Currently in its eighth and final season, the IFC comedy series Portlandia is a playful satire about life in Portland, Oregon that portrays the great city as being inhabited by a variety of residents, played by co-creators Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein. With great guest stars, over the years, from the worlds of film, TV, music and sports, all of the wacky, wild and out-there characters have managed to perfectly capture the hilarity of the little things in life.
While at the TCA Press Tour presentation for IFC, Collider got the opportunity to sit down with actor Kyle MacLachlan (who plays the Mayor) for this 1-on-1 interview about what attracted him to Portlandia, when he realized what he’d actually signed on for, getting into a comedy groove on the series, and getting a bit sentimental over the end. He also talked about what it was like to get to return to the weird and wonderful world of Twin Peaks, why he was nervous about playing Dougie, how grateful he was for his partner-in-crime Naomi Watts, and his shorthand with David Lynch, as well as working with director Eli Roth on the upcoming supernatural thriller The House with a Clock in its Walls.
Collider: What does it mean to you to have been a part of Portlandia? When you originally signed on to do the show, could you ever have imagined you’d still be around, in the last season?
KYLE MacLACHLAN: I didn’t even know what I was signing on to. That’s the crazy thing. Fred [Armisen], Carrie [Brownstein], Jonathan Krisel and Andrew Singer just said, “We’re doing this show in Portland and you’re the Mayor. It’s sort of a sketch show, but not really. It’s sort of improv.” And I was like, “What?! Okay.” I just said, “Okay, let’s do it!” Obviously, Fred and Carrie are extremely talented people, and I knew that the pedigree was Lorne Michaels’ company and Andrew Singer. They were all really smart people and good people to be involved with. I didn’t really know what I was getting into, so I just said, “Sure!,” and jumped in and agreed to be in the world of Portlandia.
Do you typically prefer to know a bit more about the project that you’re actually signing on to do, or do you just jump in when you’re instincts tell you that it’s the right thing to do?
MacLACHLAN: You know, it’s a mix of things. Sometimes the less you know, the better it is. I always think it’s safe to err on the side of quality. If the people that you are gonna be joining in the adventure are smart and creative and nice people, and are trying something interesting, I think that goes a long way to convincing me that it’s worthwhile to join in. And that’s what this situation was.
When did you actually realize exactly what you’d be doing?
MacLACHLAN: On the set. There were some pages, and I’d watched some of the stuff that Fred and Carrie had done online, which was a little helpful. I could see that they had a terrific chemistry together. So, they allowed me to come and join them, which was really fun. As the Mayor, we just created him on the spot. He gets overly enthusiastic and very excited, loves his city more than anything in the world, and is filled with good intentions, but not necessarily the best intentions. He seems to fall off the rails fairly easily, but ultimately does come back to a place that makes sense. He was a great character to play.
Did you find yourself thinking about what you wanted to do with him a lot, or did you just to just figure it out, in the moment?
MacLACHLAN: I did it in the moment. It was in the flow. Once we established the template, early on, then I just remained in that mode. Part of the fun was when he would go off the grid. It was a chance for me to try something else, with each of the characters that he’d step into. When he’d go off the grid, everything was different about him. His energy was different and his accent was different, when he’d inhabit these strange characters. It was all a process of discovery.
Portlandia sounds a bit like what it must have been like when you did Twin Peaks and were never really sure what you were going to be doing next.
MacLACHLAN: Yeah, it’s very true. The opportunity to do these different characters, I’ve come to understand in my career that this is what I like to do. I’m more of a character actor. That really appeals to me. It’s what I knew when I was a kid. I just embraced it.
You’ve become known much more for drama, over the years. What do you enjoy about getting to do comedy?
MacLACHLAN: Everybody’s comedy is different. Talking about Portlandia, my comedy is character and perspective based. When it’s in Twin Peaks, Dougie was primarily physical comedy. He said very little, and I just had to trust that what I was doing was going to be at least somewhat compelling and that people would be curious. I was helped so much by Naomi Watts’ character, Janey-E. She provided all of the dialogue and the fast-paced explanations of why Dougie was seeming so slow. The combination of the two of us seemed to really work. I think that was brilliant casting on David’s part, with Naomi.
Were you nervous about doing that kind of work, as an actor, where you didn’t really have much dialogue?
MacLACHLAN: I was nervous, yeah. You can’t just show up. You have to fill every moment with a thought process. The work was there. I didn’t have to learn as many words, and I would tease Naomi about that, every morning in the make-up trailer. I would ask her, “Do you want me to run lines with you? Are you feeling okay? Can I help?” She was a good sport about it.
Dougie is a character that could never have lived in any other world on any other show, and it was just so tremendous to watch the work you did.
MacLACHLAN: Thank you! It was not that easy, and you had to pick and choose your moments, for what you know and what you don’t know, as a character. I remember that I watched a few performances. I watched Peter Sellers in Being There, for the innocence, and I watched Jeff Bridges in Starman. The character had a little bit of an origin in a movie I did called The Hidden, years ago, with Michael Nouri. I played someone from another world that was inhabiting a human being and discovering our world through that human being. It was a much less important part of that process. Whereas with Dougie, it was all about what he knew and didn’t know, and how he was relating to the world, to objects, to people, to sounds, and to everything around him. It really was fun.
Looking back on Twin Peaks, now that it’s done, what was it like to get to go back to that world and character, and how do you feel about the reaction?
MacLACHLAN: It was amazing! It was unexpected and such a unique opportunity. The reaction was extraordinary. In some ways, I think the fans were responsible for us coming back again. The die-hard fans kept the drum beat of Twin Peaks alive. When they reminded the creators, “Hey, it’s been 25 years, and you said in the show, 25 years ago, that you were gonna come back,” I think it made Mark Frost and David Lynch go, “Is there a story here?” Somehow, they found one.
Even as a huge fan of Twin Peaks, I didn’t necessarily understand everything about The Return, but it still felt like a huge honor to get to watch it all.
MacLACHLAN: That’s David’s process. He cares less about what you’re bringing to it, and more about you watching the choices that he’s making and to have the experience. That’s what he made. It’s 18 hours of wonderful, creative, tangled, funny, tragic, horrific material that covers all the bases.
It seems more like living art than a TV show.
MacLACHLAN: I think that’s why some of the critics wrestled with whether it’s a film or television. I think it’s both. It was written as a film and realized as a film. It’s just an 18-hour sequence that was presented in these 18 pieces, but it’s intended to be experienced as a whole. The script was never written as episodes. It was just one long story.
What is the best bit of direction that David Lynch ever gave you?