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Kyle MacLachlan on the Art of Playing Twin Peaks: The Return’s Many Coopers

Kyle MacLachlan as Agent Cooper. Photo: Getty Images

Kyle MacLachlan arrived on movie screens in the 1984 adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune. It was not a success, to put it mildly, and yet it ended up being the most important movie of his life, because it introduced him to director David Lynch. MacLachlan and Lynch would go on to make Blue Velvet together, then take a side trip into television with the original Twin Peaks, starring MacLachlan as straight-arrow FBI agent Dale Cooper, who loved coffee, pie, and the smell of Douglas firs, and used dreams and intuition to solve crimes. Cooper remained MacLachlan’s most beloved performance over the years, reprised on Saturday Night Live and in the prequel movie Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. But he never imagined he’d continue it — much less play variations of Coop — in a third season airing a quarter century after the original’s cancellation.

The day after the finale of Twin Peaks: The Return, I spoke to MacLachlan about his long collaboration with Lynch and the art of playing multiple incarnations of Coop. He was every bit as polite, enthusiastic, and self-effacing as you’d expect.

I’ll put the most important question first: When’s the last time Special Agent Dale Cooper had to pay for coffee?
[Laughs.] Well, I paid for coffee this morning, in fact! I like paying for my own coffee.

On a more serious note: Have you ever had a part in anything where you had to play three incarnations, or possibly more, of the same character?
No. This was a first time for so many things: the number of characters, the extremes of the characters, and the absolutely remorseless villain I got to play as Bad Coop, or Mr. C. Also the childlike nature of Dougie, that was new — although I did a movie years ago called The Hidden, back in the ’80s, which had shades of Dougie.

But no, this was by far and away the most demanding — and I will say fun — experience.

Can you describe the shooting of the casino scenes, where Dougie’s wandering around, hitting jackpots and shouting “Hello”?
Those were my chances to imitate David, who also does that “HelloooOOOOHoooo!” Dougie’s first time saying that word, imitating something, and trying to put together a sequence, A plus B plus C, that was fun. It is fun to play things like that, even the little things like how Dougie reacted to the sounds of all the coins dropping out of the machine. I figured that would be the first time Dougie hears that, and it’s a loud, jarring sound.

You know, for the slot-machine scenes, we actually had to fudge it a little, because nowadays machines give out tickets, and you don’t get the sound of all those coins crashing down like you used to. But we needed that sound to get to his reaction. Dougie doesn’t even care about the coins. He walks on to the next thing because to him, money doesn’t have any value.

Finding those moments, where you get to ask yourself, “What would I do if this were the first time I ever saw something like that?” — those were fun to do.

What did it feel like, shooting the more vivid Bad Coop scenes —like that moment where he’s shot to death and then reanimated by the Woodsmen?
We were shooting out towards Malibu Lake, somewhere in that direction, and it was a cold enough night that there was frost on the windows. We were all freezing. I felt bad for the guys playing the Woodsmen, because they were all covered in black soot running through the fields. I lay on the dusty ground, and they had to massage me back to life, so my torso and my face took a good beating. I just had to stay still, and when you work with a lot of stage blood like that, it can sometimes get sticky, so you have to keep spraying more on. It was not a pleasant night at all. But it sure looked good on camera!

How long did it take them to fit you into that hairpiece with the mullet so you could play Bad Coop?
[Laughs.] I wish I could say that was my hair! You know, that one … to get just that hair to where it was just the right amount of inappropriate. It didn’t take too long! A couple of tries, actually.

What was it like doing two feature films’ worth of screen time opposite Naomi Watts and Pierce Gagnon?
It was fantastic. Naomi is a lot of fun. She was perfect as Janey, I thought. She’s just a trouper in the best sense of the word. I can only imagine that the experience she had on King Kong must’ve been a bit like what I was experiencing when I was lying on the ground with the Woodsmen. Physically it’s not nice, the conditions are tough, and it’s not pleasant. But you go through it to create something great.

Naomi is good like that. She’s tough. And Pierce was perfectly cast, I think. He was a real pleasure to work with.

What is it like being directed by David Lynch? Is it true that he has a tiny bullhorn and he talks through it?
He does! It’s a little bullhorn! He will sometimes just say nothing loudly, he’ll just make little, mostly funny, comments. He’s very special. The environment on set is joyful, it’s creative, it’s playful, and at the same time it’s focused and intense, and some of the more memorable times are when he actually gets involved with the makeup and the blood application. He comes in with a paintbrush, and everything stops and he gets in there and makes the blood the way he wants it to be, and then he goes back and goes to the director’s chair and keeps filming.

Did he talk through the bullhorn during the sex scenes?
[Laughs.] I don’t think so. I remember there was a lot of laughter in the sex scene with Dougie, just from the idea of him in this crazy state of ecstasy. Bouncing arms were a favorite of everybody. Those were very funny and kind of touching moments, I think. But I don’t think there was any bullhorn in any of the sex scenes, no!

Can you give me an example of a bit of David Lynch direction?
You know, it can vary. It’s usually just a few words. It might be a few thoughts about movements through the scene, kind of like: “You’re here, then you see this, and you try to move here because you’re going to do something over there.” Or it can be just a few words, to describe kind of a feeling more than anything else. That’s about it, really.

Sometimes there’s nothing. Sometimes you’ll stand next to each other after a take, and he’ll think a bit, and then he’ll say, “Let me try one thing,” or, “Just try again,” or there’ll be no words. Or it’ll just be, you know, sort of, “Try the other thing that you might’ve been thinking about,” or whatever. It’s pretty, pretty simple actually.

Interesting. If he’s that economical, it means he’s leaving most of the decisions to you.
Yeah. But I also think if I were not in the wheelhouse that he was looking for, or the ballpark, I guess, then he’d say more, you know? Although we’ve worked together so many times now that he doesn’t really have to do that with me.

When David Lynch told you that he not only wanted to do another Twin Peaks but that it might actually get funded and happen, did he have any details for you, or did you have to wait until they got closer to the actual start of production?
He told me a while ago that he and [co-creator] Mark Frost had begun writing, and they had some ideas about how to go back to Twin Peaks. When he told me about it in person, he also said there were going to be some really heavy things for me to do, and different characters. He alluded to the fact that it was going to be a challenge.

But David, bless his heart — from the first time we worked together, he’s had this belief in me that is overwhelming and very humbling. I could do what he needed me to do in Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks, and I just didn’t want to disappoint him here!

Is it true that you were the only cast member who knew the entire story of this new series?
I think so. I think I was the only one who had the whole script, and I think even then, there were little pieces that I didn’t have. I think they were holding back a few things. But I had everything that pertained to me that was important for me to know for shooting. I had the entire thing in my possession — sworn to secrecy, of course, but I needed that just to be able to do what I needed to do.

Did Lynch or Frost give you a sense of the deeper spiritual or philosophical ideas underlying the various incarnations of Cooper? 
Not really, to be honest. In working with David, it was pretty clear to me most of the time of what would happen and what was needed in the scene, particularly in the bits with Mr. C, who was basically a force of nature that was unstoppable. I understood that. I understood Dougie as well — what was happening there, I understood it. And I understood the ultimate coming together, you know, the journey that they were both on that would culminate in something by the 17th hour.

Also, over the years I learned with David not to ask him a lot of things. I used to ask him a lot of things when I was younger. I wanted to know everything. But now, I only ask what I need to know going forward. I have my own interpretation of what’s needed and what David’s going for, so we let the journey unfold, not trying to dissect it too much.

Can you describe some of the different physical choices that you made, in terms of body language and voice, when you were playing Regular Cooper, Mr. C, and the Dougie incarnation of Cooper? How did you alter the way you presented yourself to the camera?
So much of it was influenced by what the clothing was, what the wardrobe was. When I looked at myself in the morning in the makeup mirror, I was putting on the character. When I do that, it seeps into my body somehow, and so that just manifests itself and stays there in terms of the pitch of the voice, the cadence, the physicality, even down to how much I blink or don’t blink. I just get a vibe, a feeling of something.

Certainly with Mr. C, there was a stillness, an almost sharklike quality to him, and no remorse. That was fun to play. I don’t want to say I took Mr. C. home — I always left him on the set! — but while I was on the set, he was quite a powerful entity to inhabit.

Dougie was more about just seeing things for the first time. He was a baby, you know, so it was about coming to objects and situations fresh, and having my own kind of music in my head. With David, we worked through what I need to do, kind of, and we did a little bit of experimentation. But we moved pretty quickly on the set. Just a few takes of a scene, and then we moved on.

What about playing regular old Dale Cooper?
Well … [Laughs.]

How much of an influence is David Lynch on how you play Dale Cooper? I’ve been hearing for 25 years now that you based the performance on him.
There are definitely things I seem to have in common with David. He has a strong moral code, you know. He’s enthusiastic about things. He has a precision to him and an empathy to him. He understands the human condition. He can get very animated talking about coffee or cherry pie or something like that, stuff he really likes. David is definitely an influence.

He’s treated you as a muse for so long. You and Laura Dern!
Yeah! He’s used Laura many times since Blue Velvet. She’s been around. I think we have a comfort level with each other, too, and it’s just a real pleasure and a joy to work with both of them. We are both incredibly grateful for David. He’s trusted us, you know?

Do you have any idea where that deep connection comes from?
I don’t know. That’s something I really don’t get. But it’s nice. I’m pretty much down with everything.

Were you surprised when he asked you to star in Blue Velvet after Dune flopped at the box office?
You know, I was very, very honored. He had given me the script to Blue Velvet while we were filming Dune, so it was even before anything happened, before the movie had even finished filming. I think he felt at that point that I could play that character — that I could embody that character of Jeffrey.

I remember reading the script to Blue Velvet for the first time. I was new to film. Dune was maybe the first or second film script I’d ever read. I thought Blue Velvet was very charged and compelling and frightening and alluring and interesting and everything. The fact that he returned to me, even after all the things that happened with Dune … you know, he could easily have not returned to me after that.

But he did. And I will never forget that. That was David really believing in me, at a time when I don’t think I had that strong of a belief in myself, given that Dune had come and gone.

Has he talked about a fourth season with you?
No, no discussions. No discussions have happened. I have no idea where this is going to go.

Would you be down for it?
I love Cooper!

Twin Peaks’ Kyle MacLachlan on the Art of Playing Many Coops