Kyle MacLachlan on the new film, “Tesla” | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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Kyle MacLachlan on the new film, “Tesla”

A human take on Thomas Edison

Aug 20, 2020 Web Exclusive
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Let’s face it: Under the Radar probably owes more to Thomas Alva Edison than any of the musicians we’ve covered in the last twenty years. As the inventor of recorded sound, there would be little reason for a music magazine without Edison’s work. As the inventor of the moving picture, as well, we wouldn’t be writing about movies, either, if not for Edison’s ingenuity in the latter part of the 19th Century.

Edison is inarguably America’s most famous inventor, with early versions of the microphone, incandescent lightbulb, and rechargeable battery also among his more than one thousand patents. Besides being a brilliant inventor, the “Wizard of Menlo Park”—so named after his New Jersey laboratory—had an incredible talent for publicity, showing off his creations around the country and becoming a major celebrity during his lifetime.

Where Edison is the most popular and well-known of our historic inventors, Nikola Tesla may be the one with the biggest cult following. Tesla was a rival of Edison’s, and briefly worked in his laboratory after emigrating from the Austrian Empire in the early 1880s. While Tesla’s brilliance may have rivaled Edison’s, he was neither a strong marketer nor a savvy businessman. His inventions may have laid the groundwork for modern electricity delivery, wireless communication, and remote control, yet he died in poverty and for many decades afterward remained mostly unknown outside of the scientific community.

The period most closely tying these two men together has been dubbed by historians as “the war of the currents.” This is when Edison’s once dominant direct current (DC) method of delivering energy was challenged (and eventually supplanted) by alternating current (AC) from competitors, including one mode developed by his former employee, Nikola Tesla.

When Tesla’s story is told, Edison is generally painted as the villain. It’s an unfair and one-dimensional angle on the man, and something that filmmaker Michael Almereyda—director of 2017’s Marjorie Prime, one of the last decade’s most underrated science fiction films—has taken careful measures to avoid. While his new film, Tesla, obviously centers on its titular inventor, the version of Edison featured here is far more deep and complicated than the one more often presented as Tesla’s adversary.

Almereyda’s script carefully shows us the human beings behind the brilliant inventors; the performances of the movie’s two lead actors supply it with compelling depth. Ethan Hawke plays the underdog Tesla, while Kyle MacLachlan is his powerhouse rival, Edison. Both actors had previously co-starred in the director’s modernized Hamlet in 2000.

Since making his screen debut for David Lynch in the big budget Dune (1984), MacLachlan has been a favorite collaborator of the famously avant garde auteur, going on to star in his seminal Blue Velvet (1986) and on both incarnations of his cult television series, Twin Peaks (1990-91, 2017). Other roles on the big screen include The Doors (1991), Showgirls (1995), and Inside Out (2015), and Sex and the City, Desperate Housewives, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., and Portlandia on television.

MacLachlan picked up the phone to tell us about his experience stepping into the shoes of America’s most famous inventor.

Austin Trunick [Under the Radar]: There’s a small handful of filmmakers you’ve worked with on multiple occasions. Obviously, you and David Lynch will always be linked, but Michael Almereyda is now someone you’ve collaborated with on more than one project. From your perspective, is it any enticing to dive into a film with someone you already have an established working relationship with?

Kyle MacLachlan: Yeah, I think it is. I think there’s a short hand there, and there’s an understanding of their process. I know how Michael works. I think he’s a brilliant mind, and I love the subjects that he chooses. When you feel comfortable and at home as an actor, and I think that’s more so when you’re working for someone you’ve worked with before, then you don’t have to go through the learning process. I love that about it.

So, for Tesla, what did Michael do to get you on board?

Well, he paid me a looooooot of money. [Laughs] Really, all he had to do was say two words, which were “Thomas Edison.” I was like, “Okay! That sounds pretty interesting to me.” To be honest, he’d spoken to me about it, and over the years we’d always joked about this idea of getting the band back together, so to speak. Obviously we’d all worked together—me, and Michael, and Ethan—in Hamlet. I’ve seen Ethan over the years and we’d always say, “Oh, wouldn’t it be great if we could do that again?”

Michael has an interesting way of working. He’s not a hard sell. He’d be like, “Oh, you know, I’m thinking of making this movie about Tesla, and I think you’d make a good Edison…” And I’d say, “Great, okay!” Michael would then say, “Well, just give it some thought…” A week later he sent a photograph of Edison, where he had a terrific resemblance to me. I thought, my gosh, I actually do look like him. He sent a book, some more research materials, a few photos, and they’re all fascinating to read through. Pretty soon I’m asking when we’ll start. It was one of those situations.

To be honest, he didn’t have to twist my arm too hard—I was thrilled with the idea of playing Thomas Edison. It was challenging, as well, a little frightening. But, I loved the research, and I loved learning about the man and watching the videos [of him], and trying to put myself in his body, his position, his mind. I’d try to figure out what was driving him, and what he was thinking. That’s part of the fun of being an actor, I guess.

You play Thomas Edison here, and will be appearing as FDR soon in an upcoming television series [Atlantic Crossing]. When you’re preparing for a role as a historical figure, what sort of balance do you aim for between a faithful portrayal and leaving yourself room to interpret them as a character?

There’s never going to be a 100 perfect portrayal, even in the best performances there will be challenges. You start with what you know, and you try to work backwards through what you don’t know. You’re realizing, of course, that everyone has a persona they put out there. I’m really interested in finding the other sides of things, and reading between the lines. This is where being able to hear their voice, or watch the actual person move through space, or listen to say, a recording of a speech, to hear how they deliver things is fascinating to me. I think, from that, I can start to gather or intuit what I think is driving them, what they might be thinking, or how they feel about something. Strengths, weaknesses, those sort of things. You begin to build a person that is hopefully more well-rounded than the one we think that we know. I’m very interested in filling out those other sides.

Fortunately Michael was very into that idea, and he wrote the scenes in a way where he allowed Edison to be a real human. A real person. He was encouraging of that. I think that often gets lost in interpretations of the man, the effects that things have on him. Deliberately in the opening of the film, Michael wrote a wonderful monologue where Edison is tortured by a memory—he doesn’t know why it’s coming up, but it’s affecting him. He’s somewhat unconnected, you know, and it’s revealed in the story a little later that his wife just passed away, but he’s still coming in to work. He’s carrying a huge amount of history, but intentionally not divulging or revealing it, or weeping, wailing, and carrying on. It’s all a kind of a mystery to him, and I just loved that. As an actor, that’s wonderful stuff. It’s that kind of stuff with Michael: you’re going to get something that’s a little bit unexpected. That’s one of the reasons that I enjoy working with him so much.

Rather than focus on the brilliance of these two men, as others have before, Tesla does seem to put more emphasis on the inventors’ humanity.

I think that’s a big part of it, and something that’s important to Michael, as well. He’s just as fascinated with characters and what drives and motivates them, as much as an actor is—it’s really interesting. I think he also specifically cast actors—I’m thinking of Ethan, and of course myself—who are interested in getting under the skin of these people and learning who they are and what drove them, rather than trying to demonstrate to the audience their brilliance or effectiveness, whatever it is. It’s more about finding the human being within these historical figures.

Can you tell me a little more about working with Ethan? It had been almost twenty years since you did Hamlet.

He is such a joy. Working with him was very similar—it was almost as if no time had passed. There’s a tremendous trust that we have with each other. There’s a real sense of fun, too, that exists just below the surface. At any time one of us could break out in laughter and the other person would jump right in. We were very much on the same wavelength.

I think he’s the kind of actor that’s very present, and I like to think of myself in the same way. Whenever there’s a shift in a scene, whether it’s a changing of gears or of tone, you just go right into that mode. Ethan is very much like that. He’s got brilliant instincts. I can’t say enough good things about working with him. He’s still joyful, and inspired, and excited, really, by doing a scene. He’s not jaded at all. I think both of us still have a childlike excitement about what we do.

Similarly a few years ago, with the return of Twin Peaks, you were working with actors and crew you hadn’t worked with in more than twenty years. Was it similar in that way: as if no time had passed?

I think, when working with David Lynch in particular, no. We’ve been friends forever and ever and ever it seems like now. So, it was like slipping back into a pair of well-worn shoes. It felt really comfortable.

I think there comes with age a calmness, and it’s there when working with David. There’s no uncertainty. It’s like we’re working together and moving forward and creating something. There’s still the excitement, and the joy, and the pleasure and fun—particularly with a character like Dougie—in the discovery of that, and we both get a kick out of it, together. There’s always this steady pace that we’ve found. Particularly on my side, as I’ve gotten older, done more, and matured a bit, there’s a comfort and an ease—maybe “ease” is the word I’m looking for—in the process. It’s not fraught with uncertainty. There’s a confidence that’s I really welcome when working with David.

It seems weirdly appropriate that Twin Peaks is celebrating a milestone anniversary during a year that’s a strange as 2020 has been.

Yes. [Laughs] That’s true.

This show has always been tightly embraced by its fans, but I get a sense that many of us have been turning to it again during these last few months of quarantine. Do you feel there are reasons the show is resonating so much right now?

It’s a different world. I think in particular with Twin Peaks: The Return, you’re not in Kansas anymore. [Laughs] We’ve gone into a place that for some people is comfortable, but for other people is discomforting. Without question it will take you away from what’s happening around you right now. It demands that, and pulls you in. It makes you forget, in some ways, about what’s happening around us right now, which can be helpful, just for a simple break. It’s the kind of show that I think people have been going back to, revisiting, or even discovering for the first time.

For a while there was so much content being made, and it was very hard to keep up. I finally got to Watchmen, which was something I’d missed. I thought, “This is brilliant!” But it took everything having to stop for a while, so I’d find the time to see it. I think Twin Peaks is something that people have been pointing to as being worthwhile and worth seeing, and I think that’s been helpful, as well. Again, it’s David Lynch. It’s something that’s going to be around for a long time. He’s an artist of the highest level, I feel. Whether you see it now or in five years, you’ll see it. [Laughs]

These last few months of quarantine have been something else. I know you have your winery still keeping you busy, and it’s probably been very nice having the extra time with the family. But, for the actor side of you, are you itching to get back to work?

Oh, yeah, I am, definitely. It’s incredibly difficult for everyone right now. In our profession it’s been challenging, too. We’re all hopeful there will be a protocol in place that will allow us to get back to work. That may not happen until there’s a vaccine and people feel comfortable about going back. It’s been particularly challenging for people who do live performance—stage, dance, those sort of things—where an audience is necessary. It’s really disheartening, but that will probably be one of the last things to make a recovery. They’re essential to people, to take them away and inspire them. The arts are important things. But, it’s tough right now. I’m stating the obvious. But, yes, I’m definitely itching to get into the creative mode again, to get excited about a project and work with someone I respect. I’m sure that’s a common refrain among all my peers.

Tesla opens in theaters and on demand on August 21st.



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