‘Diane, Let Me Tell You About Kyle MacLachlan’ : ‘Twin Peaks’ is a nice place to visit, but he probably wouldn’t want to live there

So the deal might be that the auteur’s alter ego isn’t quite so strange. That the celluloid stand-in for David Lynch, America’s reigning Prince of Weirdness, is like, a steady guy.

Like now. On his day off, Kyle MacLachlan, the kid actor from Yakima, Wash., roams the lot looking like a J. Crew ad, what with that canvas fishing cap and the requisite golden retriever--named Prairie, no less--just looking to help out, just looking for some dailies to screen, the idea being that Special Agent Dale Cooper, the unblinking eye of the storm that is Lynch’s “Twin Peaks,” needs watching.

“Yeah, Cooper’s a little illusive. He’s not a weird guy, he just has his idiosyncrasies. When I really hit it, I can tell--not when I’m filming--but when I watch it. And things got a little loose last season, the character stuff. This year I’m trying to get into that more, tighten it up.”


The high priest of American Gothic plucked MacLachlan from regional theater obscurity seven years ago to star in the debacle that was “Dune” and then the splendor that was “Blue Velvet,” sort of trashing and launching a career all at once.

Then came “Twin Peaks,” Lynch’s seven-episode foray into television that became its own juggernaut and propelled the director into true cult orbit (a status reconfirmed this summer with the release of Lynch’s “Wild at Heart”) and transformed MacLachlan, the lanky actor with the lantern jaw and the soul of a Boy Scout, into being the cinematic totem for the country’s most distinctive moviemaker.

It is a director-star symbiosis that some critics have likened to Liv Ullmann and Ingmar Bergman’s, a comparison made all the weirder by the striking resemblance between the two--both men hail from the Northwest, both are tall with pasty faces and a spill of dark, razored hair, like an accountant on a bender--"except he’s not so good looking as I am,” says Lynch.

Right, except for the differences. Like how Lynch ballyhoos his sugar highs and hospital basements as personal muses while MacLachlan, “a pretty unsophisticated guy,” according old Seattle chums, looks homeward angel. “I read a lot when I was kid,” MacLachlan asks from under that fishing cap. “I read the ‘Hardy Boys’ and I was one of those investigators. I had read ‘Dune’ and I was Paul Atreides. I wanted to be able to say those words and do that stuff.”

He’s doing it. Whether he’s playing the alien G-man in Jack Sholden’s 1987 horror flick, “The Hidden,” or the supergalactic Prince Valiant in “Dune” or Jeffrey Beaumont, the boy who finds a severed ear in “Blue Velvet,” or now, as cop Cooper, who’s looking for whoever iced Laura Palmer in “Twin Peaks,” MacLachlan is the spiritual locus in the modern Greek drama: why bad things happen to good people.

“Kyle’s chipper-looking and happy-looking and quirky and handsome,” says Lynch about his favorite leading man. “He’s absolutely essential to ‘Twin Peaks.’ He looks intelligent and dashing like Errol Flynn but with a humor underlying that dashingness.”

MacLachlan’s doughnut-besotted gumshoe with the Pat Riley hair, the tape-recorded ruminations to his never-seen secretary, Diane, and the Holmesian streak of sleuthing genius is a deceptively tricky performance. In the hands of a lesser actor, the role might result in a stillness to the point of boringness instead of his Zen-like tension of opposites. For his work in “Twin Peaks,” which enters its second season Sept. 30, MacLachlan earned one of the show’s fourteen Emmy nominations--for best actor in a dramatic series. (The show only won two Emmys in technical categories at last week’s ceremonies.) MacLachlan’s nomination was a first for the 31-year-old classically trained thespian who’s played in Shakespeare and Moliere on stage and who insists “I still don’t know how good an actor I am.”

That premise will be tested next spring, when MacLachlan will play a rare non-Lynch-directed role in “The Doors,” Oliver Stone’s film about the legendary ‘60s rock band. MacLachlan plays keyboardist Ray Manzarek, one of the group’s founders, with “incredible straightness,” according to Stone, who describes the casting of MacLachlan as “a cosmic matchup” with Manzarek.

“I have this thing that people actually go for--or they don’t--playing characters with a secret side,” says MacLachlan. “The challenge for me is sort of move the clock hand, open up the wedge (on my performances) a little bit.”

MacLachlan says this hunkered down in a metal folding chair--cap jammed tight, Prairie stretched across his sneakered feet--in a makeshift conference room at the “Twin Peaks” studio just north of the Ventura Freeway. He is dressed in blue jeans and a white button-down shirt and is full of apologies about having to use the meeting room, which also seems to double as a hallway for any number of production assistants. The actual set is off-limits to outsiders (as is any discussion of upcoming episodes) and the star is “in trailer transition right now. I’ve got a 34-foot Airstream coming Thursday but nothing to use at the moment.”

He seems considerably younger than 31 and more uncertain, more eager to please than his opaque Agent Cooper persona. Still, it takes about half-way through the interview before MacLachlan relaxes, unfolds in his chair like a cat in the sun, and comes out from under that cap, letting his fine blue-black hair tumble out, cut less like Hollywood hip than say, Romeo’s, whom he’s played twice. “The trailer is a bit of an extravagance,” he says, apologizing again with an almost-sheepish smile, “but I am buying it used and I wanted something that is my own.”

Indeed, talk to him long enough and this desire for autonomy, for self-definition, for something that is his own, becomes the unspoken refrain of this slightly baffled actor whose career has been described by friends “like Kyle got struck by lightning.” Despite being the latest Hollywood success story, MacLachlan still seems the small town boy who spent the first 25 years of his life escaping his WASP Washington upbringing by reading--and then acting in--science fiction mysteries and who is just now starting to think about finding his way out from under his powerful director-mentor, David Lynch.

He was just barely in his 20s and still in college when the lightning struck. He was playing a secondary role--Damis in Moliere’s “Tartuffe"--in a second-rank regional theater when the call came that Dino de Laurentiis, producer of “Dune,” was looking for a young actor to star in the sci-fi blockbuster “Dune” to be directed by the then relatively unknown Lynch.

“Seattle is kind of a small town and many people recommended Kyle to the casting agent,” recalls Jeff Steitzer, artistic director of Seattle’s A Contemporary Theatre, and director of that production of “Tartuffe.” “Kyle was very young, very eager and very quickly left the production to go off and film ‘Dune,’ in Mexico.”

“Kyle was a sweetheart of a kid,” adds Dr. Bob Hobbes, director of Duke University’s Acting Program and former director of the Professional Acting Program at the University of Washington, where MacLachlan trained. “I remember he was always very interested in film and had a very playful, active imagination.”

“I remember we were all sitting in class one day and Hobbes came and said Kyle was leaving to take this role in a big Dino de Laurentiis film,” adds actor Tom Fervoy, one of MacLachlan’s fellow drama school students at the time. “We all thought it couldn’t happen to a nicer guy, but it was like Kyle had been struck by lightning or something.”

Mention these recollections to MacLachlan and he leans forward. “You talked to Hobbes, you talked to Steitzer?” he says with a slightly embarrassed smile. “Great, great guys. Yeah, Seattle was small time, but I was advancing the way I was supposed to be advancing. I thought I would stay in Seattle and do more regional theater or corral some money and go to New York.”

Then came the call from De Laurentiis. “I didn’t see the first screen test, but the second one made my stomach turn,” recalls MacLachlan. “The whole problem, as I understand it, was that Dino was unhappy with my hair. So I had to do a second screen test with different hair . . . Looking back, if I had known then what I know now . . . You know, that an actor can get involved, he doesn’t just have to do what they say.”

“We had so much trouble with Kyle’s hair,” recalls Lynch. “It was really straight and it didn’t look quite so dashing. But he didn’t look like a potato so we had him come down and test and he was fantastic. We just hit it off. We’re both from the Northwest and we had a lot to talk about, like we had both been to the same lake . . .”

MacLachlan concurs. “The first time we stepped in front of the camera together it was kind of a special moment. I had to do this big speech right to the lens and it just blew my mind, I had never worked with a camera before and I said to David I don’t know if I can do this. But he said I would be fine. When I went back to my hotel room that night there was a bottle of red wine on the bureau--we’re both really into red wine--it was his way of saying ‘You’re the guy.’ ”

MacLachlan was the guy, but “Dune” was a bomb and De Laurentiis backed off from financing Lynch’s “Blue Velvet.” For two years MacLachlan didn’t work in film, a blow for the handsome, aspiring actor who had justified his departure from the stage for Hollywood by telling colleagues, “I won’t look like this forever.”

That year after “Dune’s” release, MacLachlan moved to Los Angeles, a time he describes as “like a ship, you could feel it going down. I just kept saying, it’ll be OK, I have this much money to live on and my work in ‘Dune’ was OK, I just need to get a second picture.”

He enlisted the aid of a public relations firm, dropped his agent--Creative Artists Agency, “which was just a bunch of baggage"-- and auditioned for a number of films, including “Top Gun.” But nothing seemed to work. Most of his days, MacLachlan said, “I would get up, go to the gym, work out, come home, floss my teeth, clean the apartment, talk on the phone. It was a bad time.” Finally, De Laurentiis gave Lynch the go-ahead on “Blue Velvet” with a much reduced budget. “I arrived on the set two weeks early I was so anxious.”

Shooting that film was “100% different,” according to MacLachlan, “because we were like this little forgotten movie.” It was also the first time that MacLachlan encountered Lynch’s more personal directorial concerns in a film that would be critically acclaimed and also criticized for its sado-masochistic treatment of women.

“Yeah it was sickly erotic, the stuff I did with Isabella (Rossellini). It made your heart beat fast,” says MacLachlan about “Blue Velvet,” a movie that required his first nude scenes. “I never really asked David what it meant, it was pretty obvious. I mean I was intrigued by the script, but I trusted David that he would do it in such a way that those scenes would be truly offensive and not erotic, that it would be horrific. That was my only concern that it would not come across like cruel treatment (of women) is good.”

“Blue Velvet” put Lynch on the map as a director and established MacLachlan as an actor of some note and led to his one and only New York stage appearance in the short-lived drama “Palace of Amateurs.” It was also a film that MacLachlan had initially turned down because his mother, who was dying of cancer, protested. “I had given my parents the script and my mom objected to the film’s treatment of the women. At the time I said her reaction was valid because she had cancer and I didn’t want to do anything more to disrupt her life. So I turned it down.” Although he eventually said yes to that career-launching project, MacLachlan “never lost that feeling of ‘Oh God, we have to be careful.’ There was definitely a sense of responsibility.”

It was a conscientiousness acquired from the beginning, this classic first-born son, a handsome, talented, favored child, the oldest of three boys born to Katherine and Kent MacLachlan, a middle-class Republican family in Yakima. He was a lawyer-turned-stockbroker and she was a homemaker who was very active in community arts programs, “very, very friendly, pretty, thin, very outgoing, your instant best-friend,” recalls Gloria Beigler, one of MacLachlan’s college roommates.

“My mom was really a community-involved lady,” recalls MacLachlan, leaning back in his chair with a rueful smile. “She sent me to piano lessons, which I hated, and then I got into classical singing which was horrible. Thinking back on it, it was like this poor little kid . . . Then she was the director of this teen-age theater program and I was dragged there. No, no, no a million times no! I was like ‘Jesus, Mom. It’s one more thing you’re like shoving down my throat.’ I didn’t say that but yeah, there was definitely this grooming thing going on.”

That community theater experience, however, established a pattern that MacLachlan adopted not only for the professional opportunities but also as a release from certain pressures at home and at school. “I didn’t go to drama class--those guys were a little too strange,” he says, smiling. “I mean I was out there, but not that far. So I did the plays and starred in the big class musicals that everyone went to, all the jocks and dopers, and I sort of made a new category there. I was sort of an eccentric satellite and I chose that. That was my niche.”

It was a pattern of semi-isolation that MacLachlan took to college in 1977--the University of Washington, where he initially tried to major in business. After taking one business course, “where I got a 1.6,” MacLachlan drifted to the theater department.

It was also the time in MacLachlan’s life when his parents divorced--a not uncommon occurrence, but for the oldest, favorite son who had spent most of his youth trying to please his increasingly unhappy parents, it was seminal. “I knew that they weren’t a normal happy couple, that I didn’t grow up witnessing that kind of family life,” he says, running a hand through his hair. “That screwed me up in so many ways I can’t even tell you,” he adds softly. “As a kid you feel responsible and also you think that this must be the way families are. I wasn’t close to another family to witness the kind of interaction that should go on between a man and a woman--or what I would like to have for my own family--you know, that kind of bond where the children don’t become the object of the love that is not being expressed.”

His parents’ divorce, he says now, “was actually very freeing. To see, ‘Oh, they made a mistake, now maybe I can let down a bit.’ ” It was the same kind of relegation of responsibility that MacLachlan says he found in acting. “Yeah, up on the stage you are protected,” he says. Shortly after his freshman year, MacLachlan left school to work in summer stock in North Carolina--a pivotal time in his life when he had an affair with an older actress, an experience that strengthened his decision to become an actor. “It was another world; she had been this hippie. It was like the whole world blew apart. It felt so comfortable, it was like the I was gradually learning that it was OK to be imperfect.”

He returned from that summer feeling for the first time that he was an actor. MacLachlan transferred into the university’s professional acting training program and began to work at regional theaters. He also began a pattern of “dating my leading ladies” that extended through school and into his films, including stints with Laura Dern, his “Blue Velvet” co-star, and currently Lara Flynn Boyle from “Twin Peaks,” with whom he lives in a tidy adobe bungalow in Venice. “I was like living finally,” he says about those years. “Finding out that I could be whatever I wanted to be, say whatever I wanted to say, it was all an affirmation that it was OK to be yourself.”

Although MacLachlan is still playing the dutiful eldest son off-screen--he got his younger brother a job as a production assistant on “Twin Peaks” and he is housing him in his guest cottage--the actor is finding further freedom on-screen. “I don’t know what the Method (school of acting) is. I read the books; I can’t figure it out,” he says, smiling. The difference between imagining himself as a character and stepping on stage or in front of a camera, he says, is “like opening a door and going through it, it’s that simple,” he says. “While I’m on stage, you believe it, that this is real.”

As for MacLachlan’s future, Lynch and other “Twin Peaks” creators, including writer and co-producer Mark Frost, have nothing but praise for MacLachlan’s work as Agent Cooper--"He’s like an Alec Guinness,” says Frost, “he just inhabits a role.”

Although MacLachlan admits that losing the Emmy was slightly disappointing, he said, “The fact that ‘Twin Peaks’ got blanked suited us just fine. It just sort of reminded everyone what ‘Twin Peaks’ is--that we’re the scouts out in new territory where most (television) doesn’t go. And this season we have to go guerrilla again.”

Other observers are less sanguine than Frost about the actor’s current reach. “I think he’s got a lot more range than what he’s doing on ‘Twin Peaks,’ ” says Jerry Turner, artistic director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, where MacLachlan first performed in “Romeo and Juliet.” “Cooper is kind of an automaton.”

“I think Kyle is kind of reined in,” adds Dr. Hobbes. “He’s doing this David Lynch thing and he does it well, but it’s not the only thing he can do.”

Mention these observations to MacLachlan and he grows pensive. “It’s interesting what Bob (Hobbes) said. I don’t quite know what to do yet.” Although he currently has a five-year contract with Lynch-Frost for “Twin Peaks,” he says he is not particularly interested in further television projects.

But about other film roles, he shrugs and says he is not yet getting the kind of offers he would like. “I’m not very good at taking big steps,” he says. “I take lots of little steps and it takes me longer to get there. But I know I have got to do more. I think I want more, but somehow I’ve got to find that with a director that I can trust to kind of push me, steer me, gently, you know?”

About playing Cooper, MacLachlan says, “Yeah, I don’t know if Cooper . . . I think these characters on ‘Twin Peaks’ are kind of cartoony, which is fun but it’s not really what I’m hungry to do.”

They are reservations that MacLachlan extends to his work with Lynch. “I know part of David well and our senses of humor about certain things is similar, but I don’t know the part of him that does the blood, the violence. Looking back on ‘Dune’ there was nothing about the people and their relationships that you cared about and in the book you care a great deal about the people, like they have really special bonds, like how you might have your father, unspoken but very strong. And in the movie not much attention was paid to that at all. I’m very curious about ‘Wild at Heart,’ which I haven’t seen. I wonder that David feels a need to reach for (those emotions) with a sledgehammer--more blood, more violence, more grotesqueness--like a little kid flailing instead of that steering thing I was talking about.”

By now, MacLachlan is stretched back in his chair, his hands laced behind his neck. “I guess I’ll figure it out one of these days, it’s just the frustration of figuring out where you want to go. I don’t know if ‘The Doors’ is going to do that for me or not. I saw they dailies, I think it’s good. It’s a little different. But I guess I still want to have a part that would allow me to be me.”

He speaks for a moment about his future, that he is considering marriage. “Think I’m old enough?” he asks with a grin.

There is a pause and then, as if something had been resolved, MacLachlan speaks about his mother’s death a few years ago.

“In some ways, I think her death, like the divorce, was a freeing thing. I have a strong desire to please (others) and I still have it. Starting with my parents, having to be a model (child) and anything that I did that wasn’t going to make them proud I did undercover, which is why I do these roles--the whole idea of a secret side. It’s the process of just doing stuff, and just saying this is my own, this is how I feel, it’s up to you to take it or leave it. I’m just getting comfortable with that. And in some ways I feel kind of cheated, because I’m finally doing that and she’s not here to see it.”