Despite a high profile role as a crew member in Captain Phillips, Chris Mulkey will probably always be best known as the ne'er-do-well Hank Jennings on David Lynch and Mark Frost's unique television drama Twin Peaks. Among Mulkey's many other career highlights are roles in First Blood, Mysterious Skin, Any Day Now, The Purge, Cloverfield, Broken Arrow, and Patti Rocks, for which he received a co-screenwriting credit. Unless you've been living under a rock, you've seen Mulkey act, if not in one of these films, then certainly on one of the following cult TV series, each of which featured Mulkey in a recurring role: Boardwalk Empire, Grimm, Justified, 24, and Friday Night Lights. Now Mulkey is a part of the ensemble for Last Weekend, Tom Dolby's family drama set at a Northern California lake house. Mulkey and I discussed the film and his career during the San Francisco International Film Festival. Cast members met the press in different areas of a Kabuki Hotel suite, Mulkey holding court in the bedroom.
Chris Mulkey: Peter! What's going on, buddy!?
Groucho: Nothing much. How's it goin'...?
[Mulkey kicks back on the bed.]
Groucho: You lucked out. You must have planned this.
Chris Mulkey: Yeah, I did.
G: Demanded it!
CM: I just feel good laying down. I feel great.
G: It's probably the shoes.
CM: Oh yeah, the boots. I did this play last year at the Geffen, with Kathy Baker—
G: Oh yeah!
CM: Called The Gift. Check this out for a premise. This older couple is at a Caribbean resort. They're multi-millionaires. Industrialists. Never had kids. Always did business. They meet a younger couple who are there because they won it in a raffle; they're fucking conceptual artists from fucking Greenwich Village, and they don't have any respect for the fuckin' industrialists. And so the two couples get together. And it's called The Gift because the younger couple wants to give us their child. Because they think that their child is taking up too much of their time, and they can't be two great artists unless they—the kid's too much responsibility, and art is more important than the kid.
G: That's wild.
G: It sounds like kind of a God of Carnage sort-of four-hander.
CM: It is! Yeah, yeah, it was a four-hander, yeah. But anyhow, the costumer on it had a pair of boots that somebody didn't want, and I have probably more boots—only, I think, Garth Brooks has more cowboy boots than I do.
G: Well, that's an interesting segway to one of the things I want to ask you about Last Weekend, which is: you've played so many parts, and I'm sure you've played parts in this vein before, but for me, I hadn't really seen you in this kind of a role before. I assume it's relatively rare for you to play this kind of role.
CM: Malcolm is a totally different kind of role than I've ever played. He's a listener. And that's a really powerful thing to be able to do: to be able to listen. And I realized that...Craig Lucas did a play called Blue Window that I did with the late Norman René. It was a wonderful, wonderful play. And the character in that had the same quality as Malcolm: he was a listener. And Malcolm is just waiting for his wife to arrive where he is. Now he's become successful, he's gone through business, all this stuff, and he knows that the kids are older—and she still treats them like they're in junior high school, right? And he just listens and waits. And then pulls her in on the spousal leash. I'm gonna sell those some day.
CM: Yeah, gently pulls the trout into the boat! And crests it and breads it and then fries it in the pan.
G: (Laughs.) That's interesting you describe him as a listener. That totally makes sense. I sort of reacted to him as stoic, but it's maybe less something he's acquired and more something he's learned to do, maybe.
CM: I think that's through business. I think a good businessman is always a really good listener. He's not as stoic as he is patient, and a listener, yeah.
G: And maybe that's also part of how—he seems to be the rock of the family, too, right?
G: They can really depend on him. There's no "drama" with him. In fact, he's good at defusing drama.
CM: Yeah, I think Malcolm was always looking for still water. And that's opposed to a lot of the characters that I play, which is the guy who's always—
CM: Yeah, shit-stirrers!
CM: Yeah, for sure. Yeah, just all up in it. But I really so enjoyed that, his still water, you know? Still water runs deep, and it was really fun to play that type of character.
G: How did you become involved with Last Weekend?
CM: I got a call from my manager, and they said that Mary Vernieu, who is a casting director I've worked with before, has this project, and so I said, "Well, anything Mary does is brilliant, and so I read it, and I called my manager the next morning. I said, "I absolutely—I want to do this movie. It'd be great." And I was just finishing a film. And I was starting in one right after they were going to be done, and it fit right. It was like "Yesss!" Where did I come from? I think I was in San Antonio at the time. Yeah! Anyhow!
G: Yeah, I was actually talking with somebody about you out here when I was waiting. And how there is that vagabond nature to acting, where you're always getting "fired" but you're always getting hired. And you're very in demand. But do you ever wish you had more of a steady gig?
CM: Um, I've been really super-lucky. And—no. You know, my first union job was with the Burlington Northern—Great Northern Railroad. I was a gandy dancer, and then I became a switchman. So my first union card was the Brotherhood of Railroad Workers. And that's a real job. And acting is a real, real job, too, but I've been really fortunate. I came out of the university, and I went to Minneapolis Children's Theatre at the Minneapolis...Institute [of Arts] and produced two films there. One of them won Sundance. Went to Los Angeles, and I've been a working actor for since Kurt Cobain died.
CM: So no, I don't wish I had—I'm really grateful. Y'know, I'm grateful for my family, and I'm grateful for my work and the associations, and I keep getting put into kinda smart stuff. I mean, you know, there's smarter stuff, but I'm doing okay for—
G: Yeah, absolutely!
CM: For this sorta guy!
G: (Chuckles.) I gotta ask—I know probably everybody does this to you, but I'm a huge Twin Peaks fan.
G: I want to ask you about one of the more memorable scenes: the whole blood-brother/blood-sister thing with Joan Chen.
CM: Oh, that was a—yeah! That was a big furor about that.
G: (Chuckles.) Oh yeah—well, from the audience, right? Yeah.
G: But not on the set, right?
CM: No! We cut each other's things, then I said to Mark Frost—he directed that episode..."Mark, we should both taste each other's blood?", right? And he went, "Yes! Mulkey, do it!" So we did that. And we pressed the thumbs together. And that was an amazing conglomerate of twenty-eight actors, and incredible writers. I so enjoyed being a part of Twin Peaks. That was great.
G: You did say once—obviously you're proud of the show. I get that sense. But you also called it "a tough job." I was curious: what was the tough part about that job?
CM: Of that job? Well, Hank Jennings was a duplicitous guy. And so I loved the way he was continually lying. Y'know, the great thing about telling the truth: it's easier to remember. And one of the reasons he went back to jail is he got the versions wrong. Y'know?
G: Right, right, right.
CM: But it was really fun to be—and hired to be—kind of the contrite, malleable husband to Peggy Lipton, and then go back to One Eyed Jack's and have it off with the whores and the cocaine north of the border. That was really—
G: Plus, you don't always get the script—they're not always telling you everything, right?
CM: No, no, no! There was a lot of adding stuff...but I loved doing Twin Peaks, and there was a lot of twists and turns that you just wouldn't ordinarily get, and that's what people loved about that series.
G: Yeah, yeah. Well, I guess I have to wrap it up here...thanks, it was great talking to you.
CM: Go see the movie, people!
G: Yeah. (Laughs.)