In a 1992 interview with GQ Magazine, director and frequent collaborator David Lynch celebrated actor Kyle MacLachlan as his ideal protagonist. According to Lynch:
“Kyle plays innocents who are interested in the mysteries of life. He’s the person you trust enough to go into a strange world with [sic].”
Currently airing and streaming on EPIX, Lynch’s 1986 film Blue Velvet cast MacLachlan in just such a role, effectively launching the young actor’s career. Treating his ingenuity as an affordance, Lynch gave MacLachlan a powerful platform on which to establish a leading man’s identity. In the role of Jeffrey Beaumont, MacLachlan was charged with guiding viewers through the seedy, often surrealistic underworld of his hometown in Lumberton, North Carolina.
Following an array of stylistic influences, including German expressionism, film noir, and international melodrama, Lynch imagines a cinematic world teeming with mystery, in which unknown (and often macabre) possibilities can be activated by a chance discovery or mundane encounter. The film’s opening montage intercuts a series of picturesque, suburban scenes with the unceremonious death of a neighborhood man, who collapses from the stress of mowing his vibrant, green lawn. Despite the obvious irony of this sequence, Lynch’s camera remains drawn to what lies beneath the surfaces of fictional Lumberton; it cranes down and in, framing the film’s central visual metaphor: ants swarming flesh, a representation of ebullient chaos that ultimately drives the plot.
Against this textured backdrop, MacLachlan’s Jeffrey Beaumont struggles to ground himself firmly within one of the film’s shifting, psycho-physical topoi. He finds an ear in a field, which leads him down the wormhole on a desperate quest to stabilize his sense of identity, as well as the identity of his now-uncanny hometown. As Beaumont evolves a preternatural elasticity to negotiate the twists and turns of his journey, MacLachlan manages to keep taking viewers to the edges of Blue Velvet’s multiverse and bringing us back again, fingernails dug into the fabric of our proverbial seats.
Lynch has been referred to as a visionary for many reasons, such as his audacious avant-gardism and disregard for traditional media barriers, but can this argument be extended to include Lynch’s approach to constructing protagonists, or his choices for lead actor? Although Jeffrey Beaumont proved to be a significant role for MacLachlan, it is by no means atypical of the other parts he would go on to play, including starring roles in Lynch’s Twin Peaks television series (1990 – 1991) and its feature-length sequel, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992). He also took on similar parts, portraying “curious innocents” in films like 1995’s Showgirls (also currently airing and streaming on EPIX), as well as – to a lesser extent – on popular series like Sex and the City (2000 – 2002), Desperate Housewives (2006 – 2012), and The Good Wife (2013 – 2014).
To what extent can MacLachlan’s identity as a lead actor be separated from his work with Lynch? In a 1996 essay on Lynch’s Lost Highway (1997), author David Foster Wallace credits the director for “miscasting” Kyle MacLachlan in their first shared project, 1984’s Dune, which premiered to largely negative reviews, and has only recently become the subject of a campaign for reappraisal. Foster Wallace hones in on MacLachlan’s “potatofaced” youth, as the primary quality that chafes against his embodiment of the heroic ideal. However, this choice to “miscast” or cast against the grain, so to speak, is part of what makes Lynch an important auteur, in the essayist’s eyes.
While we may never be able to determine where Lynch’s genius ends and MacLachlan’s acting chops begin, what’s clear is that the protagonists these two artists created together have had an enduring impact on contemporary audiovisual and entertainment cultures. Without Blue Velvet’s Jeffrey Beaumont and Twin Peaks‘s Agent Dale Cooper, for example, we might never have had The X-Files’ Fox Mulder, American Beauty‘s Lester Burnham, or Mad Men‘s Kenny Cosgrove, to name just a few of the characters arguably inflected by MacLachlan’s collaborations with Lynch.
With Twin Peaks set to return for 18 episodes next year, we set to wondering… which other film roles (past, present, and future) would you love to see MacLachlan inhabit? Check out Kyle MacLachlan in Blue Velvet and Showgirls on EPIX and sound off in the comments below!