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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 Malkovich?

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 inception."

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 removed."

"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."

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... at Venice Film Fest with co-star Cameron Diaz







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