John Malkovich: 'I don't need to be liked'

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John Malkovich is speaking in a tone so low and languorous it seems deliberately pitched at a single, straining pair of ears. As an actor who has used his voice to great menacing effect, it now becomes lighter and more lilting, the more exercised he gets. "Look," he enunciates softly, sitting forward in his chair like an uncoiled snake ready to strike. "I don't need to be liked."

Over the past three decades, that voice has become synonymous with the darkest of film characters. But who is the real Malkovich? I meet the 57-year-old actor at the Marrakech Film Festival, where he has been appointed president of the jury. And, somehow, conversation has strayed on to the thorny terrain of real-life politics.

It is hard to tell whether he really means the outlandish statements he makes, or if Malkovich, who is known for sounding off on anything from the Middle East conflict to crimes of the paparazzi (punishable by "chopping off their heads"), simply enjoys verbal pyrotechnics. He once even expressed a desire to shoot this paper's Middle East expert, Robert Fisk, for his views on Israel. A fellow actor who worked with him in the late 1980s has wondered if Malkovich's spleen-venting is all a big joke. "He's so right-wing," said William Hootkins, "you have to wonder if he's kidding."

Malkovich has not voted in years, he says, because he does not want to be disappointed by our political "heroes" who, within a term in office, are reduced to pantomime baddies. Obama's presidency, and the shift in the way he is now perceived in America, is a case in point, he insists.

Isn't this a bleak view to hold of power and democracy? "I don't need to be liked," he repeats. "I go around the world, working with all kinds of people who I love. I don't have a saviour or a royal family. I prefer to conduct my life based on how I treat people."

Malkovich is flushed, excited, clearly in his stride. Next up: secrecy. The whistle-blowing website WikiLeaks, he says, is the extension of a Facebook culture that reflects our prurient appetites for status updates and a constant drip of minutiae about everything from what we are eating to international intelligence.

"What are the surprises – the Arabs are not happy with Ahmadinejad, Putin is authoritative, Berlusconi has too much down-time for bunga-bunga? All WikiLeaks is saying is, 'I looked into my teacher's underwear drawer and look what I've found in there – a big dildo'.

"Everybody's telling their secrets. They feel a need to say, 'I'm having an interview. In a few minutes I'll go to the bathroom. I may cut my toenails... Then I may throw up'. Who cares? Worryingly, some do. It's part of the modern world that there's no such thing as privacy. Soon we're all going to have proctology at airports before boarding our flights. Believe me," he nods, "it's coming."

One wonders if the root of Malkovich's anger lies in the invasion of his own privacy. He shrugs. It is not nearly so bad now, in the East Coast enclave of Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he has lived for the past few years since returning from a decade in France. It was more evident when he lived on the Continent, and worse in Britain, he says. "But no one cares who you are in Cambridge."

Despite his outer cool, Malkovich appears to be a man of fulminating emotions which come and go in a flash. He appears highly attentive one moment, aloof the next.

"I'm a super cry baby," he says, talking about the last film that made him cry ("It was probably Mysteries of Lisbon", a Portugese drama) and then adds, "Sometimes I cry because something is good. I saw a film when the actor was trying to look sad. It was irritating, but when he was trying to look happy or funny, it was quite moving."

His face, with its feline refinement, occasional dimples and his sharp, Neanderthal-like brow, is similarly mobile: appealing one moment, odd and irregular the next.

The day before we meet, Malkovich had appeared at the opening ceremony of the Marrakech Film Festival, walking across the stage with a heavy-hipped gravitas. Close-up, he appears leaner, fox-like, with an intense, unmellowed quality that has led him to colonise the role of the "charismatic fiend" in Hollywood.

There have been few notable romantic leads for Malkovich – Bernardo Bertolucci's The Sheltering Sky, is one – and equally few comic turns – he has hosted Saturday Night Live , and appeared as himself in Spike Jonze's Being John Malkovich. The latter featured ticket-buyers who paid to climb into the actor's mind through a portal, before being spewed out of a sluice gate after 15 minutes to land in a ditch off the New Jersey turnpike. The film, with its blend of dark comedy and existential angst, earnt Malkovich enormous indie-film kudos and a cult following.

His burgeoning film career in the 1980s was cemented by his breakthrough performance in Stephen Frears' Dangerous Liaisons, in which he appeared, arch and overdressed in powdered wig and frills, as the perversely seductive Vicomte de Valmont. (Annie Lennox was so impressed that she called on him to appear as the wigged Vicomte in her video for "Walking On Broken Glass".)

Malkovich's ability to embody an Iago-esque evil intelligence has seen him cast as clever criminals and psychopaths ever since. The best of these performances, many of which are supporting roles, have been so compelling that they have eclipsed leading actors. The worst few have been blighted by cartoonish over-acting.

Ironically, the bad-guy roles are not the parts in which he would cast himself, he says. He is more at home making out-of-genre work like Strap Hanging, the short film he made in 1999 with the fashion designer, Bella Freud. It was based on a true story about a Japanese commuter who had become so worried about tsunamis that he invented rubber underpants which inflated if hit by a wave. "That's a lot more like me," he confides. Or the cute family comedy, The Great Buck Howard, in which he plays a 1970s' television psychic.

The character he has most related to, he says, is Lennie, the unassuming, accidentally-murderous gentle giant he played in the 1992 adaptation of John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men. Assuming the identities of difficult men with dark secrets can be exhausting, he says. "But it's what I'm asked to do, and what people like me to be."

Yet the technical, and moral, complexities of playing "baddies" should not be underestimated. He is currently touring in a stage production of The Infernal Comedy, playing Jack Unterweger, the Austrian serial killer who was convicted of murder in the Seventies but released to kill again, after becoming a cause célèbre among intellectuals who saw him as a fine example of rehabilitation. "A lot of bad guys think the same as good guys. I don't feel sorry for Jack Unterweger, I feel sorry for the girls he killed, but that doesn't prevent me from living it. It's the job of the public, the courts and the parole system to make judgements."

Earlier in the week, Keanu Reeves – also at the festival – had suggested that the job of the film villain was generally easier to play, less nuanced. That mistaken belief, snaps Malkovich, is what leads "so many guys [to] play them so badly."

John Malkovich has worked consistently since the mid-1970s, having directed and starred in over 70 movies and produced a clutch of others, including the indie successes, Juno and Ghost World. Demand for Malkovich from Hollywood studios continues unabated – a Disney film about race horsing, Secretariat, was released last month and Steven Spielberg's action franchise, Transformers 3, is scheduled for cinemas this summer.

But these days, Malkovich appears to be producing most of his cutting-edge work on stage, which is where he began his career in 1976. He is preparing for a chamber opera called Giacomo Variations, which will put Mozart's music to Casanova's vast 4,000-page memoir to tell the story of his final years, and it will see Malkovich in period costume as the ageing Lothario.

The Infernal Comedy meanwhile has received outstanding reviews across America, Canada and significantly, in Vienna, where it first opened just as the similarly grisly story of Josef Fritzl was coming to light. It is due to come to London's Barbican in June.

It was his own idea, Malkovich explains, to dramatise Unterweger's inner life, after he was approached by a Viennese conductor who wanted Malkovich to direct and act in an unspecified play with a full baroque orchestra.

"We gave him [the conductor, Martin Haselböck] a lot of ideas. I said, what could be interesting, if you really want people to come, is if we do an opera about Jack Unterweger."

The proximity of the Fritzl case did not offend sensibilities in Vienna, he says. "It had a fantastic reception there. It was not taken as a national slur and there are plenty of crazy people in America. We have at least our fair share of them, and not just crazy but sometimes violent and murderous. We had our Jack Unterweger before Jack Unterweger. He was called Jack Henry Abbott. He wrote In the Belly of the Beast, a horrifically strong, sorrowful, worrisome and brilliant book, and he had spent his own entire life in the prison system until a campaign of celebrities, some of whom I know, got him released. As soon as he got out, he gutted someone, a young boy, and he was back in prison."

Malkovich was originally drafted in as director, but was later persuaded to star in the one-man play, which is accompanied by two sopranos. "I wanted a young Austrian who speaks very good English to act the part, because Unterweger was small and light and quite pretty. But in the end I agreed to do it, as the conductor very much wanted me to. I improvise a lot."

It was Malkovich's serendipitous start in theatre in the Seventies that led him into the more commercial world of movie-making in Hollywood. He studied biology at university in his hometown of Illinois and had an itinerant career, driving school buses and painting houses until he fell in love with an actress. Picking her up from a rehearsal one day, he became fascinated by the stage. That led to acting classes and by 1976, he was a regular at the Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago. The young company brought Sam Shepard's play, True West, to New York City in 1980, and a few years later, he directed a Steppenwolf production which led to accolades and a Broadway debut as Biff in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman alongside Dustin Hoffman (Malkovich won an Emmy for the role when it was adapted for TV by CBS).

He has stayed true to his first love of theatre, three decades on. The more fully developed roles lie on stage, he suggests, because in theatre, there are really only the actors giving the drama its momentum, whereas the actors' talents are diluted on camera. When his career extended itself to film, he felt bewilderingly over-qualified, like a Formula One driver manipulating a Go-Cart. "You can make a movie with a truck driver from the street," he has said, because in movies other factors outside of pure acting ability come into play.

but his ambivalence towards mainstream success endures, despite having achieved it, quite abundantly. He professes, with an air of subtle disdain, to be drawn more towards directing a play in Europe, or South America, than Broadway. It is a quirky kind of internationalism that extends across his life and predisposes him to an attachment to the Europe he has clearly favoured in the past over American life.

Until two years ago, he had lived in France with his partner, Nicoletta Peyran, and two daughters, Loewy, aged 18, and Amandine, aged 20, and only returned to America after a protracted dispute over taxes – in the same year he lost over $2 million in Bernie Madoff's fraudulent Ponzi scheme. His parents, who published a conservative magazine in Benton, Illinois, were of European extraction; his mother had part-German, part-Scottish ancestry and his grandparents were Croatian.

His Europhilia suggests a cultural curiosity, despite protestations otherwise. "I'm an ignoramus. I don't pretend to know culture," he says, even as he rattles away about his theatre work. Yet his CV belies such a claim: he is fluent in French, he owns a nightclub in Portugal and is a known Anglophile with an unexpected insight into British politics – he has railed against the former MP George Galloway. He peppers his sentences with English idioms, calling a script he was once given for a play, "naff".

His relationship with Peyran has endured since 1989, when they met on the set of The Sheltering Sky, on which she was a secondary director. His first marriage had been to the actress, Glenne Headly, following an affair with Michelle Pfeiffer, when his on-screen sexual chemistry with his Dangerous Liaisons co-star spilled over into real life.

"Dating an actress is like dating any other woman," he says now, "If there is something that might separate them from others, it is that they actually like what they do. A lot of men and women are not getting that opportunity in life. There are actresses who want to control their image completely and there are some who don't even look in the mirror."

Now, in his late fifties, he has a pragmatic attitude towards his work, fame and industry shelf-life. "I'm not 25 anymore. You don't know how much longer you are doing it, or want to do it. I'm not planning to retire; my theory is that they will retire me."

The industry shows no sign of a waning interest in Malkovich. After his turn as Jack Unterweger, he will embrace the challenge of singing on stage for his role as Casanova. It's a courageous move, I suggest. Either that, or foolish, he says – though any apprehension has not galvanised him into voice training or singing lessons quite yet, or none he will admit to.

"I was an OK singer, a long time and many cigarettes ago. I'll be in a situation where I won't be mistaken for Pavarotti," he says, and smiles. "The director said it would be a cross between Mozart and Tom Waits. I wonder how that will go down?"

The highs and lows of being John Malkovich by Holly Williams

1985

Wins an Emmy for his performance as Biff in Death of a Salesman

1985

Makes his cinematic début as Mr Will in Places in the Heart, winning an Oscar nomination

1988

Gets his big break as scheming Vicomte de Valmont in Dangerous Liaisons

1988

Divorces wife Glenne Headly, after an affair with Dangerous Liaisons co-star Michelle Pfeiffer

1993

Nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal of assassin Mitch Leary in In The Line of Fire

1988

Co-founds Mr Mudd, a company that will go on to make films such as Ghost World and Juno

1999

Appears as a version of himself in Spike Jonze's Being John Malkovich

2009

Stars as a heavenly St Peter opposite George Clooney – in an ad for a coffee maker

2010

Debuts one-man play, The Infernal Comedy, about the serial killer Jack Unterweger

'The Infernal Comedy' opens at the Barbican, London EC2, on 17 June

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