Seeing John Malkovich

malkovichBy Nicholas Kralev
The Financial Times Magazine

June 15, 2002

LOS ANGELES — John Malkovich fails all attempts to describe him, even though he is not necessarily an enigma. The moment you utter a word supposed to illustrate a certain part of his character, you realise that another one, with quite a different meaning, would suit him much better. The most common adjective people use to express their opinions of him — both complimentary and dismissive — is “weird”, but, with a little imagination, most of what he says and does makes sense.

In fact, imagination and creativity are key to understanding an actor who has starred in nearly 40 films over only 18 years, including “Empire of the Sun”, “The Glass Menagerie”, “Of Mice and Men” and “Being John Malkovich”, and just directed his first, “The Dancer Upstairs”, yet still claims to have “no knowledge of what a real movie is”.

Because he sees “very little cinema” and doesn’t believe in formulas or recipes for success, for every picture Malkovich builds a world of his own, places his character in it, and then, unlike those colleagues who use historical records and research to define a role, “I make it up”. Acting, he says, should be “an act of imagination, not impersonation”; one doesn’t have to be black to play the Muslim leader Malcolm X.

A turning point in his movie career, which gave him the confidence that he could play anyone if only he made good use of his imagination, was the role of the vicious Vicomte de Valmont in “Dangerous Liaisons”. Along with many critics, he wasn’t even sure he was the right choice for the part. “I never thought about playing aristocrats or seducers before,” he says. “I’d always played poetic, troubled American sons, so it just hadn’t occurred to me. At the time, I thought that people would have seen someone like Mel Gibson or Kevin Costner in that part.” Although the film was an astounding success in Europe, most US critics “from what I was told, because I don’t read reviews, found me torturously miscast.” During the press junket he was asked: “What makes you think you can do it?”

But Malkovich put his imagination to work and created a “very modern” 18th-century aristocrat who wasn’t confined by what conventional wisdom said about the upper classes in pre-revolutionary France. Beneath their powdered wigs and ornate costumes, the people back then were “exactly like us”, says the actor, so we shouldn’t “right away make an assumption that they didn’t, for example, lounge about on sofas or put their feet on tables”, which is just what his Valmont did. He also defied the latter-day French aristocrat who tried to teach him how to bow properly. There were several thousand different types of bow, the instructor explained, but what Malkovich was doing belonged to none of them. “Now you know one more,” the actor said slyly.

Contrary to most perceptions of him, Malkovich is neither arrogant nor detached, although he does carry himself with an air that could mislead one into detecting traces of self-absorption. He is surprisingly grounded for someone so devoted to his imagination and fiercely honest when it comes to exposing the flaws of the contemporary movie industry. Legs crossed and cigarette in hand, he challenges another misconception, which depicts him as a “dark person”.

I had brought up the “darkness” because of what I took to be a rather gloomy newspaper article written by Malkovich last year lashing out at Hollywood for “flattening everything in its path like an ancient dead tree falling from an immense height into a particularly soft spot of moist, dumb green grass”. He also scolded the “public”, which “plays no small part in the movie business, greedily consuming the worst that the movies have to offer”.

In the piece, he told a story about a British film star he had been hoping to cast a couple of years earlier in a picture he was working on. The actor had the cache to guarantee almost immediate financing, and, according to his agent, “loved” the script — even though, as it turned out when Malkovich met him in London, he hadn’t even read it. He then did so, calling Malkovich on his mobile to say he would be “honoured” to play the leading role. “He dropped out of the film two or three days later,” Malkovich wrote. “This time he chose not to make use of my portable number.” The entire project eventually fell apart, “in an orgy of disreputable agents, their less than honest clients and the general tendency of the movie business to breed the identical twins, stupidity and greed”.

Malkovich tells me he didn’t write all this with “envy or anger” — his only goal was to say it “just the way it is” — and has learned to live with that reality. His voice is perfectly calm, though its theatricality is invariably present and ever more seducing when there is a point to be made. He pronounces even weed phrases such as “I mean” with an exquisite emphasis. This is actually his normal speech pattern, which he employs as he chats with a friend who telephones to finalise dinner plans for the evening (I didn’t think Malkovich had put on the formal grey suit on a public holiday just for me). He is 6ft 2in tall, elegant and famously charming, but the grey of both his hair — the little that’s left of it — and short beard makes him look a bit older than his 48 years.

“By the way, do you want a drink?” he asks suddenly. It’s late afternoon and we are alone in a high-rise office, where Malkovich himself is a guest. He’s visiting from southern France, where he lives with Nicoletta Peyran, his partner since 1989, and their children, Amandine, 12, and Loewy, 10. He has spent most of the past decade in Europe but is in constant touch with his business partners Russell Smith and Lianne Halfon. His Los Angeles-based production company, Mr Mudd, is involved in three films coming out this autumn: “Ripley’s Game”, in which Malkovich plays Tom Ripley, “Kill the Poor” and “The Dancer Upstairs”.

“I really like the idea of reading something and seeing that process go all the way through, until it’s a finished thing,” Malkovich says of directing and producing (although “The Dancer Upstairs” is his directorial debut, it’s the seventh film he has produced). “Of course, there are many things I don’t like, which mostly have to do with selling your idea and explaining to someone else, who may not have the slightest notion of what you are talking about, or even commercial instincts, why, if you make something in a cost-effective way, that person will see a return on his or her investment.”

“The Dancer Upstairs” is an adaptation of Nicholas Shakespeare’s 1997 novel, loosely based on the 1992 capture of Abimael Guzman, the founder of Peru’s Maoist Shining Path guerrillas. It takes place in an unnamed South American country and tells the story of a policeman, played by the Spanish actor Javier Bardem, struggling to preserve his ideals while trying to catch a rebel leader and protect his wife, daughter and a ballet teacher with whom he has fallen in love.

The first-time director says that the picture, shown at the Sundance Film Festival in January, is “more or less what I set out to make”, although “I’m a person without expectation and I didn’t have any feeling of what it would be when it got to the end”. He never really learned how to direct, so he had to rely entirely on his intuition and what he had observed on the sets of the films he had starred in. “But empirical things happen during shooting that you have to deal with, as well as things the actors bring that never occurred to you,” he says. “When I was young, I saw Robert Altman, Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola films, which I liked very much, but the only study I had was of European directors.”

Malkovich and Europe are a curious combination. However, these days he lives and does most of hid work there. “I don’t get a ton of scripts to read,” he says, “and certainly not from the States”. His vocabulary is more British than American, and it sounds a bit awkward to hear an American voice say “exceedingly well” instead of simply “great”.

Even though of Croatian and Scottish descent, Malkovich had a relatively typical Midwestern upbringing in the small Illinois town of Benton, some 300 miles south of Chicago. His father published a conservation magazine and his mother ran the local newspaper. So there was no reason for the chubby and much-ridiculed John to be interested in sophisticated European culture — until he went to college. In 1976 he dropped out of a drama degree at Illinois State University, moved to Chicago and co-founded with several old friends the Steppenwolf Theatre Company, where he acted in and directed works by classic and modern European authors. It would become one of the most recognised regional groups in the US.

As much as Malkovich values its tradition and way of life, he says Europe is “not a place I take incredibly seriously: after all, it was the homeland of the Inquisition, totalitarianism, genocide and the invention of several bloody crusades”. He also has harsh words for its media for what he deems unfair treatment of the US.

Last month, he created quite a stir with remarks during a debate at the Cambridge Union. Asked whom he would most like to “fight to the death”, he named Robert Fisk, The Independent’s Middle East correspondent, and Scottish MP George Galloway, saying, “I’d rather just shoot them”. The actor admits that he disagrees with Fisk’s reporting on Israel and US policy in the region, but insists that he was jokingly responding to a student’s question asked in the same spirit. His “shooting targets”, however, didn’t think his comment funny at all.

Fisk wrote a very serious article headlined “Why does John Malkovich want to kill me?”, and Galloway asked Home Secretary David Blunkett to revoke Malkovich’s working visa, on which he is currently filming Johnny English with Rowan Atkinson in London. Malkovich has yet to hear from the Home Office.

“Some European journalists were glad that September 11 happened, because for them it was all a result of American foreign policy,” he says. “I’m sometimes surprised that they always expect the Americans to defer to their vast wisdom. Everything they predicted about the war in Afghanistan in their papers proved to be completely wrong. There are many reasons for this — some of them understandable, others more problematic and quite infantile.”

In spite of his success with the productions of European plays in Chicago, Malkovich’s graduation to the New York theatre was marked by roles in quintessentially American writings. In 1982, he arrived off-Broadway in Sam Shepard’s “True West”, and two years later made his Broadway debut opposite Dustin Hoffman in Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman”.

Although he got his first TV jobs in the early 1980s, the first feature film didn’t come until 1984, when he was 31. But it was quite a start: “The Killing Fields” brought him a warm critics’ welcome — along with comparisons to Marlon Brando — and “Places in the Heart” earned him an Oscar nomination for supporting actor. After starring in “Eleni”, in 1987 he tried his hand at comedy in “Making Mr Right”, but it was overshadowed by two more memorable parts in the same year: Tom in Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie”, starring opposite Joanne Woodward, and Basie in Steven Spielberg’s “Empire of the Sun”, the story of an English boy struggling to survive under Japanese occupation during the second world war.

Then came Valmont, and women — and directors — began to look at Malkovich as a pinup with an unusual sex appeal. “The notion of me as a sex object is one of life’s greater mysteries,” he said at the time. He was then married to a Steppenwolf colleague, Glenne Headly, he had an affair with Pfeiffer, whose character in “Dangerous Liaisons” Valmont seduced and then rejected. In real life, he and Headly divorced and he went back to Pfeiffer, but their relationship soon ended. During the filming of “The Sheltering Sky” in 1989 he met Peyran, who was an assistant director to Bernardo Bertolucci.

After “The Object of Beauty” (1991) and “Of Mice and Men” (1992), Malkovich continued to play villains and seducers, but in 1997 took the unusual step of starring in a blockbuster action movie, “Con Air”, which he followed with “The Man in the Iron Mask” and “Rounders”.

Finally, in 1999, a project he had first encountered several years earlier made it to the big screen. “I had run out of things to read, so I called the office and asked Russell if he had anything,” he recalls. Smith sent him a script by a young writer, Charlie Kaufman, titled “Being John Malkovich”, about a puppeteer (John Cusack) who discovers a portal to the actor’s head and decides to profit from it. “I thought it was hilarious, delightful, smart, well-written and perverted, in a genre in which it’s almost impossible to finish a film. I liked it immediately and asked Russ to find this freak who wrote it and tell him that I’d love to direct or produce it, provided he changed the character’s name.”

But Kaufman wouldn’t do it, so Malkovich finally agreed. “We talked about what we generally wanted to say about the nature of celebrity, though I didn’t have a lot of involvement.”

As famous as he is around the world, Malkovich is not your typical modern celebrity, of the Tom Cruise type, largely because of those unique qualities that are so elusive to describe. But he doesn’t deny that he has lived a luminary’s life long enough now to share a rather conventional view on the subject.

“I’m sure my childhood schoolteacher would say that I was always a celebrity in my own mind,” he says with amusement as we walk to our cars parked behind the building. “A lot of the things I see celebrities do are humiliating and excruciating, and I’ve done such things, too. Fame is an irritant, because when you are trying to have dinner, people want your autograph. But on the other hand, you probably wouldn’t have a table there if you weren’t a celebrity. So it’s not something I whinge about.”