Love me, don't

Films, the public, woolly liberals and Henry James: these are a few of the things for which John Malkovich feels contempt. And yet, in `Portrait of a Lady', he looks set to seduce cinema audiences all over again; Janie Lawrence meets... John Malkovich

Janie Lawrence
Sunday 23 October 2011 07:23

``He will meet you in Paris," says the publi-cist. "Disneyland, actually," he adds, as perplexed as I am. Thus, several hours later, I am surrounded by a sea of Mickey Mouse balloons and what appears to be every eight-year- old from Blackpool to Berlin.

There could be no greater contrast between this relentlessly jolly atmosphere and the professional reputation of the actor I'm waiting for, but the John Malkovich I meet is the family man en vacances. Woolly hat pulled tight over his head, he is engaged in a serious debate with his daughter over whether the Spooky Ride justified its billing. She being a delightfully bubbly six- year-old thinks it did; he, being 43, doesn't. "You're probably not meant to," I suggest to him. "Oh, I don't know," he replies in the familiar deadpan drawl.

With the children, Amandine and Loewy, four, despatched to bed with their mother, Nicole, we adjourn to the bar. He is bulkier than I expect and minus his hat his head is completely shaven. He speaks slowly, as a Midwest crop farmer might, every statement punctuated by a disconcerting number of pauses: not brief pauses but interminable gaps, 20, 30, 40 seconds at a time. Fixing his eyes at some point in the middle distance he explains that he doesn't enjoy talking about his work at all.

The latest example of that work, and what he's here to talk about, is the forthcoming screen adaptation of Henry James's Portrait of a Lady, in which he is the self-serving and devious Gilbert Osmond. It is a truly powerful performance among a glittering line-up that includes Nicole Kidman and Sir John Gielgud. Yet were it not for the fact that the director was Jane Campion, he might not have been enticed to come on board. "It's not really my kind of story." Pause number one. "I'm not a Henry James fan really. The distributors will probably massacre me but, to me, Henry James is the Michelangelo of writing, a painter I detest. Without denying his talent - I think he has great talent - I find the fake homo-eroticness of it all really irritating. Really faux."

There are huge similarities between the character of Osmond - cruel, manipulative and deranged - and that of the Vicomte de Valmont in Dangerous Liaisons, the film that propelled Malkovich firmly into the public eye. Despite his many other roles, ranging from Biff in Death of a Salesman to the photographer in The Killing Fields, it's that whispering psychotic image that remains lodged in the public perception. "Whatever you do, the public wants you to be a certain way, whether you're Kevin Costner or Clint Eastwood. If they want you to be psychotic then that's all you're going to be. I wasn't offered The Lion King. But I think I was the second or third choice for When Harry Met Sally and I would've loved to have done it. Most of the time I've got more laughs in serious plays than most comics get in things that are so-called funny."

Does such pigeon-holing irk him? There's a barely detectable change of tempo and tone. "There are two sides to this coin. How does the public see you and how do you like the public? I don't care. It really doesn't matter to me. What the public perceives is shit and what they think is vomit for the best part. The public doesn't read Faulkner, it reads Danielle Steel. The public buys more albums of `The 1910 Fruit Gum Company' than Nina Simone and I find that somewhat problematic. The movies they think are good I couldn't even watch."

He is an actor with an unusual contempt for films. In the last year, he estimates, he has seen only one decent film - Fargo. "I mean, most films are bad, mine and everybody else's. It's as if you took an original, say like Peter Pan, and made it with the most stupid people you could find. It is a very junk consumer culture. I hate the words `virtual reality' but it's that whole notion of kind of laying there and having all this entertainment wash over you. Granted, it's very hard to do a good one but when I think about acting I think about the theatre."

Malkovich was one of the key founders of the legendary Steppenwolf Theatre company in Chicago. Although he now lives with his family in a Provence farmhouse, he has remained actively involved with the company and last year returned there for a production of The Libertine. A true thesp, after Amandine was born he went straight back on stage in London for Lanford Wilson's Burn This and such is his professional dedication he missed his second child's birth altogether to make the Chicago run of Dusty Hughes' Slip of the Tongue. "Sure I would've loved to have been there, but it's a commitment. People buy tickets for it months in advance and get their babysitters. I don't miss a performance. Not for funerals." Relatives' funerals included? "Sure, my grandmother was one."

Croatian by descent, John Malkovich grew up in Benton, Illinois with three sisters and one older brother, Danny. Danny dominated his childhood, so much so that Malkovich once said that his whole career had been based on his brother. "Every day would start with Danny sitting on my head and farting while I was asleep, I mean like literally sitting on my head holding me in something like a Marine chokehold. He was six foot three and 240 pounds."

Even within the realms of sibling rivalry that sort of daily endurance test couldn't be easily forgiven. "No we get along fine now. He was a bully. A shit, yeah. I think he's kind of outgrown it. Now having children I can understand it a lot more. The first one is always really jealous of the second."

And the long-term effects? "It sharpened and honed what was already a quick temper. It made the antenna very exacting and quick. People have a natural and healthy mistrust of me."

This is just one of what appears to be a mass of contradictions. He alludes to a hair-trigger temper but looks for all the world as if he wouldn't twitch a muscle if somebody shouted "fire". Yet at another point, he professes that he is "very Oriental in a way; very yes, yes." The latter not being a characteristic altogether in keeping with his enthusiastically undiluted support of the death penalty. And he truly does mean support. On the night that John Wayne Gacy was executed, he bought champagne for his cast. "I don't understand what the problem is - we die anyway. In America they say it's a cruel and unusual punishment. What death isn't cruel? Aids? Oh yeah, that's just a riot. Death is viewed as ungodly punishment but these people have decided to take lives."

No, there's no wishy-washy liberalism here. On education he believes that children "don't have enough discipline, don't get beaten enough". Curiously, he says he doesn't mind Clinton. "I don't think he tells the truth about much and I don't know what his politics are but he likes sex which is a good thing. And I think he sleeps with his wife."

These inconsistencies would, I tell him, drive me to insanity. Nicole is plainly one exceedingly tolerant woman. He chuckles. "I think she would say I'm the most contradictory person in the world. She'll say that I've always hated so and so. Then on one Wednesday before Easter I'll say they're the greatest thing ever. But you couldn't possibly get her to bat an eye. I think she's very good with me. A lot of stuff washes over her, she doesn't pick fights. No matter how angry I am, I wait several days to talk about it. I'll just say, `We'll talk about that Thursday'."

Malkovich met Nicole, a former Oriental scholar, when he was filming The Sheltering Sky and she was drafted in to assist the director, Bertolucci. At the time, his 11-year marriage to actress Glenne Headley was disintegrating so he took himself off for twice weekly analysis. "I wanted to achieve what Mia Farrow said about Woody Allen. That he had to talk to his analyst for some time before he could change the sheets from polyester to cotton. I never quite achieved that." Instead he cried for a year. "A year's not so long" he shrugs. "I'd just come from a miserable marriage. Analysis was to try and ascertain why I felt so ridiculously bad and to take some steps to ensure that it wouldn't happen again. It's not like they're going to change you, it's that you understand."

After six years he stopped going. That was 12 months ago. "I felt like I was wasting his time. The ghosts that you chase are more ancient and not always related to, `My wife left me, I think I'll collapse in the parking lot.' They're from when you're tiny or before, I think we're genetically keyed to be this or that."

One of those "keys" is that, even now, rarely if ever, does he derive any pleasure from his own accomplishments. I moot the idea that most people experience some form of "inner glow" on completion of a job well done. Such a Pollyanna philosophy amuses him. "I'm not big on inner to outer glows," he retorts. "I was born, bred and taught that nothing I did was worthy of even my own thinking about for a few seconds. I've always felt that I've been judged on `Why aren't I happy that I did this or that play?' As if that had some bearing on anything besides the fact you had some skill. I don't say it's good but I'm perfectly fine and happy it being that way. I don't see it as masochistic."

The female variety of masochism interests him more. We try to work out why it is that women perpetually fall for the Gilberts. "This is the thing about women. I see these guys all the time and I just think, `Shoot the fucker'. I wouldn't fall for someone like that in five seconds - it just makes me snore. The pop psychology version would be to say that they don't think they're worthy, blah, blah. So they seek out these men, blah, blah. But I don't think that for a second. There is a kind of woman that seeks her own destruction in some kind of weird way. I think women are bored easily and they really don't like to be bored. Men who represent a certain safety or kindness are often under- appreciated. A character like Gilbert plays on them in two ways. It plays on their fantasies of loving abuse and, or, making the man change. And it also plays on that revenge fantasy because both he and Valmont are destroyed in the end."

As for himself, he says that he's never wasted any time pursuing the manipulative tricks he employs to such devastating effect on screen. "I like women a little more than that. And I'm a little less afraid of them. A lot of my best friends are girls and they always have been since I was a child. I think I've been an incredible shit but not in that way. I can be very cold, sure, but I'm not very calculating. I absolutely never get any joy whatsoever from seeing somebody else's pain. It's just not my bag."

These days some of the ghosts at least have been exorcised. He revels in domesticity and spends so much time pottering in their garden, Amandine has taken to telling friends that that is daddy's work.

"When Nicole got pregnant, I was absolutely ecstatic. I'd always wanted kids. To me it was always a major consideration. Nicole was a fantastic person - very funny, stylish and incredibly well-educated - but I was such a mess at the time. In the end you have to jump and see whether you land." He signed his divorce papers the same day he registered Amandine on his passport.

Later this year he has another leading film role, alongside Nicolas Cage in Con Air. So, what type of character is he? "The worst of the worst, the dregs de la dregs."

No change there, then. Still, personally at least, Malkovich professes himself happier than he has ever been. In a typically understated Malkovich sort of way, you understand.

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