John Malkovich 2

The Taming of John Malkovich

JOHN Malkovich has been called a lot of names in his time, by a lot of people – a lot of women – but some names, let’s face it, are harder to live down than others.

One girlfriend, he recalls, with his teeth hinting at the barest trace of a rather predatory, thin smile, like a crocodile, couldn’t even bring herself to refer to him by name.

“Just called me ‘The Liar’ you know,” he drawls with the kind of waspish nonchalance and casual indifference that betrays a certain pride, and suggests, hey, he can cope. (He’s used to it.)

Asked if this was fair comment, he just shrugs.
“Sure. ’ Course.”

His ex-wife trumped even this, and just called him ‘The root of all evil’ – the sort of nickname you don’t really get by accident.

“Well,” Malkovich considers, “there is precedent.”

Even as we speak, Malkovich suspects, the latest girl in his life is probably thinking up names to call him by. He had, he explains, just been caught chatting to “a busty lass who had stopped to say hello” – the sort of innocent “indiscretion”, he is happy to admit to and think nothing of.

Amandine though was not amused.
“Amandine tried to kick me as hard as she could,” Malkovich recalls with a soft measure of surprise and affront, “actually aiming in fact for my testicles and screaming, until I stopped.”

Needless to say, John Malkovich seems fairly casual about the fact that his reputation with the opposite sex is now so irredeemable that even a 6 year-old (his own daughter) has him numbered as a rake, and is behaving accordingly – “like every fucking wife in the world”, as Malkovich puts it.

He says this with has the same softly sinister, lisping whisper as his nastiest screen characters (Valmont in ‘Dangerous Liaisons’, Mitch Leary in ‘In the Line of Fire’), an effect he obviously enjoys, making it transparently obvious their intelligence and cunning is, in part, his own.

His interviewers often write that they were never sure when he was being entirely serious, but that is part of the fun, part of his charm. Enigma is Malkovich’s metier – on screen and in person.

In interviews, topics like names, games, and women (games with women), love and lies, are all meat and drink to him. All part of the play.

You can never be totally sure what he’s thinking, whether the long pauses that appear before his answers (45…50…60 seconds) are pre-empting an eruption of temper or an example of dry humour.

The fact is he likes playing games – board games like Nuclear Risk (“which we play rather religiously”), Stratego (“chess for retarded children”), cards (“hearts, trumps – the bitchy ones”) as well as the more abstract kind.

People can’t work him out. His public persona and performances have divided opinion into love-him-or-hate-him territory, so much so that he has (somehow) managed to gain a reputation for being both too cerebral AND too frivolous; as a brilliant, serious actor whose performances can be horribly mannered or superficial; as a dedicated theatre actor who has frequently dismissed movies as a medium and Hollywood in particular, but nowadays seems to only appear in the biggest blockbusters, his latest being Con-Air.

Notoriously elusive and averse to publicising his movies (rarely even mentioning them unless you do), when he does turn up, Malkovich is enormously courteous, open about his children and his partner (their mother, Nicoletta Peyran), honest even about his own dishonesty.

Other contradictions seem endless.

His demeanor can veer from careful control to willful rage in seconds, from absolute arrogance (“the story in this film doesn’t need me to tell it frankly”) to modestly deflecting any personal praise on to others.

His conversation veers from mumbled “you know…”s and “it’s like”s to fiercely articulate intellect, going from being thoughtful and considered to wholly facetious; being cavalier with his criticism one minute and considerate the next.

“The main problem,” he told me on the set of one film he was making, “is that they don’t know what they’re doing… One is used to people not really having any taste or talent, but such utter tastelessness and stupidity really did surprise me” – immediately asking me not to reveal the targets of his wrath on the grounds that “they’ve all got mothers. Or at least some of them have.”

John Malkovich likes to be contradictory and contrary. He likes to be difficult/different. Though he can be deadly serious, fiercely honest, adhering (somewhat stubbornly) to a passionately-held set of principles he will in the next breathe freely admit he lies, likes to lie, and doesn’t see why he shouldn’t – what he calls the “need to be unknown” (alternatively: impossibly irritating).

Ask him what time it was and he would lie.

When one girlfriend he had would ask where he was last night, he would shrug, “ ‘oh, you know, I was asleep’. ‘I rang you !’ ‘Well, OK, I was out with Jimmy’. ‘I saw Jimmy’, ‘Well I guess I was in a trance.’ Because they want to know, you’re supposed to tell them, well OK but why ? Alot of things are not that personal in my experience.”

So, John Malkovich seems to want to present himself and conduct himself as an incorrigible flirt who is a family man and actually loyal to a fault; someone who lies without actual deceit…

It’s a fine line, I say, trying to gauge it. Malkovich considers for a moment, smiles another sly snake’s smile and then announces brightly, “Gotta walk it !”


LIKE much of his most successful work, Con-Air will probably only confirm the public image of John Malkovich as being mean-minded and menacing, a manipulator; very charming but cruel.

Jerry Bruckheimer’s follow-up to The Rock and Crimson Tide, Malkovich plays callous master criminal, Cyrus ‘The Virus’ Grissom, who master-minds the hi-jacking of a plane transporting some of America’s most violent felons (“the dregs de la dregs”) to a new maximum-security unit.

Surrounded by a team of cinematic psychos like Ving Rhames, Steve Buscemi, and Nicolas Cage, as he did in In The Line of Fire, Malkovich steals the show having, one suspects, written his best lines himself.

“Love your work” Grissom whispers to the sickest serial killer on the plane, while his view of rapists being “somewhere between a cockroach and that white stuff you get at the corners of your mouth when you’re really thirsty” has his stamp all over it.

Hyper-intelligent, malicious, villains are becoming his stock-in-trade nowadays, enough to rival the arch seducer he played in Dangerous Liaisons and Portrait of a Lady. (His Jeckyll & Hyde in ‘Mary Reilly’ fell – rather awkwardly – in between the two.)

After the impact of Valmont, his reputation as a ladies man was encouraged by performances in London of Burn This and A Slip of the Tongue and a series of interviews discussing sex or women (“They have a native meanness men don’t. They hurt.”) Even his cameo in Woody Allen’s Shadows & Fog had him seducing Madonna.
“That’s a dirty job,” he leered. “I’d volunteer for that again !”

Of course, he emphasises eventually, he is not really like that at all, saying that, although he’s drawn to characters “with a lack of humanity”, the reason he’s good at them, he says, is “because I don’t like them… I’ve played fat, retarded people, homosexual poets, paraplegics, and played them well too I think”.

Still, he admits, Nicoletta “usually stops reading if it says anything about sex or women. She’s used to all of that. I don’t think it really bothers her at all.”

Even the woman who used to call him The Liar, he points out, came to understand the contradictions of his fine line as an honest liar, and, in time, he says, came to trust him.
“Oh yeah !” he nods, decisively, by way of reassurance.
“Unfortunately for her. She’ll pay for that while I rot in hell.”

STILL, the temptation to see John Malkovich in terms of the parts he plays remains.

Reviewing Portrait of a Lady, even Barry Norman felt entitled to lay a large part of the blame for Jane Campion’s muddle at Malkovich’s feet, complaining rather peevishly that not only were Valmont and Gilbert Osmond too similar but that compared to Valmont, Gilbert Osmond wasn’t charming enough. (Henry James was presumably absolved.) Never mind that they were actually two different characters.

(Malkovich himself speculated Portrait of a Lady is “a sort of homosexual fantasy – you know, what it would be like to be chased by all those men ?”)

Malkovich obviously regards such a simplistic approach to acting with disdain, but the confusion between the roles and the reality is really only to his credit.

Although Malkovich has been criticised for giving his roles a set of dangerously flamboyant mannerisms. He coughs and limps his entrance in Mulholland Falls whilst his truly bizarre Kurtz in Heart of Darkness included virtually wearing a live monkey.

This curious style – “Malkoviching” – means at the start of a film like all you notice are the mannerisms, but in his best work (Empire of the Sun, Death of a Salesman, Of Mice & Men or The Glass Menagerie) you quickly forget it’s even him: he disappears in to the character.

The first of his three Oscar-nominated performances – as a blind man in Places in the Heart – didn’t really look like a blind man at all, but you come to think of him AS a blind man.

Bernardo Bertolucci (who directed him in The Sheltering Sky) said it was “like feeling the smell of a blind man” and Gary Sinise, a fellow founder of Chicago’s acclaimed Steppenwolf theatre company, has said, “John’s such an oddball he can get away with things other actors can’t.”

In ‘Liaisons’, he even gets away with a moonwalk.
“A good one at that”.

American critics disagreed, especially about Dangerous Liaisons, although if anything expressed Valmont’s utter insolence, it was the way Malkovich carried himself.

Malkovich wondered why anyone would assume characters in those days wouldn’t have lounged around too.
“What can I tell ya ? They’re just like us,” he shrugs.

“You see,” Malkovich sighs heavily, “when people use the word ‘mannered, all they really mean is: they never really liked you. And the more they see of you, the more irritating it is for them.”

Instead of going to the blind schools Places in the Heart director, Robert Benton, had lined up to help him learn braille, and cane properly, Malkovich had his driver take him touring used-car lots looking for an old Studebakker instead.
“If blind people read right to left, someone can tell me and I’ll do it.”

The expert on 18th century etiquette on Liaisons was “another guy I got dismissed. He didn’t like the way I was bowing. He said that he knew 2000 bows from the period and I said, ‘well now you know 2001.”

Though he is careful to offer nothing but praise for young actors like Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Matt Dillon, and even Tom Cruise, he describes the vogue among actors for hanging out with their subjects as “the most mindless thing imaginable.”

“I can always tell when a role is overly researched. ” he says. “It’s meant to be an act of imagination not impersonation. Like… you don’t have to be black to play Malcolm X. No-one who ever played Hamlet was the Prince of Denmark.”

He maintains he never worries about a role or had a single dream about anything he’s ever worked on and, even on set, his preparation seems to be absolutely minimal.

When they were filming Sheltering Sky, Bertolucci once told me, “John did NOTHING to remember or be reminded of the character. He would just walk on in the most unusual way I have ever seen, as if to forget everything he knew about the character but then reach incredible tension.”

His legendary performance on stage in Burn This, which inspired writer Christopher Hampton to campaign for him to play Valmont, would begin with the most distilled display of savage cynicism and intense rage, many critics had ever seen on a London stage.

Yet beforehand, he let me sit with him in his dressing room, chatting away casually, up to only a few minutes before his entrance.

Before a show or on film sets, waiting to be called, Malkovich can be found by himself quietly playing Travel Scrabble, sketching Christmas cards, or whittling bits of wood.

“It’s like jumping off a building: you just do it. A method actor might use emotional recall, reach into his psyche, whatever. I don’t do all of that. It would wear me out. For me, the emotion comes from relaxation, from an absence of thought.”

Hearing Bertolucci’s conclusion was “he didn’t have to identify with Port, because he was Port”, Malkovich affords himself a wry smile.
“Directors always think you ‘are’ the characters. Fuckin’ Roland Joffe still thinks I was the guy in The Killing Fields.”

Dangerous Liaisons though changed his life, made him “grapple with issues that I hadn’t really been confronting.”

There was never a moment when he was not Valmont. Certainly, all the gestures, the spiteful sneers and vicious hisses, were Malkovich’s own. Still he says, he is not that callous (“that’s hard for me”) or as cynical (“I don’t really see any point to life besides love”).

He admits he identified with “Valmont’s emotional cowardice”, the “confusion between self-image and reality” and “his helplessness” – not, though not his sexual proclivities. Well, I say, rather too quickly, you’d have to have a pretty high opinion of yourself to identify with that.

“Or a pretty low one,” Malkovich counters. Touché.

THE fine line between the role and reality seemingly proved too much even for Malkovich when he fell in love with Valmont’s objet d’amour in the film, Michelle Pfeiffer.

Torn between his wife at the time (Steppenwolf actress Glenne Headly) and Pfieffer, Malkovich eventually left them both and ended up “in a black hole” for the best part of two years.

He walked off the set of his next film, Crazy People (“that cost someone a few million dollars”) and eventually immersed himself in the part of Port for Sheltering Sky, where the parallels amounted to the acting equivalent of a kill-or-cure treatment.

He has undergone a long spell of analysis but it’s not obvious whether this helped. (Stephen Frears would always ask Malkovich “how is the poor fellow ?”) Malkovich maintains he always spent the sessions talking about other people – why they would do what they were doing.

“I know what my problem is,” he grins. “I’m an asshole.”

During Sheltering Sky, he fell in love with Nicoletta Peyran, Bertolucci’s French-Italian assistant on the film, and they now have two children, a four year-old son, Loewy and, of course Amandine.

Although it’s entirely playful, Malkovich’s version of parenting can over as fairly dark.

What does Amandine think you do I asked him once.
“Child-minder I think,” he sniped.

He went on to draw parallels with his role in Sam Shepherd’s Gulf War play, State of Shock where he played “this insane character, a cross between General Schwarzkopf and Saddam Hussain”, whose son is in a wheelchair having had his stomach blown apart.

“My character spends alot of time beating the son with a whip, trying to get him into shape. To placate the son, I say ‘we’ll go to the park ! We’ll swing, we’ll slide ‘,” he laughs evilly. “Which is something I now find myself saying to them. ‘We’ll go to the park,’ he sings insanely, “We’ll swing, we’ll slide.”

He always wanted children, he says, but never felt that he was cut out for marriage in the first place.
“Marriage,” he said, “I found charming. It was my wife that was a constant source of irritation.”

These days, the family divide their time between a farmhouse in Provence and a house in LA .
“I like the Hancock Park area of LA. Howard Hughes had a few pads there. I went to see his place. I couldn’t seriously, even vaguely, entertain the idea of buying it, but that’s the beauty of being a movie-star,” he smiles another sly snake’s smile. “No-one will ever ask ‘can you afford this ?’ ”

Malkovich seems to enjoy his image as a rather effete aesthete, as something of a dandy, so much Valmont or Gilbert Osmond seemed like type-casting.
“If something doesn’t look right,” he will sigh, “I just don’t know what to say.”

Their lavishly stylish house in LA has featured in several Interiors magazines.

He mentions completing the minorette in their “Islamic bathroom” by “inlaying shooting marbles into the floor. That’s what I do best and most enjoy really, that sort of thing.”

When I say marbles are great, he corrects me.
“Oh they’re excellent, with an authority that stresses, in his mind, it was never in doubt just how excellent marbles really are.

On the set of The Sheltering Sky, his expertise at needlepoint was legendary.

How’s your embroidery coming along ? I asked him, the last time we met.
“Oh you know me…” he sighed brightly, sipping a can of Purdeys. “The sissier the better”.

He has modelled for Prada and Comme Des Garcons, describing casual clothes like tracksuits and cycle shorts as “scary”, and once advised readers of one men’s magazine: “never go out with anyone better dressed than you.”

Given his rather contrary nature, it’s tempting to think that his fondness for fashion goes back to an incident in his childhood when some youths threw bottles at him because of what he was wearing – “madras on madras I’m afraid- a Beach Boy shirt and Bermuda shorts”.

He is fastidious about detail and capable of finding the best in almost anything.

Discussing his friend, singer Tom Waits, he mentions Waits’ interest in raising chickens.
“His father dreamt of becoming some sort of chicken magnate apparently,” he drawls. Personally, Malkovich advocates the White-crested Poland as the aesthete’s choice of chicken.

“Really excellent chickens. The most incredible chickens I’ve ever seen in my life. Fucking extraordinary. Un-be-liev-able.”

He says this with real feeling – as much feeling as I’ve ever heard him say anything.

As for Provence, he says, “I’m a small-town person basically.”

Now 43, Malkovich grew up 300 miles south of Chicago, in Benton in Illinois, where his mother’s family owned the local paper and his father edited a conservation and environmental journal – “pretty unusual at the time, especially in a mining town.”

The second eldest of five children, he once described his childhood to me as “absurdly happy. I had alot of friends. I loved the town and the people.”

Malkovich has often been a strong son, most notably in Paul Newman’s The Glass Menagerie directed by Paul Newman and blowing Dustin Hoffman off the screen and off stage in Death of A Salesman.

His parents, he has said, had “almost no friends. My father was very odd, quite dark, elegant, charming, you know.”

His abiding memory is of him “watering plants, for hours in complete silence.”

“We must have had one vacation my whole childhood. We were always charging off to look at the eclipse or canoeing up the Ohio River.”

His friend and producer, Russ Smith, has said “this family was as unusual a group of people as this town had ever seen” and one of his three sisters, Melissa, said they were “totally open” as a family with “no limits and virtually no discipline or direction.”

Chaos reigned. Malkovich’s breakthrough performance in Sam Shepard’s play True West was based on his elder brother, Danny, who, he says, would “beat me up every day before school without fail. Just pin me down and drool on me, stuff like that. 6 foot 3”, 250lbs, he’d just wake me by sitting on my head and farting on me.”

Malkovich crushed beer cans on his forehead until the blood flowed in the play and at home, they would fight about almost anything. Baseball bats, pokers, kitchen knives, meals would all be used as weapons.

“My mother would just turn the radio up and let us get on with it.”

When a (rather sensitive) journalist from The Times asked if his brother had ever apologised, Malkovich just shrugged and said: “He thinks it’s funny. He is quite funny. One mustn’t take that away from him.”

Malkovich himself was something of an oddball as a teenager, “a study of contrasts”.

6ft 1” tall and over 16 stone, he was overweight but athletic; rowdy but quiet. His high forehead and pigeon-toed gait earnt him the nicknames ‘Tweety Pie’ or (until he lost 60 lbs by eating nothing but jelly) ‘Fat Boy’.

He grew up thinking he’d become a forest ranger or a journalist – and got into acting when he was at Illinois State University “out of accident”. There was (inevitably) a girl involved, a girl he followed around “like a prison wife”, ending up in her acting class.

In 1976, along with Sinise, his wife Glenne Headly and Laurie Metcalf, he started the Steppenwolf Theatre company in a church basement in Chicago, acting, directing and doing stage design and costume, making it one of the most innovative and acclaimed theatre groups in America.

Gary Sinise said True West was such a success “because audiences couldn’t believe people were doing this to each other on a nightly basis.”

Given that, he says Hollywood “only ever offers you what you’ve already done”, and he is to this day still playing characters like Cyrus The Virus, he has said, “my whole career is based on my brother.”

“At first I played brooding James Dean types,” he once said, “then my hair fell out and I was saved.”

There was a time when he seemed to cultivate his contempt for Hollywood, directing his withering sarcasm at movies, describing them as “horrifyingly flat” and “fantastically stupid, behemothly stupid. Expensive cave paintings.”

But over the years, his opinions have become typically contrary and contradictory, arguing, “they could make artsy-fartsy films but who would go and see it ? The audience has to have certain standards which they don’t really have.”

At least part of his preference for theatre work comes from the fact that “No-one can keep you from being good in a play. Ellen Barkin said how truthful cinema acting is compared to theatre acting, it’s absolute rubbish. The scrutiny in theatre is more intense. I personally can’t be fooled in the theatre.”

MALKOVICH may describe himself as “a wuss”, and proudly declare he has only ever missed one theatre performance (when the airport was snowed in), even forgoing witnessing the birth of his son to meet his responsibilities, but he is no luvvie and certainly no liberal.

His story of the time he was harangued by a street punk in Central Park, raced home to get a Bowie knife, and tracked him down putting a knife to the his throat (telling him “one more move from you, motherfucker, and you’re dead” !) might seem rather fanciful. But the fact he claims he was sure to change out of his suit first adds a degree of authenticity.

“It’s funny, isn’t it,” he says, talking about the type of staff you find working in French banks, “how they say Non to everything and then when you start screaming, they become quite helpful.”

Not really what you’d expect from someone you will find in his dressing room listening to Rickie Lee Jones or Nina Simone expertly rearranging flowers and bitching up someone’s suit as “perilously close to polyester.”

But Malkovich’s temper is legendary, as bus-drivers who have made the mistake of shutting the door in his face have discovered (to their cost).

One time when we met he had just “taken care of a guy in MacDonalds who was making fun of the Pakistani guy behind the counter.”

“I told him ‘don’t talk so loud within swinging distance of me if you have any brains left’. It’s just narcissism. He wants to do it, so everyone has to suffer. It just bores the ass off me. But you know, I’m not the Lone Ranger….”

He remembers the time he “had to kind of empty a sewing shop” which had promised to mend some of his favourite suits – suits which “the ex-wife” had shipped over in mothballs.

“Just had to sort of tear it apart you know,” he shrugs. “Quite a bit of money had changed hands and 8 months had passed.”

A rather Bronson-esque sense of justice, I say.
Malkovich’s eyebrows rise and he smiles his most sinister smile.
“Deadline wasn’t met.”

MALKOVICH’S loathing of bullies, and his own violent tendencies, evidently stem from the raging chaos of his upbringing and dealings with Danny.

“Like a liberal”, he would complain to his mother about his brother, he sneers, but muses gently, “generally I found getting a butcher knife put me in an altogether stronger negotiating position.”

Politically, he has described himself to me as both a “libertarian”, “actively apolitical” and “a bit of a Jesse Jackson man myself.”

As for Clinton, he once said, “I don’t think he tells the truth about much but he likes sex which is a good thing. He stands there saying, ‘I’m not a ladies man’. Well…” he says, giving a knowingly evil smile. “There are worse things.”

Of course what, on the surface, at least seem to be huge contradictions appear.

He is, he says, fervently in favour of gun-control but
pro-capital punishment.
“I’m more than pro,” he purrs. “I’m ecstatic.”

The night the Chicago’s most notorious serial killer, John Wayne Gacy, was executed, Malkovich bought champagne for the whole cast, later telling one interviewer, “Gacy to me is slime. I would have pulled the switch myself, or given him the shot, or beaten his head in with a baseball bat.”

As far as criminality goes, Malkovich’s tolerance levels amount to less than zero.
“People say, it’s because of poverty or disaffection, alienation, whatever. I have a tendency to think it’s because they can,” he says, his menace rising easily in to pure malice.

“We think it’s OK for 30, 000 Americans to die from homicides each year but if some guy who has butchered, butt-fucked, chain sawed 14 young girls to death has a bad week on Death Row, then we get all foetal and sob like infants and televise it. Society to me means something and rights to me mean alot, but, they don’t mean any more to me than responsibilities. If one person is excused from that, then why isn’t everyone ?”

Some people might find all this rather hard to equate with his avowed penchant for duplicity, but Malkovich is not one of them.

“Why do I lie ? Well it’s entertaining,” he smiles with a shrug.
“To me, it just seems more interesting.”

It’s ridiculously immature, I tell him.
“But I like that,” he laughs. “My grandfather was a big liar. He lied all the time, about anything. I liked him alot.”

When he takes the kids out for the day, and Nicoletta asks him “so what did you do today ?” Malkovich will just say, “no-one knows that.”

“Nicole just laughs,” he says. “She doesn’t care. She’s Italian.”

Eventually, maybe a couple of days later, he’ll tell her everything,

“When you’re 21, you might say, ‘honey, between 11.15 am to 12.23 pm, I was at the office, and then from 12.23-1.04 I was with Bob Sanders… Well I’m too old for all that. It’s like if they need to be reassured, you have to do it. In our society we always equate that with love, and I’m not sure that’s a brilliant equation. It’s just an element of control. But if you keep it on a leash like that, then you’ll either kill it, or it’ll bite the shit out of you.”

When I ask if he has ever lost anyone by being like this, he snorts,
“I lost alot of stuff being the other way – like my mind. I just think men and women are different. and that’s all you can really say about it. They don’t want us to do what we want,” he laughs. “They’re against that. You know that.”

If this makes him difficult, that’s fine too.
“I just figure, if they have something to say, they’ll say it.”

Not that he actually cares how this all looks but he makes it clear Nicoletta seems to be able to deal with him perfectly well and he points out he regards himself as “monogamous – more monogamous than most.”

Affairs, he has said, are “too messy. I haven’t got time for all of that.”

“My idea of fun is to stay home and stain a piece of furniture. I’d rather be at home with the family.”

He ponders some thing for a moment before conceding,
“having children does make you happier. It takes you out of yourself”, smiling, before adding, “and getting out of myself is never a bad place to be, let’s face it. They’re pretty funny. The other day I said to Amandine, ‘gimme a kiss’ and she just said, ‘no’. I said ‘come on, one kiss, why not ? ’ and she just went (totally deadpan, final) ‘cos no.’ That was that.”

Malkovich probably recognises the stubborn determination to stick to a principle; the need to be contrary and elusive.

Even if the experience is quite galling (John Malkovich being turned down for a kiss !), especially coming from his daughter, this time when he smiles, the crocodile smile, amazed and almost admiring, is natural and rather touching.