Kyle MacLachlan has played such a wide range of characters — from the good-as-gold Agent Dale Cooper of “Twin Peaks” to, just recently, a super-powered badass on “Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD” — that when you get him on the phone, you’re not quite sure who you’re going to get.
But the iconic film and television veteran was generous, kind and intelligent when Indiewire spoke with him about his career, including whether “Twin Peaks” could have returned without David Lynch, how his answer to the question of “How do you pick roles?” has changed over the years, and not only why he still auditions, but his advice for actors who also do so.
Hi, Kyle! How’s it going?
I’m good. I’ve got my coffee here. Life is good.
Oh man. You opened that up immediately for “Twin Peaks” jokes.
[laughs] I’m used to it. I’m so used to it.
I was there at the TCAs this year when you came out with the cup of coffee, which was very exciting, and I wanted to get the backstory of what happened there. Who called you and said, “Hey, can you make a quick cameo?”
Oh, the guys from Showtime. They were like, “Wouldn’t it be fun to make this announcement?” And I said, “That sounds fun!” It was sort of a last-minute mad dash where I got myself a black suit and headed over. We kind of made it up on the spot, made the little announcement, and then I skedaddled back. I think everyone was surprised. They looked up and were like, “What’s he doing here, first of all? And what’s he saying?”
The show had been announced, but your involvement hadn’t been confirmed. Were you a part of those discussions from the beginning?
At that point, I was committed to the project. I don’t think any agreements had been signed. But I was like, “Great, let’s go! It would be really fun to revisit this character.”
When last we saw Cooper, there were clearly directions you’d be going.
Meaning from the end of Season 2?
Oh yeah, definitely! I think in the mind of the writers, they were excited about exploring this new direction for Cooper. Obviously the season was cut short, but that was the intention, yeah. Unfortunately I don’t know exactly where they’re going to pick up or begin or start. I’m pretty much in the dark as far as the next few steps. What I do know is that we’re gonna start filming this fall. September, October, somewhere in there. I’m looking forward to that very much.
How closely were you following all of the drama that went on this spring with David Lynch?
I was definitely watching it, but from a distance. I was certainly aware of what was going on and was hopeful that everything could be resolved.
Was there ever a part of your mind that thought, “could ‘Twin Peaks’ even happen without David Lynch?“
No. “Twin Peaks” and David Lynch are synonymous, so I was really hoping that an agreement between all parties could be reached. And that’s what happened, so we’re very, very lucky.
Something that really stuck out to me from your IMDb listings is that TV has been a home for you over the years almost since the very beginning of your career. I was wondering, especially as someone who started doing TV before TV was cool, what’s been really interesting to you about working in the medium?
The first major television that I did was “Twin Peaks,” and my introduction into working was pretty unusual, in that the show was a ginormous success out of the gate. It was a very nice way to come into the TV world, although a little unrealistic for future work. It doesn’t happen like that every time. That was a good lesson for me to learn.
The beauty of television, and it’s been said by many different actors in many different ways, is the continuity of character, especially if you’ve got writers who are good writers and conscious of that; that they continue to build and expand and keep these characters interesting as the story unfolds. It can also be a little uncertain in that each week you’re presented with new material that’s gonna take your character in a direction that you may or may not be aware of. You have to roll with the punches a little bit and accept what’s happening with the character.
Sometimes that’s easier to do, and sometimes not so easy. In the case of “Agents of Shield,” that was very easy because I found the character evolving and expanding in really an interesting way as he developed over the season. As I learned more about what was happening to him or had happened to him, I was able to reflect that in the writing and the performance and in the scenes. That was really fun — really, really exciting.
You had a fun arc there, especially because you could have been pulled into a straight-down-the-middle villain direction. But instead you had a lot of depth to play with.
Yeah, and he wasn’t just a bad guy. He appeared to be that in the first few scenes. The creators assured me there was more to it than just what I was seeing. The relationship the character has with his daughter was so pivotal. They were able to tell a little bit of the story in flashbacks in the earlier part of my appearance, and that was helpful. I found myself looking for clues about the character probably the same time as the audience. It was, what are they divulging about him? And how can I expand, intensify and round that out to make a more complete and interesting character? They were really pleased with my contributions and I was certainly pleased with the quality of the writing and the way they developed the character. He’s been one of my favorites.
You also got to do a fair amount of stunt work, especially for those last couple episodes.
Yeah, the whole sequence when he gets hit by a car, yeah. There was a stuntman, obviously. That was really amazing. At this point everybody wants to do as much as they can, in terms of fight sequences and that kind of stuff. All the actors are up for it, so I felt like I better step up and do my bit if I wanted to be accepted here! [laughs] They were just great, the stunt folks and the coordinators. The fight sequence I had with Clark Gregg was really fun to do, too. He’s really talented, and they’re all really capable. It was easy.
Is there a specific method for you, for balancing the fact that you have to perform a complicated stunt maneuver, but also be an actor acting in the moment?
I think that, for me, it’s about the rhythm of it. So once I learn the sequence, which is obviously helped by the position of the camera, then it’s just selling it with the emotion behind it — but always conscious that you’re doing something that is choreographed. One of the great helps in that situation are the sound effects that they lay in. If you look at a fight sequence with sound and then look at it without sound, it’s an entirely different animal. So the sound department plays a pretty key part of that as well.
In terms of what roles you pick versus what roles you don’t, is there a specific thing you look for when making the decision?
That’s an interesting question and one I’ve answered a number of different ways over the course of my career. [laughs] There are some basic truths that still remain which are: Do I like the material? Am I drawn to it? Do I find it believable? Is there something about the character that appeals to me? Who are the creative people? The writers, the directors, the producers, whomever? So I weigh all of these, and they all have different amounts of importance, but I weigh all those things. Since I’ve been married for a little while and I have a boy who’s gonna be seven, that is definitely a part of the equation. I remember doing something years ago in Thailand and I shot there for 10 weeks. I wouldn’t ever have considered it now that my son has been born since I would have been away from home for too long. Those things change, those prerequisites change.
Oftentimes, I’ve entered a situation where I felt one way and then it’s actually gotten better and more than I could have hoped for. Sometimes you know pretty early it’s not gonna be great, so you try to find something in there that’s gonna hold your interest and do the best you can. It’s a real combination of parts and pieces. It’s always very nice when someone says, “Hey, we like you, we’re offering you this role.” That doesn’t happen very often for me but when it does, you feel pretty good.
But then there’s another side that goes deep and really wants to win this. I like being able to go in and fight for something. I’ve grown up auditioning. I started in the theater and that’s what we did. I continue to audition all throughout my career for various things that I really feel strongly about. The majority of those don’t go my way, but I do love the process of preparation. Even the chance just to play the role in an audition can be satisfying enough — just to say, “I really got into that character. I sunk my teeth in that character.” Where you can approach it from, “This is my interpretation of what you’ve written. I’m open to suggestions, but I see it this way. If you don’t see it that way, then that’s fine. I’m sure there’s somebody out there that can fit the role better.” Going into it with that kind of attitude is healthy, I think. The power of the decision becomes the person who’s auditioning, instead of the person who’s casting.
That’s great advice for actors, since the audition process is so hard.
Well, it’s so tempting to want to try to please the people you’re auditioning for. I’ve been on the other side, and they’re really just looking for someone to come in and show them something, commit to something. I try to remember that as I go in and say, “All right, this is how I would do things. This is my approach.” And if they have some suggestions, with try this, try this, try this, I welcome that. I enjoy that process, too. I enjoy the process of layering in stuff.
What’s something you’ve fought for recently?
I did audition for the Spader role in “The Blacklist,” and I had a very different take on it than the way they decided to go. That’s just the way it goes. James is doing an extraordinary job. He’s that character, he’s really wonderful. I just had a different thought about it.
Would you have been excited about the opportunity to take on a series regular role on that level?
That is the thing. I’ve done some work recently on “The Good Wife,” which is a lot of fun. But Julianna [Margulies] works so hard and she has a family, and that’s the continual struggle. You have to have a real strong partner if you’ve got kids, to keep the home life normal. That’s not easy to do. There are tremendous demands. I don’t know really if I’m ready to do that for network. Something like with “Twin Peaks,” the duration is less than a network show, which is 10 months. That’s a long time.
On the other hand, there’s less pressure in the idea of knowing it’s a franchise that could potentially go on for many years.
That too. It’s nice to have consistent work, true. The character continues to develop and evolve, and it’s very interesting. The Kings are friends and are terrific writers, Robert and Michelle. You have some great stuff to work with and as an actor that’s always the most satisfying. I will say 10 months is a long time, and that’s when you really lean on the ensemble. There are days where there are going to be other people working, and thank God because they give you a little bit of a break. You can catch your breath. You can have a little bit of a life.
Do you know if you’re going to go back to “The Good Wife” at any point?
I don’t know, no! I hope so. I really like that character. He’s so much fun. I love working with Carrie Preston. She’s delightful.
You guys are great together.
Yeah, we have a fun time. She’s so talented, so funny and so game for experimentation and trying stuff. It made the whole process really a pleasure. From the top on down, the people involved, all the actors, they’re very welcoming. I’m the same way when I’m working on a show. It’s so nice to have people come in and want to work on the show, and you so want them to be great, and you want them to have a great experience, and you want them to bring their best game, their best work. I felt that certainly with everyone on “The Good Wife.”
When it comes to that, is that something that can be built or is it instinctual?
Those actors just possess it, I think. They’re very gracious. They understand how hard it is. Sometimes stepping into an environment like that as an outsider can be somewhat intimidating, and they want to make sure that whomever is coming, in that case me, feels right at home and comfortable and is going to enjoy the experience. It’s a point of pride in some ways. You want people to come away from that show really having a great time and a great experience. And hopefully you’ve been doing good work, too.
Looking back, are there any specific shows that you worked on that you wish had gotten more time?
I thought there were a couple. I worked on a show with Jason O’Mara called “In Justice” with Robert and Michelle King. Fantastic idea and has been topical since then. This goes back quite a few years ago actually, but it doesn’t seem that long ago. The dynamic between Jason O’Mara’s character as the detective and my character as the brash lawyer was interesting. I think the difficulty was the complexity of trying to get all the pieces moving. You had a new case every week and there were a lot of categories you had to fill in to set it up. It may have faltered since there was so much you had to do quickly. It was just hard to do. We did 12 of those and that was something that was so close and so good. It would have been nice to spend more time with that one.
What’s the next thing you’re working on?
I’ll be going back up to “Portlandia” sometime this summer, maybe in July, and doing the role of Mr. Mayor. Looking forward to that. And then we will launch into “Twin Peaks” in the fall at some point. That will be full on, I’m really looking forward to that. That’s perhaps my favorite character of all time.