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Kyle MacLachlan's Electrifying Portrayal of Thomas Edison

The actor talks about playing the American inventor in this season's 'Tesla'

spinner image Kyle MacLachlan looks at a light bulb as he stars as Thomas Edison in the film Tesla
Kyle MacLachlan stars as Thomas Edison in "Tesla."
Courtesy of IFC Films

In Michael Almereyda's Tesla, the trippiest fact-based film of 2020, Kyle MacLachlan plays Thomas Edison, rival and boss of inventor Nikola Tesla (Ethan Hawke), the ahead-of-his-time genius and namesake of the electric car. (Watch Tesla here.) The Twin Peaks star—who made coffee a meme long before the Internet emerged—talks with AARP about the movie, squishing ice-cream cones in his costar's face, and what it's like to look for cracks in an edifice of a man.

What was Edison — inventor of the light bulb, the phonograph and the movie industry — like?

Kyle MacLachlan: He was larger than life, and I think there was a sense of the theatrical about him, along with his strong work ethic and diligence, his perseverance. He was aware of his position in society.

RELATED: If you love biopics, you'll love Tesla as well as these fantastic movies about real people.

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In the film's broadest strokes, we get a picture of Tesla as the brooding immigrant outsider with outsize (although not always profitable) genius, contrasted with Edison as business tycoon and media-dazzling showman. But your characterization of the famed inventor doesn't rest on those generalities. How'd you get there?

Michael [who spent 37 years researching for the film] supplied me with original sources and out-of-print books that shed more light on Edison than what we think we know about him. His diaries were incredibly helpful in particular. They opened up a softer, more romantic and fanciful side of the man. You could believe his head was in the clouds.

Edison advocated DC (direct current) and Tesla AC (alternating current), two ways of transmitting electricity. You've said this corresponds to their clashing personalities: Edison direct, thrusting, an unstoppable bull; Tesla more elegant and cerebral, “dancing back and forth,” not moving in a straight line. Was it fun to play this opposition with your old acting partner Hawke? You played his step-father Claudius to Hawke's Hamlet in Almereyda's Hamlet 20 years ago.

It was kind of shocking to realize the calendar rushed by that quickly. I was reminded of how much I loved working with Ethan because he's so available as an actor, so incredibly inventive. He's a creative dynamo. Also up for a laugh if something goes wrong. It's always a good-natured back and forth.

Though Tesla is partly about the inventors’ heartaches and sorrows — when he met and hired Tesla, Edison's wife had just died — it's also surprisingly funny at times. What was it like to play the scene where Edison and Tesla fight a (fantasy) duel with ice-cream cones?

There were many takes where we started laughing and throwing and misbehaving and acting like children, but we recognized for it to be its most funny and effective, we had to play it absolutely straight. And, you know, let the audience have the fun.

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spinner image Actor Kyle MacLachlan
Roy Rochlin/Getty Images

Kyle's Fast Facts

Age: 61

Birthplace: Yakima, Wash.

First acting job: Oregon Shakespeare Festival

First Hollywood break: David Lynch’s Dune (1984). When he got the phone message offering him the audition, he thought it was a prank call and almost ignored it.

Big roles: Agent Cooper (Twin Peaks), Charlotte’s first husband (Sex and the City), Jeffrey (Blue Velvet), Ray Manzarek (The Doors).

Awards: Golden Globe (Twin Peaks), Screen Actors Guild ensemble award nomination (Desperate Housewives)

Movie that almost happened: Michael Almereyda’s The Merchant of Venice set in Venice, starring Ethan Hawke, with MacLachlan as an Elvis impersonator.

Side business: His Eastern Washington winery Pursued by Bear (named after Shakespeare’s most famous stage direction from The Winter’s Tale, “Exit, pursued by a bear”).

What scene was the most fun for you?

The scene that never happened, at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair [which was electrified by Tesla's AC, not Edison's DC], when Edison acknowledges Tesla's contribution, and that he was on the right track all along, and sort of admits his mistake. He makes him human. Didn't happen in real life, of course, but I liked playing him [in that moment] a lot.

The movie is mostly a historical period piece, but sometimes the actors talk straight to the camera, or google how many patents each man held, or sing karaoke, or break the fourth wall to tell the audience what they just saw never happened. What was your favorite anachronistic scene?

When I pull out an iPhone and I'm smoking a cigar. That was really quite brilliant. It took people by surprise and made them think.

Will it be another 20 years before you and Hawke costar in a third movie?

I hope we can do it again before another 20 years.

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