Sunday 17 December 2017

'I'm a good American but guns scare me'

Actor John Malkovich has mellowed, he tells Julia Llewellyn Smith, which means he won't vote but has just won a tax war with the French

Being himself: John Malkovich
Being himself: John Malkovich

'I'm a good American, but guns scare me."

For many years, John Malkovich had a reputation for being creepy. It was, in part, a product of his best-known performances: as the psychotic assassin in Clint Eastwood's 'In the Line of Fire'; the scheming Valmont in Stephen Frears's 'Dangerous Liaisons'; and, of course, playing a wacky version of himself in 'Being John Malkovich'.

But his off-screen life did little to contradict this view. In one notorious incident, he confronted a stalker in Central Park with a knife (after first popping home to change so that his designer suit wouldn't be damaged in the scuffle).

It probably doesn't help that, with his pale skin, thin lips, bald head and whispered delivery he is faintly reminiscent of Hannibal Lecter professing his fondness for fava beans and a nice chianti.

Yet Malkovich has always maintained that he prefers playing characters with whom he has nothing in common, and before I meet him a former colleague of his tells me he is one of the most delightful stars she has encountered, courteous to everyone on a film set.

At 62, is he still an angry man? "Oh, no, I've mellowed," he says in his lisping descant. What would he do if he met the stalker today? "Call an Uber," he says, sniggering, his gaze - as usual - focusing on the middle distance.

John Malkovich in Dangerous Liaisons
John Malkovich in Dangerous Liaisons

In person, Malkovich is charming, obviously intelligent - and surprisingly opaque. He considers every question carefully before launching into circuitous replies, punctuated by long pauses, that manage to be both articulate and incoherent - and rarely reducible to a sound bite.

Any energy that fuelled his youthful rages seems to have been diverted in more recent years into a bewildering variety of hobbies. As well as acting and directing, he loves flower arranging, cooking and embroidery (he disconcerted director Bernardo Bertolucci by indulging in a bit of needlework between takes when filming 'The Sheltering Sky'). He even has his own, eponymous fashion label.

He speaks French and Spanish fluently and collaborates with artists from every discipline. In a recent project with photographer Sandro Miller, he posed as various famous figures, including Marilyn Monroe, Salvador Dalí and Che Guevara. Another recent film, '100 Years', by 'From Dusk till Dawn' director Robert Rodriguez, will be locked in a hi-tech safe behind bulletproof glass until 2115 when it will premiere to the descendants of a thousand figures from around the world (including Malkovich) who have already received an invitation. The film's plot remains a secret. "I was intrigued by the concept," he says of working on the film.

When I ask if his directing work informs his acting, and vice versa, he lets out another, almost imperceptible giggle. "I hope it makes me realise when I'm acting how irritating actors are and when I'm directing how irritating directors can be."

He has always scorned the Method approach favoured by many of his fellow actors in Steppenwolf, the Chicago theatre company that he co-founded in 1976 with Gary Sinise and Joan Allen among others. However, his spontaneity can disconcert other actors. Apparently his co-stars in the stage version of 'The Libertine', in which he played Charles II, never knew how he would treat the actor playing his poor page, variously tongue kissing and groin grabbing, depending on his mood. Malkovich only initially attended drama classes at college in order to impress a girl. Before then, he thought he'd be a journalist or a forest ranger. He grew up in the tiny mining town of Benton, Illinois, where his father was a Second World War paratrooper turned conservationist, while his mother was proprietor of the local newspaper. Much has been made of how such an aesthete could have emerged from this small-town, Midwestern background.

"I think a very patronising attitude is common among the city, you know?" he says, smiling. "People who live in big cities get the impression the rest of their country is like them and it probably isn't the case. I don't swallow [the idea] that the only clever people in the world live in certain cities, or people with any moral sense or human sense or education."

He declines to give his opinions on the Brexit result - "None of my business!" - except to say he saw it coming. "Most of my friends are shocked. I wasn't." He has been described by a fellow actor as "so right wing you have to wonder if he's kidding".

Malkovich, however, denies any political allegiances, giving the impression of someone so acutely aware of life's shades of grey that he refuses to plump for any side. "I haven't voted since 1972, when George McGovern lost to Richard Nixon," he says.

What are his views on gun control? "You know I'm a good American and I love to squeeze off a few rounds," he says, "but guns scare me." He describes the debate as "two tribes dividing up into subtribes shouting at each other".

Donald Trump, he says, has "cottoned on to and used" this disillusioned mood. "Obviously there's a massive rejection of business as usual," he says, but refuses to be drawn further.

By contrast, he is happy to criticise François Hollande's government in France, where he and his long-term partner (Italian production assistant Nicoletta Peyran) lived from 1993 to 2003 with their two, now adult, children.

Today, after what he calls "a big tax war" with the French authorities, the couple live in Massachusetts, and only returning to their Provençal home, where they make wine, for holidays. After 10 years, Malkovich won that war, but now he is suing the French press for portraying him as, in his own words, "the world's biggest tax cheat with an illegal Swiss bank account".

He is not the only American film star to upset the French. Johnny Depp recently quit his adopted country amid similar wranglings.

"I think the [French tax authorities] are super-greedy because the government spends money at an extraordinary rate," says Malkovich.

"I can't really say anything about haircuts, because I don't have any hair, but I doubt Johnny's haircuts cost $10,000 a month, which Hollande's cost."

Malkovich has always made it clear he thinks stage acting is far superior to screen, but funds his extravagant lifestyle (it didn't help that he lost $2m to fraudster Bernie Madoff) by alternating low-paid "quality" work with lucrative blockbusters.

His next major film is 'Deepwater Horizon', a big-budget thriller about corruption in the oil industry, with Mark Wahlberg. "I think it's excellent," he says, "but I don't know what people want to watch any more."

Irish Independent

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