The Color of Truth
As Dale Cooper, Kyle MacLachlan is much more than a fed who fancied cherry pie and “a damn good cup of coffee.” He is the narrative and moral center of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks.
Last spring, the third season of Twin Peaks arrived on Showtime with a subtitle: The Return. but had it ever really gone away?
The series' blockbuster debut on ABC in spring 1990 was more than just a ratings and critical sensation; it was a game-changer. David Lynch, by then already a three-time Oscar nominee, brought the values of filmmaking — breathtaking cinematography and labyrinthine storytelling driven by a personal (and bizarre) sensibility — to television.
His approach would ultimately help pave the way for a so-called second golden age of television; the show's influence is evident in everything from broadcast-network smashes (The X-Files and Lost) to sensations of basic and premium cable (Mad Men, Breaking Bad, The Sopranos and The Leftovers). Given all that, season three felt more like a bookend than a reboot.
Last year's mind-bending 18 hours did bestow one very literal and eagerly awaited return — that of Kyle MacLachlan as FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper. Nearly three decades ago, the Brylcreemed, straight-arrow G-man's assignment to an unsolved murder in a bucolic Pacific Northwest town set in motion one of pop culture's most mesmerizing odysseys.
If not the actual protagonist of Twin Peaks, Cooper was its narrative and moral center. And, in contrast to the antiheroes who followed (Tony Soprano, Walter White, Don Draper, et al.), Cooper was a straight-up good guy.
The character cemented MacLachlan's status as Lynch's number-one go-to collaborator, a relationship that began back in 1984 on the epic sci-fi film Dune. But their relationship really clicked with Blue Velvet, Lynch's 1986 baroque neo-noir. In that film, as he would later do in Twin Peaks, MacLachlan played a fresh-faced, small-town Everyman charged with navigating the world of wonder and darkness that is Lynch's binocular aesthetic.
As such, he's both an audience stand-in and a creative kindred spirit: the De Niro to Lynch's Scorsese, the Mastroianni to his Fellini.
In typical frustrating fashion, Lynch withheld Agent Cooper's appearance in season three until the 16th episode. In the run-up to that moment, MacLachlan stayed plenty busy with a bravura performance as two crypto-Coopers (or doppelgängers, or "tulpas" — it's complicated).
One was Mr. C., a black-clad agent of death and destruction. The other was Dougie Jones, a Las Vegas insurance adjuster who, after a fateful encounter with an electrical wall socket, is reduced to a near-catatonic savant shuffling his way into a small fortune — and the crosshairs of a mob syndicate.
To discuss all four of his Twin Peaks alter egos (a fourth Cooper variation, Richard, emerged in the season finale) and his adventures in the screen trade before and after his star-making Lynchian turns, MacLachlan suggested a sit-down at Soho House New York.
The actor and his family — his television- producer wife, Desirée Gruber, and their nine-year-old son, Callum — have called the members-only club a sort of second home for the past eight years. It's a setting that feels perfectly apt for MacLachlan, a place that in another era would have been called a "gentleman's club" (though, on this afternoon, its midday bustle includes more than a few women).
An air of accomplishment and decorum prevails. And MacLachlan himself exudes a New York gentleman's vibe, like a modern-day Gregory Peck, even if he is dressed down in celebrity's-day-off style — jeans, black sweatshirt, baseball cap, glasses.
Relaxing into a banquette, he orders an espresso and immediately acknowledges, "My image is going to suffer" for not choosing a simple cup of "damn good coffee," as Cooper would.
MacLachlan has recently returned from a UNICEF trip to Central America, where he observed the plight of Guatemalan refugees, and he's slotted this interview between dropping off and picking up Callum from school. Later, he'll check on things at the Washington State winery he runs and then prepare for his scenes the following day in Steven Soderbergh's upcoming feature High Flying Bird.
If that all sounds glamorous, MacLachlan's demeanor — calm, humble, soft-spoken — offers a subtle rebuke. He wears his charmed lifestyle the way he wears his celebrity: lightly. Maybe, his presence suggests, mystique is overrated.
Maclachlan's road back to Twin Peaks began during a 2014 tête-à-tête with Lynch.
"David called and said he wanted to talk to me. To me, that meant this is either work, or I've said something in an interview that's pissed him off," MacLachlan explains. "He said, 'Are you game for going back and creating Cooper?' I said, 'David, I've been waiting 26 years for this — of course!'" Lynch was sparse on details, saying only, "You're going to be doing some interesting things, some different things."
Next came a 2015 trip to Los Angeles, where MacLachlan was put in a room with a pot of coffee and a copy of The Return's 500-page script, penned by Lynch and executive producer Mark Frost. The script, like the shoot that followed, was structured like one long movie, not a series of 60-minute episodes.
"They just said, 'We're going to run it for an hour, and we'll stop it there, chop it and pick up at the next hour,'" MacLachlan recalls.
Six hours later, he remembers understanding what Lynch was doing… to the extent that anyone can. "It takes you on the journey that David wants you to go on," he says, "but he's not interested in telling you what's happening."
That said, MacLachlan adds, "I know some of David's imagery and his use of context and what he's trying to do, at least I think I do. It may not be what he's intending at all, but I think I get it from my perspective. Which is the beauty of Lynch: it's really open to your interpretation, and he values that."
Shooting began in September 2015 and finished eight months later, which is shockingly fast for the production of 18 hours of television. It is, MacLachlan says, a testament to Lynch's efficiency. The director rarely shoots more than two takes of a scene, and MacLachlan surmises that Lynch "was editing it in his head" as they went along.
Paradoxically, perhaps, executing Lynch's vision on set may be easier than deconstructing it.
For one thing, MacLachlan came prepared with a well-considered feel for the two characters he'd spend the most time playing. To portray wide-eyed, bedazzled Dougie, he found inspiration in both Peter Sellers's work as Chance the gardener in Being There and in Jeff Bridges's alien visitor in Starman.
Embodying the Terminator-esque Mr. C., MacLachlan says, "was like being rooted in the ground — like if you'd tried to knock him over, you couldn't."
By that time, director and actor had developed an almost telepathic working relationship. "He trusts me to keep him in the groove," Lynch says via email. "I never talked to him about any meanings. I did, of course, talk to him about the characters and questions he had, but mostly we communicate in a different way, which is difficult to describe. It has to do with some words, but also eye contact and the movement of hands."
Naomi Watts, another Lynch favorite (she starred in his 2001 mystery Mulholland Drive), played Dougie's hilariously fervent wife, Janey-E; as such, she worked very closely with MacLachlan. Of his rapport with Lynch, she says, "He was well dialed-in. If they were talking, it was all in code." She adds, "They really feel like two peas in a pod. They're very tapped in to each other, and there's this huge amount of love and respect.
"David's work is like a meditation," Watts continues. "It's going to go in different directions. It's going to be scary at times, and funny — super funny — and weird. No matter what, it's going to be truthful, and Kyle is able to echo that vision David's putting together so beautifully well. [He] can walk in every world with an amazing amount of fluidity.
"That's why I respect him so much. He's an actor who's laid his whole soul bare to David's vision and says, 'I trust you. Take me there.'"
Twin Peaks: The Return landed with a characteristic mix of befuddlement and awe among viewers, delighting many of Lynch's fans along with most critics, who overwhelmingly ranked it high in their 2017 year-end lists.
The series also put MacLachlan back in the limelight, his performance a reminder of what he can do. His career has been bookended by Lynch projects, beginning with his casting in the writer-director's adaptation of Frank Herbert's Dune as a complete unknown.
Like Lynch, MacLachlan is a native of the Pacific Northwest, having grown up in Yakima, Washington, and graduated from the University of Washington in Seattle with a drama degree. After an aimless adolescence, acting represented something like a calling.
"I had a sense that I was good at it," he remembers. Besides, he adds, "You had to spend a lot of time after school in close proximity with members of the opposite sex." Post-grad, he went to work in regional theater, including a stint at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
At 22, while working in Seattle, MacLachlan received an out-of-the-blue call from a casting agent for Dino De Laurentiis, who was producing Dune. He landed the starring role over a slew of other applicants, including Val Kilmer, Tom Cruise and David Bowie. That success was largely based on his instant connection with the director.
Lynch recalls discerning "a kind of playfulness and enthusiasm for life" in the youngster. As MacLachlan describes it, "He felt that I could play the prince as well as the kid who becomes the prince." So enamored was Lynch that, while still shooting Dune, he wrote the script for his next film, Blue Velvet, and presented it to MacLachlan with an eye toward casting him as the lead.
"To me," Lynch says, "Jeffrey Beaumont is just a young Special Agent Dale Cooper."
Blue Velvet became a phenomenon, an arthouse hit that exploded nationally (netting Lynch an Oscar nomination for best director) and set off a wave of indie-turned-mainstream films that extended well into the 1990s.
MacLachlan, however, did not exactly become a sensation. He worked steadily over the next few years, sometimes as a lead, in a string of films that didn't make much of a splash — until Twin Peaks gave him a second shot at worldwide stardom.
The '90s found MacLachlan back in the grind as a journeyman, doing solid work in an array of theatrical and made-for-TV movies. None of them had much impact, unless you count the spectacular bellyflop of Paul Verhoeven's 1995 film Showgirls.
"I was a little lost, actually," the actor recalls. "I went through this valley and tried to figure it out. I never lost my enthusiasm for what I do, but it was challenging. I just kept going forward, trying to find my way."
In 2000, series television came to the rescue with a recurring role on HBO's zeitgeist-grabbing Sex and the City; MacLachlan played Trey, the persnickety mama's-boy husband of Kristin Davis's Charlotte.
In 2006, he led the cast of Michelle and Robert King's In Justice, a smart, topical ABC legal drama that was, if anything, too ambitious for its own good. The show was canceled after 13 episodes.
After that, a string of multi-episode gigs on high-profile series — Desperate Housewives, How I Met Your Mother, The Good Wife, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. — served as career tentpoles and brought recognition to his hard-won versatility.
With characteristic humility, MacLachlan suggests that he was attractive to a generation of showrunners for whom Lynch in general, and Twin Peaks in particular, were formative influences. "I was certainly someone they wanted because of my work with David," he says, "a returning to something that they were affected by.
"The TV jobs were fun," he reflects. "They also provided continuity. I was lucky enough to be able to work on really great shows with really smart people. What I was doing on them was… not always fulfilling, but it was employment. It kept me around, and I made the best of what I had, and I had some great stuff."
As the past year has shown, he's still doing great stuff, and not just as his signature cherry-pie-loving gumshoe.
MacLachlan has just concluded a seven-year recurring stint on IFC's hipster satire Portlandia, where he plays the gloriously daffy mayor of the titular city. The role shows a completely different side of MacLachlan, yet it mines some familiar territory in its brainy, weird sendup of the Northwest.
He smiles at its mere mention. "I burn more brain cells working on that show than any other," he says, alluding to the in-the-moment improvisation that is the forte of its creator-leads, Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein. "You're thinking so hard, you're creating stuff that's new all the time and in the moment."
As Brownstein recalls, "We were very much inspired by Twin Peaks and the way that David Lynch had encapsulated the history of the Northwest, the landscape, the oddities."
For that and other reasons, MacLachlan was their first choice for the role of the "guileless, goofy" mayor. "He was really interested in doing something that had a strangeness to it, a kind of subversion, so we ended up writing to the incessant optimism bordering on naïveté that he gave to the character." She adds, "He has an indelible sweetness and goodness that's not a performance and not an affect."
Fortunately, the performances will keep coming. "I'm having a fun run in film again, which is nice," MacLachlan says. In addition to the Soderbergh project, he'll appear later this year with Maria Bello in the feature drama Giant Little Ones, and with Cate Blanchett and Jack Black in a film adaptation of John Bellairs's children's book The House with a Clock in Its Walls.
As to whether he and Twin Peaks fans have another season to look forward to, he says, "I don't think there'll be more, but you never know."
As if to cast such speculation to the wind, he wraps up a nearly two-hour chat with a reflection of gratitude and contentment. "I just love acting; I love what I do."
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 6, 2018