Twin Peaks’s Kyle MacLachlan: “I needed help to get back into Agent Cooper’s skin”

The actor behind the FBI agent reveals the difficulty he had reprising the role, and how the drama broke TV boundaries

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An FBI agent with an addiction to cherry pie investigates a terrible murder in small-town America, with the help of dreams and visions in which clues and riddles are revealed by a backwards-talking dwarf, a one-armed man and a demonic spirit called Bob. At the end of 30 episodes, viewers are even less clear about what was going on than they were at the start.

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These days, such a storyline and style would be regarded as mainstream TV: most cop shows and even children’s series feature surreal motifs and unresolved sub-plots. But, in 1990, when the first season of Twin Peaks was screened on American TV, viewers knew that they were watching something revolutionary.

“People were stunned by it,” remembers Kyle MacLachlan, who played the dessert-obsessed investigator, Agent Dale Cooper. “At the time, there was and had been nothing like it, so people really couldn’t believe what they were seeing. I think originality made more impact in TV – especially at that time – because people usually expected to sit down and watch something comfortable and familiar.”

Those adjectives had never been in the creative vocabulary of David Lynch, the director of the dark and subversive movies Eraserhead and Blue Velvet, when the American network ABC commissioned his first television fiction.

Set in a small logging town in the US North West – where the body of a murdered high-school beauty, Laura Palmer, was discovered near a river bank, with a small letter R hidden under a fingernail – Twin Peaks, which was co-authored with Hill Street Blues writer Mark Frost, made no concessions at all to the expectations of a peak-time television audience.

This was cinematic TV: filled with shots that widened the eyes and a score that haunted the ears: Angelo Badalamenti’s theme tune, in which sweet synthesiser notes are stalked by darkly twanging strings, remains one of the medium’s most atmospheric uses of music.

The project began with a two-hour pilot episode that, at the time, MacLachlan expected to be as far as things went: “The view of the actors was that it was going to be a one-off: that it was brilliant but viewers weren’t ready for this and the network was never going to order any more episodes. But, when ABC saw it, they seem to have been so amazed by it as a piece of film-making that they decided to exercise what could have been a five-year option.”

As it turned out, Twin Peaks made it only to a second season, as viewers gradually deserted its beautiful but confusing weirdness. MacLachlan and Lynch made a cinematic prequel, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992), which the actor suggested at the time had been a misstep.

But the painterly look and narrative daring of the TV series made a lasting impact on audiences, including in the UK, where the show was seen on BBC2, and longheld hopes for a sequel are now finally met, as MacLachlan returns, under Lynch’s direction, in a new 18-part series to be screened here on Sky Atlantic.

Just as Star Trek spawned superfans who hold “Trekkie” conventions, dressed as characters from the series and featuring guest appearances by actors from the show, there are Peakie festivals, where admirers in Log Lady or Evil Bob costumes eat cherry pie.

These include annual events in Snoqualmie in Washington State, where much of the show was filmed, and, more obscurely, Hornsey in north London, where the latest celebration weekend takes place in the Town Hall on 7–8 October this year.

“I have yet to make either event,” admits MacLachan, diplomatically. “But I hope to one day.”

He attributes the TV revival to “massive loyalty from the fans. Primarily – now – through social media. But even before that there would be sudden eruptions of interest, based on dates that had a significance within the series or anniversaries of the first broadcast.

“So there’d often be an idea of: wouldn’t it be great to do some more? But the drumbeat really began when we approached the 25th anniversary. I’m not sure the new series would have happened if there hadn’t been this groundswell of interest.”

During our conversation, the nature of the new Twin Peaks was not so much the elephant in the room as one locked in a high-security zoo: the producers are determined to keep the content as secret as possible until the American premiere on 21 May (keen viewers can watch it simultaneously here at 2am on Sunday night on Sky Atlantic).

It’s known, though, that the new episodes begin with Agent Dale Cooper returning to the picturesque title-sequence setting 25 years on.

Although he now regards the FBI man as “my favourite role ever”, MacLachlan found it harder than he expected to re-inhabit the character at the age of 58: “To be honest, it didn’t come straightaway. I had to feel my way into it and rely on David’s outside eyes on the character more than I thought I would, actually. I needed a bit of help to get back into his skin.”

Creating the part a quarter of a century ago, the actor found that “Dale just came straight off the page. That first script remains my blueprint. I think the thing that I seized on was Agent Cooper’s boyish enthusiasm: the moments he comes alive for certain flavours and smells. I’ll also admit that I channeled a little bit of David Lynch’s manner in the character.”

And is Agent Cooper still boyish 25 years on? “Yeah. Dale certainly is. Actually, I like to think we both are.”

The refusal to preview episodes of the new series is less frustrating than it might be, as a plot-spoiler from a Twin Peaks script is more likely to involve a skateboarding unicorn or a reversed algebraic equation appearing in a jettrail than details that would give much away.

Given the complexity of Twin Peaks – terabytes of cyberspace are given over to wildly competing interpretations of the meaning of the original series – how much does MacLachlan as an actor have to understand what is going on?

“I learnt very early – working with David – that asking questions was only going to get in the way. Doing literature in school, all you really do is tear stuff apart and ask questions. But I learnt from that experience that not every question about a text has to be answered. And I took that into acting, especially with David. I slowly gave in to accepting that he will tell the actor everything they need to know.”

The actor owes the peaks of his career to Lynch, who, when MacLachlan was a young unknown, cast him in a major role in the science-fiction movie Dune (1984), and, during the shooting of that film, gave him the script that became Blue Velvet (1986), now a modern classic, in which MacLachlan finds a severed ear in a small American town, hands it to the cops and becomes involved with Dennis Hopper’s sadistic sex criminal as a result.

The performer’s distinctive screen demeanour – innocence with a hint of the sinister, charm that might turn dark – made him natural casting as Cooper in Twin Peaks, the new series of which brings MacLachlan’s collaborations with Lynch to six.

The director, says the actor, “creates a tone on the set, which I would describe as a joy and pleasure in creating something original. David radiates that. And I think it’s important that – although the story can be very complicated and ambiguous – David is always very clear about exactly what he wants from the crew and actors. Often the direction is as simple as saying ‘slower’. Although the favourite direction he ever gave me was: ‘More like Elvis Presley’. I loved that. He lets me take something like that and run with it.”

Between the two Twin Peaks, MacLachlan’s TV credits include major featured roles in Desperate Housewives, Sex and the City and The Good Wife, in which he was cast, the actor admits, “because the people who hired me were so profoundly impacted by Twin Peaks. I recently did a story on Agents of Shield, and everyone on that wanted to talk to me about Twin Peaks.”

As a critic, I have always thought that the increasing willingness of mainstream TV fiction to be strange and playful began with Twin Peaks, a show that threw the rule-book into the river running by the logging mill.

MacLachlan agrees: “I think the most profound impact it had was on the young people coming into television at the time. They thought: well, if that is possible, then this is possible. It broke through a barrier of expectation and we have reaped the benefits of that for years and years in these other creative people who were inspired. I think the industry has discovered that, if the story is strong enough, it doesn’t seem to matter what the setting is or how it’s told.”

Coinciding with the beginnings of the internet, the original Twin Peaks spawned some of the earliest sites in which viewers swapped theories on the series. The revival, though, launches into an environment where audience reaction, through social media, is an institutionalised part of viewing.

“I’m very curious to see how that will play out,” says MacLachlan. “I think it will be a big part this time. I’m waiting to hear from [US producers] Showtime what their expectations are: whether they’d like the cast to live-tweet during the episodes. We’ll see. My feeling is that most of the conversation will happen after the show has aired because people will be so immersed in what’s happening that, in a way, you hope they’ll be too caught up to step back and comment on it. Ideally, we want to lose people in that Twin Peaks world the way the show did the first time.”

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Twin Peaks will launch at 2am on Monday 22nd May on Sky Atlantic, in a simulcast with the US airing on Showtime. The episode will then be shown again at the more UK-friendly time of 9pm on 23rd May.