An experienced stage, film and television actor, Chris Mulkey (b. 1948) was born in Viroqua, Wisconsin. After acting in shows like M*A*S*H (CBS, 1972-1983) and Magnum P.I. (CBS, 1980-1988), Mulkey, who knew Mark Frost from college, auditioned for two different roles on Twin Peaks. Eventually, Chris Mulkey became Hank Jennings in Twin Peaks, and Hank was partly inspired by an inmate that Mulkey had met at San Quentin during the enactment of a Beckett play. In the 2000s, Mulkey has become a part of such renowned quality-series as Justified (FX, 2000-2015), Friday Night Lights (NBC/The 101 Network, 2006-2011) and Boardwalk Empire (HBO, 2010-2014). Apart from being an actor, Mulkey works as a blues musician. I talked with him about humor, Hank Jennings, Twin Peaks, modern television drama, and about pushing the envelope.
AH: How did you get the role as Hank, and could you describe the casting process?
CM: I knew Mark Frost from college. We had attended the same college in Minnesota, and I was a fan David Lynch. I had seen Eraserhead three times. The first time I was drunk, the second time I was stoned, and the third time I was straight, but I still didn’t get it.
Then, one day, I got a phone call from Mark Frost, saying that they wanted me to read for two different roles, that of Jacques Renault and that of Hank Jennings.
Now, back when I was 22, I was in Berlin, where a Beckett play was set up in San Quentin. There I met a guy called Steve, who had been in prison for nine years for manslaughter or something, and whereas the Jacques character didn’t seem real to me, Hank was just like Steve. Hank was Steve, so I said that I only wanted to read for the role of Hank Jennings.
AH: There are some incredible scenes with Hank, one involving rack-focus just as Leo is about to plant an axe into the chest of Bobby, and one where the framing makes it look as if your character has antlers. How did you and the different directors work with giving some different shades and sides to Hank, avoiding for him to become just a bad guy? For me, you are good a shifting between different moods, and is some scenes Hank comes across as nasty, but in other scenes he is humorous or even likeable. What do you do to give a character like Hank likeability?
CM: Hank was not just an evil and scary guy. He was also a funny character. When we did the scene with Josie and the antlers, I remember Mark Frost was laughing, saying that I should move a little bit make it look as if the antlers were on top of Hank’s head. Mark is a very funny guy, a smart and witty person, and so is David. I think David Lynch called these kinds of moments short sight-gags that could pop up in the middle of the action.
There is one scene where Hank explains himself to Norma, saying, ‘There are people out there who want to see me fail.’ Hank’s duplicity was very important. He was evil and unreliable, but he also had a humanistic quality. Bob Engels, who was a kind of showrunner on Twin Peaks, often talked about that – the humanistic elements.
AH: The interplay between you and Joan Chen was incredible, and I also loved the scenes between you and actors like Eric DaRe, Peggy Lipton and Richard Beymer. How would you describe the cast and the chemistry between the different cast members?
CM: In general, we had a group of incredible actors, so strong. It was great to be with these inspired actors, actors like Sheryl Lee, Peggy Lipton, Ray Wise, Richard Beymer, Joan Chen and Kyle MacLachlan. We didn’t take a lot of directions. We just read our lines and did our thing.
Joan Chen is an amazingly powerful actress. We had a chemistry, and working with Joan was completely liquid. I was beside myself with joy. The same could be said of Peggy who is beautiful, but she also has a wonderfully dark side.
Twin Peaks pushed the envelope, and the scene where Josie and Hank become blood brothers was very controversial at the time. People were inundated, because back then we were at the height of the AIDS epidemic. Some people criticized us, and that’s why we chose to lick each other. We wanted to push the envelope.
AH: Why do you think that the ratings of Twin Peaks dropped during the second season?
CM: Honestly, I don’t know what happened. We had incredible ratings, but the network changed us around. When a show is successful, those who are in control sometimes want to mess with that. David Lynch wanted to do it his own way, and I think that angered some people, and so they changed it around, as if they wanted to see us fail.
Question 5: When it first aired in Denmark in November 1990, Twin Peaks was not a huge primetime hit, but it quickly got a cult following, and still to this day Twin Peaks is described as a cult-TV show, in the US and abroad. Why do you think that Twin Peaks has been – and still is – such a global cult-phenomenon?
CM: The interesting thing about Twin Peaks is that people watch and worship it in many different ways. What people take away from seeing the series varies from person to person. Fans can get a feeling of ownership, and interpretations are always so individual. You know, it’s like that story of the people who hear a sound in the night. One person might wake up and talk about the screaming woman, he had heard, and another person might talk about the sound of two cats fucking in the alley.
There is a mystical quality to Twin Peaks. The popularity of the show has to do with that mystical quality, which is a universal thing. The show is about a small town, but it is not provincial, the story has a universal, almost religious quality. Whether we call it Christianity, Buddhism, Satanism, Mysticism or something else, it all boils down to one question: “Why do people do that?” Twin Peaks explores that question: “Why do people act like that, why do people do that?”
AH: You have also worked on a modern quality series like Justified and Boardwalk Empire. Do you think that Twin Peaks has had an impact on modern television drama, and, if so, how can you see the influence of Twin Peaks on modern television?
CM: Twin Peaks changed TV in at least two ways. First of all, it changed the way people write for television. TV became more serialized, less episodic, and in this way Twin Peaks clearly inspired modern-day TV shows like Justified and Boardwalk Empire and certainly The Sopranos. Second of all, Twin Peaks made it more acceptable to talk about superstition and about evil as a human trait. Many things happen in Twin Peaks which are dark and inexplicable. Things that probably cannot and should not be explained. It is similar to Samuel Beckett in its mixture of the mysterious, the existential, the humorous and the deadly. Like many of Beckett’s plays, Twin Peaks is about the unexpectability and unexplainability of life, the power of the random.
Finally, Twin Peaks mixed genres in new way, including horror, suspense and even a lot of funny elements. In that way it has certainly inspired newer shows like The X-Files and True Detective. Twin Peaks mixed a lot of different genres, and there were many different writers and episode directors, but at the same time we had the same, recurring art designers and cinematographer, so it had signature look and sound.
Twin Peaks pushed the envelope, and broadcast channels haven’t really done anything like that ever since. John Ridley, however, is doing a new show on ABC called American Crime, and that might be interesting. It consists of 22 episodes and is about a killing, so it has some clear similarities with Twin Peaks.
AH: Do you think that Showtime is taking up the show now because of the success of streaming, the success that Twin Peaks has had on Neflix?
CM: I guess that could be one reason. Showtime is taking it up, but I don’t know exactly who’s behind it. All I know is that hopefully Hank is back in town and doing some more work on the diner. But, no, it’s great that the newer generation is inspired by the story. Go get ‘em, Showtime.
A funny sight-gag from Twin Peaks, as mentioned by Chris Mulkey: