David Harbour and Kyle MacLachlan both know a few things about being on cult shows — with Harbour’s breakthrough performance on Netflix’s “Stranger Things,” and MacLachlan’s return to his iconic role on “Twin Peaks,” now on Showtime. But the two actors, during their chat for Variety‘s “Actors on Actors” presented by Shutterstock, also found common ground comparing notes on working with directors, how they prepare for their roles, and how they overcame the biggest hurdles in their paths.
David Harbour: I’m sure you get asked this all the time, but I really do want to know. You met David Lynch on “Dune.” Did you audition for that role?
Kyle MacLachlan: No, David doesn’t audition. I met, and we had a conversation for about 20 minutes. He handed me the script and said, “I want you to come back in four or five days and screen test.” I’d never screen-tested before. I’d never read a movie script. I was 23. Fresh out of school, and they found me in Seattle.
Harbour: So you meet him on that movie, and then you have a collaboration for basically 30 years, right? Did you become friends on “Dune”?
MacLachlan: Yeah, pretty much out of the gate. We hit it off. We’re both from the same part of the country, similar senses of humor. Not dissimilar upbringings: suburban, small town, running around with your friends who are kids, jumping on your bike, getting into trouble, going to orchards, and that kind of thing. A little bit like the setting for “Stranger Things.”
Harbour: So now, when you guys work together, you come back and you do “Twin Peaks” again, is it just like complete shorthand? Did you stay in touch through all those years while you didn’t work together?
MacLachlan: Oh, yeah. We’re neighbors in L.A. We don’t live far from each other, and remained friends all the way through. Now the working relationship, as you can imagine, is incredibly comfortable. There is a shorthand that existed even in the first show. Even in “Blue Velvet,” we were already developing that, just an understanding of his point of view. Being able to immerse myself in that world, it’s quick and easy for me now. The challenge of course for this one was there were three or four or five different characters that he wanted me to do. Of course, as an actor, you’re always saying, “Geez, I hope I can bring it.” I don’t know if you have that experience.
Harbour: Yes, I do. The neurosis of, “Can I bring it?” Oh, god, yeah. You’re telling me that never ends?
MacLachlan: No, it never ends. You make it look easy. Especially your work in “Stranger Things,” it’s just extraordinary. You carry such power, such presence in that role. You’re the rock of that show. It’s really impressive.
Harbour: Thanks. I work really hard on it. People think that I’ve been just discovered, but I’ve been working for a long time. I sort of got to a certain place in my Hollywood career where I was a supporting player in all these big things. I would show up number six or seven on the call sheet, and just run around with a gun. Be a cop who was kind of a bad guy or something. I remember getting this role, and being like, “I have to really go to work in a different way than I ever have.” It was a lot of time spent in my particular process, which is very quiet and very uncomfortable and a lot of sitting alone in a room.
MacLachlan: That’s your preparation?
Harbour: Yeah. I do a lot of sort of American Method, like Strasberg-type stuff, sense memory and stuff like that. Even in terms of arcing the role, there’s a lot of stuff that you don’t see. They’re just secrets for me, just in terms of scenes. Just creating some sort of creative garden, so when you’re lost in a scene, you at least have these flowers or things you can smell, things you can taste as you play a scene. For a while my garden had been very sparse, in terms of doing my job, and in this, I had to work in a different way. The interesting thing, was in this, I had to go deeper than I had in a long, long time. Fortunately, I feel like it paid off, because I am proud of the performance in a way that I am rarely proud of my work.
MacLachlan: This happens to me the first time I sit down with a script, and I open it and I start reading a character that I’m interested in, or they’re interested in me. I feel some sort of strange transformation start to take place. I don’t even know what it is, but I begin to absorb like a sponge what is coming off that page. I can’t even tell you that process, but that starts it. As you said, then you spend time, you sit with it, you let your body feel what that character is, and you get into that state. Of course, it’s about bringing that to the set, and being able to be present. Going back to David Lynch, that’s one of the things that I am so grateful for, is the environment that he creates is one in which that can flourish. I hope you have the chance to work with him someday, because you’ll feel that.
Harbour: What do you mean by that?
MacLachlan: I just mean he provides for you the environment, as an actor, the creative space in front of the camera with the other actors that is so sacred and special and joyful and fun. There’s no mistakes. There’s no wrong moves. You bring in what you have, and he loves the actor’s work. He loves being able to be there and to work with you. If there’s anything he’d like you to try or move around, he’ll come in and very gently nudge you this way or that way. It’s just the most delightful working experience.
Harbour: You’ve come back to this role after 25 years. What were the particular challenges that you faced in terms of reinventing this guy?
MacLachlan: Right, well, the most important thing is being able to fit back into the suit again, which thankfully I was able to.
Harbour: Wow! That’s amazing.
MacLachlan: It took some time. The return to Cooper didn’t actually happen until way late in the series. Which was sort of good, because I didn’t know if I was really going to be able to get back to him. It’s not like you can pull him out and stand in front of a mirror and do him. You have to be him in that moment, in that relationship. When we finally got there in hour 16, I was very pleased. I was like, “Yeah, OK. He’s been there the whole time,” which was great. The other characters that David asked me to play were frightening, challenging. It was a personality change that happened. I kind of just took my hands off the wheel and let it go. It actually went the right direction, I think.
Harbour: I’m curious about this, too, because there’s such a style to the acting. It has a dream-like quality to it. Will he come in and say, “I want this to be a little bigger?”
MacLachlan: Words that he uses will be like, “I need more of a wind.” Or, “More mystery here.” One of my favorites is, “Elvis. Think Elvis.” I love that. As an actor, I just love that, because it just gives you a whole kind of ball of stuff that you can work with there. It’s not cerebral. You can’t suddenly start thinking, “Elvis! What does he mean by Elvis? Oh, it could be this.” You have to take the pills, swallow the pill, breathe in the gas or whatever. Just go with it.
Harbour: It’s funny. I think one of the worst notes I think I’ve ever received was Ang Lee on “Brokeback Mountain.” He came in on coverage, and he was like, “More, more handsome.” I was like, “I’ll try that.” [Laughs.]
MacLachlan: So with “Stranger Things” you read the script, it’s really compelling, but did you have any kind of hesitation? Were you uncertain about the character or the world? Were they able to explain to you what was going to happen?
Harbour: It was just my own insecurity and neurosis that was the biggest hurdle to overcome. When I read the script, I thought it was a masterpiece. It was a time when I wasn’t working for three or four months. I had just come off a series that wasn’t very good, and I just remember thinking, “I’m sort of done. I’ll work a little bit, but I’ll go back to New York and do plays.” And my manager said, “[Casting director] Carmen Cuba is really interested in you for this series.” I was like, “Whatever.” You hear that all the time. Then they sent me the script. A lot of people say this, but I do remember thinking it was the best pilot I’d read in, certainly, a long time, but if not ever, and then thinking, “I’ll never get that role.” It was the male lead in a Netflix series, and I thought, “They’ll certainly go with a star or something.” So I read for it as kind of a joke. I never thought it was really going to happen. When it happened, I got really scared.
MacLachlan: The show, I think, is so much about various levels of pain and loss. As an actor, you welcome these opportunities, but at the same time, you’re like, “Oh, man. Now I’ve got to carry this. Now, I’ve got to feel this. Every time I come to work.”
Harbour: The second season was easier, because in the sense, he opens up a little bit, too. The first season was the most miserable time in my life. It was sort of the greatest time in my life, too, but I just wanted to work on it so hard. I was like, “You got a shot at the pro ball here. Why not sacrifice six months of your life to have something resonate very deeply if possible.” We went down to Atlanta to shoot it, and I had very little interaction with anyone. I just would sit in my house, and be very depressed. I would rarely go out. I would think a lot about the character. I started to learn the ukulele a little bit, so I’d play weird songs on the ukulele and just sit. I read a lot, but I’d just sit in my house. I remember being so sad. I remember when we wrapped, I drove back from Atlanta to New York with my friend. It was the oddest thing. I’m normally a pretty loquacious, kind of fun person. I got in that car with my friend, and I couldn’t even talk.
“I think you keep learning. That’s one of the joys of acting. We all learn about ourselves …but more importantly, it’s about the world.”
MacLachlan: The tendrils have to come off little by little, I think. I go through the same thing, and I feel depending upon the length of time that I’ve been with something, You’re reentering the atmosphere in a way. It takes some time. You went so deep into that.
Harbour: Well, the interesting thing about him, too, in terms of structuring the arc of that first season, and it was different in the second season, and it’ll be different this year, primarily because of the mustache. [Laughs.] The first season, I remember the arc being that the guy lost his daughter five years ago. The interesting challenge is not just the darkness, but the darkness having five years past. It’s not like this guy wakes up in the morning and is sad, right? He’s developed a shtick in order to be able to live. I was interested in seeing a guy like that in the supermarket, five years after his daughter is lost as opposed to a month. There’s almost this sense of, “Nothing can hurt me anymore, and go f— yourself.” I remember where there was a moment when Joyce comes in and asks me to save her son. I remember there’s this thought that came into my head as I was working about it, and this was truly evil, but I feel like it’s psychologically he’s almost happy that she’s lost her son. That’s why he doesn’t want to look for him.
MacLachlan: It’s one of the great things, as an actor, that we’re able to go in and do that, feel that, and then lift ourselves out of that. We’re left with the echo of it. We experience it, but it hopefully it hasn’t shattered us like it would someone who goes through it for real. And hopefully, have empathy. As an actor, you need it, obviously.
Harbour: You’re sort of the OG of the cult TV show, aren’t you? Before “Twin Peaks” came along, I don’t feel like this phenomena of cult, strange followers was really around.
MacLachlan: I think there were popular shows, but I think with both of our shows, I equate “cult” with “passion.” I think that if it’s a cult show, it’s that people are really passionate. About everything about the show: the characters, their lives. They’re so engaged, and they’re so involved. When I was growing up, people loved shows. They loved “All in the Family.” Real passion like that, I think, is just a wonderful thing.
Harbour: There’s something about the imagination of the fans. I don’t know if you’d write fan fiction about “All in the Family.” I read some of the fan fiction that people write, and it’s so interesting that the world becomes so rich for them, that the characters in their minds go off and do other things, have other relationships. That kind of passion, I’ve rarely seen before. All I’ve ever wanted to do as an actor was move people. That’s all I’ve ever wanted to do is to feel like what you’re doing moves someone, and that ultimately, maybe they can make a different choice in their life that may be better, right? Just to move people. Just to be able to have someone have a catharsis, just to be able to let off someone of the pressures and the stress of life. Sometimes you transport them to a fantastical world, but mostly to take them and to have a catharsis. This became a worldwide thing, this little show about the Midwest in America in the ’80s that can touch people in Dubai. That sort of resonance so something, the broad-based resonance of that, I’d never experienced anything like that.
MacLachlan: You’re good, too, on social media. That’s because you have a sense of humor and irreverence, which I think is really important on social media. Don’t take yourself too seriously. You know, promote a little bit, here or there, causes that are important to you, or things that you point to, but also people, they want a taste of your personality. They want to know who you are, and I think you embrace it. I do the same thing. I embrace it. I enjoy it. I enjoy the interaction.
Harbour: Is there some advice you could offer me now that might help me moving forward?
MacLachlan: No, I think you keep learning. I mean, that’s one of the joys of acting, you continue to learn. We all learn about ourselves and stuff, but more importantly, it’s about the world, people, experience. Me at 23 is, thankfully, is not me at where I am now. Wouldn’t mind to have the knees that I had when I was 23, but I constantly have the feeling about acting that I have so much to learn. Not because I want to learn for myself, but I want to be able to embody these characters to the absolute fullest. I know you have the same feeling. It’s like you want to give everything that you can. You want them to have just a complete life, so that the audience and the people that are going to watch it will, as you say, have an immersive experience and be moved. It’s really a means to an end, but I think hopefully that journey goes on until the end of days.
Harbour: For me, I think there was a ton of narcissism when I got into it, where I was worried a lot about my camera angles or how I looked on film, which I always hate how I look. I was worried about being handsome and romantic or strong or all these things. I think what I’ve realized, especially playing this guy, is the things that are broken or that are messy about us or that gross us out about ourselves are usually the things that people, I’ve found, kind of love.
MacLachlan: I also feel like that exists not only in our work lives, but also in our living lives. Just being able to accept all the bumps and the warts and the bruises and the contusions and be like, “All right. It’s what it is.” Just be comfortable with that.