Kyle MacLachlan just gets better with age. At 61, he has settled into playing the kinds of characters who are older and less fleet-footed than roles like Special Agent Dale Cooper in “Twin Peaks” or even the impotent Trey MacDougal in “Sex and the City.” But he still has his very particular, good-natured charm. (Except, of course, when he’s playing Cooper’s maniac doppelgänger Mr. C in “Twin Peaks: The Return.”)
In “Tesla,” Michael Almereyda’s dazzling and postmodern anti-biopic of the life and work of inventor and engineer Nikola Tesla (Ethan Hawke), MacLachlan plays Tesla’s colleague and eventual foe Thomas Edison. The longtime rivalry between these two eccentrics remains one of history’s fiercest, with their developments of AC and DC currents, respectively, sparking a bitter feud that rocked the late 19th century.
Though MacLachlan has solidified his reputation for playing fictional characters in the films of David Lynch, the Emmy-nominated actor slips into the role of Edison with ease. But he doesn’t quite disappear, which adds to the Brechtian quality of a movie that, despite a late 19th-century setting, plays with an anachronistic timeline and often breaks the fourth wall via Eve Hewson’s narration (as J.P. Morgan’s daughter and Tesla’s love interest).
“There is a huge amount of research material, as you can imagine,” MacLachlan said in an interview with IndieWire. “My job was to try and find the person in all of that and I was actually helped quite a bit. There is film of him entertaining visitors to his factory, moving through space, talking, doing interviews. That was really helpful just to get mannerisms and look at his face and try to bring myself closer to the person.”
But MacLachan said he also had access to rare materials that revealed a lighter side to the brainy inventor. In the film, Edison is an imperious presence to be sure, and teasing of Ethan Hawke’s more neurotic and squirrely Nikola Tesla, but MacLachlan’s take turns his character into a bit of a romantic.
“He kept a diary for a summer, in 1885. He had been recently widowed and had three kids, and he was in a much more fanciful, whimsical, emotional time,” MacLachlan said. “He wrote these observations of people and life around him, and a lot of self-reflection but in a funny, third-person kind of way, and that was very revealing to get to the side of the man where you don’t think of an inventor as having these nonsensical flights of fancy.”
No interview with Kyle MacLachlan would be complete without a detour into David Lynch country, beginning with 1984’s misbegotten “Dune,” a movie that Lynch to this day totally rejects.
In the Frank Herbert adaptation, MacLachlan played the role of Paul Atreides — now to be assumed by Timothée Chalamet in Denis Villeneuve’s upcoming version — and doesn’t have as hard of feelings over the movie’s notorious failure, both at the box office and in the cultural imagination, as his director.
“My feelings about it evolve over time. I look at it as a flawed gem,” MacLachlan said. “It’s stunning in so many ways. As a story, and trying to recreate that story, it’s almost impossible. It’s incredibly dense, and a little bit like a house of cards. If you leave out one element of the story or another, the structure tends to wobble, and you don’t get the full effect.”
MacLachlan said he is “curious” about Villeneuve’s two-film approach to the material, with one opening in December and a second already shot and in the mix. But, he said, “I would lobby for three or more films, because it has that kind of potential to really open up. In my imagination, I always thought it would be great to approach it like a ‘Game of Thrones’ model, where you have seasons, or at least a 10-part series, or a 12-part series. You could really go from beginning to end.”
MacLachlan isn’t the only Hollywood figure associated with “Dune” who thinks the material is an uphill climb to put onscreen. Alejandro Jodorowsky, who fell flat when trying to realize the novel in the 1970s, also said it’s “impossible” because of its “literary” and Proustian qualities.
“There’s a mysticism about it that is difficult to capture on film,” MacLachlan said, corroborating Jodorowsky’s remarks. “That, combined with a straight-ahead story, and characters that are really well-created. They’re full people, and you want to spend time with each one of them. And that eats up your film time. It’s a real puzzle. It’s just so many elements that you have to bring together. I remember that when I first started reading the book back in the day, I would get to about page 50 or 60 and then have to return back to the very beginning just to put all the players in place. There are so many relationships that are important to understand and know. To hold the stories of each of those so the audience can remember, it’s just almost impossible.”
Still, we have the disaster of “Dune” to thank for the eternal Lynch-MacLachlan mind meld, which continued with “Blue Velvet,” the original “Twin Peaks,” and Showtime’s revival “Twin Peaks: The Return” just three years ago.
“Anytime I get to work with David, it’s a dream project,” the actor said. “I know that’s not a very interesting answer, but it’s true. When that realization happened is when I returned to do ‘Twin Peaks: The Return,’ it became clear very quickly that he and I belong together. We hadn’t [worked together] for a number of years. While I loved working with him and we made some great stuff before, think this time around I really just cherished every single day that we worked together on that show.”
As for what’s ahead in the “Twin Peaks” world for Lynch, who historically keeps his projects wrapped in impenetrable secrecy, MacLachlan said “anything is possible.” (A most Lynchian answer.) “To be honest, I would be the last person to know,” he added. “He kept it from me on ‘The Return’ for a long time and didn’t want anyone outside of himself and [co-creator] Mark Frost to know what was going on. At this point, he hasn’t discussed anything with me.”
But he says they keep in touch on a personal level, and have throughout the quarantine. “We’re friends. We see each other now on Zoom, of course,” MacLachlan said. “We’ll grab Laura Dern as well and we’ll basically just sort of chitchat and catch up and reminisce a bit and just talk about what we’re doing, family activities, he talks about what he’s creating of course. Just staying in touch.”
The key to his working relationship with Lynch, MacLachlan said, is that he’ll go wherever the director takes him. “Whenever he calls, whenever he says ‘Let’s go do this,’ I am 100% in,” he said, “because the experience is so special.”
“Tesla” opens in select theaters and on demand August 21, 2020 from IFC Films