Tesla star Kyle MacLachlan on illuminating Thomas Edison and ice-cream-fighting Ethan Hawke
Don't worry, Tesla isn't an Elon Musk biopic.
The colorful indie from writer-director Michael Almereyda is actually about the eccentric innovator who inspired the name of Musk's car company. In the late 1800s, Nikola Tesla (played by Ethan Hawke) worked for Thomas Edison (Kyle MacLachlan) before becoming his biggest rival in the quest to develop commercial electricity. Narrated with a contemporary spin by Anne Morgan (Eve Hewson), daughter of J.P. Morgan (a Tesla investor), Tesla chronicles Tesla's uphill battle to provide worldwide wireless energy.
The film also serves as a 20-year reunion for Almereyda, Hawke, and MacLachlan, who last collaborated on their unique big-screen Hamlet adaptation.
To be further illuminated on Tesla, EW chatted with MacLachlan about getting the Hamlet team back together, bringing a "fresh" and "unexpected" approach to these historical figures, and having a Three Stooges-like ice cream fight with Hawke.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: If you just heard that there was a movie being made about Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison, this is probably not the movie you'd predict. It's such an interesting and unorthodox way to tell this story about these men. Was that why you wanted to do it?
KYLE MACLACHLAN: I agree it's a little bit of an unexpected approach, which I think makes it really fresh and keeps you on your toes with a lot of surprises, which is part of Michael's methodology. Having worked with him before on Hamlet with Ethan, 20 years ago, he has such an inventive approach, which was obvious when we worked together on Hamlet and again on this one. So I was excited to work again with Michael and I was really excited to get to work again with Ethan, who I enjoy being with in front of the camera and off — he's an awful amount of fun. And the opportunity to play this very important historical figure in America's history was challenging and interesting and an opportunity that you just don't say no to. I also felt like the unexpected twists and turns were appropriate and filled the story out and made it more current, I think… Sorry, I use that word a lot, which is appropriate given the subject. [Laughs] But it does, it really brings it home in a way. It's one of my big complaints about whenever you study history — well, how does it affect what's happening to us today? It's all nice and fine to understand facts and things, and I'm speaking of this because my son is 11 and going through school and he's studying these things, but how do you make it relevant to today? And I think that Michael really did that with the way he approached this.
You mention that Thomas Edison is this important historic figure, and for that reason he's someone we know a decent amount about and someone we've seen on screen before. The material and approach helped, but how did you go about trying to bring something new to Edison?
I think that he's generally considered not to be the nicest of people; ruthless is a word that is often used. And I approached it, and I think Michael as well, with the idea that let's explore that and find out if that is true, and what was the cause of it and why he had that reputation. And there are a number of things that we discovered along the way that we really tried to illuminate a little bit. He didn't speak a lot about his personal situation, and I think when we come upon him in the very beginning [of Tesla], we don't know yet why he's a curmudgeon, and you realize he's just lost his wife a few days before and he retells a story about something that happened in his youth and asking the why. He was a driven inventor and I don't think he was very connected to his emotional life, which is why he doesn't understand that he's actually in a great deal of pain. He's a man who lives in his head, so I was interested in finding out, "What was his emotional life?"
What kind of research did you to do in order to find those answers?
One of the really great resources that Michael actually shared with me was a book called The Diary of Thomas Edison. During a short period of life, it was essentially over a summer, he wrote this diary kind of reflecting on the world around him. It's cerebral, but it's all fanciful and full of all sorts of interesting observations and ramblings about the garden and the weather and the people around him. I don't think he meant for it to be published, it was just kind of his musings that were for entertainment. But it was a really nice window into another side of him, and I was interested in exploring that. I think Michael was also, certainly because some of the scenes in the film are imagined, a what-if, and I like that he explored that, the potential of what could have happened with these two men if they had been able to work together.
The rivalry between Edison and Tesla is on full display immediately, even though I'd say it almost seemed more one-sided via Edison. What was it like playing out that adversarial dynamic with Ethan?
I love working with him. We both understood what was necessary and were definitely butting heads, but we also recognized that there was a respect and civility to it as well. In some ways, the characters both recognized the differences between them and were just saying, "Well, that's the way it is." Edison being such a driven individual, just unstoppable in his work, very determined, as was Tesla, but in a different flights of fancy. Edison was much more grounded in trying to find a way that he can take this electricity to help people directly, and I think Tesla had a little bit more of a grand vision for something that would also serve humanity but he didn't feel was in the practical world.
Were you, Michael, and Ethan able to pick right back up where you left off with Hamlet? Or did it feel different? Twenty years is a long time, and people evolve and you're not the same actors or filmmakers that you were back then.
I think you're absolutely right, you do change, but I also think it's like riding a bicycle, funny enough, you slip back into the methodology of it. Whenever you're working in front of the camera with that environment, that's pretty consistent, you kind of know what's expected. I think that some of the brilliance of Michael is the fact that he's able to take a situation and layer it with…like for instance, I'm thinking of some of the scenes from Hamlet, like just where he set them said volumes about what was happening in the mind of the character or within the scene. I think of the scene in a Blockbuster Video with Ethan debating in his mind and you could see every category as he walked past them in this video store were all the same, and it was just like, wow. It's the same thing as the idea of the ice cream fight in Tesla: It points up the absurdity of it, but at the same time both men are taking it seriously, and it's unexpected and a wonderful way to interpret what was happening in their relationship. And that's just Michael, just coming up with some brilliant ideas. I don't know if all of them work every time, but I think all of them are effective, no matter what happens.
And you also made me think about the recent return of Twin Peaks with David Lynch, and we hadn't worked together for a number of years, and yet stepping back onto that set and being directed by him, it was again a return to something that I recognized and really enjoyed. I think the one big difference in the time, you're talking about the difference in 20 years, is that I have a greater appreciation for the relationship and the fact that I get to do this and recognizing how fortunate I am, And I think Ethan also feels the same way, to be able to work with these people that we really care about, not that we took it for granted before, but I that's an extra dimension that comes with age and the ability to return and work with people that you respect and admire from before.
You mentioned the ice cream scene, and admittedly I wouldn't have guessed that I'd see Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison smashing ice cream cones on each other, but I'm so glad that I did. What was it like filming that? Hopefully you didn't have to do too many takes!
[Laughs] It wasn't too bad. I don't know if there is such a word as a super-independent film, but that's what it was, so we didn't have a whole lot of time, nor a whole lot of ice cream to work with. But again, it's one of the things where I enjoy so much working with Ethan because we have an understanding that we are now stepping outside of reality but we must play it absolutely seriously. We're moving into Three Stooges or Buster Keaton territory with a lot of seriousness but the physical comedy of it, and that's when it becomes about rhythm and tempo and intention, all those kind of things that Ethan and I both kind of understand intuitively. It was a lot of fun.
Your film seems like one of the few that will actually get to be released soon, so if people are thinking about checking out Tesla, what would you tell them they should expect?
We really made an effort to look at this period of time, but certainly the relationship of these two men, in a different light, and tried to find the people behind the names: who they really were, what was really driving them, what were they really about, what were their emotional lives like, what moved them. Often we want our heroes to be perfect, and these were not perfect men. They were very imperfect, but they really needed each other in this particular time. And that's one of the things that I took away from watching it, that one without the other is just not the same world; they represent the yin and yang of man. People's expectations are that they're going to learn all sorts of deep, dark secrets of the two men, and I think that's not going to happen. But you will understand them a a little bit more and find them to be relatable.
Tesla opens Friday in select theaters and on VOD.