AARP Eye Center
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.
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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.