an oath, you know? I think it’s an important oath, and he’s trying to adhere to that. But under great duress, of course.
You have two of my favorite scenes in the film. The first is that scene by the lake [where the feds intimidate you about getting information out of a syphilitic Fonzo], and then there’s the moment where you’re introducing the carrot, and say no more cigars. And Al Sapienza says, “For how long?” with the gravest concern. I just love that sense of deadpan.
Yeah, there’s some good stuff in there, funny stuff that just needs to go straight into the absurdity of it.