Kyle MacLachlan on suiting up as Agent Cooper again: Twin Peaks revival is a 'journey into the unknown'
“It was my first television experience," the actor tells EW, "and you don’t really know what you have until it’s gone, or until you've experienced more of life."
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Diane, it’s 10:13 a.m. on a drizzly Los Angeles morning in late February and Kyle MacLachlan of Twin Peaks fame is sitting at my breakfast table at the Chateau Marmont and speaking into my tape recorder. That’s right: I’m hangin’ with Agent Cooper, drinking damn good coffee. (And hot, too!) Dressed in a sweater and jeans, MacLachlan, 58, is explaining his affection for the quirky detective with the slick sable hair and white knight soul, a regard that has deepened over the course a long career and much seasoning. “It’s a character that’ll be etched on my tombstone — the one most people will remember, I mean,” he says with a laugh. “And you know, it’s nice to have to have one of those.”
To be clear, MacLachlan has no plans to shed the mortal coil anytime soon. He can’t say the same thing about his signature creation, mostly because he can’t say much at all about Showtime’s hush-hush, 18-hour revival of Twin Peaks, written by series creators Mark Frost and David Lynch and helmed entirely by Lynch, premiering on May 21. But when last seen 26 years ago, in the cliffhanger finale of the original series, Agent Cooper was truly corporally challenged and spiritually distressed. His soul was trapped in a red-curtained, demon-populated underworld known as The Black Lodge. (Think: a pop-up jazz lounge for grim hipsters. IN HELL.) Meanwhile, Cooper’s shadow-self doppelganger — imbued with the snarling spirit of denim-clad, serial-killing incubus known as BOB — roamed free in the show’s misty mountain lumber town. “Evil gained a beachhead in Twin Peaks,” says MacLachlan of the moment. Has evil gained any more ground in the decades since? TBD.
One thing he can say with certainty: “I’m getting my own action figure.” You can buy the Funko POP! Twin Peaks Agent Cooper — wearing a trench coat, holding a coffee cup in one hand, giving a thumb’s up with another — beginning April 28. “I have three action figures now. Paul Atreides from Dune. Evil Cliff Vandercave from The Flintstones. And now Twin Peaks. Top that, Tom Cruise!”
More seriously: “I love Agent Cooper,” says MacLachlan. “It was my first television experience, and you don’t really know what you have until it’s gone, or until you’ve experienced more of life. In the middle of it, I took it a little bit for granted. I didn’t have any other reference, and so only years later now do I realize what a struggle it is to not just have a hit show, but to make a show that has the kind of impact that Twin Peaks had. It happens once in a lifetime. So there’s now a sense of respect and gratitude, and to be able to revisit the character and the show and work with David with that mindset, it’s just a pleasure.”
MacLachlan came to Twin Peaks through his relationship with Lynch, the director who launched his career. A native of Yakima, Washington, MacLachlan was just out of college and doing Tartuffe at The Empty Space Theater in Seattle when Lynch cast him in the aforementioned part of desert planet messiah Paul Atreides in his 1984 adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune. “I was a sci-fi nerd, so I knew the book very, very well,” says MacLachlan. There was no audition, just a conversation, per Lynch’s casting process. They bonded over common interests, senses of humor, and growing up geeky and arty in the Pacific Northwest heritage. (Lynch was born in Montana and spent some of his formative years in Washington and Idaho.)
Watch the cast discuss the show’s odd universe and the upcoming revival in the new People/Entertainment Weekly Network (PEN) special EW Reunites: Twin Peaks here, or download the free app on your Smart TV, mobile and web devices.
“The friendship went from there,” says MacLachlan.
In Dune, MacLachlan rode monstrous worms, wrestled with a near-naked Sting, and spoke killing words into a kind of weaponized Bluetooth device. (“MUAAAAAAAAAAA’DIB!”) Unfortunately, the movie kicked up the wrong kind of sand for its star. It was a costly flop, though the experience taught Lynch a lesson in creative control that would inform everything he did after, beginning with his next collaboration with MacLachlan. In Blue Velvet (1986), a Americana-skewering small town dream-noir, the actor starred as Jeffrey Beaumont, a too-curious college kid whose romance with mystery leads him into darkness and exposes his own. “David gave me the script while we were making Dune,” recalls MacLachlan. “It got my pulse going, it got my heart racing: There were some frightening, funny, and highly-charged scenes, not to mention some pretty graphic stuff. He said, ‘I want you to do Jeffrey.’ I was humbled by that, because the material was so powerful. That was a pressure situation, inside and out. We had to get it done in a certain amount of time, with a certain budget, and the material was just intense. But out of that kind of pressure situation, sometimes great work comes.” The film is considered a masterpiece.
Shooting the Twin Peaks pilot in 1989 — playing a character that could be seen as Jeffrey Beaumont all grown up — was a similar experience. MacLachlan recalls a tight, focused production marked by creative freedom. But he was certain it would never go to series; the tone was too subversive, the comedy too absurd, and the characters too unconventional for broadcast TV. He figured the work would wind up airing as a movie-of-the-week. Instead, ABC picked up the show, and Twin Peaks became an instant sensation when it premiered in the spring of 1990. “When ABC decided to pick up a few episodes, and presented us with five-year contracts, to boot, we were all kind of kind of floored.”
MacLachlan gives the credit for Agent Cooper to Lynch and Frost. The look of the character came from Lynch’s fascination with midcentury pop iconography. “The idea was ‘FBI through a fifties lens.’ Black suit. Black tie. Hair slicked back hard and black.” The personality he gave Cooper was inspired by “little clues” sprinkled throughout the script. “He was boyish. Eccentric. Slightly mysterious, maybe slightly crazy. He had this fascination, this enthusiasm for the minutia of life. He had these incredible powers of observation, but he wasn’t coldly rationale. He was warm and embracing and could enjoy the simple things. Coffee. Pie. Trees. He was, at heart, a good person. Cooper was all on the page. I just breathed life into him.”
After three collaborations with Lynch, MacLachlan was gaining a rep as the director’s on-screen alter ego, a perception MacLachlan recognizes and embraces. “David creates these outrageous worlds, but there’s a calm in the center — usually the character I play — that in some ways is a reflection of him,” he says. “These worlds are very specific to him, and I think he would love to exist in those worlds. I think in some ways, I am an extension of him, and give him the opportunity to move through those worlds.” (Asked if he thinks Lynch would rather live in Twin Peaks, in Blue Velvet’s Lumberton, or on Dune’s Arrakis, MacLachlan says: “Not Arrakis, for sure. He’d have the most fun in Twin Peaks.”)
For his part, Lynch sees Twin Peaks as an expression of two “beautiful things,” a never-ending story and a world of never-ending mystery, and he sees the show’s hero like this: “Agent Cooper is a detective, and I always say, we’re all detectives.” While you could look at Agent Cooper as something of Lynch’s wish-fulfillment avatar, he ultimately created a wholly unique “Mary Sue” for himself by playing Cooper’s boss, Gordon Cole, a hearing-impaired loud talker who developed a huge crush on waitress Shelly, played by Madchen Amick.
MacLachlan was happiest making Twin Peaks during the show’s eight-episode first season, which was shot in total before the public saw it. He says he and the cast were keenly aware they were doing something unusual and special, and the feeling made for spirited work: “We were anarchists. We were bringing David Lynch to television.”
His favorite scene of season 1 was the sequence in episode 3 known by fans as “Agent Cooper’s Tibetan technique.” The premise: In an effort to determine the chief suspect in the murder of Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee), Cooper took Sheriff Harry S. Truman (Michael Ontkean) and his staff into woods to conduct an intuitive exercise gleaned from his study of Tibetan mysticism. As receptionist Lucy called out names of people of interest, Cooper threw rocks at a bottle several yards away. At one point while shooting the master shot, with all the characters in frame together, Lynch jumped into the fray and decided to throw some rocks himself. Then all the actors joined in. “Then we picked them all up and did it again,” says MacLachlan. “Just the pure fun of throwing rocks at glass bottles.”
The scene somehow ends up flattering Cooper, but it’s mostly comic, and full of different kinds of comedy, too, from physical slapstick to the irony of mundane things played with extreme enthusiasm and super-earnestly, like drinking coffee or eating donuts. At one point, as Cooper is about to explain the technique, Truman and his deputies, seated, lean forward in their chairs in unison. MacLachlan says you can feel silly performing beats like that, but the cast trusted Lynch to make it work. “I don’t know how he does it either,” he says. “You watch that scene, you watch when and how all those actors lean forward, and you see when David cuts into it and cuts out of it — that knack for timing, as a director and editor, that’s how he does it. I think. I just can’t explain it.”
Lynch is also known for inventing on the fly, directing his actors to do things that just spring to mind while watching them perform or embracing mistakes or accidents that happen while film is rolling. One example: the end of episode 3, when Cooper awakens from a dream of The Black Lodge and calls Sheriff Truman to inform him that he’s learned who killed Laura. Toward the end of the short conversation, Cooper begins to hear anew the wailing sax of the jazzy music that suffused his dream. “As I reach for the phone, a little piece of my hair is sticking straight up, which wasn’t supposed to happen, but David liked that and kept it,” says MacLachlan. “And then, as I’m sitting on the edge of the bed, David has the music playing, and he tells me, ‘Okay, Kayle, I want you to start snapping your fingers,’ and so I just start snapping my fingers to the music. Always expect the unexpected with David.” (Fun Fact: ‘Kayle’ wasn’t a typo; that’s Lynch’s nickname for MacLachlan.)
And sometimes, says MacLachlan, Lynch just likes to mess with his actors. “I remember a scene in the first series where I was sitting at a table in front of a plate of donuts. The scene is finished, but David hasn’t called cut, so I’m staying in character, and he says through his megaphone — because he directs you using a megaphone — “Kayle, pick up that donut!” So I pick up the donut, and he says, ‘All right, now put the whole thing in your mouth!’ So I put the whole thing in my mouth and started eating it. And he just filmed that. It’s partly because he wants to see what happens, partly because he might use it, but it just might be because he’s just having fun with you.”
The second season of Twin Peaks was more fraught and less rewarding for everyone involved for many well-documented reasons, including the erratic involvement of the show’s creators. (Lynch was distracted by duties associated with Wild At Heart, which was released in the U.S. one month before the premiere of season 2. Frost started prepping his own feature film, 1992’s Storyville.) MacLachlan specifically cites the decision to wrap up the mystery of Palmer’s murder sooner than the creators wanted as having a negative impact on the writing that followed. Cooper’s next major storyline involved his old mentor-partner, Windom Earle (Kenneth Welsh), coming to town to execute a vendetta against Cooper. The season’s middle episodes kept teasing Earle’s arrival, and when he finally showed up, the story didn’t live up to the hype. While MacLachlan praises the work of Welsh, “I never really felt the story, it never really had the same kind of power as the Laura Palmer mystery.”
But Twin Peaks did have a brilliantly bleak and totally bananas ending, even if it was never intended to be an ending. BOB’s soul-jacking of Cooper was a shock-and-awe attempt to convince ABC to renew the series despite sinking ratings. It didn’t work. The network canceled the show before the finale even aired in June 1991. “It was disappointing. I would have loved to have kept going,” says MacLachlan, who dug the move toward supernatural fantasy and looked forward to exploring Agent Cooper’s dark side. “It wasn’t until that final episode that I felt the show had finally re-connected with many of the energies that made it click in the first place. I often wonder what would have happened if they had introduced The Black Lodge and everything with it sooner.”
MacLachlan won a Golden Globe for playing Agent Cooper and earned Emmy nominations for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series for both seasons of Twin Peaks. He had a small role in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, Lynch’s tepid and convoluted 1992 prequel folly that focused on Laura Palmer and flicked weirdly at the show’s unresolved cliffhangers and burgeoning mythology. The actor doesn’t have much to say about it, other than it’s great to collaborate with Lynch on anything. “It was a bittersweet experience,” he says. His favorite memory was meeting the late David Bowie, “a true gentleman,” who had a baffling cameo as a time-warping FBI agent investigating the demons of The Black Lodge.
Since Twin Peaks, MacLachlan has appeared in or lent his voice to over 20 feature films and just as many TV shows, including long stays on Sex and the City, Desperate Housewives, and Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. He’s been a scene-stealer throughout Portlandia ‘s seven seasons as the mayor, a role tailored for his quirky sense of humor. He hasn’t worked with Lynch since Fire Walk With Me, but they’ve remained friends. “We love to sit and hang out and reminisce about Dune or Blue Velvet or life, but I would always want to say: ‘God, it’d be so fun to go back to Twin Peaks.’ And sometimes I would push it and say, ‘You ever think of that at all?’ He’d just shake his head, as if waving off the question. And what was about the extent of it. I knew better with him not to push it.”
Yet the truth seems to be that Lynch has always been interested in revisiting Twin Peaks. I’ve interviewed Lynch several times about Twin Peaks since 1999. Each time I asked him about a revival, and each time he discouraged the hope. But in 2012, Frost pitched Lynch on the idea of making more Twin Peaks with a new limited series created for the prestige drama marketplace. Lynch was game, provided they could craft a compelling story that pleased both of them. The process, conducted in secret, took two years. When I talked with Lynch in February about the revival, I asked him to explain his previous responses. “I felt the thing had drifted away, so part of me shut down to the possibility of going back. Now, it seems like fate.”
No one can remember exactly when (it was probably 2013), but MacLachlan was at his home in New York City when Lynch called and asked to meet about an urgent matter that he would only discuss in person. MacLachlan’s first thought? “Good! We’re going to be doing something again!” His second thought was to second-guess the first thought and worry that Lynch had some difficult news to share. “I was like, ‘God, I hope this is work-related. I hope he’s okay.’ A lot of things went through my mind.’”
They met at a hotel in Manhattan. Coffee was ordered. They chit-chatted for a few minutes, and then Lynch got down to business. “He said, in this rather formal way, ‘Well, kid, we’re gonna make more Twin Peaks and I need to know if you’re on board for it.’ And I said, ‘David, I’ve always been on board. I’m in.’ We shook hands, and that was it. I didn’t ask him anything else. I knew better.”
Neither MacLachlan nor Lynch will comment on the plot of the new show, but we can confirm that the fate of Agent Cooper is a major focus. Most of the cast was only given the pages of the script that pertained to their character, but MacLachlan is one of the few actors — and maybe the only actor — who was allowed to read the whole thing. The new Twin Peaks consists of 18 installments, but it was written and shot as one long movie, with the first draft between 400-500 pages long. “It took me six hours to read and a few cups of coffee,” says MacLachlan. “It was a page-turner. There was great material. And I was very excited to get started.”
MacLachlan says his first act of prep for the revival was this: “I’d better go on a diet so I can fit back into that suit!” He was “very excited” to get back into Agent Cooper’s threads, he says, and recalling that excitement reminds him of a story from the show’s second season. “There was a point where I wanted to get away from the suit, as a way to explore different dimensions of the character.” He got his wish after the conclusion of the Laura Palmer mystery, during a stretch of episodes when Cooper went local and adopted an outfit that might be called lumberjack business casual: red and black flannel shirt tucked into gray khakis with a brown belt. In some ways, Cooper’s makeover was a visual symbol for the show’s intensifying identity crisis. “I thought it was the right thing to do,” he says. “Looking back on it now, it was absolutely not the right thing to do!”
His first time putting Cooper back on while shooting the new series? “A little weird. Familiar, but not as familiar as I thought it would be. I’m different. Cooper is — will be — different. But the core of him is still there. When I walked on the set and David saw me, we were smiling from ear to ear.”
MacLachlan can’t wait for fans to see Twin Peaks and talk about it more openly. You can tell he’s eager to discuss and process what promises to be a surprising, unconventional, and perhaps open-to-interpretation story. For him, though, the joy of the project was getting the opportunity to work with Lynch again and helping a master filmmaker make more art after many years away. “This is a gift,” says MacLachlan. “I went to work happy every day, thinking, ‘I don’t care what time it is. I don’t how many hours I work. This is a gift.’ It didn’t feel like finishing something we started, it didn’t feel like picking up where we left off. It felt like a whole new journey into the unknown. What does Cooper say in the original series? ‘I have no idea where this will lead us, but I have a definite feeling it will be a place both wonderful and strange.’ That’s what this was. Wonderful.”