It’s December 3, Dune day. Kyle MacLachlan, the 25-year-old Seattle actor who makes his film debut in the sci-fi epic, is getting ready to sell himself. Again. Before a public relations woman shuttles him onto a 2 p.m. flight to Washington D.C., where the $42-million film will premiere, the star-nominee logs one of the day’s final interviews: a brief encounter with MTV. He is bleary but game during the 11 a.m. talk with veejay Mark Goodman, who discusses everything but Kyle himself. Mark inquires about shooting the film in “dirty, stinking” Mexico and about Sting’s performance in the movie. The two watch a brief trailer in which Kyle, as boy-messiah Paul Muad’Dib (né Atreides), and Sting, as his wild-eyed nemesis, square off while a voice-over intones, “Sons of rival houses…they were born to prove themselves against one another.” Kyle remembers to add, “It’s coming to 1,400 theaters on the 14th.”
The latest candidate for the sort of warp-speed apotheosis that struck Christopher Reeve and Mark Hamill, MacLachlan walked onto his first movie set in a starring role. But from the day he reported to work, MacLachlan was also a chattel. His contract—negotiated by a newly acquired team of advisers—calls for a six-month moratorium on film appearances after Dune’s release, and he is already signed for four Dune sequels. He has been the property of Dino De Laurentiis and his daughter, Dune producer Raffaella, for more than a year—a “piece of meat,” as he puts it. It is a trade-off, and he knows it. Heady, volatile, intense, this instant herodom is perilous recognition for an actor. If your star vehicle proves a big-budget bomb, you become this year’s overnight has-been. Witness the blink-length career of Klinton (The Legend of the Lone Ranger) Spilsbury.
Four months before Dune premieres, Kyle is in New York for a late-summer round of meet-the-press. The magazine 16 has queried him about his eye color, shoe size and ideal girlfriend. Mademoiselle and GQ will use him as a foil for winter fashions. A bright, levelheaded sort, Kyle faces his public trial with aplomb. His sense of irony serves him well and he shows a healthy capacity for self-mockery. When an acquaintance asks how his last name is spelled, he affects a fit of temperament. “M A C L A C H L A N” he snaps. “And don’t you ever ask again.”
“When I went back home to Seattle after filming Dune in Mexico, I thought, ‘Did this really happen?’ ” says Kyle. He picks at a fruit and yogurt breakfast. “I was feeling skittish, so I came to New York and stayed with a friend in Hell’s Kitchen for two months.” Kyle met with casting agents and “did anything to get attention. I couldn’t go back to where I was before Dune, but I didn’t have any real credits. I laughed when I saw a Dune billboard in Times Square. I couldn’t get an audition for the life of me.”
Told that he was too old for Neil Simon’s new play Biloxi Blues and too young for a part in a New York Shakespeare Festival production of Henry V, Kyle headed home. His stint in limbo has given him ample time to contemplate the pitfalls of his position. A girlfriend from whom he parted during the filming of Dune had worked with Christopher Reeve at a theater just after Kyle was plucked from obscurity. “I said, ‘Why don’t you ask him about what to expect,’ and he told her I’d be incredibly difficult to live with the first year.
“The hardest part of this,” he adds, “is the way people look at me. A lot’s riding on Dune, and my friends in Seattle realize what’s happening if I freak out a bit. They accept whatever I happen to be, and they tell me when I’m slipping out of Kyle. They call me the God Emperor of the Universe.” A blob of Dannon plops onto his shirt. In most ungodlike fashion, MacLachlan trots to the bathroom to daub it off.
Two months after the New York press tour, a late October sleet is falling sharply in Seattle and Kyle is driving through the cold streets in his Jeep.
The what-ifs somehow seem less pressing in Seattle, where Kyle had spent his pre-Dune career as an actor in regional theater. Neither that experience nor his upbringing in Yakima (where his father is an accountant and his mother works for the local school system) prepared him for a twilight stardom. The $180-a-month university district apartment that he shares with his brother Kent, a 22-year-old acting student, is a Spartan enclave with milk-crate bookshelves, third-hand furniture and a half-plastered bathroom ceiling. Only a trio of framed Dune posters and a weight-lifting belt emblazoned with the film’s logo mark this as the home of a potential pop-culture hero. “Here,” Kyle says, “the last thing I want to talk about is Dune.”
During filming in Mexico, it was a different story. By Kyle’s account he held court in discos, reveled in the nonstop attention and had an affair with a production staffer, who proved a dangerous distraction. “I wasn’t changing in good ways,” he remembers. “Mostly because of the relationship; I was getting more involved than I should have. Some friends from Seattle came to stay with me, and they helped bring me around. Lately I haven’t seen anyone seriously. When I get more stable it will be easier.”
Late afternoon on D-Day, the sales pitch reaches a crescendo. After six months of filming Dune and six more of flogging it, MacLachlan’s life in limbo is about to end. Kyle emerges from Washington’s Regent Hotel, where a limo is waiting to speed him to a reception for radio-contest winners. He is still smiling at 7:20 p.m., when he reaches the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theatre. As soon as he steps out of the limousine, the TV cameras and Instamatics converge. By premiere standards, Kyle’s retinue is modest. It includes a publicity chaperon, his two brothers, a stepsister and his divorced parents with their new spouses.
An odd assortment of guests is milling about the atrium that Kyle must traverse on his way to the theater. Charles Percy and Bob Woodward are there, but so are a phalanx of unstylish public servants and a loopy contingent of Dune cultists. Some at the black-tie gala regard Kyle as if he were the fictive messiah in the flesh. “He derives energy from the flashbulbs,” one partygoer says knowingly.
Kyle cheerfully bows from his box when he is introduced as Dune’s star. The crowd’s reaction to the two-hour, 20-minute movie is mixed. A pair of tuxedoed Washingtonians discuss the film during the lavish reception. “I just heard someone say she liked it,” reports one. “Was she dropped on her head at birth?” asks the other. Although most critics deem Dune an interesting failure, the movie is shaping up as a holiday hit.
As the guests sip champagne, Kyle’s mother explains that success hasn’t spoiled her son. “He’s the same old Kyle. He doesn’t have an ego problem, and I bet he never will.” Strangers approach the director, David Lynch, to pump his hand and say, “I love you. Really.” Dino and Raffaella preside over a candlelit corner table littered with little piles of squab bones. Kyle is overheard to say, “I don’t fee/ like the God Emperor of the Universe.” Watching the star of Dune meet his public for the first time, a bystander cracks, “Give him time.”