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The Secret World of Kyle MacLachlan

Kyle MacLachlan

Playing innocents drawn to Twin Peaks´s Dale Cooper and Kafka´s Josef K- Kyle MacLachlan is a Boy Scout navigating the netherworld

Kyle MacLachlan´s tobacco tin is the size of a dessert plate. It´s full of rich, dark stuff that smells like peat, and he´s lost without it. He´s forever patting his pockets, hunting it down. Theresa, the assistant costume designer here in Prague, on the film set of a new British version of The Trial, keeps sneeking the tin away from him because it makes an unsightly lump in the dark suits he wears as Kafka´s tormented hero, Josef K.

When MacLachlan finds the tin, his long frame sinks to the ground; he kneels over it reverentially, pinching out perfect portions, rolling tight, carefully controlled cigarettes. The golf-course greenskeeper for whom MacLachlan worked during the summers back in Yakima, Washington, taught him how to roll, and now the habit suits him. Not because he needs to save money (the reason most people roll their own) – with four movies coming out in the next few months, he´s doing all right. No, rolling his own gives MacLachlan a chance to elevate the common act of smoking into an exotic ritual: such preparation, such concentration, such devotion to a small, deadly vice. When he rolls, he´s a good boy methodically doing a bad thing – which is, after all, his specialty.

MacLachlan is a star because he can do one thing better than anybody else: play decent guys with time-shares in the netherworld. Jeffrey Beaumont, in Blue Velvet (1986), FBI Agent Dale Cooper, in the hyper-series Twin Peaks (1990-91): These guys are Dudley Do-Rights with dark closets in their soul. « Kyle plays innocents who are interested in the mysteries of life, » says David Lynch, who directed him in Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks and Dune (1984), MacLachlan´s debut film. « He´s the person you trust enough to go into a strange world with. »

« He has the ease and charm that has gone out of film acting since the days of Jimmy Stewart, » says David Jones, director of The Trial. « When I look at the dailies now, I really think I`m watching one of the great guys from the Forties. »

But unlike Jimmy Stewart, who always meant everything he said, MacLachlan takes a simple sentence and makes us think it means something, almost anything, else. « Diane, » Agent Cooper says in his deep, sincere voice, taping notes for his unseen secretary, « I´m holding in my hand a box of small chocolate bunnies. » Suddenly, Easter will never be the same. MacLachlan has a knack for twisting the « normal » knob upto 11, for pumping the most-banal acts (drinking a cup of damn fine coffee) full of nitrous oxide. It´s his ability to undermine the obvious meanings of the world that makes thim perfect for an age in which you can´t believe in anything.

MacLachlan is playing Agent Cooper again, in the new film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. A prequel to the TV series, the movies depicts the seven days leading up to Laura Palmer´s murder; Cooper is seen in flashbacks, investigating  a similar killing in another part of Washington State. MacLachlan had to be talked into this one: He felt the series « ended badly » because Lynch and company had compromised their vision. « David intended to keep the investigation of Laura´s murder going on for the length of the series, » he says. « There was such an outcry to resolve it, we got ourselves caught in the squeeze. »  The show also veered from a story that was grounded in reality – the sordid double life of a prom queen – to a ridiculous tale of alien possession. By the last episode, even Peaks Freaks had canceled their viewing parties and switched off their sets.

MacLachlan and Lynch promise that the spooky, sexy zing of the early episodes will be back in the film. (Like every Lynch project, it drew an equal number of cheers and boos at the Cannes film festival, in May.) If Fire fizzles, however, the rest of this fall´s Kyle MacLachlan film fest should revive his spirits. In next month´s Where the Day Takes You, he plays Ted, a rancid drug dealer who pumps iron in front of a mirror and jams needles full of heroin between his toes. In October, he´s an expectant father flummoxed by some morally cloudy urges in Rich In Love, a southern-family drama by the Driving Miss Daisy team. And in The Trial, due late this fall, he stars a hotshot bank clerk plunged into a living nightmare – he´s accused of committing a crime everyone else knows about but no one will explain.

The Trial is coup for MacLachlan. His is the leading role in one of the classics of modern literature, and it brings him full circle: The alienation and irony of The Trial helped set the stage for Twin Peaks. Costarring such venerable actors as Anthony Hopkins and Jason Robards, the movie fulfills every dream MacLachlan ever had when he was doing high school plays back in Yakima and Robards was his hero. « Mr. Euge O´Neill, » MacLachlan calls him.

So why does MacLachlan look so depressed? It could be his work schedule: Halfway through a nine-week shoot, he hunches over his thick, ratty script twelve hours a day, six days a week. He´s in every scene. It could be the character of Josef K: The Harold Pinter script is uncompromisingly bleak, a Josef is a man pushed to the limits of despair.

Or it could be the city of Prague itself, which for all its flowers and splending buildings is also choked with smoke. The yellow coal haze that hover over Prague makes Los Angeles´ air look healthy. Run your hand down a tree trunk, and it comes away black. Cigarette smoke hangs like velvet curtains in the hip new nightclubs and coffeehouses. Smoke is the symbol of Prague: Emotions and events her seems densely layered, partially obscured. Outside, vendors gleefully hawk Russian military paraphernalia on every street corner. Václav Havel governs in the castle on the hill, and there´s nascent freedom in the air. But inside, in the mazelike abandoned building that´s serving as the courthouse set, the smoke is thick. In real life, this building has been everything from a Jesuit college to a Nazi headquarters; the movie set represents just one more phase. Hollow-eyed extras mill in the halls, puffing away as if the camera crew were a firing squad.

Prague is the perfect setting for MacLachlan´s inner dramas: He´s in transition, too. « Doing a film, or being sent scripts to look at a certain character, it´s very odd for me, » he says. « I tend to take it very personally. I can´t help but feel that stuff that comes to me – by chance or on purpose, whatever – tends to reflect where I am as a human being. The characters that I´ve been doing lately have so much torment and searching and questioning. It´s where I am right now as a man – I´m continually questioning who I am, and playing these characters perpetuates that. It´s like I´m in the middle of a tunnel, and I don´t know where it´s leading. »

« Kyle, we´re not quite ready for you, » says the first assistant director, « but David [Jones] suggested I show you the corridor where you´ll be walking in the next shot. »

MacLachlan lifts his head from the tobacco tin. « I think I´ll be okay, » he says pleasantly. « One corridor is pretty much like another. »

He isn´t kidding. For the past eight hours, walking up and down the Jesuit-college corridors is all MacLachlan has done. This is certainly the most economical way to shoot – the film is budgeted at about $8 million, shockingly low by Hollywood standards – but it´s not the most interesting way to perform. Walk down these steps and look up. Cut. Walk into this room and look down this hall. Cut. Now walk the other half. Cut. No wonder the crew members keep praising MacLachlan´s even temper. « Can you imagine what this would be like with someone like Alec Baldwin? » says one. « It´d be a nightmare! »

MacLachlan approaches the walking scenes with the same thoroughness he invests in everything else. He´s the kind of guy who´d pack a week early for a Boy Scout trip, stowing all the right gear neatly in is backpack. He likes to investigate the possibilities: How much anger can Josef K show? How far can anyone go in conversation? He takes intensive acting classes and has dabbled in meditation. He chews on self-help books (Iron John and Fire in the Belly were on his list last year; his conversation is laced with Robert Bly-speak). He plays golf and basketball, guitar and keyboards. He cooks complicated Italian dinners, sending friends out to scour L.A. for just the right Parmesan cheese.

He frets. While shooting Dune, he worried that the black rubber suits the characters wore to retain body moisture in the desert had no head coverings. « You have to ask yourself, How can that work? If you really think about it logically. These things always bothered me; I get obsessed with these details. » When he played keyboardist Ray Manzarek in Oliver Stone´s The Doors, he learned all the fingerings to every song but « The End, » and then wouldn´t you know it, the only song we actually see him play is « The End »? « I got some of the notes, but the rest, missed `em, » he says. « Which makes me feel bad. »

At a time when certain grown males are out waggling their weenies in the woods, trying to figure out how to be men, MacLachlan seems to present an answer. He´s curious, honest, protective, playful – your mother would be thrilled to meet him.  Tall, dark, almost classically handsome (except for that inverted-apostrophe of  a chin, which is more pronounced in person), he has hazel eyes that go green when he grins, and thin black hair that somehow survives the pounds of gelrequired to achieve Cooper´s and  Josef K´s sleek seal look.

« Lots of young actors have a smug quality that ruins the handsomeness, » says Bruce Bereford, who directed Rich In Love. « They always know what to wear, their hair is always perfect, their muscles always rippling, and they´re fantastically boring. Kyle wear his handsomeness easily; he doesn´t carry on. And he is not a boring man. He´s ordinary but interesting, which is difficult to find. »

Kyle MacLachlan

Agent Cooper returns, in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me

« Kyle plays all these asexual, conflicted. offbeat, idiosyncratic characters, but that´s not him at all, » says Janet Koo, a director friend. « He´s very sexual. Women fall in love with him instantly. And he´s kind. When he was in Tokyo, his Tokyo fan club waited for days in his hotel lobby. These little Japanese girls wouldn´t go away. Even though Kyle was exhausted, he kept worrying that they were missing school. »

He sounds like a Hollywood Howdy Doody. But MacLachlan´s characters have their dark underside, and he has a few quirks of his own. The same people who comment on his maturity seem surprised to learn he´s 33. Instead, he seem like a very grown-up 18-year-old, full  of energie and goofiness. Go for a walk with him on a sunny Sunday afernoon, and he talks earnestly about previous European visits, takes your arm when you cross the street, stops a pickpocket from lifting your wallet and occasionally haws huge wads of spit onto the sidewalk.

« What do we like to do together? » David Lynch sings out nasally. « I have a pretty good cappuccino machine, and anytime he gets the urge, he comes on over. We talk about the problems associated with getting a good cup of coffee. »

« Kyle loves both Kate Bush and Led Zeppelin, » says Michael Ontkean, who played Sheriff Harry S.Truman on Twin Peaks. « I think that says it all. » (Do these guys ever come out of character?)

« Four or five of us were having dinner together one night in the Edwardian Room at the Plaza Hotel in New York, and Kyle persuaded us to strip down to the underwear, » Janet Koo says. « We were laughing, drinking wine, and he said, ‘It´s really hot in here. I think it´de be fine if we took off our clothes.’ The waiter was a little astonished, but the chef came out of the kitchen and joined in. » (MacLachlan, of course, is a boxers man.)

MacLachlan also keeps secrets. Ask him where he lives, and he tells you about his house in Venice, a mile back from the beach, an L.A. neighbourhood where « you´re not dependent on the car. » He neglects to mention, however, the house he just bought in the Hollywood Hills, a rambling Cape Cod-style wood-and-brick birthday cake with huge fireplaces and a pool sunk into the hillside.Askhim how he tore some cartilage in his knee, and he says, « Walking up a steep driveway. » But press him long enough, and he´ll admit the driveway happened to run beside a furiously burning house, and since he was driving by with then-girlfriend Lara Flynn Boyle (Donna on Twin Peaks), and since he was wearing a hooded flight jacket, he hopped out and grabbed a garden hose from some poor guy in a bathrobe who was trying to save the house next door. Why didn´t he mention the burning house right away? « Well, I didn´t want to …  I don´t know. It was a very odd experience. »

The secrets spill over his love life as well. MacLachlan´s two famous ex-girlfriends a fueled with a mysterious sexiness of their own. Before he dated Lara Flynn Boyle for two and a half years, he lived with Laura Dern, his Blue Velvet costar, for three and a half. As befits a gentleman, he won´t kiss and tell. « I really fight for my privacy, » he says firmly.

But he wants to give good interview and feels guilty offering nothing. « During the course of my time with Laura Dern, we studied together with an acting teacher in Lenox, Massachussetts,  « he finally says. « It was really deep emotional work, going back and unlocking some stuff from childhood, adolescence, those kind of painful things. That was her style, and it still drives me. » And Lara Flynn Boyle? « Her working seemed to be intuitive. There was a certain rawness. And she seemed really comfortable with it. When I´m working, there´s a lot of torment; I don´t feel comfortable. But she seemed very secure. »

Ask him about love in general, though, and he doesn´t stop talking. « I´m attracted to real sexual women; my first reaction has to be a physical one, a grab-you-by-the-balls sort of thing. Then you find out what else is there. It´s great to be able to look at someone and say ‘God, I really want you, anywhere, anytime.’  To have that come back to you, with such passion.

« I´ve always been attracted to strong women,  » he continues, « women who have opinions and are doers. I like women who have some mystery to them, who seem to be different from me. But the main thing I want – it sounds so simplistic, and maybe even boring – is to find somebody I can be honest with. As an actor, I feel this particularly, because you´re always in situations that can be compromising. But you can wipe away that gray area by making a choice. I´ve heard or seen rumours written about someone I´ve been dating, gossip that they´re having an affair or whatever, and I´ll just call them up and say « What´s going on? »

His weakness in love – not surprisingly – is that he´s « hyperconscious of the other person. I want to fulfill whatever they might need from me. » He may have learned the hard way that he has to cool his overattentiveness. Rumour has it that Boyle got so claustrophobic with MacLachlan that she would periodically beg a friend to drive her into the desert.

Still, MacLachlan wants « someone I can entrust with all my insecurities and vulnerabilities, and someone who will trust me with theirs. The idea would be the process of discovery would continue, that they could do this and not feel like you have to live in a secret world or have a dual  life or have another side you don´t want to show this person. » A secret world. A dual life. MacLachlan buzzwords. « Sometimes, I think to myself, This is really idealistic. But I know there are people who live like that. It´s worth the effort for me not to accept less. »

Kyle MacLachlan

MacLachlan confers with Trial director David Jones

For now, he´s single and « kind of liking it. When you stop the noise of a relationship – I don´t mean noise but activity – you´re really left with what it´s like to be with yourself. I find the range of emotions is wider. There´s not someone there to go to or to look out for. I guess this is a bit of cartharic period. »

MacLachlan was always a good boy. His father, a  stockbroker, and his mother, a school-district public-relations director, were big on instilling values and giving Kyle and his two younger brothers  enough freedom to make their own mistakes. « There was never a sense that they were putting down laws I had to overcome,  » MacLachlan says over omelets in a restaurant in Prague´s Old Town. « I grew up with successful parents; they were my inspiration, I was never afraid of hard work. At all. We were taught that early on. We were encourages to push forward, to strive for what we couldn´t quite reach, to really go for it. It´s invaluable to have that work ethic now. » In other words,  he was as square as a block of Velveeta.

David Nicholson,  who´s known MacLachlan since they were 8 and who roomed with him when Kyle was attending the University of Washington, in Seattle, remembers him as « outgoing, friendly, with a hyperactive imagination. We could both be accused of geekishness, but despite his black horn-rimmed glasses – a family trait for all the MacLachlan boys got from their dad – Kyle was fairly attractive. » A good student, he was in his first play at age 15. As planner of his high-school senior Prank Week, he and his gals pasted Farrah Fawcet posters of  the insignia on the gym floor and switched classroom furniture all over the school.

But his senior year was also the year his parents divorced, and a part of MacLachlan went into hiding. « I was shocked it had happened,  » Nicholson says. « The MacLachlans always seemed to get along really well. For a long time, I think, he internalized it, though I think it did have a deep impact on him. He was a very difficult person to read. much more so in the past than today. But when you´re young and hanging out with the guys, it doesn´t strike you as odd that you don´t talk about things. Kyle is a private person.  Even those who know him well agree on that. »

MacLachlan will say only « I think children are much more aware of what goes on around them much earlier than whe give them credit for. I think when you´re sensitive to that, you tend to go underground with reality. I think at some point in a person´s life, you have to reconcile the two, the surface stuff and the stuff in the caves. In the last five years, I´ve started wanting to explore what´s in there. »

In true Bly fashion, MacLachlan is getting closer to his father as he grows older. « The more I understand as a man, the more curious I am about his world and what it was like for him, » he says. « I want to get beyond the courtesy stage. My father and I have a ritual: Whenever I go home, we go out and play golf together. It´s our time to be together as men, doing something we both enjoy. »

His mother died of ovarion cancer shortly before Blue Velvet was released. He doesn´t talk about her much – that is, until we´ve wandered away from the restaurant into a cemetery in the Jewish Quarter of Prague. Because at one time Jews were restricted to this single graveyard, 100,000 people are buried twelve-deep here; 12,000 headstones teeter into one another on less than an acre of land. It´s early and the trees are still bare;  crows caw overhead. MacLachlan keeps glancing up at them, joking nervously that they belong in a Lynch movie.

He discusses his mother´s death without a trace of self-pity,  though. « My brothers and I, we were all there. We switched off her life-support, and we all just talked to her, told her we loved her and not to be afraid. She was in a coma and had been given morphine, so she was out, but I think some part of her could understand that she wasn´t alone, that we would go with her as far as we could go. »

There´s another sound in the graveyard besides crows and MacLachlan´s quiet voice. It´s giggling. Four 15-year-old Spanish girls on a school trip have been following MacLachlan at a respectful distance for some minutes; now they have him cornered, and they converge. « Please, please, an autography, a photo, please! » the curly blonde ringleader pants. MacLachlan starts to shake his head, but then he sees their flushed faces. « You have to understand, we have seen all the Twin Peaks! » So he poses for their photos and signs their pieces of paper with their names and his name and a little heart between them. When he draws the first heart, they gasp. The girls run off, clutching one another and squealing, and MacLachlan walks toward the graveyard exit, smiling.

It´s not that simple. The girls have alerted the rest of their classmates, and as MacLachlan rounds on a corner,aout sevety-five students charge him at full speed. They´re fiecely eager, but he stays calm. He heads for the gate, signing an autograph here and there, stopping for one group photo in which kids hurl themselves into the crush of bodies around him. Moving fast, he squeezes out of the bottleneck exit and turns several corners, and gradually the pounding of feet on the cobblestones behind him dies down. « Apparently, when Twin Peaks was on the air in Spain, something like 50 percent of televisions were tuned to it, » he says. « Shall we call a cab? »

The film crew has moved to the 600-year-old Cathedral of St. Barbara in Kutná Hora, a small town an hour outside of Prague. But the action is the same: MacLachlan is on the move again. Walk down the street towards the church. Cut. Try the door. Cut. Paparazzi with long lenses circle the perimeter of the set, trying to catch a glimpse of Anthony Hopkins, who´s holed up in his trailer.(He´s playing a priest, and a shot of Hannibal Lecter in a clerical collar would fetch big bucks.) Hopkins is still glowing from his new Oscar, and MacLachlan is anxious about keeping up. Their first scenes together last night were smooth, if a bit unnerving.

« Kyle, do a little David Lynch, » Hopkins said between shots. (Hopkins had worked with Lynch on The Elephant Man.)

« Well, Anthony, » MachLachlan bellowed, echoing Lynch`s strained singsong, « there´s a very interesting story behind these frescoes. »

The two cracked up, then grew sober for a few takes. After the longest of these, in which the priest demonstrates his power of Josef K, Hopkins turned to MacLachlan and said: « Are you acting now? »

« Just a little, » MacLachlan said. Hopkins shrugged. « Well, it´s your career. » They laughed again, perhaps a little less easily.

« I always like to do that with other actors, especially younger actors, » Hopkins said later. « It´s nice because it keeps everything very relaxed. »

Tell that to MacLachlan. He looked as if he was down to the last ten seconds on a bomb detonator. While the crew prepares for his final approach to the cathedral, he falls into one of the canvas director´s chairs set up on the grass and deliberately tumbles over backward. A few of the crew members gasp, worried he´s hurt himself. « Must be something wrong with the chair, » he says, then settles into the next one, flipping it, too, onto its back. Theresa the assistant costume designer brushes leaves and twigs off his black tweed coat. MacLachlan stands there half-sheepish. « Well, I had to do something, » he says.

Having Hopkins around has only increased the agitation MacLachlan feels when he ponders the notion of stardom. Later, at a coffee bar in central Prague, MacLachlan orders coffee and smokes like mad, trying to put his finger on what bothers him most about the idea.

Hollywood´s been good to him. Right after college graduation, MacLachlan landed a coveted spot in the repertory company of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, where he played Romeo. While doing Tartuffe in Seattle, he was spotted by a casting agent for Dune, who flew him to Los Angeles (his first visit) to meet Dino De Laurentiis in a bungalow at the Beverly Hills Hotel.

Being plucked from obscurity to play the lead in a $42 million film has its price, though; for MacLachlan, it was a contract that bound him to four Dune sequels and two other movies, and a guarantee he would not work, or even seek work, in films until Dune had been released. So a year after he´d finished the film, he found himself staring at his face on a huge Dune billboard in Times Square « and I can´t get a job, I can´t get arrested,  » he says.

Because Dune was a box-office disaster, the contract dissolved like cotton candy in the rain. Work on Lynch´s next film, Blue Velvet, was postponed indefinitely. During the wait, MacLachlan says he fell into « a depression, a dark, dark place, where I questioned everything I was doing. » But even in that state, he made a decision that influenced his career: He turned down the role in Platoon that eventually went to Charlie Sheen and waited for Blue Velvet. « I didn´t see a character developped in Platoon at all,  » he says. »The journey of the character in Blue Velvet was so much more fascinating to me. But sometimes I wonder how it would have turned out had I done it, how my life would have been different. »

« None of us were surprised fame happened to Kyle, » Nicholson says. « He wanted it, he worked hard at it, and he got it. » Now, of course, he questions it.

« What is it about me people respond to? » he says. « What did those girls in the graveyard see? What do they want? » My answer – kindness, decency, nice guy who understands nasty impulses – doesn´t satisfy him. « Those things, they´re there, but they´re pieces of me, » he says edgily. « There´s more in there than people see. »

Okay, what else is there?

Silence. Long silence. « I feel like there´s more, and you´re asking me what is there,  » he says. He laughs uncomfortably. « I don´t know. More. I keep going back to this stupid tunnel image, but these early thirties are really confusing me. Because I was bopping along and doing these roles; I knew I was a good actor, and I was having success at it. I surrounded myself with a lot of great advisers, and everything was okay. But just recently I´ve started to say ‘There´s more to it.’ There has to be. It´s shaking up my world a little bit. »

From outside the tunnel. what Kyle MacLachlan wants looks pretty simple. He wants to figure out his life and still hang on to some mystery. He wants to be more than an ordinary guy. He doesn´t yet realize what a feat ordinary is.

« There´s a great cartoon, » he says, stubbing out his smoke. « You can see an old man with a cane taking a curtain call, and the crowd is going crazy. Next, you see him backstage, pulling off the old-man costume, and you see he´s a strapping young guy. In the last frame, you see him at home, pulling off the young-man mask, and he´s actually the old man with the cane. » He pauses, grinning, his eyes focussed far away. « I thought, Ohh, the perfect disguise. »

Johanna Schneller
GQ, Août 1992.
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