Right now, Kyle MacLachlan is back at work on the upcoming revival of “Twin Peaks” — about which he can say very little. But it’s only one facet of an epic career that’s covered a surprising range of genres; though, when it comes to improv, he still considers himself a beginner.
Talking to MacLachlan is such a pleasure that we’ll take any opportunity to do it, and this time we got to learn all about why improv takes more out of him than scripted television, the different kinds of comedy he’s gotten to do, the celebrity he’s a big fan of and why, when he’s on the set of “Twin Peaks,” it’s a very “intimate” experience.
When I talked to you last, “Twin Peaks” was on the horizon, and now you’re in the thick of it, of course. But when did “Portlandia” happen?
They carve out some time in the summer for me, so I’m usually in Portland for a beautiful time of the year up there. In July, August, somewhere in that range. I’m working for about five or six days and they can get all of the Mayor’s work in one segment which makes it very nice for me. I go and have a real nice few days in Portland and then, you know, wait for next year.
That sounds lovely. I got to talk with director Jonathan Krisel recently and he was describing the process of making the show, which sounds like it leans pretty heavily on the improv side.
From the first day, that’s been the structure of it. Stepping into that world, having had no real experience with improv, was both, as you can imagine, frightening and exhilarating and surprisingly taxing. When you improv, maybe it’s more like live theater, but at the end of the day, I’m much more tired than I am when I work on a scripted show. I guess your brain is hopefully churning away at the max. So you end up being physically and mentally exhausted, but exhilarated at the same time.
Absolutely. In terms of the comedy, how much do you feel you’ve been able to bring to it through improv?
Well, a lot of it is in the circumstances. So you start with this idea and when you get to the set that day, Jonathan, the director, or Fred [Armison] lie there and look at it or modify it. Perhaps it alters in the playing of it and you kind of rely on the creative spark of it in the moment to flesh it out a little bit. Other times, it’s been the original idea is so ripe with possibilities that you just run with what’s there. When they talk about the Mayor going off the grid, which he’s done it seems almost every season, they write it in such unusual, wonderful, unexpected and just completely full of possibilities. I’m a kid in a candy store. I don’t know where to go first. I’m so excited. And things just take off from there.
When you first came to the role, how concrete in their minds was the role of Mayor?
When I was first contacted, I didn’t really know what it was. It was a show. It was not scripted. It was improv. But it was loosely based on characters Fred and Carrie [Brownstein] had created already. They reached out to me to be this mayor of this city, and I don’t think anyone really knew what was gonna happen, but we just kind of made it up. I think the first season they came up with the idea of the Mayor going off the grid, and that theme has stuck.
In this current season, there’s another Mayor. When I first read through the concepts I was like, “Oh, so there’s another character, another actor.” And they went, “No, no, no. You are also the mayor.” It’s so fun to watch Jonathan Krisel explain this to me and I’m like, “Okay.” He’s like, “No,” — it’s almost as if I was supposed to know — “you’re the mayor of Austin, too.” It makes complete sense to Jonathan. I’m much more practical, he’s like no, no this is the way it’s gonna be. Which, of course, gets me very excited because the idea of playing this other mayor — who is a stereotypical mayor from another time with a big mustache. It’s like he exists in the 1800s. But in our mind, in “Portlandia’s” mind, he’s current. He’s a guy you would have seen on TV back in Westerns from a long, long time ago. I mean, it’s fun. It’s silly and fun.
That always strikes me whenever I look up the show on IMBD, you’re not Mayor So-and-So or even “The Mayor,” you are just “Mayor.”
When I go up to work, Fred doesn’t even call me Kyle, he just calls me Mr. Mayor. When we’re in the make-up chair, he goes “Mr. Mayor!” To Fred, I’m just Mr. Mayor.
There’s this part of me that suspects he just thinks all Mayors are you.
Yeah, I’m the Mayor of everything. It’s wonderful. It’s so playful and silly and wonderful.
It’s funny because I was thinking that “Portlandia” feels like a departure for you, but I was scanning your IMDB page and you’ve done a ton of comedy.
[laughs] I’ve done things that are inadvertently funny and some things that were hopefully funny. They are different forms of comedy, obviously. There was a “Twin Peaks”-type of comedy, there was a “Flintstones” comedy, there was “A Touch of Pink”-Cary Grant kind of comedy. Everything has its own different flavor. “Portlandia” is not like I’m doing comedy, but Mayor is very sincere, of course, and he’s very serious about everything he does. Well, not serious but he’s focused and highly energetic. He just happens to be in situations that are very wacky, especially when he is with Fred and Carrie. They both create this universe that is very particular in that moment, and you just get to play in that area and it’s the most fun in the world.
Is it tough maintaining that, given the fact that it’s improv?
It’s very challenging. I am still just a beginner. Every time I work with Fred, I’m just reminded how facile his mind is and how quick he’s able to move the story along and shift gears, and it’s really an art. Although when I work with him and Carrie, I fancy myself as equal, but there’s no way I’m equal. They are light years beyond me and I’m just trying to keep up. One of the great things that always happens is if there’s a moment when we are all really trying not to laugh and trying to hold the characters, not unlike the skits on SNL when you see people beginning to fall apart. Fred is a master at holding and keeping it real. If there is ever a chink in that armor and you see a glimmer, you know that you’ve won — something truly unbelievable and rare.
Is that ever your goal, not to get through the scene, just to make Fred break?
There was one time when we were doing Mayor off the grid in the jungle — sort of an “Apocalypse Now” sequence — and I was standing there and I just suddenly let out a war cry and I heard this snort coming out of Fred’s nose and it was the most wonderful, sublime feeling. I finally got it. Just the most unexpected– because he’s constantly doing that to both Carrie and I. He’s a champion.
Right now, having gotten to do a lot of different things, do you find people recognize you for just one thing?
It’s very nice. I’ve got these different areas I’ve got to work in. There’s “Portlandia” fans, there’s “Twin Peaks” fans, there’s fans of some of the older stuff and it’s just nice to be recognized. It’s not a thing where I feel I have to run and hide. It’s always sort of gracious and they seem to get the joke. I get a kick out of seeing them and they get a kick out of seeing me, I think.
When you find out what someone recognizes you from, are you like, “Now I know what kind of person you are”?
[laughs a lot] It’s always unexpected. Some people will say I loved “The Hidden” and I’ll say, “Really? That’s a long time ago.” [laughs] But people have favorites, just like I have favorites. There are things that I love and remember and cherish and in the unlikely event that I were to cross paths with someone involved in that, I’d turn into a fan and say, “I just gotta tell you, this moment from this show or this production or this part that you played.” I’d do exactly the same thing and I just feel compelled to share that. So I get it when people come to me and say “I just wanna tell you I love you,” because I get exactly the same way.
Well, you gotta share an example one of those.
[laughs] There’s a movie that I just love, years ago, Richard Lester directed “The Three Musketeers,” “The Four Musketeers” and Richard Chamberlain had played Aramus and I had the occasion of meeting him unexpectedly, and I just sat there smiling with a big grin on my face, and I said, “I have to tell you something.” He was very gracious. This was a long time ago. And I just shared that with him and it makes you feel good and, like I said, he was very gracious. It probably wasn’t his favorite thing, but it’s a thing I remember and it meant a lot to me.
One of the benefits of this sort of work is knowing that what you are doing really can affect people’s lives.
Hopefully in a good way. Hopefully people get a kick out of it or enjoy it or are moved. They get caught up or it moves them somehow in a positive way.
Looking back is there stuff that you feel more people recognize from your own career?
It’s weird. The reach of television is powerful. I think maybe “Sex and the City” because it’s still replayed a lot and people love that and cherish that show so much, and it had such an impact and I’m very grateful to be a part of it. Maybe because I spend a lot of time in New York. People always say, “Trey!” I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that because I’m not one of the main characters in the show, but I’m connected to the show. So they feel connected to me through that. Connected to the show through me.
The thing about the Trey arc on “Sex and The City” is there was a real significance to it because, at first, the character represented someone getting their fairytale ending, and then it goes in this completely other direction.
It was meant to be a much shorter arc and they extended it. I think it had a lot of poignant moments in there for Kristen [Davis]’s character and it was a real sadness when it didn’t work out. Much more so than the one-off when it was obvious these people weren’t ready for each other and the fact that it didn’t work out was sad.
I wanna wrap things up with a “Twin Peaks” question. I’m not looking for spoilers because I’m sure the trained snipers in the corner are ready to pounce, but there’s clearly a huge amount of scrutiny applied to that project. We’re all excited to see what happens. How do you keep that from distracting you from just doing the work?
Speaking for me, the beauty of the set. The environment that is that little universe when we go to the studio or when we go on location — it’s quite small and quaint. So, we’re like on a little ship in the middle of a giant sea. So while we’re doing that, and while it’s going on, the focus is really tight and very contained. It’s all about what’s in front of you and what’s around you and seeing what’s happening and the relationships.
When I’m reminded of it is when I enter into the world and talk about what’s happening. It’s always challenging to express what that experience is when you are working because it’s very intimate. It was kind of the same way on the first one. No real concept or thought of what the expectations are, we are just going about our day-to-day, doing our work the best we can and hopefully making something that will resonate and be challenging and entertaining and all those things you want — provocative [too].
For whatever reason, I don’t spend a lot of time on the outside looking in. I spend a lot of my time doing my thing and doing it to the best of my ability. Once in a while you say, “I hope this works.” But a majority of the time I’m not really thinking about the outer layers. I don’t know if that helps explain. It’s gonna be what it’s gonna be. The thrill of working with David again, creating and working with this character and these scenes with these other actors and even some of the crew we had with the first go around of “Twin Peaks” — they’ve all returned. That is very special. Every day I go to work and I say I’m very blessed to be working right now, right here and in this moment.