When Kyle MacLachlan made his movie debut in the 1984 sci-fi epic “Dune,” it started him on path that differed from his original vision of being a theater actor. Since then, he’s become famous in film and TV in an interesting variety of genres, while avoiding the usual typecasting of someone with his good looks. Now that MacLachlan has left the TV series “Desperate Housewives” after four years as a cast member (the last appearance of his Orson Hodge character will be in the show’s seventh season, which premieres in September 2010), MacLachlan is ready to move on to other projects.
One of those projects is something he has never done before on a regular basis: a sketch-comedy series. MacLachlan is co-starring in “Portlandia,” an IFC sketch-comedy series headed by “Saturday Night Live” cast member Fred Armisen. Although the premiere date for “Portlandia” has yet to be determined, MacLachlan can be seen in the film “Mao’s Last Dancer,” a drama that was Australia’s highest-grossing film of 2009, and which has a limited release in U.S. theaters on August 20, 2010.
Based on Li Cunxin’s memoir of the same title, “Mao’s Last Dancer” tells the real-life story of how the Chinese native came to Houston as a ballet exchange student and ended up defecting from China in 1981. As a result of his defection, Li was subsequently banned from entering China again, thereby separating him from his entire family for many years. MacLachlan plays Charles Foster, the attorney who helps Li (played by Chi Cao) avoid being deported back to China. I recently sat down with MacLachlan at the “Mao’s Last Dancer” press junket in New York City, where he talked why he was convinced to do the movie; the types of fans who recognize him from his TV shows; and how writer/director David Lynch had a profound impact on his career.
Kyle MacLachlan in “Mao’s Last Dancer”
Did you meet the real Charles Foster before or while you filmed “Mao’s Last Dancer”?
Yeah, absolutely. I flew to Houston to meet and spend some time with Charles Foster. I didn’t know what to expect, but he was very nice over the phone. And I went down to pick his brain about not his side of the story but his perspective, I guess, and a little bit of back story — and also try and capture as close as I could his particular energy and manner of speaking and just to try and get a sense of who he was. So I met him, he picked me up at the airport, and he’s just such a lovely guy and so incredibly intelligent. I was like, “Oh, boy. This is going to be a challenge,” because he’s a very cause-and-effect kind of person. And by that, I mean it certainly has something to do with the law, but it’s like, “If you proceed in this manner, then this is going to happen.”
So he said during the course of what happened, he’s saying, “It’s this, and we’ll go to the Chinese,” and this is a very straightforward process that completely changed when Lee was taken from the room. Then Charles had to start to improvise, which he did very, very well, I thought. But these are all the things I got out of him when I went down there, including the ring that he wore. He has the class ring from Texas. I noticed that, and I was like, “I’m not usually one to like to copy or emulate, but somehow I felt like this ring was sort of an important part of who he was.” He still wore it. And I think people who watch the film, particularly [people] from Texas, they would look at it and go, “Hmm,” and recognize that, and they would connect him immediately to the state.
And I thought that was important, as well as trying to get is accent, which was a Houston/Galveston combination. He had a couple of words that really triggered me, and that was “because” [he pronounces it “be-caws”] and “snow cone.” I never say “snow cone” in [“Mao’s Last Dancer”], but during his course of talking, he would talk about getting a snow cone when he was a little kid. So I plugged that stuff in, and out came Charles … He’s a very interesting guy. He’s sort of the go-to guy for anybody who has any questions about immigration, certainly within the government and within his own state. He’s very engaging and charming.
Kyle MacLachlan and Marcia Cross in “Desperate Housewives”
You’ve been part of three TV shows with huge fan bases: “Twin Peaks,” “Sex and the City” and “Desperate Housewives”? Do you think those shows made you a TV star or do you see yourself as a character actor?
I’m much more of a character actor, I think — at least my head goes in that direction. I like creating a complex person and then participating as a member of an ensemble, which I guess is why I enjoyed working on “Sex and the City” and “Desperate Housewives” so much: because it really is an ensemble. And the girls, I love them together as the lead part of it, and the men sort of functioned as the characters around them — and that suited me just fine. And I was lucky.
Michael Patrick King from “Sex and the City” called me, and I worked with him and Jenny Bicks. They said to me, “We have a great idea for a character, working with Charlotte [played by Kristin Davis].” I said, “That’s fantastic.” “I see him as an Upper East Side surgeon, sort of a John-John Kennedy, virile, imagine him throwing a football in the park.” I said, “Yeah, that’s fine.” “But he’s also going to be erectile-ly challenged.” I said, “Oh my God. OK.” I just had to accept that. Yeah, they helped paint the complexity of this guy.
Were the “Sex and the City” people who hired you fans of your work in “Twin Peaks”?
Most of the people who have hired me have been inspired by my work with [writer/director David] Lynch, whether it’s “Blue Velvet” or primarily “Twin Peaks” in the television world. So those guys loved “Twin Peaks.” [“Desperate Housewives” creator/executive producer] Marc Cherry was also a big fan of “Twin Peaks.” I guess it comes from there.
Bruce Beresford, Chi Cao and Kyle MacLachlan at the New York City premiere of “Mao’s Last Dancer”
How would you describe working with “Mao’s Last Dancer” director Bruce Beresford? You’re also working with Bruce on the comedy film “Peace, Love & Misunderstanding.”
Actually, I’ve given him no choice. I keep bugging him about working with him. [He laughs.] The thing I’m going to do upstate, “Peace, Love & Misunderstanding,” is really a cameo I’m in, for I think will be a couple of days. But I thought, “Oh, it’ll be fun to work with Catherine Keener a little bit and Jane [Fonda] for a little bit.” It’s more of a fun gig than anything else.
I really love Bruce’s films. I really love the way he makes films, because they are — “throwback” isn’t the right word — but he’s very conscious of story , and he’s a very simple storyteller, which is very, very difficult to do. It’s really I think the way I like to work the most. In some ways, Lynch is a simple storyteller as well. He doesn’t get all complicated with the camera and everything. He just exists in an odd world, Lynch does.
But Bruce is much more about truth of the moment, the relationship with the character, what’s the humanity of the story. I said to him, “I didn’t know you were an old softie.” He said, “Oh yeah.” I feel this movie is such a journey of ultimately triumph, but it has so much to do with family and distance from family. And being in this [entertainment] business, we can all relate to that, just because of how we work and places we have to be and being away from family and just how important they are.
But we [Bruce Beresford and I] have a great time together. We laugh a lot. There’s a real teasing kind of mentality that I enjoy — and [Bruce Beresford] being Australian, I think he does, too. [“Mao’s Last Dancer” co-star] Bruce Greenwood is the same way. There’s a lot of pleasure in just verbal humor and wit, but at the same time, we get down to business and do what we need to do. I just like spending time with him. And he’s done a couple of my favorite movies. “Black Robe” was one of my favorite movies, and Bruce directed that. It was an extraordinary film.
Kyle MacLachlan at the American Advocates for the Arts House Appropriations Committee Hearing in Washington, D.C., in April 2010
When you first heard about “Mao’s Last Dancer,” did you have any hesitation to do the movie because there was so much ballet dancing in the film?
Yeah, I didn’t really now how I was going to fit into this story. And I said, “’Mao’s Last Dancer’? What does that mean?” I wasn’t aware of the journey this man [Li Cunxin] took at the time. But once I read the book and read the script and spoke with Bruce, I said, “Why did you think of me?” he said, “Well, he’s a lawyer. You’re the first person I thought of. You’d be a great lawyer.”
I just love the way he casts: “Oh, you’d be perfect for it!” I said, “OK. Well, I guess I would be.” He had more belief in me than I did. And just the fact that he thought of me, that he remembered me. We had stayed in contact over the years, but it’s nice when someone says, “Oh, I’d like to work with you again.” It gives you a great feeling.
Have you ever wanted to be a lawyer in real life?
No. I said, “Oh, this is the first time I get to play a lawyer. My wife said, “No. Remember that TV show you did, ‘In Justice,’ for 12 episodes?” “Oh yeah. I forgot that.” That was actually a good one. I was surprised that I didn’t remember that one. I don’t know why.
Did you read the book “Quotations From Chairman Mao” (also known as “The Little Red Book”)?
No, I didn’t. My resource was Li’s book (his autobiography), speaking with Bruce [Beresford], and then some of the conversations I had with Charles [Foster about] what actually happened, what the expectations were. I sort of came to it as I read the script. There is a timeline that is on the website for “Mao’s Last Dancer” that does a very good overview of when [things] happened, which was helpful, too. It’s funny, when you’re a little kid in history, you [think] you have no way to relate it to [anything, and] “I don’t know why they teach kids history. I’ve got no context for this.” And only as you get older … then you become interested in it, I think.
Kyle MacLachlan at a Hamptons magazine event in New York City, June 2010
A big part of “Mao’s Last Dancer” is about Li realizing that dancing, which he was reluctant to do as a child, ended up being something that he felt like he needed to do in order to be happy. What was the turning point in your life when you realized that you wanted to be an actor more than you wanted to do any other profession?
In some ways, when I think about it, that particular part of the story was similar to me, in that I started acting when I was in junior high and high school — not taking classes, but just sort of doing the plays. I didn’t know what I was doing. And some people might argue that I still don’t know what I’m doing. [He laughs.] But I was doing the high-school musical and stuff like that.
I was enjoying it. It was part of who I was, but I went to college thinking I would do something else. Then I took an acting class and another acting class, and I started to look seriously at training schools. And there was one at the school I was going to that I auditioned for, but still never really in my mind saying, “I’m going to be an actor. This is what I’m going to do.” It was, “Oh, this is working out pretty well. I enjoy it. I don’t know if I can make a career out of it.”
And it wasn’t really until I got into my training program and was working during the summers and then graduated and worked at Ashland at the [Oregon] Shakespeare Festival that I really was like, “Wow, OK. This is what I’m doing now.” It took a long time for me to acknowledge, I guess, that that there was something I was (a) good at and (b) that I was passionate about, even though I didn’t really let myself believe that I was passionate about it. I was just like, “No, it’s just one thing I do. Acting, golf, all these other things.” It was just the thing that I continued to have success at, and I continue to go forward. Every time I auditioned for something, I got hired.
As an actor, did you ever face a dilemma about compromising your artistic integrity? And if so, how did you deal with it?
I have no artistic integrity. I did “Showgirls,” for God’s sake!
Kyle MacLachlan and Isabella Rossellini in “Blue Velvet”
Speaking of turning points, can you talk about how working with David Lynch was a turning point in your career?
Sure. It was a complete change. I mentioned I worked at Ashland for a season. I went to Seattle to do a play, and while I was working in Seattle, I met a casting lady who was casting for “Dune.” And I auditioned for her, and she took the tape down to David Lynch in L.A. And they liked the tape, and they flew me down to L.A. And I met David and Raffaella [De Laurentiis, producer of “Dune”]. I had a nice chat with him. He gave me the script of “Dune.”
I went back to Seattle and did a couple more days on the play I was doing, and returned to do a screen test. I’d never done a screen test. I‘d never been in front of the camera, I didn’t know what to expect. I was training for the theater. I was going to go from Seattle to New York. That was my intention. And so David, they cast me in this movie, and completely changed my entire direction and my career.
And that could’ve very well easily been the end, because “Dune” was not very well-received at the time, but David came back to me for “Blue Velvet,” and that was really the difference. He sort of altered my life by casting me in “Dune,” and then gave me a push forward with “Blue Velvet,” and that set us on the track.
Did you ever read the “Dune” novel?
Oh, I was a huge fan of the book, from about the right age, 14, 15 years old.
Patrick Stewart, Kyle MacLachlan and Dean Stockwell in “Dune”
Now that you’ve done “Mao’s Last Dancer,” are you more inclined to go to the ballet?
Yeah. I go to very few movies. I don’t go out much. But yeah, I’m more inclined now to go to the ballet and the opera. I used to sing when I was a kid, but I have to say [“Mao’s Last Dancer”] hasn’t really driven me to go to the ballet. It should.
What’s next for you?
I did my last episode for [“Desperate Housewives”] at the beginning of Season 7, and that was shot in early July . They wheeled me off into the sunset. I went to work in Portland [in Oregon] with Fred Armisen. He’s doing a little thing for the Independent Film Channel [IFC] — which is now going to do [its own original] content — called “Portlandia.” And it’s a sketch-comedy show, which is way outside my knowledge level. He and Carrie Brownstein, his partner, they write all these different sketches, they play all these different characters. I play the mayor of Portland, and I appear in a couple of the sketches.
I’m so used to in television, they give you the script, and it’s pretty much word-for-word. You don’t have a chance to mess around [“Portlandia”] was like, Fred gives me the script, I get a week and I learn long pages of dialogue …I memorize everything. I come there the first day, and it’s like, “Hey, good to see you. Listen, we’ve got some new pages.” I’m like, “OK.” I’m used to new pages on “Desperate Housewives,” you know, changing a new line here and a line there … He had an entirely new scene. And I’m like, “Fred, I just learned this …” He said, “Don’t worry, we’ll start with this, and then we’ll go from there.” So I go, “OK.”
So I look at it, pull a couple of things out, and here we go. So it’s pretty much just improv comedy. He’s like, “Great! Let’s do another take.” It’s three guys with little cameras … The quality is unbelievable. So we did that. I remember a few things that worked, so I plugged those back into the next take, added a couple more things, changed things around, and you just go with this improv format. And they cut it together. I saw it. It’s pretty funny.
Sherilynn Fenn and Kyle MacLachlan in “Twin Peaks”
Do you have any plans to do theater again?
We’ll see. I haven’t had any plans. [The last time I did theater] was “The Caretaker” which was at the Roundabout [in New York City], which was in .
How would you describe the fans of “Twin Peaks,” Sex and the City” and “Desperate Housewives”?
You know, it’s funny. I was just at dinner, and there was a young kid, 20 years old. He came up and is like a huge “Twin Peaks” fan. And he wasn’t even born or maybe just born when we made “Twin Peaks” 20 years ago. And he just came up and knew everything about the show … I don’t even remember things he was talking about. It’s so fun that this whole other generation has found it. They just really groove on [my “Twin Peaks” character] Dale Cooper … The [“Twin Peaks: The Definitive Gold Box Edition” DVD set], we all participated in that. That’s a very, very good compilation. They did a great job with that. They even have my ‘Saturday Night Live” skit that I did years ago about “Twin Peaks,” which was pretty fun.
Most of the “Sex and the City” fans [who approach me] are the women of New York. And sometimes they come up to me and say, “Oh, I’m Charlotte.” And I say, “Oh, that’s very funny.” The identity is really strong. That’s mainly the fan base for “Sex and the City.” It’s similar to [“Desperate] Housewives,” although there’s a lot of guys who watch both “Sex and the City” and “Desperate Housewives.” I know why they watch “Sex and the City.” Kim Cattrall. And they like “Desperate Housewives,” because they’ll sit with their wives, because they like the interaction, they like the story. There’s also some very lovely-looking women on that show. But they like the writing, funnily enough, and the craziness of the situations. So it’s a mix.
Kristin Davis and Kyle MacLachlan in “Sex and the City”
Have you had any celebrities tell you that they’re a closet fan of any of the TV shows you’ve done?
People you meet will just say, “I love your work. I just get a kick out of this.” I do the same thing. I was watching “Fun With Dick and Jane” with George Segal and Jane Fonda. And I stayed and watched it because I hadn’t seen it before with Jane Fonda, whom I’m about to go up and work with [on “Peace, Love & Misunderstanding”]. I mean, I know her work from “Klute” and some of the other stuff she’s done, like “On Golden Pond.” But I hadn’t seen “Fun With Dick and Jane.” She’s very funny. So I’ll bring that up when I see her.
What can you say about the cult following for “Dune”?
There’s a lot of people who’ve found that and like to revisit that territory. It’s usually guys, men in their 40s and 50s, who respond to “Dune.”
Have you ever been to China?
I haven’t been to China. I’ve been to Hong Kong. I would love to go [to China]. Someday we’ll get there. I love to travel …
Amanda Schull, Chi Cao and Kyle MacLachlan in “Mao’s Last Dancer”
Chi Cao makes his movie debut in “Mao’s Last Dancer.” What was it like working with him?
I remember going down there, landing in Sydney, and immediately going to the set. They were filming the sequence where he meets [Li Cunxin’s first wife] Liz [Mackey, played by] Amanda [Schull] for the first time. I meet everybody, they’re filming, so I stepped back and watched the scene. And I remember feeling a great sense of relief. I knew they were extraordinary dancers; they had to be extraordinary dancers, but I wasn’t sure how their acting would be. And I was amazed. I said, “These kids are fantastic. We’ve got no worries. This is going to be a great film.” I think I knew then it was going to be a great film, just because if you can do that reality without having to use a double, it’s seamless.
And for not having acted before, he [Chi Chao] was unbelievable — even the transition with his language through the course of the film. They interview him at the end in Washington, D.C., and he’s sitting in the chair and is so confident and well-spoken, and you go, “Wow.” I think he really captured Li, because Li is a man of great discipline, obviously, and when he puts his mind to something, he accomplishes it, and he does it elegantly and very, very well.
“Mao’s Last Dancer” has been getting a lot of positive reviews. Do you think it’ll win awards too?
That’s great. I have mixed feelings about awards anyway, but they do help propel people into the theater and to see something. We’ll keep our fingers crossed for everything, whatever it is. It’s had a nice life on the festival circuit. It’s gotten some nice notices around the country, and the word of mouth has grown.
Kyle MacLachlan at the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship in Carnoustie, Scotland, in October 2009
When is “Portlandia” going to premiere?
The pilot’s done. We go back and shoot some more in early-to-mid September. I go back to Portland for a few days, and we’ll see what happens. It’s not like anything I’ve done before. Like I said, it’s kind of a loose free-for-all. Fred [Armisen] and everybody, they’re very specific about their sketches and about the characters that they play. How I’m plugged in will be interesting to see. I don’t know when they’re going to air it. I’m not sure yet.
Do you still keep in touch with David Lynch? Has he turned you on to transcendental meditation, since he’s become so heavily involved in that?
Yeah. He’s going around doing a lot of promotion for it for the meditation centers. I’ve never done it. I always say, “I should do it.” And then I never get around to it. I meditate on the golf course.
For more info: “Mao’s Last Dancer” website
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Photo credits: Photo #1: Carla Hay. Photos #2, 11 Samuel Goldwyn Films. Photos #3, 9: ABC. Photo #6: MGM. Photo #8: Universal Pictures. Photo #10: HBO. All other photos: Getty Images.