John Malkovich 1


(William Faulkner ‘Wild Palms’)

That’s it, isn’t it ?
“Yes. I think that’s true. I think we’d like to believe it’s not. It really is.”
‘Dangerous Liaisons’ has the same moral: we continue to make the mistake of believing love will make us happy. “I’m not quite that cynical. I don’t really see any point to life besides love. Maybe that’s my own problem…”
Malkovich pauses as if to consider it.
“Valmont’s aunt says, ‘Those who are most worthy of love are never made happy by it’… It’s not happiness one seeks. It’s contentment, which is a completely different thing. If you have half a brain, that’s a struggle.”
At the time of meeting the struggle is immediately evident.

Although William Faulkner said everything worth saying about the subject, somehow John Malkovich always ends up talking about love, about women, and men, together and apart. But then ‘Dangerous Liaisons’ said more about contemporary love, and sex, and How Men Are, than any film of its time.
“Women are more skilful than Men”, “men are not capable of devoting themselves to one person”…
Malkovich took possession of the entire film. As the Vicomte de Valmont, the arch seducer, malicious manipulator, rarely had an actor been as comfortable and assured as Malkovich. Evidently, he simply knew what he was doing.
Perhaps he knew too well. During the film his life became entangled with Valmont’s story. The price he paid was high. Uncertainty, confusion, cost him both his marriage to Glenne Headly and his relationship with Michelle Pfeiffer. Malkovich was plunged ‘into a black hole.’ He was still in it making Bernardo Bertolucci’s adaption of Paul Bowles’ numbingly nihilistic novel, ‘The Sheltering Sky’.
“I’m still in it now,” he shrugs casually.
We met three times over a period of 5 months, talking once in the classically shabby, practically squalid, dressing-room of London’s Lyric Theatre, only an hour before a performance of Lanford Wilson’s ‘Burn This’; once in the back of a sleek Jaguar as he was driven home after a draining, laborious day under the film lights.
On first impression, Malkovich seems distinctly affected – listening almost too attentively, almost overly considerate. His lack of flippancy is total – a trait the truly facile are always impressed by. The pauses and careful consideration he gives before speaking might seem contrived. He speaks slowly in a lisping whisper, starting sentences with phrases like ‘at the risk of sounding completely asinine…’
This seems self- conscious, not quite camp but it becomes clear this is his style, this is him: some of us are naturally mannered.
Malkovich’s remoteness and intensity are immediately apparent as he waits to be called to the stage, smoking untipped Camels, studying a Travel Scrabble set. My first question is received with a pause so long and absorbed I begin to think the interview is blown. (An interview can be that, like a seduction: the first chat-up line is vital. If it falls out the wrong way, it’s wrecked.)
I bite my tongue not to break the pause.
“What would I say to someone who identified strongly with Valmont ? That’s a very interesting question,” he ponders. “How rare,” he mutters, to himself. Only later does he answer.
Eventually he recites, without pause, part of Faulkner’s (he pronounces it ‘Fuckner’) breath- taking Novel Prize acceptance speech – ‘a perfect summation of ‘Dangerous Liaisons’.
“Faulkner said that any story was ‘ephemeral and doomed’ unless it concerned ‘the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself, which alone can make good writing, because that alone is worth writing about’. He also said, ‘until he does so, he labours under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust; of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value; of victories without hope and worst of all without pity or compassion… And he must learn again, teach himself, that the basest of all things is to be afraid’.”
Malkovich recites it leaning away, starring at the ground.

(Christopher Hampton, ‘Dangerous Liaisons’.)
When I say it’s tempting to spend the whole interview talking about Bertolucci, Malkovich’s pointed teeth smile their sly smile.
“That’s fine with me.”
Or indeed, Valmont.
“Both are preferable.”
Malkovich freely admits, “Dangerous Liaisons changed my life – made me, erm, grapple with issues that I haven’t really been confronting… It took me a while to put distance between me and the part – not that I’m a method actor. It was more to do with where I was personally in my life. The work affected me to the extent that I was already becoming affected in my life. The work may have given an impetus to change – I’m an exceptionally wilful person.”
When a dashing Malkovich arrives on set in a fine black suit (‘perilously close to polyester’), crisp white shirt, Chinese slippers, long, flowing locks, dark, handsome looks, the temptation to blur him with the role of Valmont is, of course too strong to resist.
Cinema had rarely seen a character of such callous charm, vicious psychological cruelty and cynical wit as Valmont. Malkovich was Valmont in every detail. Malkovich’s smile is Valmont’s, a smile disguised as a sneer – or vice versa – a thin smile barely creeping over thin lips. At the end of an elegantly phrased sentence will lurk a dark sarcasm. There is – when he chooses – an exceptional spite in his eyes, a lethally dismissive contempt, like Valmont’s, founded on an intelligent malice.
“People don’t need to clap me like I’m a seal and I don’t need to bow,” he spits.
He blames the script.
“It was so good, it allowed you the flourishes because you knew what was underneath could run. Generally, what’s underneath can’t walk (he smirks). Valmont has enormous clarity in his worldview. Until he hasn’t. Even that has a clarity: when he says ‘it’s beyond my control’, you can only wonder who he’ll take down with him.”
Still there was never a moment when Malkovich wasn’t Valmont. All the insolence in his walk, his very stance, the unworthiness of those spiteful sneers, the vicious hisses, were Malkovich’s.
Yet he denies that he identified with Valmont’s charm, callousness or cruelty.
“Oh, I don’t know if I’m that charming,” he purrs with the kind of utter charm only the exceptionally charming possesses.
Do you find something admirable about the way Valmont declares he wants “the excitement of watching Tourvel betray everything that’s most important to her ?”
“No I don’t. I admire his intelligence but it’s not an intelligence that I lack. I find it admirable that he turns on Merteuil (Close), and that his feelings about Madame de Tourvel (Pfeiffer) surface… I’m not very callous. That’s very hard for me. I’d love to admit to it actually, but it’s not a very prominent part of my character. I’m more likely to be guilty of self-involvement than I am of callousness. Callousness depends on what kind of conscience one has.” (Tourvel is destroyed by too much conscience; Valmont, not enough.)
What did you identify with most about Valmont ? Malkovich pauses again for ten and then twenty and then fully thirty seconds.
“I identified to some extent with his confusion and his cowardice, his emotional cowardice. The confusion between self-image and reality, yes. And the confusion between the two, totally disparate and seemingly irreconcilable feelings about those two women. I identified with that (as he would), the helplessness. Not his sexual proclivities.”
You’d have to high a pretty high opinion of yourself to identify with that.
“Or a pretty low one.”
“When Valmont found he was capable of loving, worthy of love, that knowledge destroyed him because it completely shattered his self-image.”
Have you thought much about your self-image ?
“Yeah, sure. My self-image is probably of a very sweet boy from the Midwest who probably got in over his head. The actuality may be something altogether darker. Emotionally ? I would say I don’t know yet. Honestly. I’m still figuring… It’s a case of… some other failing – beyond events, beyond justification… Just failing.”

MALKOVICH IS clearly more comfortable and more stimulated talking ‘in cultural terms’ than such personal analogies.
“Valmont was not that individual as men go. In our culture, men can have certain values, ethics or morals that are not native to the male character. I feel there’s something native in men to feel entitled to sex, to want sex… If men have these instincts they’re told, ‘You’re bad. You’re fucked.’ Women are much less likely to leave a relationship, grow bored with it. Women are tougher, mentally. More capable of surviving things.”
I’ve always felt there’s something intrinsically flawed about the male.
“Yeah, me too. I’ve been criticised for saying women are somehow superior. They’re not by the way. One thinks that, I agree with you. That probably comes from the fact that our mothers – not wishing to get too Freudian – give us life, and we worship that. So we’re always looking for a mother. How do we deal with that, culturally ? Valmont is somebody women will fall for, which is the most telling evocative point given this imagined superiority of women… Valmont’s a victim not a misogynist. He had a wounded soul. He has no control.”
Malkovich told ‘Interview’s Becky Johnston, “Women have a native meanness.”
When she asked him what it was about women he didn’t like, he said, “They hurt.”

IF PLAYING Valmont initiated a change in Malkovich’s life, the result was “a sort of black hole.” Asked about the year between ‘Liaisons’ and ‘Sheltering Sky’, he answers by pointing his index finger down his mouth, holding his thumb up – a gesture between making himself sick and pointing a gun down his throat.
He tried a comedy (‘Crazy People’) – a notion he dismisses with one look of sarcastic scorn.
“I tried to work through it, and that cost someone a few million dollars. It’s not quite clear who yet,” (a sly smirk). It was a time he “couldn’t get interested in trivial things, which are so essential.”
Talking about it, we refer to it always as “the black hole”, stepping around the name of his ‘Liaisons’ co-star like a man-trap.
“At times, Jim, my work has been very important to me, work that I have loved. I worked in the theatre for 8 or 10 years without a dime, just because I thought the work could be good. But at this point in my life, it’s not the major thing in my life. It’s a distraction.”
“Will I get out of the black hole ? I don’t know, Jim. I guess so… I read this article by William Styron, on depression, which is something I’ve always found ludicrous, you know, until I got one (smirks). Of course then it became legitimate (sourly). It doesn’t come from being too ‘artistic’ or too intense, or any of that shit. There are reasons you have to sort through. You have to say, “It’s black here. Why is it black ?” I don’t say any of this crap like ‘it makes you stronger’ (another mean smile), but it can be humbling, which is good. You learn humility. You try to learn grace next… Eventually it’s like a wave that just recedes. Someday one will find the, er, delight again… I’m very fatalistic about it.”
Between grief and nothing, it’s often pointed out, John Malkovich would not contemplate nothing.
“I can’t live that way. I mean, I’ve had, you know, some degree of grief for rather lengthy periods of my life but that’s OK. Eventually, they pass. If you try to live at 100% in a life, one has to get used to that. That takes time and courage and the act of sort of stamping out fear.”

“Just as she was unable to shake off the dread that was always with her, Port was unable to break out of the cage into which he had shut himself, the cage he had built long ago to save himself from love”
(Paul Bowles, ‘The Sheltering Sky’)
Incredibly, given all of this Malkovich then immersed himself into the part of Port, which, as the merest glimpse of Bowles’ novel confirms, could have been written for him, even the dialogue. You would be hard-pressed to think of project more (or less) suited to Malkovich’s state of mind at that time.
“I’ve been as absorbed by parts in the theatre but nothing too interesting in the cinema. Apart from ‘Liaisons’, ‘Sheltering Sky’ affected me much more than any other work.”
Not only does the book equate the total claustrophobia of the oppressive desert and sky with love and death but also covers itself in a negativity that is numbing, for the characters and readers alike, pairing the emptiness of lives lived together or apart. Certainly the film’s glaring brightness and dark shadow justify Bertolucci’s notion of “a kind of film noir.” One could make the parallel that Valmont is poisoned by the sudden presence of love, Port by its absence.
Bertolucci told me that he’d admired the way Bowles understood the sense of fatalism and existentialism in the Arab world.
“John, like me, is interested in Freudian philosophy, and also fatalism, which totally absorbs Port and his wife.”
As Port falls to fever, so Malkovich contracted hepatitis. “I was incredibly sick there, several times.”
“Port is not one of my favourite people,” he told 20/20, admitting he could identify Port’s coldness with his own. “That kind of coldness, is always based on a wound.”
Bertolucci confirms, as filming started, “John was very, very anguished, desperate. I was sharing his despair because that’s the only thing you can do with a friend like that. But as he was turning his back, I was rubbing my hands, thinking ‘Perfect’. It was something very, very deep and strong.”
Malkovich denies doing ‘Sheltering Sky’ was feeding the fever of his depression. What did it do to you, playing Port all that time ?
“I don’t know yet,” he says simply. “I wasn’t in a real enjoyable period of my life but I enjoyed that, mostly because of Bernardo. Most of the things you do, of course, are no good, so you end up living (not working) for the ones where you believe in what the person has to say – about the human condition. By and large, I’d rather fail with him than succeed with most people.”
Did it help you ?
“Yeah I think it did (a long pause). I wasn’t too comfortable, no, not in terms of personal emotions. It’s a job, another story to be told, but a story with which I can sort of identify… At the time, it was a life-saver.”
Bertolucci says: “John doesn’t have to identify with Port because he is Port. He’s not acting… He is 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’ after, like, ten years.”
By contrast, Bertolucci explains, Debra Winger (as Port’s wife, Kit) has to identify emotionally with her character every single moment, like somebody who doesn’t know when life begins and acting ends.”
Malkovich shrugs. “That’s fine. I leave people be. The way I work is more or less the antithesis, yes (the snake’s smile). I just never went in for all that. For someone else it may come from tension, extreme thought, and, er, a manipulation of their own emotions. For me the emotion comes from freedom, relaxation, and an absence of thought.”
At the time to sob, he says “it just comes. It’s lifting up your head and letting go. I think it’s a natural gift, my only natural gift.”
Malkovich is not afraid of being seen an overtly serious, arrogant or effete. He has no qualms about saying: “If someone can’t be vulnerable I can’t be around them. I have a lot of female friends. I myself have a fairly strong feminine side.”
Watching him expertly arranging bunches of flowers into one, this is clear. Bertolucci was not averse to teasing him, not only about the embroidery he would do on the set but his love of fashion (he has modelled Yohji, Comme, Paul Smith).
“Oh, Bertolucci said I was just a provocateur, a fashion model. And that’s true, but then modelling is so much purer than acting – style being the only constant in my life.”
“John is like the Centaur – the legs of a soccer captain, yet the body moves like a ballet dancer, gentle and feminine, also protecting his awkwardness. I call him the Midwest Peacock,” Bertolucci chuckles mischievously.
“I invented for him this philosophy, between fashion and death, he was fascinated… When Port is condemned to death, he is this elegant, dying dandy – of John. The idea of frivolity is a kind if therapy for him. He doesn’t need anti-depressants when he is dressing up.”
Months later, as he dubs Malkovich’s fever scenes, Bertolucci confesses he still finds Malkovich’s approach astonishing, recalling how Malkovich would wait by the camera, drawing Christmas cards, reading or sewing. “Staying quiet, doing nothing to remember or be reminded of the character – anything but think of the character, like meditation or contemplation of the nothing. Then he entered, as if by miracle, the character was inside him. Such relaxation, he can reach incredible tension and presence on the screen.”
Tell me how you do it.
“I never do research (a French aristocrat attempting to correct Malkovich’s bowing in ‘Liaisons’, was swiftly dismissed). I don’t worry about it when I’m not there. Never… When I was a football player, at school, I found that thinking about the game beforehand, day-dreaming or fanaticising about it, didn’t help. You had to play. I would not imagine that in 15 years’ solid work, nearly every day, I’ve ever had a dream about anything I’m working on. The method approach is… it’s just, what’s to research except the human condition? How does one go about that? Things should come from the moment.”

ON THE SET of ‘Object of Beauty’, the day has been spent on one (nude) scene, director Michael Lindsey-Hogg piling up the takes, shouting “just one more. Seventeen’s my lucky number.”
He describes it as an ‘indirect’ piece – ‘a kind of comedy about people who think happiness is just one step away. People are prey to so many things which get in the way of happiness.’
Andie MacDowell is clearly not happy, either with the nudity or her lines. After an arduous morning, crew and cast drift off for lunch. Malkovich is to be found on the set’s huge bed, still and pale, feet together, eyes closed and arms crossed, like Nosferatu.
By the end of the fraught, fatiguing day, Malkovich remains the epitome of patience and poise.
“I am very, very patient. I just have to stay remote. If I think about it too much, I go berserk.”

His, now renowned, outbursts probably simply vent his dislike of cinema which he has cultivated into a typically mannered hostility.
“I don’t go to movies. I can barely look at them. I find them generally so absurd, so horrifyingly flat.”
This is in itself waspish enough without going one further: “behemothly stupid.”

“Films are just expensive cave paintings,” is another favourite.
“Film is essentially about whether you want to go to bed with that person…”
Malkovich can be ruthless in his vehemence, with his withering sarcasm, his high intellect, and calm arrogance, his weapons.
“There was talk of beheading Merteuil at the end of ‘Liaisons’ ‘, he recalls, with a stylish sneer. “That had a faint ring of ‘Let’s boil the rabbit’.”

He says of one film, “one is used to people not really having any taste or talent but it really did surprise me. I’m not an innocent about these things. But such utter tastelessness and stupidity, absolutely no organisational skills…”

The dismissal is ruthless and deliberate.
“Basically one is constantly dealing with stories or people that can’t keep up with you,” he sighs.
He describes one film as “a story that didn’t need me to tell it, frankly,” asking me not to specify which, because “they’ve all got mothers or wives.”

Among the exceptions in cinema he counts Streep, Adjani, Judy Davis, Gary Oldman, Gambon and Hopkins. “I read an interview with Ellen Barkin, saying how truthful cinema acting is compared to theatre acting. It’s absolute rubbish. The scrutiny in theatre is far more intense. There’s nowhere to hide. I personally can’t be fooled in the theatre. In the cinema, you can be, and are – often. Somebody can be a quite horrid actor – I mean,” he pauses with a thin snake’s sneer, “the vast majority. But through careful editing etc… What the cinema does best is lie. That’s what it’s for.”

CERTAINLY as Pale in Lanford Wilson’s ‘Burn This’, Malkovich gave a performance you don’t often see in cinema or theatre.
After an extraordinary, explosive entrance, he stalked the stage in a sustained tirade of swearing, savage cynicism and intense vulnerability. An exhilarating, comic, pathetic rampage, this was acting at its most physical. “Acting to die for,” trembled one critic.

Inevitably critics reached for the words, ‘dangerous’ ‘electrifying’ and ‘the modern Brando.’

Bertolucci, added to the comparison – something Malkovich won’t thank him for – telling me Malkovich reminded him of Brando “physically filling up the frame, strong and delicate at the same time.”

With just half an hour to go before he storms on stage, Malkovich refuses any suggestion he should be psyching himself up, preparing.
“I don’t do all of that,” he shrugs. “It would wear me out. It’s like jumping off a building: just do it. Go supersonic. It doesn’t matter if you’re in the mood, Jim – theatre isn’t like that. Because suddenly, by doing it, you may find yourself in the mood. It’s a job… I’ve done the play hundreds of times. I know I’ve done maybe 2 or 3 really good Acts. Maybe one good show. 7 or 8 pretty horrifying acts and shows. The rest were just what they were.”
Do you ever lose yourself doing it ?
“Maybe for some moments, you lose track which is very nice.”

Mawkish and never entirely convincing, a play about grief (again), raw emotion, sex and troubled love, ‘Burn This’ was notable almost entirely for Malkovich. (RSC stalwart Juliet Stevenson was literally burnt off the stage.) Even though few actors could commandeer the play as thrilling as he does, it’s interesting to hear him say later, “I worked in a theatre with people for ten years and I was, if not the one, one of the ones who was always saying, ‘Yes, you do this’, ‘Now we’ll do this’, ‘Shut up’, ‘Don’t worry’ etc. Eventually you just learn to say, ‘I don’t need to do all that’.”

What is it about Pale you know about so well ?
(He pauses.)” Probably his sense of rage. And maybe a sense – long lost to me now – of his repulsion at deceit, lies, which is something at one time I felt the same about. When I first did it in New York, coming from a small town, I had a real awareness that New Yorkers has this very pompous and provincial attitude, that I just wanted to beat up or kill.”

There’s no smiling sarcasm here. Malkovich can be mean as murder. There’s a lot of buried anger in your characters.
“Doing plays like this has kept me on an even keel. I’m not sure I can actually ACT these things. I can’t pretend. I have to DO them.”

GIVEN his current status, it’s ironic that Malkovich admits he only ever attended acting classes at college because he was after a girl in the class. A career as a journalist or forest ranger seemed more likely.
Now 36/37, born in Benton, Illinois, his father was an environmentalist and edited a conservation journal, his mother’s family owned newspapers. She mastered in psychology, but his father seems the stronger influence.

His clearest memory of his father is of him “watering plants for hours, in complete silence.”
He has said his parents had “almost no friends” and that the family were “the town freaks. I loved my town and the people.”

A “volatile” family (“we fought like animals”), Malkovich’s childhood was “absurdly happy.”
“We were always charging off to look at the eclipse or canoeing up the Ohio river.”

He says is most like his sister Amanda, whom he describes as “very smart but somewhat damaged… I always had a lot of friends. But I was introspective, even as a tiny boy.”

Theatre, belatedly, became a passion. He was a founder member of Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company of Chicago (acclaimed for productions of Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller). He had worked as a school bus-driver, a house painter and sold office supplies for four years before a Broadway production of Sam Shepherd’s ‘True West’ (with Malkovich’s performance as the delinquent Lee based on his brother Danny, who “would beat me up every day before school, without fail”) won him the part of the war photographer in ‘The Killing Fields’.

He then received an Academy Award nomination as a blind man in ‘Places In The Heart’.
“Nothing worth spending much time on” is his summation of his early career. “There are certain things you can’t inject.”

As well as ‘Eleni’ and the ill-fated ‘Making Mr.Right’, Speilberg wasted him as Basie in ‘Empire of the Sun’ (there was the merest hint of paedophilia, the perfume and face powder). His characters were often poised and poisoned, troubled, intense, principled. He has often been a strong son, notably in Paul Newman’s highly theatrical ‘Glass Menagerie’, and opposite Hoffman in ‘Death of a Salesman’.

He has done stage and costume design and was the executive producer of ‘The Accidental Tourist’, which he described as being “about the training of grief.”

Directing must be next.
“I know the camera as well as most directors,” he acknowledges, having spent most of his time on set looking through the camera, offering his opinions, often to the chagrin of his directors or their techniques.
“The problem would be I’d just start beating the fuck out of people. I have a horrible temper. Psychologically, one thing is, I was really happy, growing up, which is pretty unique. Then starting Steppenwolf was a re-creation of that family. Once I left, there was a death of sorts. One I probably never faced properly. Even though I was generally happy.”

You seem to have always gone out with actresses, is talent important to you ?
“God, no. Talented people have always fucking killed me – my whole life. I just think, “so what ?! (a total put down). But she has nice breasts. He has a magnificent brain. It is simply a better brain than mine. None of them did anything for it, no more than their eye colour. A lot of it’s chance. So there’s no need for this cult of ‘Hey kids, I worked my butt off’… NO SHIT ?! I know 1000 people who work harder, period. PERIOD.”

Again Malkovich manifests immediate cold malice.
“I know young actors who write me letters or come to the theatre, who want SO MUCH MORE than I do, to be so good at what they do. They never will be. Because they don’t have any talent. I never thought about it, didn’t even assume it would come.”

Do you find it hard to treat people well ?
“Sometimes. But I really don’t like to disappoint people, I mean, maybe that makes me a pathetic specimen, but I don’t.”

There’s a lot of self-loathing in your characters, they can be mean-minded, jaded. Do you feel you like yourself ?
“Oh… (long pause), I suppose at times. I always wondered about if the end result of any kind of art or creativity would be to make you a better human being. I have always felt that should be the case. Not necessarily in love with themselves, or that even liking himself, or even understanding himself…”

The soft voice trails off, he frowns as if he’s still wondering.
“Mostly, they’re shits, artists. Big shits usually… In some ways one of a constant disappointment to oneself. I just gag myself sometimes. Sicken myself.”

“I did a play once, where I played a teacher reading students’ essays about going to space… At the end of the trip, they realise once you get past the fear and the enormous feelings of responsibility and our immaturity; it is out task to become all the things we hoped we would. We’re born as animals with a brain. The rest is learned and, if it’s learned to become an introvert, because I had too much attention.”

He feels he’s emerging, at last, from the black hole. With the exhausting ‘Burn This’ over, he can see friends again. He’ll take a month or two off before doing a Woody Allen film.
“You just have to gather your forces and try again. Get on. Get by. There are people who can go through life saying ‘C’est la vie’, yes, I can barely say it. But I’m learning more and more. I do better work when I’m content, personally. This is my failed flaw. I feel I do have to have this root. The thing is, I probably do have to have this root. As long as you feel it’s inbred in you – the conflict between your beliefs and your actions, or your morality and your instinct, a kind of happiness per se is difficult. Contentment is possible.”

When I ask what he learnt from what happened, there is the longest pause, nearly a minute, before he says carefully: “That there are things one may get into that one cannot will themselves out of. Or things that you may get out of that you can’t will yourself into… You know… some things are ‘beyond my control’…”

He smiles that nasty, joyless smile. And what would he say to someone who identified strongly with Valmont and his conflicts ?
“Be careful.”

Good advice.