Kyle MacLachlan has the rare distinction of immortalizing two memorable TV roles—one being the donut-loving FBI agent Dale Cooper of the cult series Twin Peaks, which earned him a Golden Globe Award and two Emmy nominations, and the other as Charlotte's first husband, the picture-perfect but flaccid heart surgeon, Trey MacDougal, on the HBO series Sex and the City. One role brought MacLachlan's enthusiastic delivery of the line "damn fine cup of coffee" into popular culture in 1990, and the other made the simple "alrighty" a catchphrase for impotent, mother-loving men everywhere. Most impressively, the actor has avoided being typecast by keeping his roles brief, powerful, and assorted.
"I keep confusing [the audience]. I think it's good to keep piling [the roles] on, so pretty soon the people won't know what to think," MacLachlan tells Back Stage West. "I think in both instances, Sex and the City and Twin Peaks, that the length of time I was actually those characters was fairly short. If you think of [David] Duchovny in X-Files, that was six or seven years. When you integrate yourself into the audience for that length of time, It gets a little more difficult to suck back out of it. But in my case it's been a one-two punch, then back out again. I think that's probably the reason I've been able to fluctuate a little bit."
MacLachlan has indeed played a wide range of characters in his career, including keyboardist Ray Manzarek in Oliver Stone's biopic The Doors, the villain in the Spielberg-produced The Flintstones, Bunny Drysdale in the experimental indie Timecode, a corporate Claudius in the modernized Hamlet, and he starred in Paul Verhoeven's infamous, Razzie Award–sweeper Showgirls. His latest film role, as the spirit of Cary Grant in Touch of Pink, has MacLachlan channeling the iconic screen actor through the right makeup, costumes, mannerisms, and voice. It's one of the most dead-on, entertaining impersonations since an incognito Tony Curtis seduced Marilyn Monroe in the 1959 comedy Some Like It Hot. In Touch of Pink, MacLachlan's Grant serves as fairy godmother and imaginary friend to Jimi Mistry's character, who is struggling to come out of the closet to his traditional, Ismaili-Muslim mother.
It's quite a fitting role for MacLachlan, who was blessed with classic Hollywood features. He has the tall, dark, and handsome thing down all the way from the jutting jaw to the steely eyes. His soulfulness, polite demeanor, and air of innocence set him apart from other leading men—like a Boy Scout tuned into darkness, which is exactly why the actor has collaborated so effortlessly with director David Lynch for starring roles in Dune, Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks, and the show's filmed prequel Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. No doubt, MacLachlan got these qualities from his shy, sheltered childhood spent reading the Hardy Boys books in Yakima, Wash. Even when asked about his first acting idols, his mind immediately goes to Dean Jones and his string of starring roles in Walt Disney pictures of the 1960s.
"Growing up, we were so sheltered. We weren't allowed to see a lot of movies," MacLachlan recalls. "We would go see things like The Sting when I was little or Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and I remember thinking that [Robert] Redford was just amazing. He was so cool. What's interesting is, I think he is not unlike Cary Grant in that he really understood how to use the camera [and his] incredible charisma, and just watching him you felt like you were going through the thing with him, and he kind of had the wink for the audience every now and then, like, 'You're still here, right?' as opposed to being cut off. I thought that was a great quality. It felt like you could be up there on the screen with him, and that was important."
MacLachlan's first taste of performing came in eighth grade, when his mother dragged him into a teen theatre group because she needed people to sing in the chorus. The young MacLachlan continued to act in plays all through high school; he admits it was mostly a chance to spend time with his friends and cute girls. But when he attended the University of Washington, he decided to leave acting behind. "I really missed it. So I took a couple of acting classes [at the university's Professional Actor Training Program], and I realized it was the only thing I was good at, because I was getting poor grades everywhere else," he says. It wasn't until he spent a summer as an apprentice at the Flatrock Playhouse in North Carolina that he began taking acting very seriously.
"We were basically just free labor for this theatre company, so I would paint sets and help with the lighting," he remembers. "And all of these people who did this for a living in New York would come down in the summer and have a holiday, basically, in a beautiful setting and do these plays. So that's what I was around for that summer, and I really loved it. It was magical and exciting, and I got the role of Eugene in Look Homeward, Angel, which was the coveted role that one apprentice would be picked for every year. It was my first taste of being onstage in sort of a professional setting, as opposed to a high school or college production. I was around real working actors, and I was playing the young Thomas Wolfe." MacLachlan eventually joined the repertory company of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and last year he made his Broadway debut in The Caretaker, as well as starring alongside Woody Harrelson in a London production of On an Average Day.
In 1982 he was picked from obscurity to land the starring role in the $42 million epic Dune. It was right after Christmas, and he was saving his $185 a week while performing a modern adaptation of Tartuffe in Seattle's Empty Space Theater so that he could move to New York and get cast in regional theatre. Jane Jenkins, the casting director for Dune, was coming to Seattle and first spoke with MacLachlan when his name came up more than once at different local theatres as someone who could fit the role.
Recalls the actor, "[Dune] was a book that I really knew well. I read it many, many times before this. So I thought that was kind of interesting. It was just kind of weird. A casting director? What's that? A movie? Hollywood? Is this for real? Is it an industrial? I didn't know what to make of it." He met with Jenkins, read for her, and she passed the tape to Lynch and producers Dino and Raffaella De Laurentiis. A few days later, MacLachlan was flown to L.A. to meet all three at Universal Studios and, after three plane rides and two screen tests, he landed the coveted role. Unfortunately Dune ended up being a box-office flop, but it still propelled MacLachlan's career, giving him major exposure and allowing his partnership with Lynch to continue with the director's next film, Blue Velvet. In order to work with Lynch again, MacLachlan had to turn down the role that eventually went to Charlie Sheen in Platoon. He admits this was a hard choice.
"I was really uncertain about it," he recalls. "I mean, I was pretty stupid back then because I was incapable of making any of my own decisions, really. And my advisors were doing the best they could, but they were not that much help, honestly, which is tough when I think about young actors starting their careers now. There are so many gullies and crevices you can fall into that you have no idea are even there. But [take a] wrong step, down you go. It's difficult. I think at the end of the day the right choice was made. I had a chance to work with Oliver [Stone] in The Doors, and I thought Charlie [Sheen] was great in Platoon, so it actually worked out great for everybody."
As for his process, MacLachlan compares the decisions he makes for a character to that of a minefield. "What happens in the process is, you have a sense of what the character would say or what is truth or what feels right to them, and it's all about feeling—not intellectual. And, for me, my head gets in the way a lot," he says. "So I have to really go back to: 'Does this feel right to me or does it feel kind of wrong?' Oftentimes that can lead you into trouble because you become very indulgent and it all becomes about feeling, and what may feel wrong to you is actually right for the character. So it's kind of a minefield, which is fun to negotiate and navigate because it's never going to be completely wrong, and it's never going to be completely right."
The same could be said for MacLachlan's career peaks (Twin Peaks) and valleys (Showgirls). That he has endured proves there will be plenty of memorable roles to come. BSW