Actor Kyle MacLachlan talks to TV Drama about Twin Peaks: The Return, which premiered on Showtime earlier this year.
Kyle MacLachlan had already appeared in a few feature films, including Dune and David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, when he was cast as FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper in Twin Peaks. However successful the films had been, it was the 1990s series—Lynch’s first television project—about a murder in the eponymous town full of idiosyncratic residents that became a cult classic and catapulted MacLachlan to international fame. Three years ago, when Lynch announced he was working on a new iteration of Twin Peaks with co-creator Mark Frost, MacLachlan was immediately on board. He reprises Agent Cooper, his evil doppelgänger and a new character, Dougie Jones.
TV DRAMA: What impact did the first Twin Peaks have on the culture and your career?
MACLACHLAN: It had a big impact for a number of reasons. Obviously, the power of network television in 1990 was huge, and Twin Peaks was unlike anything that had been on the air up to that point. It was cinematographic. The music was new. The story itself—murder mystery, small town—not so new, but the characters who inhabited that place were, again, unlike anything anyone had seen before. And the character I played—the central character, the eccentric FBI agent—was not like any FBI agent we’d ever seen before, so all new and exciting things, and the compelling “who killed Laura Palmer?” mystery. The impact was immediate, in a way, but also there was a slight delay in the fact that we’d filmed all seven episodes before anything went to air. And then it came out and we were all like, Oh wow, it’s being well received, that’s fantastic! I went on to do [the feature film] The Doors, and then they said, We want you to come back and do another season [of Twin Peaks]. I said, Great, let’s do it. We finished that and I suddenly became more desirable in television.
TV DRAMA: Twin Peaks also impacted television. A lot of showrunners say they took their inspiration from Twin Peaks and felt permission to do things that maybe they wouldn’t have done before.
MACLACHLAN: Yes, I think that’s very true. Again, pointing to the beginning of Twin Peaks and what was different was the auteur, David Lynch, coming to the world of television. Up to that point, that was unheard of. Suddenly you have David Chase, Damon Lindelof and Steven Soderbergh bringing their genius, their creativity, to television largely because of his.
TV DRAMA: How did this new Twin Peaks come about? Had you been in contact with David Lynch over the years?
MACLACHLAN: Yes, David and I live very close to each other in Los Angeles. I’d visit him and I would ask, do you ever think about going back to Twin Peaks? But I would couch it very casually. He would say, I don’t really know. I think in his mind it was finished and he’d put it to bed and that was it. I just accepted that. We moved on. I was just waiting to see if he was going to write something that I would be right for. Then he called me one day, really out of the blue, and said, I want to talk to you about something, but I can’t do it over the phone. So we met in person, and that’s how he told me that he and Mark [Frost] had been working on preliminary ideas, and would I be interested. And I said, Absolutely, of course I would! It’s the greatest character I’ve ever played and the most memorable and complex and interesting, so I said yes without any real idea of what direction we were going to go in. That’s how it started.
TV DRAMA: Was it difficult to reinhabit the character after so many years, or was it like riding a bike?
MACLACHLAN: Kind of both. I felt pretty comfortable in the suit, to be honest. But the character was going in different directions, so I was excited as an actor. It was Cooper, but there were other elements going on. It was very much a gift. No one has ever asked me to play a character like that before—neither the dark character nor the light character. I knew I was capable of doing both and I was excited because David was going to be my director. I knew I’d have the kind of caretaking that’s necessary when you do characters that are that extreme. You need someone there that you absolutely trust to keep you going in the right direction.
TV DRAMA: Tell us about working with David Lynch.
MACLACHLAN: Directors of that level, of his quality, share a joy for the creative process. It’s an absolute love of the performers, the actors, creating an environment on set that is conducive to great work. For instance, Alfonso Cuarón, who I worked with on the pilot [for the series Believe]—created a very similar environment and a collaborative relationship that doesn’t always exist with every director.
TV DRAMA: David Lynch has said that this is an 18-hour project as opposed to 18 episodes. Was it also shot differently, unlike episodic television?
MACLACHLAN: Exactly. For David it was an 18-hour movie, so we filmed it as a movie. We were on locations shooting all different elements but not in sequence at all. It’s what you do in film. You do jump around in television as well, but in features, yes, you’re all moving, so you rely so heavily on the script as your blueprint. You’ve got to know what came before and what’s going on after so you can modulate your [performance].
TV DRAMA: The television landscape has changed so much since the first Twin Peaks. Was there any concern that the audience might not react the same way because they’ve been exposed to so much now? How did all of you approach presenting this to today’s audience?
MACLACHLAN: It was never anything that I thought about, to be honest. When I read the script, I said to myself, Nothing like this has ever been seen on television. It’s not for everyone because it’s a very interesting journey, so you’re either up for that or not, but I think we all knew going in that it was going to be something extraordinary, really worthwhile, pure Lynch. And to be honest, hats off to David Nevins [president and CEO of Showtime] for the gamble. He didn’t have to agree—although he did because it was the only way David Lynch was going to do it—but he said, I’m in, and that was it. And, wow, that’s a big gamble.
TV DRAMA: Are there themes in this one that will particularly resonate with today’s viewers?
MACLACHLAN: Some, yes, but they are themes that David [Lynch] is interested in: good versus evil, malice in the world. I sum up the series saying, the world is out of balance, and we are attempting to bring it back into balance. Let’s see if we make it. There are wonderful, surreal elements in this that I think are beautiful and challenging to the audience—some very dark, some funny, some very violent. Everything is there to impact the audience in a certain way. It’s not a linear story as much as it is a visceral story, and that’s obviously the strength of David Lynch, and you’re either into that or not.
TV DRAMA: Right. It grabbed me in a way that other shows don’t.
MACLACHLAN: Yes, you can’t watch this over your shoulder while you’re making toast in the kitchen. You’re sitting down, and you’re all in.
TV DRAMA: What are you most proud of about your performance in Twin Peaks?
MACLACHLAN: I think I made every effort to create different characters, and I didn’t want a piece of one leaking into the other. I feel like I’ve been pretty good at creating the characters that you see: Cooper, the doppelgänger and Dougie. He is singular and of his own quality, and you don’t see any of Dougie in Cooper nor vice versa. Hopefully, there are two distinct characters that stand on their own without any overlap.
TV DRAMA: Did you ever have to play more than one on the same day?
MACLACHLAN: Yes, a few times. It wasn’t too bad. I’m a firm believer that what you put on the outside has a lot of influence on what’s happening on the inside. It’s the opposite view of [the late actor and director Konstantin] Stanislavski. But I feel like that was very helpful to me—just looking at the face that we created and getting the physicality of him; it starts on the outside and moves to the inside and takes over, and then I’m in that place.
TV DRAMA: It’s tough to binge on because it’s a little creepy.
MACLACHLAN: Well, I said the same thing. I’m really glad that this isn’t something that is available all at one time because two hours is a lot to absorb and I don’t think people realize what is happening inside with David [Lynch]. It’s like you look at a piece of art and you’re moved but you have to process, and I think when you [watch] one episode after the other you don’t have a chance to process.
TV DRAMA: What upcoming projects do you have?
MACLACHLAN: I’m doing Portlandia, that’ll be fun. This might be the last season of Portlandia. And then I’m just reading material for right now. What has been happening, which is fantastic, is the work that I’ve done on Twin Peaks is work that gets work. It’s causing people who thought they knew me to rethink what they know of me, so that’s been a benefit to expanding my options, hopefully.
TV DRAMA: Are you equally at ease with drama or comedy?
MACLACHLAN: Yes, I like them both. The fun thing about Portlandia is it’s challenging in a different way. While there are written lines in the scripts and dialogue, they are just taking-off points. So you end up improvising in and around what’s there, and sometimes you go off on wild tangents. I find the process of improv thrilling and magical, but it’s incredibly tiring. In the end, my brain is like a marshmallow, so I’m only there for two or three days. I don’t know how Fred [Armisen] and Carrie [Brownstein] do it for as long as they do because it requires a lot of mental power.
And the thing about improv is that it doesn’t have to be perfect. The fantastic thing about Portlandia, for example, is you have a director, Jonathan Krisel, who directs most of the episodes, although other directors have come in—Carrie has directed as well—so you just give everything you can, and they will take it and assemble it. The story is constructed, hopefully, of the best stuff that you’ve been able to create—not always, but hopefully!