Kyle MacLachlan on David Lynch, Showgirls, and Billy Idol-isms

Kyle MacLachlan on David Lynch, Showgirls, and Billy Idol-isms

Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.

The actor: Kyle MacLachlan doesn’t hesitate to acknowledge how much of his career he owes to his collaborations with David Lynch, starting with Dune and continuing with Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks. Since then, he has been seen playing characters from both DC Comics (Justice League: The New Frontier) and Kafka (The Trial), managing to survive one of the biggest box-office bombs (Showgirls) to earn small-screen success in the ensembles of Sex And The City and Desperate Housewives. MacLachlan returns to television this season as attorney Donovan Stark in the new CBS series Made In Jersey.

Made In Jersey (2012-present)—“Donovan Stark”
Kyle MacLachlan: Donovan Stark is driven, ambitious, and enigmatic, with a dry sense of humor. Kind of an empty slate, but one on which I can build. The character that Janet [Montgomery] is playing, Martina Garretti, is pretty well constructed, whereas Donovan is more of an unknown, so it’s a chance to build something, to build an interesting character. Which is exciting. Also, it’s great to be in something from the very beginning, as opposed to some of the other things I’ve done recently. This one’s from the get-go. And we shoot in New York, which, in my real world, is much easier for me right now. 

The A.V. Club: So had you been on the lookout for a full-time series gig, or did this just kind of fall into your lap?

KM: Oh no, every year during pilot season, I look for something. This came along very much to my surprise very late in the game. There were a couple of other things I was looking at and sort of noodling with, but this one came along and had all the right ingredients for me, so it was really a no-brainer to join up. 

Dune (1984)—“Paul Atreides”
KM: Dune! First film, first big break. It was a book that I loved when I was 15, when I read it for the very first time in ’74 or ’75, whenever I first came to it. It was kind of a fairytale that it ended up being me, because I was nowhere near Los Angeles when it happened. I was in Seattle, working in the theater, and I’d been out of school for less than a year. Looking back, it was an amazing, once-in-a-lifetime experience: seven months on a film in Mexico City in a giant, super-sized scale movie. It was the beginning of my working relationship and friendship with David Lynch. It was the highest highs and the lowest lows when the film came out and was sort of panned and critics really hated it; it meant that I really had to sort of start again. Which I did with David and Blue Velvet. Granted, I had the exposure and I’d been in a big film, so that was sort of helpful, but ultimately it was a very difficult two years before Blue Velvet began filming. But it remains some of my fondest ever memories of working. I have a lot of photographs and writings and memories of that period of time, but 1983… that was a long time ago. [Laughs.]

AVC: So how did you originally find your way into acting as a career?

KM: When I was high school… ah! [Leans into the recorder.] Please note that the coffee has just arrived! I love it. Sorry, I was saying that I was in some plays and musicals in high school, and that started it for me. Then I went to college and ended up sort of finding my way to the drama department, because everything else didn’t resonate with me. But I was reluctant to consider it as a career of any kind, so it took awhile for me to come around to the idea that this was something I could actually do for a living, and that was only because each opportunity that I had, as small as they were, opened a door to the next opportunity. So I kept having chances and making just enough money to live and to survive. [Laughs.] 



Touch Of Pink
(2004)—“Spirit of Cary Grant”
KM: That was really an unusual set of circumstances that led me to the director, Ian Rashid. I was working in London with Woody Harrelson on a two-person play in the West End called On An Average Day, written by John Kolvenbach, and Ian came to one of the performances. He had written a script called Touch Of Pink, and I met with him and the producer while I was there as kind of a courtesy, and I was like, “Oh, okay, that’s nice. Well, when it becomes real…” You know what I mean. But maybe a year and a half later, they came back and said, “Well, it’s real. Are you still interested in doing this character?” And I was. I’d never done anything like that, so I said, “Absolutely, that’d be great.” 

So Jimi Mistry played the lead, and we shot in Canada. We shot in Toronto, I think. And I worked on my Cary Grant impersonation, knowing full well that it was a low-budget movie and there was nothing allowed for any kind of prosthetic or any kind of coach of any type, so I did it all myself. And it had moments where it’s very successful and somewhat eerie, and there are moments when it’s… not quite right. But I was pleased with the feel of the movie. I thought it had a light-hearted touch, and there are some moments… once you get over the initial shock of me saying in my best Cary Grant [does his impersonation], “I’m Cary Grant.” And you go, “No, you’re not!” [Laughs.] But then, you know, 10 seconds later, you’re like, “Oh, okay, I guess I’ll go along on the ride with you.” And once that happens, the audiences, the ones who saw it, really had a good time with it. It’s very touching, and it had a very nice relationship between the character I played and Jimi Mistry’s character, just in terms of him growing up and growing past his need to have kind of a fantasy life, this separate reality with my character.


The Doors (1991)—“Ray Manzarek”
KM: Wow. A giant, giant machine of a movie. A few things jump out, particularly wigs and sideburns. Wigs and sideburns hell, I should say. I realized that long hair does not suit me. [Laughs.] I knew The Doors, I wasn’t a huge Doors fan. My musical tastes ran in a slightly different musical direction. But the research and actually meeting with Ray, it gave me great appreciation for the music, and it brought me back to my piano-playing days. I grew up playing piano, and so I was able to revisit that and actually learn all of the songs, which I did on a tiny little Casio type of thing. 

Some of the most fun moments were the actual performances; we were doing playback, although I could play the songs and Kevin Dillon could do the drumming. And Val [Kilmer], of course, was doing the singing. I really felt like, in some of those moments, particularly in downtown L.A., that we were actually a rock band. And the energy that comes back to you from the audience was… I mean, this was only 4,000 people, but it was unbelievably powerful. I can’t imagine a stadium of 50 or 60,000 people. It would just blow my mind. 

I’ve never really been able to explain or to capture the scale of that film, the locations and the extravagance and… just the overblown quality of making a movie about a rock band. It was excessive in every way, and it was really fun to be on that ride. And then it was really fun to have that ride be finished. [Laughs.] But I developed a friendship with Val, who I liked very much, and I still have a connection with Kevin Dillon and Frank Whaley from that film. It was truly memorable.

AVC: There’s a rumor that you actually wanted to play Jim Morrison yourself. 

KM: Um, I think initially I was, as every actor in town was, like, “Oh, I could do it.” But, in fact, I would’ve been… uh, yeah, that would not have been my role. I was kind of surprised that Oliver [Stone] cast me for Manzarek, because I thought there were other actors who were more right that Oliver had already worked with. I don’t know what prompted it, but that’s how it ended up, and I’m just happy to be a part of the movie. It was really fun to work with Oliver. We’d had a bit of a history with Platoon. So it was nice to come back and be able to work with him and be a part of the madness that is the Oliver Stone world.


Portlandia (2011-present)—“Mayor”
KM: Another departure. My agent called and said, “Fred Armisen is doing an improv comedy show for IFC; they want to meet you for the mayor,” and nothing they were saying seemed to make any kind of sense to me. [Laughs.] So I said, “Well, I’ll go meet them, and whatever happens, happens.” So I sat down with Fred and Carrie Brownstein, his partner and co-writer and co-star, and Andrew Singer, the producer, and Jon Krisel, the director. And they were saying, “Oh, it’s this, this, this, and this.” And I said, “Okay, this sounds like fun.” They’re smart people, I’d never done anything like that before, and it shoots in Portland, and I thought it’d be fun to go back there. So I said, “Sure,” and that’s how it started. 

I really wasn’t sure what I doing until… well, even when I got there, I still wasn’t sure. [Laughs.] Because I’d learned all of the scenes that Fred had written, and then the morning of the first day, he handed me a whole new script. And I was like, “Fred, I can’t learn all this right now. I mean, there’s no way.” He says, “No, no, no, just start here, and then we’ll make it up. It’ll be fun.” He was very patient and understanding. So that’s when I realized it truly was improv-based, and that the material was just sort of a jumping-off point to gather sort of the larger themes and then riff on those. And we would do the scene a number of different times, and we were self-editing as we went. And then once the director felt like he had enough to work with, we moved on to the next one, and he would take that material and that was when his editing genius came into play, and he was able to construct something that didn’t look too embarrassing when they put it all together. [Laughs.] 

So that was a wonderful experience. I had no idea that it would turn into that sort of underground cult classic that it has. But I should’ve known, based on the talent of Fred and Carrie, that it was going to be something special, which it turned out to be. 


Twin Peaks (1990-1991)—“Special Agent Dale Cooper”
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992)—“Special Agent Dale Cooper”
AVC: Just as you’re taking a sip of what is undoubtedly a damned fine cup of coffee

KM: Exactly! [Laughs.] It’s probably my most recognized performance. David Lynch doing television. Not one member of the cast anticipated it would go beyond what they were making, which was what they called a back-door pilot, meaning that it would probably end up as a two-hour movie somewhere. So when they agreed to buy six more episodes, it came as a complete shock to everyone. I remember David wanted me for Dale Cooper, and Mark Frost, who was partnering with him on it, wanted to meet me, which was fair enough. So we met and had coffee together, and Mark was convinced, I guess. 


Now, when I look at it, all I can see is how young I looked back in… we shot that in ’89, and I was like, “Wow…” I don’t think I would’ve believed myself as an FBI agent. [Laughs.] But it was one of the great opportunities. A great character that just… well, with David directing, and our relationship together already, with Dune and Blue Velvet behind us, we were really unstoppable. And we had a lot of fun and a lot of laughs. It was some of the most fun I’ve ever had working. That one will definitely stand the test of time. 

AVC: Have you ever considered what would’ve happened if there’d been another season, given the way your story arc ended, with Cooper possessed by Bob?

KM: Yeah, it would’ve been interesting to play the two characters. I was looking forward to that possibility. Perhaps had that storyline initiated earlier in the season the second year, it might’ve been compelling enough for ABC to stay with it or for audiences to stay with it. But the show definitely sort of lost its direction in the second year. It was difficult to maintain the… not the quirkiness, but it sort of became quirky for quirky’s sake and lost a little bit of darkness and edge that was necessary, I think, to really create the discomfort that I think was also an important part of the show. We lost the ability to do that. 


AVC: So how did you feel about Fire Walk With Me, then?

KM: Fire Walk was… I felt kind of a detachment in some ways. It was different. The show had already gone, so to come back to it was great in one way, to revisit the character, but I think it didn’t have the same resonance for me that the initial few episodes of the series had had. So it didn’t feel like it was really cohesive. 

The Flintstones (1994)—“Cliff Vandercave”
KM: I remember that one came in as an audition. “Do you wanna go in for this thing for The Flintstones?” And I was like, “Well, I really liked The Flintstones when I was a kid,” so, once again, I said, “Well, I’ve never done anything like this, so… okay!” I figured I’d see what happened. And I remember meeting Bruce Cohen, the producer, and Brian Levant, the director, and then I auditioned for it. Getting a role when you’re cold auditioning doesn’t happen that often, but for whatever reason… There was no reason for them to think that I could do what they were asking, but they liked what I did, so there I was as Cliff Vandercave. Or, as I liked to be known, the evil Cliff Vandercave. [Laughs.] Working alongside Halle Berry, John Goodman, and Rick Moranis. 

Again, that was a completely unexpected, unusual, and—as it was Steven Spielberg-produced—a giant production. Incredible production value. Not the most pleasant working situations, because we worked up in a quarry just a little outside of Los Angeles, so it was really hot, right in the middle of the summer. But I guess I got a chance to use… all of those years I spent as a kid watching cartoons sort of paid off for me doing The Flintstones. That was a lot of fun. I remember every day coming to work, and there was some new thing that they’d created, like a prehistoric golf ball and a putter. And we had sundial wristwatches, I remember. There was always something new that they’d made. The art department was unbelievable. That was cool. 


The Hidden (1987)—“Lloyd Gallagher”
KM: The Hidden was my third film. So I’d done two with David Lynch, and then The Hidden. I’d met the director, Jack Sholder, and we got along real well. I don’t even know or remember if I read for that or not. I might’ve read for it. And Jack didn’t have a whole lot of… he wasn’t very tactful as a person, and I remember him saying in the first couple of days of filming, “You know, you weren’t my first choice.” [Laughs.] And I said, “Oh. How interesting.” And then he said something else, and I was like, “Okayyyyy…” But I worked with Michael Nouri on that, and I’d met him and been kind of friendly with him before, so that was great, because we already had a friendship going on. 

On that one, I really just created this character that I thought would be… That one was really about consistency. Consistency of what he knew and didn’t know. Because he was obviously an alien from another place inhabiting a human body, so what was new? What was old? I used a lot of my acting training on that role, actually. I remember I was always asking questions, and I would say, “This doesn’t seem to make sense with what I’ve just done in the scene before. How would I know this and not know that?” And the director really just couldn’t be bothered with me, so I was like, “Okay, I think I’m on my own, so I’ll just make it up.” So I just came up with all sorts of strange things that resonated to me. 

I’m proud of The Hidden. I feel like we took a B-movie and kind of turned it into an A-minus action movie. We kind of elevated the material a little bit. It’s got a great car-chase scene at the very beginning. It has some terrific moments in it, some funny stuff. It’s a great rental. That’s what I always say: It’s a great rental. But it was mis-marketed by New Line. It was not a horror movie, and they just didn’t know what to do with it. And [producer] Robert Shaye, to this day, he says to me when I see him, “You know, we never quite got that one right.” But as a rental, it’s still a great little flick.


Showgirls (1995)—“Zack Carey”
KM: Uh… yeah. [Laughs.] That was a decision that was sort of a tough one to make, but I was enchanted with Paul Verhoeven. Particularly Robocop, which I loved. I look back on it now and it’s a little dated, but it’s still fantastic, and I think it’s got some of the great villains of all time in there. It was Verhoeven and [Joe] Eszterhas, and it seemed like it was going to be kind of dark and edgy and disturbing and real. I signed on, and… I think they’d wanted Dylan McDermott and he’d passed, so then they came to me and asked, “Do you want to do this?” And I was like, “Yeah!” Because I was really into that mode. And I worked hard, I came in and did my scenes, but then I wasn’t really involved in anything else until it finally came time to do the press for it. 

It was about to première, I hadn’t seen it yet, and I wanted to. So I went to see it and… I was absolutely gobsmacked. I said, “This is horrible. Horrible!” And it’s a very slow, sinking feeling when you’re watching the movie, and the first scene comes out, and you’re like, “Oh, that’s a really bad scene.” But you say, “Well, that’s okay, the next one’ll be better.” And you somehow try to convince yourself that it’s going to get better… and it just gets worse. And I was like, “Wow. That was crazy.” I mean, I really didn’t see that coming. So at that point, I distanced myself from the movie. Now, of course, it has a whole other life as a sort of inadvertent… satire. No, “satire” isn’t the right word. But it’s inadvertently funny. So it’s found its place. It provides entertainment, though not in the way I think it was originally intended. It was just… maybe the wrong material with the wrong director and the wrong cast. 

AVC: But apart from all of that… 

KM: Apart from all that, it was great. [Laughs.] It has a couple of moments in it that are pretty wild. And I gotta say that, when I was watching the actual shows that they created, I was like, “Hey, this is a Vegas show!” I was watching it from the audience, and it was amazing, what they were able to create. But reduced down to its elements, it was, uh, not one of my finer attempts. But it was done initially for all the right reasons; it just didn’t turn [out] to be what I anticipated. Everybody has one of those in their repertoire, I think. It’s just that this one has stayed around. Even Ishtar eventually disappeared. But this one keeps coming back! [Laughs.]


Hamlet (2000)—“Claudius”
KM: That was unusual in that, when I got the call about it from my agent, I thought that they had the character wrong, because Claudius is traditionally a little bit older, sort of a different look. So I thought, “Oh, maybe they mean Laertes or maybe Fortinbras, someone like that.” I wasn’t sure. But when they came back and said again, “No, it’s Claudius,” I was like, “Oh, that’s sort of interesting.” So I spoke to [writer-director] Michael Almereyda about it, and together we came up with a slightly different take on the guy, that Claudius was not quite as much of a buffoon, that he was actually pretty lethal and was a young corporate CEO. And it seemed to work. I thought actually that was one of those instances where the change actually made sense, given how Michael reinterpreted Hamlet, the modern setting. So I thought that Claudius worked pretty well. I really enjoyed Ethan [Hawke] playing Hamlet. We had a terrific cast, with Sam Shepard, who is… he’s totally a hero of mine. And Bill Murray as well. That’s where I first met Bill Murray. I’ve subsequently run into him a couple of times on the golf course, but that was our first meeting. And Diane Venora, who had played Hamlet originally at the Public back in the ’80s in a very controversial but successful female Hamlet, played Gertrude. So it was a pretty amazing cast. 

AVC: What was your Shakespeare background going into Hamlet? You came from the theater originally, so presumably you weren’t exactly going in blind. 

KM: Right, I studied at the University of Washington, where we did a year of Shakespeare, and then I graduated early and went to work at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, playing Romeo. And I played the boy in Henry V, and I played Octavius in a production of Julius Caesar. So, yeah, I went from school right into Shakespeare, and I loved it. Romeo was great. I was probably too young to actually play him, believe it or not, even at… how old was I? I guess I was 21 or 22. But I think I was still too young. He’s actually better interpreted when you’re… the older you get, the more you can successfully interpret what he’s going through. That’s hard to pull off onstage. But that was a thrill. To have a job right out of school was special, and that was my first real professional employment.


[pagebreak]

Blue Velvet (1986)—“Jeffrey Beaumont”
AVC: You mentioned that you and Oliver Stone had a history with Platoon, referring presumably to the fact that you were offered but turned down the role of Chris, which ultimately went to Charlie Sheen. 

KM: Yeah, it was sort of a different animal at that point. At that point in time, Platoon was at Dino de Laurentiis’s company, DEG, I think. I met with Oliver, and I really liked the script, but I… I can’t quite remember exactly why I didn’t pursue it. I think there was sort of a conflict between Blue Velvet and Platoon in terms of shooting, but I don’t know if that’s true or not. I’d have to go back and look at the sequence of development. But I seem to remember that the film went from Dino’s company to a different production company, and Oliver was… I really enjoyed meeting him. I remember I met him and his wife at the time together, and they were talking about it, and he hadn’t done much up to that point as a director. I think he’d done The Hand, but I don’t know if he’d done anything else when we’d met. But I liked that he was very passionate about the film, and I think I was just uncertain about the character’s journey at the end, and that he actually kills [Tom] Berenger’s character. I was thinking, “Oh, that’s pretty harsh.” I’m not even sure what my logic was back in the day. I mean, I was in my early 20s, and why we make decisions at that time in our lives is just so random.

AVC: Well, thank goodness you ended up going with Blue Velvet. That’s much less harsh.

KM: [Laughs.] In my defense, I was initially concerned about Blue Velvet as well. I was reticent to do that one, too. But Blue Velvet was supposed to go right after Dune. Dune came out in December of ’84, and we were supposed to start filming Blue Velvet in January of ’85—I think that’s right—and we didn’t end up starting filming until the summer of ’85, I seem to remember. So I had the long period of time between finishing Dune, which I did in October of ’83, and starting Blue Velvet, which I believe was in August. So I had almost two years of not working. The problem was that, in the contract, I could not do a movie or television until Dune had been released, so that pinned me down pretty harshly. And as noted, once Dune was released, it didn’t go very well, and I was much less attractive to other studios. But David was my champion.

AVC: So how was the experience of making Blue Velvet? Certainly the phrase “intense” is used a lot in people’s descriptions of the film.

KM: Well, as intense as it was on the screen, it was really a joy to do. First of all, David was much happier, just because it was a smaller film, it was something he was more comfortable with, so we had a great time, everyone together. There was Dennis [Hopper], Isabella [Rossellini], Laura Dern, and myself. We were kind of the fearsome foursome. And Dean Stockwell was around, and Brad Dourif. And most of the time we were not filming, we pretty much hung together. Everybody would play cards, or we would just hang out. I hung out with Dennis a lot. It was a very, very friendly group for as intense as the work was. It was just a really good feeling with the filming. We shot a lot of nights, which after a while starts to make everyone kind of loopy. [Laughs.] We did, like, five or six weeks of nights in a row, which is a lot. But it was necessary, because so much of it takes place at night. 

We were sort of the forgotten company. There were really no producers around. Fred Caruso, the line producer, was there, and he was trying to get the movie done and finished by a certain time and for a certain amount, so we were all just working really hard. Dune was like a giant machine, and it was hard to keep track of all the pieces, but Blue Velvet was a very sleek, compact little experience. Really different. But I loved it as well. That was only my second film, and it was—like Twin Peaks—a complete surprise the way it was received. I remember when it first came out, they did some screenings, and the people that saw it… uh, they didn’t like it at all. [Laughs.] But it slowly gained speed as some of the critics, Pauline Kael specifically, got onboard and were writing about it as what it is, which is just a masterpiece of filmmaking. So once that started to happen, people got to it. I mean, it was never a blockbuster by any means, but it’s certainly considered a classic film. 


How I Met Your Mother (2010-2011)—“The Captain”
KM: That was a lot of fun. That was a ridiculously fun experience. An unexpected offer on a show, which I’d heard about but I’d never really seen. So I watched it, and I thought to myself, “This is brilliant.” I got to the set not quite knowing what to expect, but the cast, particularly Josh Radnor, who I did most of my stuff with, was just so kind and nice and so gracious. They were all like, “Oh, we’re big fans!” I’ve been doing this for a number of years now, and I sort of forget when I come into the experience and still feel like it’s my first job. I have that excitement and a little bit of nerves, and you want to make sure you remember what you’re doing, so it took me back a little bit. 

But they were really gracious, and Pam Fryman, who does the directing, is absolutely a genius. So we slowly began to create this character of The Captain, and I was sad that it was only a few episodes, because I felt like in the third one I was finally getting my stride and had figured it out a little bit, his eccentricity. You’re mixing this wide divergence of over-the-top crazed energy along with a very real and sincere emotional wounding that had happened to him, that he felt, and bouncing between those extremes was really a lot of fun. And the writers were supporting that direction. Carter Bays and Craig Thomas, two of the nicest guys in the universe. They were really pleased with it, and I just had a great time.

I’ve got to say, I loved the process, because the shooting was… there was no audience, so it was slightly different. There were four cameras and no audience, so you could do the scene a number of times, and you worked the scene and really depended on the responses of the crew and the production staff that were there, the director and producer and stuff, and their take on it and their laughter. And they enjoyed everything so much, but I didn’t ever feel compelled that I had to do a performance for an audience. So it felt a little bit more like a play. All the sets are, for the most part, proscenium, and the cameras are sort of… there’s an audience kind of feel to them. So it’s a bit like doing theater. 


The Trigger Effect (1996)—“Matthew”
KM: That was David Koepp, his first directed feature. They had Dermot [Mulroney] and Elisabeth [Shue], and I had originally wanted to play the role that Dermot played. That was during a period of time in my career where I was trying to move away from what I was so strongly identified with, which was sort of the juvenile lead. That’s the proper stage term, anyway. But, you know, the young, callow guy. I wanted to have something a little more substantial. But while they originally agreed, they said, “No, we really sort of see him this way.”

That was a really great idea, and I thought the script was really good, but… for some reason, it just didn’t quite click somehow. I never really knew why. But I loved the idea. Once in a while, people come up and say the same thing: “That was a really interesting film, the concept of civilization sort of descending into chaos.” You know, the whole question of how you maintain your humanity in that situation. It seems like there’s a lot of series dealing with that concept lately. 

AVC: In fact, NBC’s getting ready to premiere one: Revolution

KM: Yeah, that’s the one I was thinking of, where it’s asking how humans respond to a situation like that. The Trigger Effect was asking those questions, too, and it forced everyone on the film to consider how quickly humanity would fall back into almost a tribal existence. That one scene in the pharmacy… that was very interesting. It was a really well-constructed little movie. 


Sex And The City (2000-2002)—“Trey MacDougal”
KM: I met with Michael Patrick King and Jenny Bicks, they had an idea for me to join the show—I think they were big Twin Peaks fans—and they thought I would be the perfect match for Charlotte, Kristin Davis’s character. And I was excited to join a show that was popular already, and one that was shooting in New York. I was in the early stages of dating my wife, and she was in New York, so I thought, “Well, this will be perfect!” I had hoped that… I was trying to work on the character as kind of a virile guy, sort of saying, “Oh, he could be kind of a John-John Kennedy guy.” And they were like, “Yeah, okay.” Then they said, “But, really, we want him to have these mother issues and impotence problems.” And I was, like, “Oh God. Okay.” [Laughs.] It’s one of those things where, going in, you know it’s going to be sort of a minefield, but it turned out to be good. People really embraced the character. And I was very fortunate to be able to work with Frances Sternhagen as my mother. I thought she was great. And the writers and the directors and people involved in that show were extremely talented. Plus, as I said, it shot in New York. So it was great in a number of ways. 


Tales From The Crypt (1991)—“Earl Raymond Digs”
KM: Oh, boy! Tales From The Crypt was sort of a popular cult thing, and the character was a bad dude who went through all these things. I think I did that and part of my deal was, “Okay, you can also direct one down the road.” So I agreed to do it with the caveat that I could try my hand at directing, which I did the following year [in an episode entitled “As Ye Sow”].

AVC: And you had quite a cast to work with, too: Sam Waterston, Hector Elizondo, and the one and only Adam West. 

KM: Yeah! I wanted Adam. I asked for Adam because I was such a huge fan of the Batman TV show when I was a little kid. I loved Adam West, and he turned out to be just great. And Hector and Sam were wonderful as well. Patsy Kensit and John Shea were in it as well. And then my friend Miguel Ferrer, who I’d worked with on Twin Peaks, came in to play the killer, and I think I hired one of my classmates from Seattle, Billy O’Leary, to play a small role, too. I was fond of bringing in all my cronies. [Laughs.] 

I remember when we shot my first Crypt, the director was Steve de Souza, and he’d been a writer who was trying his hand at directing, and I thought he did a nice job. It was about this escaped convict sort of muttering and mumbling, and I remember we shot in about five days. We shot up in Lancaster, and I would make that drive every day back and forth between Lancaster and Los Angeles. I’d come home, get up in the morning, and go back out there. I had the option to stay out there, but I was like, “Ugh, it’s so grim…” It was real run-and-gun. It was really fast, and we were fighting the light, fighting getting everything, and then they brought in the mechanical bird and all that. It actually turned out to be pretty gruesome, and it was kind of funny. It’s one of those where the experience was interesting and got me a chance to try directing, which I enjoyed but which I realized I wasn’t really very good at. [Laughs.] So it was probably good for that, if nothing else.


Justice League: The New Frontier (2008)—“Superman”
KM: They had me come in and do that. I was flattered, being a big Superman fan. But I found it to be particularly difficult, because the language is so specific, and there seemed to always be lines that were either quite severe in tone or just, like, in the midst of some action-y sequence where you have to be at a fever pitch. It was kind of hard to modulate and know where you were and how high or low to sort of take it. So that was a whole other kind of process, trying to line up the intensity with the visual, which we didn’t have. We had sort of a rough idea, but it wasn’t… I didn’t really get a good sense of the lines doing it. 

AVC: This may well be the first Random Roles where someone was on the cusp of saying, “You know, I gotta tell ya, I didn’t entirely love voice acting.”

KM: [Laughs.] I think it depends. A lot of times you don’t have the finished script, because they’ll take the character and they’ll make the reactions based upon the voice and how it moves. I think that’s how it usually works. And this was different. This was sort of less-realistic facial movements and more comic-book-like. As opposed to doing something like Shrek, let’s say, or something where there’s a lot of facial movement. Also, the animators often imbue the character with some of the actor’s actual physicalizations and mannerisms and facial movements. This was different than that. I’d love to do a character that had a greater degree of movement—I love the Madagascar movies, particularly—but it’s tricky.


Desperate Housewives (2006-2012)—“Orson Hodge”
KM: Another very nice case, where Marc Cherry called and asked for me to come on the show and work with Marcia [Cross] because they felt like I was kind of the right match for her. We turned out to be great friends, Marcia and I; I really adore her. I wasn’t sure in the beginning if I was going to be working with Teri [Hatcher] or if I was going to be working with Marcia. The first episode that I was in, which was the last part of season two, I started with Teri and then slipped over to [Marcia] at the beginning of three, I think. Or maybe the beginning of two. So they brought me in that way, and then I was meant to be the murderer in the mystery of that year, the third year, but I went to Marc early on and said, “I’d love to join the cast more permanently. Is it too late?” And he said, “Let me think about it.” So that’s when they sort of brought in the idea of Dixie Carter as my mother and having her be more responsible for the murder, and they were able to let Orson off the hook so I could stick around for a couple of years. That’s how that worked out. And it worked out pretty well, I thought. I thought it was pretty good, and I was glad to hang out, because I really enjoyed the writing and Marcia and working on the show. It really fit my life at that time. 


In Justice (2006)—“David Swain”
AVC: When you arrived at Desperate Housewives, you were just coming off of another series: the short-lived In Justice, which was on Fox.

KM: Yeah, it was short-lived. We did 12 episodes. It was Robert and Michelle King’s first series, I think. They’ve got The Good Wife now. But for In Justice, they’d hired Stu Bloomberg to come in and kind of help run it, because they weren’t showrunners at that time, and he was there to help. That was a really great idea, but I think it maybe was almost too big to try and get into a one-hour show. But I learned a lot. I got to play a character who shot from the hip, a little more relaxed and loose and irreverent, and I really, really loved it. And I got to work with Jason O’Mara, who’d done a lot of TV stuff and was very skilled at the whole TV world, just being able to take his character and fight for what he thought was right. I learned a lot about TV working with him. 

That was a role that I auditioned for. I had to go in and fight for it. I remember my first audition being very good, my second audition was absolutely horrible, and I remember calling my agent, saying, “You know what? Don’t even call ’em back. I totally failed, so just let it go.” And my agent was like, “Oh, okay.” I was so embarrassed that I had done so poorly. But they said, “No, no, we want to see you one more time.” And I came back in, and I was much better the third time. So that was one I had to fight for, and I liked it. I was sad to see it go after 12 episodes. I thought that it could’ve gone a little further. The idea of getting people released off DNA evidence was a new and kind of a liberal idea, and one that I thought had merit. The writing was good, and we had really good guest stars, I remember, but… TV is just sometimes difficult. 

AVC: She’s a cruel mistress. 

KM: Little bit. [Laughs.]

One Night Stand (1997)—“Vernon”
Timecode (2000)—“Bunny Drysdale”
KM: I knew Mike Figgis from an audition… a meeting, actually, because I don’t think I ever auditioned, but it was for a movie he did called Stormy Monday. I think he hired Sean Bean, but he was interested in me. I met with Mike, I really liked him, and that didn’t work out, but we just kept in touch over the years. And it came around that he was going to do One Night Stand. And he said, “Would you like to come in?” And I said, “Sure!” There really wasn’t much to the role at the time, but I said, “What the hell.” And a lot of it was being made up as we went along. Well, not a lot, but there was this area for improv, and Mike is a very free-form sort of director like that. We shot in New York, and I worked opposite Ming-Na, who is wonderful. I got to know Nastassja [Kinski] a little bit, and Robert Downey [Jr.] was there. It was a good cast, and it was a very cool movie. Wesley [Snipes] was very nice. We shot in New York and L.A., and it was good. And it sort of set the stage for Timecode.

Mike was kind of gathering a bunch of people around for this high-concept movie that everybody was really responding to. Everybody picked a story and a character and then developed it themselves and tried to string these 93 minutes together. Mike had four cameras going at the same time while he was working four different storylines, each one having a main driving focus, and then there was stuff bouncing in and out of it. It was really improv on camera. We did it a total of maybe 18 times we shot? We’d shoot one in the morning, and we’d shoot one in the afternoon, a full take, and then we’d sit and we’d talk about it for a good hour or two afterwards, talking about what worked, what didn’t work, how we could make it better, how the camera should move. It was a real collaboration with the camera guys—there were four cameras going—and the actors and the crew. So we were making… it was almost like a live TV show, but it happened to be a 93-minute film. 

I liked the experience more than… watching it was okay, but the experience of doing it was much more interesting. Of course, towards the end of filming those episodes, you start to get kind of… what’s the word? You get a little devilish. [Laughs.] I knew Xander Berkeley, and he and Julian Sands and myself and Steven Weber sort of hung together a little bit. And it became about seeing if we could get the other person to laugh while we were filming. And the stakes would get higher each minute you got closer to the end of the 93 minutes. Like, at minute 88, you were working really hard to try and get someone, because then of course… it’s a gamble, but you’d walk that tightrope, and we’d do crazy things. I remember Xander… we were right near the end and all clustered outside, and I don’t know if it was the earthquake or whatever, but we were all outside the offices, trying to stay away from the camera. Everyone was trying to move around and hide behind things, because you didn’t want to get caught out. And Xander turned and he put his face into a flowerpot filled with dirt, and he came up and had all of this dirt all over his face. And I turned to him and… I think I must’ve buried my face in the back of Julian Sands, because he totally, totally got me. I know the camera wasn’t on us, but he went to that extreme. By that time, we were just having too much fun. We’d gotten silly. 


The Trial (1993)—“Josef K.”
KM: That was… maybe the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It was in Prague, and I want to say we filmed it in ’92? And released in ’93. People were saying, “Oh Prague, it’s like Paris in the ’20s,” but I said, “It ain’t nothin’ like it.” [Laughs.] I mean, I wasn’t around Paris in the ’20s, but it sure as hell wasn’t what I imagine Paris to have been like. It was really tough. I stayed at the Boreham Hotel, which was an old Communist hotel. I worked every day, every scene, doing an English accent that was… moderately successful. Phil Meheux shot it, it’s absolutely stunning, and the late David Jones directed. The script was adapted by Harold Pinter, who came to visit at the time, and I also got to co-star with Anthony Hopkins. So it was this odd mix of really difficult filming and, at the same time, these extraordinary moments like meeting Harold Pinter and working with Anthony Hopkins. We took a private jet from Prague to Cannes to promote the movie; we were in Cannes for not even 24 hours—we went in the morning, stayed all day, we’re in the gorgeous south of France, hopped on the set, and flew back to Prague, where it still felt like it was wintertime. It was like, “Why have I been deprived? Wait a minute! What’s going on?” [Laughs.] So it was torturous at times, to be sure, but it was an extraordinary experience, which is why I’m still so glad I did it. I’ve got the memories. 


Mad Dog Time (1996)—“Jake Parker”
KM: When I think of Mad Dog Time, I think of the fact that I got to drive fast cars all day long up in Canada. That was really fun. We were on these back roads with these great cars.

AVC: For better or worse, whenever anyone mentions the film, the only thing that leaps to mind is Roger Ebert’s review.

KM: Oh, is that right? What did he say? I’m sure he… [Starts to laugh.] I mean, it was a terrible movie. 

AVC: Just for the record, you come out unscathed, but here’s the opening line: “Mad Dog Time is the first movie I have seen that does not improve on the sight of a blank screen viewed for the same length of time.”

KM: [Laughs.] Oh, he’s got a way with words, that Roger. Yeah, like I said, it wasn’t about the movie. It was all about driving the cars. That was fun. I don’t even remember the movie. The only thing I remember is shooting one day with Billy Idol, who was super nice, and at the end of the day, he jumped up on the desk and started doing… Idol-isms. You know, just the character he is onstage. And everyone was gathering around and clapping. There wasn’t even any music, he was just up there being Billy Idol. It was crazy. Just crazy. Now, I do remember seeing the movie and thinking to myself, “What is this?” [Laughs.] But, again, I’m glad I did it because of the experience. If the memories I have are ones I enjoy, then how the movie did or turned out isn’t any concern.