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Being John Malkovich: From Hollywood's cool villain to playing a pope

The man known for his menacing roles in Dangerous Liaisons and Con Air tells us why no one should tell audiences what to think.

Being John Malkovich: From Hollywood's cool villain to playing a pope

John Malkovich in The New Pope. (Photo: HBO)

John Malkovich knows that he intimidates people. The pouting sneer and softly drawling speech that make him such a good villain on screen are drawn directly from real life.

As I stand waiting in his luxurious but mostly empty suite at the Beverly Hills Four Seasons, people keep telling me not to worry and repeating that he is, in fact, very nice. When Malkovich walks in they all scarper.

Given that the actor is best known for playing menacing roles in films such as Dangerous Liaisons and Con Air, along with a tormented version of himself in Being John Malkovich, it makes sense that people might forget where the characters end.

FILE PHOTO: U.S. actor John Malkovich, Official Selection jury president, delivers a speech at the San Sebastian Film Festival in San Sebastian, Spain, September 22, 2017. REUTERS/Vincent West

Not that he cares. “I’ve been quite heavily characterised and categorised. It doesn’t mean much to me,” he shrugged.

“Even when I was young I didn’t really care.” This attitude probably came from his family. “I was raised that I was responsible for myself, period. From the time I could comprehend language it wasn’t a matter of what my parents said. They told me I was responsible for myself.”

Now 66, he is tall and physically imposing but smiles often and speaks so softly that I have to lean in to hear him. He is also more droll than his roles might suggest – quick to undercut his own seriousness with a “big deal” or “so what”.

In his loose blue jacket, he looks better suited to lead a class at Philippe Gaulier’s clown school than sit through a Hollywood press interview. Given how often he turns the conversation towards theatre and stagecraft, that may be what he wishes he was doing right now.

Still, while Malkovich might prefer to talk about himself as a jobbing actor and director, Hollywood continues to tap him for leading roles – hence the Four Seasons suite and general hubbub outside.

The latest is Sir John Brannox, an eyeliner-wearing, three-piece-suited English aristocrat turned pontiff, in The New Pope. Launching in January, the TV series is a follow-up to The Young Pope, which starred Jude Law as a fictional, US-born pope who smoked, worked out and drank Cherry Coke Zero for breakfast.

Creator Paolo Sorrentino, the Italian director known for such films as The Great Beauty and The Consequences Of Love, said that he wanted to make something as splendid as the Catholic Church itself. Like its predecessor, The New Pope is gorgeous to look at and completely mad to watch.

John Malkovich in The New Pope. (Photo: HBO)

Sorrentino’s style and storytelling were the draw, said Malkovich. “I liked that (the first series) interested me in something – religion in general and Catholicism in particular and the Vatican itself to be overly specific – in things that I have no interest in, no education in at all, and no particular curiosity about.”

For the uninitiated, the series can also act as a study in organised religion via Sorrentino’s lens. “I realised that in this world there’s so much kind of mysticism, spirituality, corruption, refinement, debasement – a kind of microcosm of life itself,” said Malkovich, who is an atheist. “But then, on the other hand, what do you expect? They are humans. No one’s exempt.”


At the start of his film career, Malkovich sometimes seemed frustrated. A fiery interview in the early 1990s quoted him as being unhappy that his performances were at the mercy of edits. This attitude seems to have softened – or at least he has decided there is nothing to gain from voicing it to a journalist.

When I ask what instructions Sorrentino offered, he says there were none, but that they were not necessary given the director’s visuals and highly stylised, symmetrical framing. “The thing about Paolo that’s sort of inescapable, that’s immutable really, are his shots,” he said. “They dictate everything really. They even interpret the script that you maybe thought you had interpreted until you saw the shot.”

Just as Charlie Kaufman wrote the screenplay for the 1999 film Being John Malkovich with the actor in mind, Sorrentino – who calls Malkovich elegant and mysterious – claims to have shaped the role in The New Pope after they spent time together at the director’s home.

You can picture for yourself what that experience might have been like from the dialogue Sorrentino went on to write. In one scene, Malkovich greets a visitor with: “So here we are, faced with the frightful task of having to converse.”

When I ask whether it is strange to read versions of himself in violent or seductive roles, Malkovich claims not to see it. “I thought (Being John Malkovich) was very funny when I read it. In fact, I wanted to direct it. I wanted to direct it and we were going to produce it.” He was so dissociated from the role that he thought of Sean Penn or (and it is hard to tell here if he is joking) William Shatner – Captain James T Kirk himself – for the central part.

Happily, the script stayed as it was, Spike Jonze directed and the film was greeted as one of the best of the year.

A detail from the publicity poster for Being John Malkovich. (Photo: Being John Malkovich)

A screening of the first two episodes of The New Pope at the Venice film festival in September also received excellent reviews, with Malkovich in particular applauded for his performance.

This is a feature in his work, regardless of the production. He has been Oscar-nominated twice but there are some duds in his CV. Late last year he starred in Bird Box – one of Netflix’s most successful original films. A few months later he appeared in David Mamet’s widely derided play Bitter Wheat, starring as a predatory Harvey Weinstein-like producer. The FT praised his performance but called Mamet’s drama ill-judged.

 “The play generated some degree of . . . ah . . . controversy and disdain,” he said. “So what?” He knows critics have a job to do. If they don’t like something, they don’t like it.

This equanimity is not, however, something he extends to social media. “People were terribly upset – some, apparently – on social media, by the notion that a play even could or might upset people.” This he considers intolerable. “That’s what I refer to as fascism. Pure totalitarianism.”

Was he concerned about playing a role linked to someone people feel so strongly about and who is still alive?

John Malkovich with Nicolas Cage in 1997's Con Air. (Photo: Con Air)

He considers this for some time before claiming that no, he was not concerned. Because he acted in the play rather than sat in the audience, he cannot judge what the experience was like, but he is convinced that some of the negative reaction was linked to the play’s existence rather than its execution.

Pausing again, he goes on a detour that manages to be both thoughtful and provocatively dismissive. “It’s storytelling,” he said. “It’s that simple. There was outrage when it was released. My agents were concerned about the notion of it. How dare this old white Jewish man write a play about essentially an old white Jewish man as if the only play written about it should be from the perspective of a victim. We had many people who were purportedly . . . let’s say ‘bathrobed’ . . . come to the play who enjoyed it greatly. I’m sure other people who have been bathrobed, or worse, could very easily have been enraged, upset, felt belittled or traumatised by it. I understand that.”

If he knew a friend’s life story and knew that something had happened to them that might make seeing a certain play upsetting then, yes, he might say something. But it is not possible to make that decision for strangers. Nor should it be. He recalls being asked years ago why his production of Hysteria, a farce based on Freud’s last days, did not come with a warning. The memory leads to a full-force Malkovich soliloquy.

“Who am I to put a trigger warning on?” he said. “Who am I to say, ‘You’ll be triggered by this’? Maybe you’ll think it’s hilarious. Maybe you’ll walk out. Maybe you’ll be bored senseless. How pretentious.” He stops for a moment, then carries on slowly, each word dripping with disdain.

“How incredibly presumptuous to say I’ll understand what 80 or 300 or 1,500 people will feel. How idiotic. How outrageous. It’s outrageous that people demand it. How childish. How babyish. But go ahead.”

John Malkovich in The New Pope. (Photo: HBO)

Malkovich’s ability to unleash his anger is hypnotic on film. Witnessing it in real life is just as mesmerising – even a polite, perfectly composed version. The last line is delivered with a dismissive smile. This is the point in the film where I think his dazed opponent would either faint or run away.


Raised in a small town in Illinois, Malkovich is one of five siblings. He has talked of his youth as being full of conflict – something he seemed able to dip into as an actor when he joined the Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago in 1976 and later moved to Broadway, TV and film.

Only a handful of actors manage to appear coolly above the movie business while simultaneously becoming world-famous and starring in multimillion-dollar, box-office hits. Malkovich has always seemed less desperate for the accolades of film success than his contemporaries.

That, of course, has made audiences like him even more.

John Malkovich alongside Michelle Pfeiffer in 1988's Dangerous Liaisons. (Photo: Dangerous Liaisons)

Yet while screenwriters and directors have been keen to mine his character for their work, Malkovich has maintained a largely quiet personal life. After an unhappy brush with tabloids when his first marriage ended and he was discovered to have had an affair with his Dangerous Liaisons co-star Michelle Pfeiffer, he left the US. For years he lived in France with his partner of 30 years, Nicoletta Peyran, and their two children.

His interests are far too eccentric to be gossip fodder. As well as acting and directing plays in multiple languages, he has joint ownership of a Lisbon restaurant, a fashion line and once received a commission to design a Liberty print, something he calls “the big honour of my life”. His part of the collection, inspired by 18th century chinoiserie, is called The Peacocks Of Grantham Hall and is pleasingly camp.

The suit he is wearing today is so singular that I wonder if it too is his own design but he says no, it came from a New York boutique called M Crow by “spectacularly gifted” furniture designer Tyler Hays, who makes everything – fabric, buttons, dye – by hand.

This preference for tradition and craft does not, however, make Malkovich a reactionary. Next year he is due to appear in a Netflix comedy from Greg Daniels and Steve Carell, the people behind the US version of The Office. Companies such as Apple and Netflix moving into original production sends the conversation off on to another tangent on the nature of nostalgia and loss.

“I’m not the purist, as a lot of people are about cinema,” he says. “I grew up in a little town and we certainly didn’t have good movies – we had kind of C movies. Sometimes you could see the occasional Bridge On The River Kwai or something at the drive-in, where you were eaten alive by gigantic mosquitoes in the swamp.”

It was nice, he says, but he refuses to be sentimental about the changing ways in which people watch films. “If you live a long life, one of the things you most live is getting used to things that you never anticipated. And so what? Big deal.”

When it comes to films or plays themselves, he quotes William Faulkner, his favourite author, whose Nobel Prize acceptance speech encouraged writers to look beyond politics and create something new. “I can’t name any good political art. I don’t know what it means. It may have been political at the time but let’s say – I know the answer a little bit but let’s just say – why was (Rembrandt’s) The Night Watch painted? Who paid for it? I don’t know. The political story of it is long outlived by the human story and the artistry.”

Malkovich is with Faulkner – stories of the human heart in conflict are the only ones worth telling.

“Maybe even tomorrow somebody will invent some great political format which actually provokes and allows discussion, as opposed to telling somebody what to think,” he said. “I’m not interested in telling anybody what to think.”

By Elaine Moore © 2019 The Financial Times