John Malkovich: Angry older man

John Malkovich is in fighting form. Happy to hold forth on global politics, he's just as keen to criticise production companies who won't fund his films. He talks to Geoffrey Macnab
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"Cheese-eating surrender monkeys..." The phrase seems to stick on John Malkovich's lips, as if he can hardly bring himself to utter it. The 49-year-old star has just been invited to comment on the deterioration in US-French relations as a result of France's opposition to the war in Iraq. As an American living in France, and an actor who has been seen in the most rarefied European art pics (for instance, as the predatory voyeur Baron Charlus in Raoul Ruiz's Le temps retrouvé) and the dumbest studio pictures (Con Air), it's a subject he can see from both sides.

"Who insisted that people go into Bosnia and do something? Bill Clinton or Jacques Chirac? Get out a history book. I know the answer..." In fact, history books aren't entirely clear on this issue, but never mind. As far as Malkovich is concerned, Chirac and the French government have little reason to pat themselves on the back. He goes on to explain that they've brought the current wave of anti-French sentiment on themselves. "When you slap someone a thousand times and they slap you back, there's no point in whining. When you say things, expect to be talked back to. But... [and here he performs a smile] that goes very much for both sides. This is a 200-year-old story, and rather tiresome actually. Do I take this really seriously? No."

In his purring, lilting but vaguely sinister voice, he goes on to suggest that "people read more history - it's readily available". He thinks they should also avoid internet-fuelled "rumours and gossip" and "speak more reasonably".

He, of course, can hardly talk. Last year, his tasteless, throwaway remarks at the Cambridge Union debating society that he would like to shoot The Independent's Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk and George Galloway MP, rebounded disastrously, provoking a huge row in the UK press.

Today, he is a strange mixture of defiance and diplomacy, bringing up the question of the French several times. "If they jabber away at me for a couple of hundred years and then I jabber back, I don't care if they're shocked and hurt or not," he says, eyes narrowed. That said, he's quick to insist that he's still a Francophile. Yes, he concedes, it's true that he is about to leave France, but that's for tax reasons. "We'll keep the house in Provence and I'll be here [in France] as much as I can be."

Malkovich is sitting in the back of a yacht in the old harbour in Cannes. This is just the kind of luxurious/seedy location that Tom Ripley, the svelte, highly cultured psychopath he plays with such zest in Ripley's Game (opening this week) might have relished. Ripley is no normal murderer or crook. As embodied by Malkovich, he's able to garrotte various Russian heavies and to deal with his Kray-like ex-British partner (Ray Winstone) without losing his poise or his manners. He has what the playwright Richard Sheridan would have called an exemplary "mellowness of sneer".

That sleepy voice certainly makes him a disconcerting interviewee. Though he is scrupulously polite, you can't help but imagine that there's some barbed subtext to his replies. As he sits in his deck chair, mulling his replies in the morning sun, he has a way of making you feel stupid.

Malkovich is in Cannes to announce the latest project from Mr Mudd, the production company that he co-founded in 1998. The Libertine is an adaptation of Stephen Jeffrey's bawdy play about the 17th-century rake and polymath, John Wilmot, the second Earl of Rochester, who was as famous for dying of alcoholism and venereal disease at the age of 33 as he was for his poetry and philosophy.

On stage for the legendary Steppenwolf Company, Malkovich played Rochester himself, but in the screen version, he will be King Charles II. Johnny Depp will take the lead; Samantha Morton is also cast, as a young actress, and Malkovich has ceded directing duties to Laurence Dunmore, a young British film-maker with whom he worked on a Eurostar commercial.

The Libertine, which will shoot in London at the beginning of next year, comes billed as "a very powerful, very sexy, very dark, very smelly piece of storytelling". Potential backers certainly thought it reeked. It's a testament to Malkovich's powers of perseverance that the film now finally looks as if it will be greenlit - five years after it was first conceived. "There's no surprise in that," he mutters darkly, when asked about the many delays.

Back in 1998, when Malkovich and his partners, producers Lianne Halfon and Russell Smith launched Mr Mudd, The Libertine was among the first films they announced. It was conceived at the same time as his directorial debut, The Dancer Upstairs, which endured an equally awkward gestation. He had backing for both films from (now defunct) British company J&M. "I don't think they really had any intention of doing either one. They just wanted to make an announcement," he says.

When J&M failed to deliver, Mr Mudd went into partnership with Granada, but that relationship foundered after the UK TV company suddenly decided it wanted to withdraw from the feature-film arena. Malkovich and co are now with a third British partner, Odyssey. He believes that the film will at last be made - albeit at a much lower budget than originally envisaged. He's optimistic, he says: "Our company has evolved to the point that not everybody necessarily runs screaming when the three of us walk through the door."

Every movie that Mr Mudd produces is clearly a battle. Malkovich wearily recounts how he had to convince sceptical financiers that it was possible to make The Dancer Upstairs, his adaptation of Sebastian Shakespeare's 1997 novel based on Peruvian terrorist group The Shining Path, for $5.3m. "They told me it was totally impossible and that it couldn't be bonded (for that budget), but I did it for $800,000 less."

As a producer, Malkovich's interest lies primarily in literary adaptations, whether from novels (as in the case of The Dancer Upstairs), or plays (The Libertine) or cartoon fiction (for example, Ghost World, Mr Mudd's big-screen version of Daniel Clowes's graphic novel). He also sees himself as a "minder" whose duty it is to protect young film-makers like Dunmore from the front-office hatchet men. He's keen, too, to ensure that his movies don't suffer from the same chronic delays, post-completion, as Ripley's Game (a film that Mr Mudd was partly involved in). The project was finished around two years ago, but hasn't been released till now. Malkovich says he's baffled as to why it's taken so long. "If we (at Mr Mudd) had had more control, I don't think that would have happened."

Ask how he balances his still hectic acting career with his new role as a producer and he admits that he leaves the "business work" to his partners. He's there more as a creative consultant. His advice is often outspoken. "He's an incorruptible critic so you always get truth," Halfon once said. "When we send him a draft of something, I may wish that the criticism that we get isn't correct, but I never disagree with it."

Malkovich admits he rarely has time to see movies. "It's either 'read this novel before the rights go away in three days' or 'go and watch Matrix' and I can't [do the latter] because I have work to do... it's busy work. To always push these rocks up a hill, it takes a long time," he says. The trick to combining his various activities, he suggests, is to be able to compartmentalise. (This is something that Tom Ripley also does supremely well, devoting the same attention to cooking the perfect souffle as he does to killing a rival or carrying out a heist.)

Once The Libertine is made, he's resigned to an even tougher battle to finance Hugh Laurie's comic thriller, The Gun Seller, Mr Mudd's biggest project yet. "It's incredibly hard to find financing. It takes a long, long time," he says wistfully. And, no, he's not under any illusion that the industry will ever give him an easy ride as a producer just because he's a famous actor. "I think credibility just comes from having a cheque book... it's just the way the business is. There's no point in crying about it."