MALKOVICH, JOHN: Being John Malkovich
John Malkovich talks about Being John Malkovich and JIMMY THOMSON, being Jimmy Thomson,
gets Malkovich to be Malkovich.
John Malkovich fixes his steely gaze on me, pauses for an interminably long time, then
licks his lips. It's the moment I've been dreading.
"He can reduce journalists to quivering wrecks"
That awful first question in an interview. The terrifying delay while he looks me up
and down and decides whether to play fair, or whether to bring back to life some of those
ice-for-blood movie villains he's made his stock in trade.
Everyone knows Malkovich is so fiendishly intelligent he can reduce journalists to
quivering wrecks with a pointed aside, the odd well-placed sarcastic comment and enough
disdain to crush careers.
I wait. He waits. And then, finally, a tiny smile fidgets at the corners of the lips that
have kissed some of the most desirable women in Hollywood - and then, usually, barked out
the words that have ended in their characters' ruination. Remember his evil arch seducer
in Dangerous Liaisons? How about the cold-hearted cad of A Portrait of a Lady? And the
out-and-out evil beast of Con Air?
He finally sits back in his chair, smiles and contemplates the question some more: Is the
John Malkovich we see him playing in the new movie Being John Malkovich, really him, or
simply his perception of the public's perception of the man we imagine to be John
The voice when it comes is soft, languid, breathy and carefully measured.
"It's what the public perceives,"
"It's what the public perceives," he says with a smile. "It was written
by a member of the public, so I assume he must be working off some body of perceived
public knowledge or insight or thought, because it had nothing to do with me at its
My sigh of relief, I realise with a start, is audible.
We're off. He's decided I'm not a complete imbecile, and suddenly he looks eager to talk
about this new movie that has the whole of Hollywood buzzing with its imaginative daring,
its stark originality and its enormous sense of fun.
It starts with John Cusack playing an out-of-work puppeteer who ends up in a miserable job
in an insufferable office where the boss is so mean he won't even rent the full floor of a
building. Instead, they have a half-floor between the seventh and the eighth, a tiny,
cramped space where the ceiling is lower than the average man's height.
One day, however, he discovers a secret portal behind the filing cabinets - into John
Malkovich's brain. Suddenly, he can go there whenever he wants, along with his drop-dead
gorgeous office colleague, played by Catherine Keener and his wife, alias Cameron Diaz.
The three then set up a business transporting curious spectators into John Malkovich's
head to see what life for a famous movie star would really be like from the inside, where
he goes, what he does and, of course, what John Malkovich having sex would feel like.
The premise was dreamed up by writer Charlie Kaufman, a long-time admirer of Malkovich's,
and brought to anarchic life by Spike Jonze, a former music video director and short
film-maker, considered one of the industry's brightest new talents.
"It's about the nature of celebrity"
Naturally, the project became dependent on Malkovich, 45, agreeing to take part; at no
point was there any talk of Being Mel Gibson, Being Brad Pitt or even Being Arnie
Schwarzenegger. Not quite the same ring, somehow.
"It's quite clever in that way because it's about the nature of celebrity," says
Malkovich, sitting in a hotel room on Venice's Lido, where the movie proved the surprise
hit of the festival. "Charlie and Spike have always said that they thought this John
Malkovich person was very enigmatic. They then felt it was important to have someone like
that who brings something slightly unknowable, indecipherable or enigmatic, a kind of
puzzle, to this film.
"In that way, there'd be some degree of curiosity in entering this frame, and seeing
what he sees. It's about the public at large and their need to identify in a rather
pathological way with a life the sum of whose parts they imagine is just so much greater
and so much more interesting and so
much more glamorous and so much more clever, full and liveable when, of course, it isn't
any of those things.
"But people think it is. They have a kind of dementia. They'll stand in one of the
most beautiful cities in the world (Venice) behind a fence behind a glass wall looking at
people being on television that they can't see. Seems to me really barking (mad)."
[He's referring to crowd watching a tv set in Venice during the film festival, where the
film had its world premiere, and where - a day later - this interview takes place.]
"I told them not to be shy about making fun of me"
Malkovich himself, of course, has long been the object of fascination. If you ever
wanted a definition of enigmatic, there it is, sitting neatly on the chair before me, with
full-length mirrors unnervingly behind him so I can see myself looking at him, in well-cut
dark jacket, matching dark pants and white T-shirt. In public, he's notorious for playing
with people's minds and doing so with such caprice, you end up with no idea precisely
where the truth lies. Quite frankly, public attention bores him rigid. Celebrity for its
own sake, he despises. This lack of self-consciousness is sometimes said to be the secret
of his success, the reason he can slip into others' skins so completely.
It's thus a delight to see him toying so frivolously with the movie's concept. And, just
in case you wondered, he actually invited the film makers to make him look as ridiculous
as they wanted to.
"I made no restrictions," he says firmly. "I told them not to be shy about
making fun of me because, of course, they must have been on a very precarious perch. They
wanted to do this film, which satirises or mocks this person John Malkovich, but they
needed this person to be in the film in order that he could be satirised.
"I didn't want them to feel uncomfortable about doing that. It's a free country. I
never really felt any sort of sense of ownership or any sense of propriety about that
character John Malkovich. It's a sort of person- once- removed and a life two or three times
"Provence - adores the seclusion"
Life for the real John Malkovich is, in any case, pretty good right now. The
Illinois-born actor moved to a farmhouse in Provence a few years ago to escape the madding
LA crowds, with French wife Nicole Peyran, his daughter Amandine, eight, and son Loewy,
seven, and adores the seclusion. He returns to the US regularly to make movies, appear in
stage plays or lend a hand at the prestigious Chicago Steppenwolf Theatre Company which he
co-founded with his friend Gary Sinise.
His work too is ever more varied. Twice nominated for Oscars for In The Line Of Fire and
Places In The Heart and an Emmy Award winner for CBS's Death of a Salesman, he plays
everything from villains to heroes. Just before arriving in Venice, he completed two more
projects, Burned To Light, where he plays Nosferatu director F.W. Murnau, and RKO 281 in
which he played Citizen Kane screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz.
"He was a kind of toady, flunky, pimp writer," says Malkovich, smiling again.
"He was like an older uncle figure to Orson Welles, a drunken disgraced father
figure. Citizen Kane was based on his years of notes for a novel, but it must have been
Welles who knocked it into shape as Citizen Kane."
Next up, however, after another break in Provence, is one of the biggest career moves of
Malkovich's life. Next month (January 2000), he's planning to visit South America with a
Spanish producer to talk about a film he's been thinking over for the past three to four
years. Called The Dancer Upstairs, he's passionately committed to it, but equally knows
his world won't cave in if it ends up delayed for another few years.
After all, as we know, being John Malkovich isn't a hard call at all. Finally, he laughs.
"Sometimes interesting, sometimes dull"
"I have a life pretty much like anyone else's, sometimes interesting, sometimes
dull, a pretty easy life," he purrs. "I don't know if anyone would really find
inside my brain so interesting."
Email this article
... being himself
See our REVIEWS
... at Venice Film Fest with co-star Cameron Diaz