John Malkovich ('Dancer Upstairs')
’The Iceman Cometh’
Born in Illinois, John Malkovich joined the famed Steppenwolf Theatre Company of Chicago after graduating college. Between 1976 and 1982 he acted in, directed, or designed the sets for more than 50 Steppenwolf productions. Malkovich’s debut on the New York stage in the Steppenwolf production of Sam Shepard’s “True West” earned him an Obie award. Other notable plays include “Death of a Salesman,” “Slip of the Tongue,” Sam Shepard’s “State of Shock” and Lanford Wilson’s “Burn This” in New York, London and Los Angeles. He has directed 16 plays at Steppenwolf including the celebrated “Balm in Gilead,” “Arms and the Man” and “Libra,” which Mr. Malkovich adapted from Don DeLillo’s novel. In the Fall of 1999, Malkovich directed “Hysteria,” a play by Terry Johnson on the Steppenwolf main stage.
Mr. Malkovich has also made his mark on film audiences in features such as ’Dangerous Liaisons,’ ‘The Killing Fields,’ ‘The Sheltering Sky,’ ‘Of Mice And Men,’ ‘ Portrait Of A Lady,’ ‘Con Air,’ ‘In The Line Of Fire,’ ‘Places In The Heart,’ ‘Being John Malkovich,’ ‘Shadow Of The Vampire,’ ’Ghost World,’ and most recently both ’Adaptation’ and ’Knockaround Guys’.
Now, Mr. Malkovich directs his first feature, an astonishingly self-assured, ambitious film about personal and political strife. Javier Bardem (’Before Night Falls’) stars as Rejas, an inspector assigned to track down a mysterious guerrilla leader named Ezequiel—a character loosely based on the real-life Peruvian Shining Path leader, Abimael Guzman in the hard-hitting, ’The Dancer Upstairs.’
Holding court in a soft four-button suit, itself a muted shade of lilac, I face Mr. Malkovich for the first time - eye to eye! Immediately I am taken aback by just how coldly-menacing his stare really is! This man could surely frost a cake at ten paces! Calming myself by assuring myself that the man opposite me obviously wasn’t the cold-blooded serial killer that he so convincingly portrayed through just his glare, I began the line of questioning by asking who just who exactlly John Malkovich was?! ”I’m quite the reactionary, in a sense. I quite often have to react to all the retarded politics on all sides. I might worry for a few minutes about some terrible result of something, like anyone – my work included – but not for very long. I have to go on, go forward and as my ex-agent used to say to me in his very Hollywood way, ‘Onwards and upwards’! And, I never think upwards, but I obviously worry some times, but there is no choice and that’s how life is until it isn’t! Until we don’t have it!"
I was wondering, with regard the power of story line in 'The Dancer Upstairs', and the persistent pacing of the tale, if you consciously interspersed the comedic, yet always darkly angled, punch lines as a way to counteract against the severity of the subject matter? ”Well, I didn’t include the darkly comedic things for any reason accept that they’re there to describe our main character. They’re there to let us know who he is, because what I didn’t want to do is write what so many films do. Which is a very primitive, vulgar way of telling a story which asks us to know a character; to care for a character when you really don’t know that person. We don’t know how he or she chooses to live, how he or she feels either by what they say or by what they don’t say, by what they do by what they don’t do. So, for me throughout the whole film I saw it as a facet of the personality of those people and of that culture.”
Did you take the death threats sent to you whilst making the film seriously enough that you had to implement a more security-minded set than normal? ”Well, I suppose, yes, we did have security on the set, but I don’t think we ever had any incidents on the set.”
What drew you to this film enough for you to take the reins of first-time Director? ”The quality of the writing and the novel that it came from. I was actually attracted to that story a long time ago, and then I traveled. But mostly I liked the story of itself.”
What was the directing experience like for you? ”It was fun, but I don’t like wasting eight years of my life doing something that’s really so simple and will do just fine financially and doesn’t hurt anyone. It can be an enormous waste of time all those movies, all those films.”
Tell me more about the locations in this movie ”Well, the general sort of thing I would say is that part of this movie is shot in Los Angeles, and the second half I wanted this place to look like how it actually should have looked. Most of the times you’re seeing things that look like they were shot in Europe, but are actually scenes shot in South America and vice-versa. In this film, for instance, her ballet studio is actually Europe. The outside of it. It’s the most South American thing.”
Why don’t more filmmakers travel to the actual countries to film then? ”Well, there are all kinds of financial reasons, because logistically it can be very difficult there. And, for example, there’s an enormous number of actors in this particular film and you have to bring them all over, so it is quite a logistical exercise!”
You elicit superbly naturalistic performances from these actors, whilst also creating a powerfully cinematic film, and as this is your Directorial debut, I was wondering if this movies was your ‘Holy Grail’ of personal, cinematic achievements?
”No, not really. I have a tendency, because I’ve done so many plays, films, short fashion films and a lot of other work for a lot of other studios, to leave things behind. I got used to doing that at a very young age - leaving things behind. I’m a fantastic leaver because I think – personally – you do a play, you rehearse it for four weeks and that’s a certain kind of very intense working and/or personal relationship. Because, of course, every working relationship is a personal relationship in this business – or at least, it becomes one. Then you perform it for six weeks, but then it’s finished and you never do it again. You never look at it, you never read it.”
How do you feel about the fact that this film was put on hold for over 3 years?! ”I was very angry for sort of ten minutes and in probably one minute I expressed very quietly and very coldly my sentiment about what was holding it back ! We shook hands, I left and said, ‘I hope to see you the next time that I’m here. Take care!’ But then, I never thought about it for a moment after that.”
At what point DID you start to think about it again? ”The day after Javier Bardem was nominated for an Oscar in English, because the Producer had been telling me that this film couldn’t be in English because Javier was inept in English. And the day he was nominated for an Oscar they called and said, ‘Hey, how would you like to finish the film?!’ I said, ‘That would be lovely. I’d love to.’ I’m not a bitter person. It’s dangerously bad for your emotional health, but if I’m angry I express it and I usually try and express it clearly and correctly. Unless the person is so insulting themselves that you just can’t get through to them! But then I forget. I didn’t agree with the sentiments at all. I thought they were utterly wrong, but there’s nothing I could do about it!”
And you are referring to … ? ”This is the film’s Spanish Producer, Andres Vincente Gomez, but then – on the other hand – he was the only person who was going to let me do it! He was the only person in the world who was willing to pay for it! It wouldn’t the first time that he’d been wrong, and it wouldn’t have been the ten-thousandth time I’d been wrong! But, so what, you move on, but to me it was never my Holy Grail. It was just another piece of work, which of course is a lot closer to me than other films that I’ve done because it’s mine. They’re my reflections, it’s my view of the world, it’s mine for better or for worse. So it’s closer to me as a mode of self-expression, but it’s not like a child or anything.”
Will it at least go to the top of your resume?! ”Only history will tell us that as history tells us most things. I don’t know. Personally, I think it’s a very, very fine film and I think it’ll be around for a long time, but could also now be forgotten five minutes later! But, I never worry about something that I can’t control. And it’s not even a quality that I sort of cultivated. I was born like that or it was just kicked into me quite young, and I sort of stick with that!”
It’s rare to see you on press junkets these days, so did you have a say in which cities you were going to travel to? ”I have absolutely no influence on the towns I go or don’t go to. Although, I did notice that Javier Bardem has this glamorous Latin tour, but I’m not upset though,” he smiles.
What new projects do you have coming up? ”Right now I think we’re getting pretty close on a new draft from the guys who did ‘Ghost World.’ A film called ‘Art School Confidential.’ I also hope to act with a friend of mine, an American Producer who’s going to film in England in the Autumn called ‘Color Me Purple’.”
And you have ‘Johnny English’ coming out soon?! ”Yes, I just did ‘Johnny English’ and that came out in London last weekend and will come out here sometime, but I don’t know when.”
The film’s Director, Peter Howitt has said this about you: ‘He has no fear, yet he is insane!’ How do you respond to that?! ”He’s a lovely person,” he laughs. ”He did a great job with this film.”
You also have an exclusive line of clothing, but isn’t that hard to be hands on when you have your films and such to concentrate on? ”I’ve always tried to keep a day job, throughout my whole life. And I think I’ve been wise to do so,” he laughs. ’It’s called Mrs. Mudd. It’s like Mr. Mudd [his Production Company], but in a dress! The company name is Mrs. Mudd, but the line will have my name probably. Not because we wanted it that way, but because of legal reasons.”
What was going through your head when you did the opening sequence for ‘SNL’ in 1993 – when you broke off and started smashing things with a baseball bat?! ”Yeah, the studio had given me a baseball bat and they had real baseballs, but because the audience is only four feet away had they have gotten hit in the face with a baseball ….! I hit, actually fairly well, even though I was a pitcher and not a hitter!”
Tell me more about how ‘Being John Malkovich’ came about ”I read the script many years ago. It was sent to me un-requested and I thought it was very funny and I liked it a lot. And then they were casting and I got a call on my portable message machine asking if I would go to Paris and meet this boy Spike Jones as a favor to him as he was interested in directing this film called ‘Being John Malkovich.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, sure, of course I would.’ So, I took the time off, met Spike and then realized I’d met someone who thought like me and I was very happy,” he smiles. ”But, we didn’t talk that much about it really.But again, it was just another part that I played in a film that happened to have the same name as I did!”
Finally, what message are you trying to get across with your movie? ”I think that it’s a film that will cause people to - after having seen the film - have been entertained, compelled and moved. But also I think it will be a film that causes people to reflect and question rather than answer. Most films at least have answers and I don’t have any answers!” [Editor - You could have fooled me!!]
Interviewed By Russell A. Trunk
The Dancer Upstairs Web Site
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