Meeting John Malkovich, always a dangerous liaison
John Malkovich leans back in a wicker chair in the garden restaurant of the Chateau Marmont and, after a long drag on a cigarette says, “I guess I'm not a very contemplative person.”
Coming from many actors, the statement might seem credible. From Malkovich, whose every utterance is both intensely introspective and drolly absurd, it's an Escher-like impossibility, a joke that folds in on itself.
Malkovich seems as intent on upending expectations as he has at any point in his 25-year film career. After parts in auteur movies from the likes of Clint Eastwood (“Changeling”) and the Coen Bros. (“Burn After Reading”) and a role in a commercial failure this summer (“Jonah Hex”), the actor is off to work on two operas. But not before a stopover in Los Angeles to promote, with his usual mix of the thoughtful and the deadpan, “Red,” one of the most populist films he's done since playing the Cyrus "The Virus" Grissom in “Con Air” 13 years ago.
In his new film, a violent, comic book-derived action comedy that grossed a solid $22.5 million over the weekend, Malkovich inhabits the role of a trigger-happy paranoid. “Like most actors, I like to squeeze off a few rounds whenever possible,” he says, before adding, in his trademark overly enunciated articulation, “Not in life, hopefully. And as long as everything is safe and the armor is competent.”
In recent months, Malkovich has been feeling his commercial oats. He currently also can be seen in “Secretariat,” Disney's feel-good family film about the iconic horse. Six weeks away from his 57th birthday, the actor has a surprisingly youthful face, though the rigid Shakespearean bearing we've seen in many of his screen roles remains present as ever.
Malkovich can turn serious when asked a serious question, although there's often a quip waiting just beneath the surface. Describing the sanity of several characters in “Red,” he eschews a typical description in favor of “They both think they're a part of the reality-based community, but it's not clear how accurate that is.”
Malkovich is one of those people who may or may not be part of the reality-based community (in the movie). As Marvin Boggs, he's a former black-ops agent to whom the government surreptitiously administered LSD for years, resulting in a man who sees surveillance everywhere and evinces a wild-eyed, shoot-first mania.
The actor, though, says he took the part for more than its opportunities to act out Rambo fantasies. “It's like doing a film in a foreign language,” he says of an action role. “You're just trying to keep up.”
One of the more serious practitioners of the art of acting, Malkovich is, one gets the sense, often quietly laughing about the need to turn entertainment into events of cultural meaning. On “Secretariat,” he resists the idea that the titular racehorse represented anything deeper about its time beyond a simple athletic achievement.
“George Plimpton, who was usually quite clever, said that Secretariat was the only honest thing in the country in 1973,” he says. “What a demented, ridiculous thing to say. What are you talking about? Like, everybody overcharged you for some Wrigley's chewing gum? They cheated you on gas, and you cheated them back? There were never any checks that went through? What does that mean?”
As he looks back at a Hollywood-intensive phase, Malkovich says he has no misgivings about what he's been up to. He recalls a period in the early 2000s when his Hollywood representatives implored him to come back to the U.S. from France, where he had been living for years, and take some studio paychecks to up his stateside profile.
“You're going to have put in your time and stop doing only these $600,000 Portuguese or Chilean movies,” he recalls his manager telling him. “Which I love doing. But I said 'OK, where do we start?' "
As he's asked about his latest thoughts on his unusual Hollywood career, Malkovich sounds a note that's philosophical and, well, contemplative. He recounts, unsolicited, an e-mail he received a few days before from a college girlfriend.
“She was quite a good actress and we tried to get her to come with us to Steppenwolf. It didn't fit for her; she stayed in the Midwest and raised a family, and now she's moving to New York. And I e-mailed her back saying that in a weird way I kind of have the life I always imagined you having.”
And then he gets up and walks back into the lobby, ready to finish with all this movie stuff and get on with the operas.
Photo: John Malkovich at the Hollywood premiere of "Secretariat." Credit: Mario Anzuoni/Reuters
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