Kyle MacLachlan: ‘Roosevelt’s wife Eleanor was his moral compass. The people around our current president are not of that stature’

The ‘Twin Peaks’ and ‘Blue Velvet’ star tells Geoffrey Macnab about playing the wartime leader, his long partnership with director David Lynch, and his reservations about his role in the cult classic ‘Showgirls’

Tuesday 20 October 2020 17:29
‘David Lynch and I share a sense of humour’
‘David Lynch and I share a sense of humour’

Kyle MacLachlan is savouring a cup of coffee. You would expect no less. He sips from it between questions with as much pleasure as his Special Agent Dale Cooper used to take from his hot drinks in old episodes of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. He makes such a fuss over the coffee that I half suspect he wants me to ask what it tastes like, so he can lick his lips and answer “damn fine”.

It is morning in Los Angeles. MacLachlan is giving a video interview to support the first public screenings of his new TV series, Atlantic Crossing, in which he plays President Franklin D Roosevelt. The Norwegian-made series showed last weekend in competition in Canneseries, a festival devoted to the best new TV dramas from around the world, which takes place amid much swank and fanfare in the same venues as the Cannes film festival. (This year, for obvious reasons, the screenings also happened online.)

The series focuses on an episode in Second World War history that has passed most of the world by. The Norwegian Crown Princess Märtha (Sofia Helin) fled Nazi-occupied Norway in 1940 and found refuge in Roosevelt’s White House. Beautiful, charming and persuasive, she encouraged Roosevelt to bring America into the war.

MacLachlan, 61, is now silver-haired but otherwise looks much the same clean-cut figure as when he was a young voyeur, hiding in the closet in Isabella Rossellini’s apartment in Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986). He has long been one of the most paradoxical stars in Hollywood. He is all folksy charm, like a latter-day James Stewart or Cary Grant. Yet look through his credits, especially the work with his close friend Lynch or his appearance in the notorious Paul Verhoeven erotic drama Showgirls (1995), and you find him continually taking roles on the dark side. He is the “boy next door who spends a lot of time in the basement”, as Rolling Stone once put it.

MacLachlan was still a college student when he first encountered Lynch at an audition for the director’s sci-fi movie, Dune (1984). He had seen Eraserhead and The Elephant Man before meeting with Lynch but, despite the weirdness in the work, the man he encountered was “very affable and down to earth… he reminded me of me, to be honest”.

MacLachlan (Dale Cooper) with Michael Ontkean (Sheriff Harry S Truman) in ‘Twin Peaks’

They chattered away about everything other than filmmaking. At the end of the conversation, Lynch handed the young actor a script and told him to come back in a few days to do a screen test. “I had never been in front of a camera before,” he says. “I didn’t know anything about that world.”

So began a creative collaboration as enduring in its way as that between Ingmar Bergman and Max von Sydow. “We have a lot of things in common, starting with where we grew up,” says MacLachlan. “We are both from a particular part of America, the northwest. We had similar childhoods. We are both artists in our own way. He, of course, with painting initially and me with acting but I was also singing. Beyond that, we share a sense of humour. We see things in a similar way.”

They’re still close. Whereas MacLachlan will escape into his garden to prune the roses, Lynch is “creating something every minute of every day”. “He sees a niche for me in the things that he does,” says MacLachlan matter-of-factly, sidestepping any further discussion of the dark, morbid surrealism in Lynch’s work.  

It’s not that he is a difficult or reticent interviewee. MacLachlan is every bit as polite and friendly as you’d expect, all self-deprecating charm. Just don’t expect him to share secrets about his or Lynch’s private and professional neuroses. They may have collaborated on some of the most macabre and unsettling movies and TV dramas of the 1980s and 1990s but he talks about Twin Peaks and Blue Velvet as if they were Disney family films, fun to make but with no hidden depths.

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MacLachlan (Jeffrey) and Isabella Rossellini (Dorothy) in ‘Blue Velvet’

European directors are drawn to MacLachlan. The Oscar-nominated Italian filmmaker Luca Guadagnino, who recently worked with him in his short The Staggering Girl, rhapsodised about MacLachlan to IndieWire, saying he had fallen in love with him after seeing him in Dune and Blue Velvet. “I have my own eternal masculine: that’s Kyle.”

Does MacLachlan feel that he is the embodiment of eternal masculinity? He bats away the question. “No, to be honest,” he says. “But [Guadagnino] is such a lovely person, first of all, and an extraordinarily talented director. He has a sensitivity to the actors that is very special. He is so graceful and so elegant, both as a man and as a director. And he has a sense of humour.”

You can see The Staggering Girl on the streaming platform Mubi. The film (in which he co-stars with Julianne Moore) is elegant, mysterious and very hard to follow. The characters dress very stylishly in haute couture by Valentino. Moore is a New York writer lured back to Rome to visit her ancient mother Sofia (Marthe Keller), a famous artist. MacLachlan plays three different roles, adding to the confusion.

Mubi is dedicated to hand-picked auteur cinema. You can also see Showgirls on the site, a sure sign of the much-derided film’s growing cult reputation. MacLachlan, however, hasn’t changed his low opinion about the movie in which he plays sleazy club boss Zack Carey. “It fits in there somehow,” he says, explaining where Showgirls sits with the rest of his work. “It would be somewhere on the periphery I guess. In the course of a career, and I’ve been fortunate to have a long career, there are going to be things that don’t quite make sense. It made sense at the time for a number of reasons, not least Paul Verhoeven, whom I still admire as a director, and for a very compelling script by [Flashdance and Basic Instinct screenwriter] Joe Eszterhas, maybe slightly over the top. He was a very big deal. I was trying to find a way of breaking an image which was veering into an old Joe, boy next door.”

MacLachlan (Zack) and Elizabeth Berkley (Nomi) in ‘Showgirls’

At least, the film was fun to make. “I enjoyed creating that character, who was a wolf in sheep’s clothing and had a hidden agenda; he wasn’t a nice person,” MacLachlan remembers. He didn’t have too many scenes so just “did his bit”, and left the filmmakers to their own devices. “The rest of the time, to be honest, I was skiing. We were shooting in South Lake Tahoe, so I wasn’t that engaged with the day-to-day.”

It was only when he saw the finished movie that he realised Showgirls wasn’t what he had expected. Perhaps MacLachlan should watch it again. Twenty-five years on, Showgirls seems hard-edged and subversive rather than just an exercise in inept, tasteless camp. In his own sledgehammer way, Verhoeven was telling a very American story about sex, money, power and ambition. It’s very crude but so is the world it portrays. MacLachlan was in the thick of it, the recipient of a tornado-like private lap dance performed to a thunderous climax by Nomi Malone (Elizabeth Berkley), the film’s blue-collar Cinderella figure. “Nice dress,” he says to her in a toe-curling later scene. “It’s a Versaisse,” she replies and then seems baffled when he tells her it is pronounced “Versarjay”. Zack is among the most repellent characters MacLachlan has played. He is very good in the role – smarmy, insincere and exuding false charm – but he is no mood to reminisce about the sex in the swimming pool scene or being spat at in the face by Nomi.

When it comes to portraying FDR in his new drama, Atlantic Crossing, MacLachlan is far more forthcoming. He makes it sound as if his love for Nordic noir encouraged him to take the role. “My tastes and the work I’ve done tends to run to a little bit more challenging, let’s say,” he says, explaining why he was so keen to work with Sofia Helin, whom he had watched and so admired as a brilliant homicide detective with what appears to be Asperger’s in The Bridge, the Scandinavian crime series that’s almost as dark as Twin Peaks.

In Oliver Stone’s rock movie The Doors, he was keyboardist Ray Manzarek but that is the only other “real person” he can remember playing except, he quickly adds, for inventor Thomas Edison in the recently released biopic, Tesla, in which he stars opposite Ethan Hawke. “The most fun is the research,” MacLachlan says of portraying a historical figure like Roosevelt. “When you’re trying to pick up a character and discover everything you can about them, you dive deep into their lives.” No, he had never heard of the relationship between the Norwegian princess and the American president. “It’s one of the great untold stories,” he says. “Roosevelt was quite cavalier about having people stay over at the White House evidently. It became almost like a boarding house when he was in office. He loved having company. He was a night owl. He loved having late night chats with a cigar and a glass of whisky or two or three.”

MacLachlan as President Roosevelt in ‘Atlantic Crossing’

Playing FDR put MacLachlan back in a wheelchair for the first time since he was cast as Orson Hodge in TV’s Desperate Housewives. (The wartime president avoided appearing in a wheelchair in public but had been paralysed from the waist down since 1921, when he was 39 years old, after an illness.) This time, he prepared much more seriously. “For Roosevelt, I spent a great deal of time just looking at the physicality of the man; how he moved through space; how he carried himself, his posturing, arms and gesticulations – and what it would mean to sit in a chair like that with legs that were half the size that they should have been.

“It was challenging to get your body contorted into those positions,” he continues. “There were times when I thought of strapping the knees together and splaying the legs out just to try not to have to think about it.”

In the end, MacLachlan stuck a stick under his trousers to give “the illusion of a more spindly leg”.  

Roosevelt was an inspirational president at a time of global crisis. How does MacLachlan think the present incumbent at the White House matches up to FDR. “Roosevelt was the leader we needed at that time. We are suffering because unfortunately we do not have that type of leader in the White House right now.”

The actor adds that FDR’s formidable wife Eleanor was “a guide and moral compass” for the president. With her alongside him in the White House as first lady, the American people “got two [leaders] for the price of one. I don’t think that the people who are around our current president are of that same stature.”

MacLachlan as Thomas Edison in ‘Tesla’

MacLachlan isn’t just known for his passion for coffee. Before the interview ends, there is time to ask about his other great enthusiasm, which is for wine. He has his own winery, Pursued by Bear. “I’ve been a lover of wine since before I was supposed to, when I was in my teens.” His vineyards are in his home state, Washington, which means they haven’t been affected by recent freak weather in California. MacLachlan’s vintages tend to get decent reviews from even the sternest wine critics. You can buy his wares in the UK where they are distributed by London-based Stannary Wine. He spells out the name, sounding briefly more like a vintner than an actor.

“[Wine growing] has been a passion that became a hobby and that has now become a small business for me that I really enjoy. I love everything about it, not least of which is drinking it.”

With this remark, the conversation comes to a sudden and abrupt end as the German publicist intervenes to say time is up. MacLachlan signs off from the video call in polite and friendly fashion but you can tell what is uppermost in his mind. He wants to steal a few moments to savour that fast cooling cup of coffee before his next interview begins.

‘Atlantic Crossing’ premiered at Canneseries. ‘Tesla’ is now available on Amazon

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