For a guy who once made a film about the inside of his own head, it’s surprising just how difficult it is to work out who John Malkovich really is. Speaking to NME from a remote French chateau to discuss his new Netflix sitcom, Space Force, his voice drifts through a crackly phone line in a soft monotone. Questions are answered with questions. Tangents spiral off into intellectual dead ends. Long silences are given over to quiet contemplation. You can almost hear the PR on the other line sweating.
“How are you holding up in lockdown?” we ask, not expecting a quick burst of laughter – as if the question itself is faintly ridiculous. Infuriating, sure, but it’s hard to imagine much else from Hollywood’s most mysterious A-lister. In fact it’s hard to imagine anything at all.
Since the mid ’90s Malkovich has been more myth than man. Spike Jonze’s landmark indie comedy, Being John Malkovich, fuelled a cult of personality that blurred the lines between the roles he played and the actor inside them. He’s been French Viscounts, Austrian painters and Italian adventurers. Libertines, doctors, revolutionaries, serial killers, The Duke Of Wellington, Charles VII and Pope John Paul III. He’s also been in Transformers, Jonah Hex and Zoolander 2.
Old interviews are full of his obsession with weird details – drifting off to look at clouds, randomly asking journalists if they like the shape of his skull. At one point he told someone that he doesn’t like having multiple stripes of colour in his toothpaste. Whether it’s all part of the act or not, it’s difficult to know what to make of a man who’s commanded so many different roles yet still managed to make most of them look and sound exactly like himself. A guy who lives in the shadow of a castle once owned by the Marquis de Sade, works his own vineyard and refuses to watch action movies – but who once did a voice in The Penguins Of Madagascar… Who the hell is John Malkovich?
“If I was ever insane enough to write an autobiography, it would be titled ‘Some Things They Say I Did”
For the next few weeks at least, he’s Dr Adrian Mallory – a deadpan foil to Steve Carrell’s blustery general in Space Force, a new smart-edged sitcom from Greg Daniels (creator of the US remake of The Office) about the most inept new branch of the American military. “He’s a very bright, funny scientist, but he’s not necessarily an outwardly comic figure,” says Malkovich, before adding a lot of backstory that never actually comes out in the show. “He’s very well educated, he grew up overseas, obviously very well-versed in science… someone very dapper, who is quite vain and cares about clothing and the way that clothing looks and the quality and of it all…”
He could, of course, just be describing himself. As well as being a highly-intelligent actor and director, Malkovich also grew up overseas and is most definitely a dapper dude – having run his own men’s fashion line since 2002 (according to his website, he “often spends several days focusing purely on fabric selection”). So where does the character stop and the actor begin? Digging into his own backstory, things don’t get any clearer.
Back in 1984, John Malkovich was the hottest thing in Hollywood. Fresh from the Chicago stage but commanding roles like he was already a veteran, the young thespian made his debut in Places In The Heart and The Killing Fields – instantly picking up an Oscar nomination and getting his name on every audition list in town.
“It was a significant event in terms of my life,” he says now, remembering what it felt like to launch his career at the very top. “Just in terms of being in these huge undertakings that gave me an outlook of what the work was – of what the work could be. I thought they were both good films, but I also thought they were two good films to be involved with.”
The Glass Menagerie, Death Of A Salesman and Steven Spielberg’s Empire Of The Sun quickly followed, but it was Stephen Frears’ swoony 1988 literary adaption of Dangerous Liaisons that allowed him to refashion his image again – as Hollywood’s favourite well-spoken bad guy.
“Those were just the roles I was offered,” he says, ignoring a remark that he’s always looked like he has more fun playing the villain than the hero. “For Liaisons I was quite surprised to be offered that role at all. I wasn’t offered the Clint Eastwood role for In The Line Of Fire because why would I? To be honest I don’t think of any of them as villains per se anyway – more as studies in talent gone awry, or at least in potential gone awry”.
With the early ‘90s came the kind of fame that Malkovich has never felt comfortable with, then only emerging from his French chateau to make things worse for himself – taking ever quirkier roles in ever bigger films. Reading back some of the celebrity profiles of the time, it’s hard to know which stories are actually true. “Well who can say?” he says. “If I was ever insane enough to write an autobiography it would be titled ‘Some Things They Say I Did’”.
“I was in my yard in France and [a stranger] handed me a script that was written in what could have been red ink…”
Did he really threaten a homeless guy with a Bowie knife? Did he wreck a tailor’s shop when his shirts turned up late, or smash in the window of bus when it didn’t stop for him? Apparently he once ate nothing but jelly for six months to try and lose weight. One time, a crazy woman jumped over his garden fence and handed him a script handwritten in blood.
“That did happen, yes”, he says softly, neither angry nor glad that we’ve bought it up. “I was in my yard in France and she handed me a script that was all written in what could have been red ink. It was more like it was scrawled with… maybe a very sharp knitting needle. It was about a female character who murders an American actor and it really wasn’t very good.” So he read it? “I read some of it. I read enough to understand the plot, but it didn’t seem like one I wanted to finish reading really… oh yes it was quite terrifying at the time”.
Who else then would Charlie Kaufman pick to play “himself” in a film about the interior of a real American actor’s head? Who else would have such “a quality of unknowabilty”, as he put it at the time – telling press that he had only ever had one person in mind for Being John Malkovich.
“A quality of unknowabilty?” says Malkovich, turning the phrase over in his mind. “I don’t know what that means. [Long, awkward pause]. I don’t think anybody is a fixed, knowable thing. I get what Charlie is saying, and I think Charlie is incredibly clever, but I don’t really think anyone is knowable if I’m unknowable.
“I never actually thought that ‘Being John Malkovich’ would get made”
“I never met Charlie before he wrote the screenplay, so any impression he could have gotten from me would have been a kind of third-party impression. I don’t think I had a conversation with him until right before I did the film, when we had breakfast with Spike Jonze. Afterwards Charlie came up to me and said, ‘I want you to know that I’m a big fan’, and I said, ‘Charlie you don’t have to do that – I already read the script’.”
Malkovich’s first thought when he read a comedy about his own psyche was that he wanted to direct it himself, and that it needed to be about someone else. “Why not ‘Being Tom Cruise’ I asked? Charlie told me quite clearly that he had no desire to change it, and that he was going to direct, so I said OK. To be honest, I never actually thought that it would get made. I remember those years when it remained un-produced. Whenever I got to Hollywood for some press thing or whatever, invariably I’d be in some hotel lobby or in some restaurant or at some vintage lamp store, and somebody would come up to me and say, ‘hey, why aren’t you making Being John Malkovich?’ Eventually we did it, and honestly I was just happy to be a part of it”.
He might have missed out on directing Kaufmann’s debut masterpiece, but the cult of Malkovich exploded after the film came out – letting him direct The Dancer Upstairs instead, a moody revolutionary thriller starring Javier Bardem that picked up a few nods on the festival circuit back in 2002.
“I had some other offers at the time but nothing that really appealed to me,” he says, suddenly much more excited to talk about directing. “I worked with my producing partners on a French film for a number of years that was a kind of mockumentary about a war between a group of environmentalists and a group of vaccination NGOs. But it never got funded. It was pretty politically incorrect.
“There are things that I produced that I would have loved to have directed too. I would have loved to have directed The Perks Of Being A Wallflower – but Steven Chbosky, who wrote it, wanted to direct it and why shouldn’t he. And I would have loved to have directed Ghost World, Juno, and also Art School Confidential. We had a script for a time that I loved called The Coolest Girl In The World, but the writer wanted to direct that too [eventually becoming 2018’s Eighth Grade, by Bo Burnham]. I direct a lot in the theatre though and that wastes a lot less time.”
Theatre, it seems, has always been Malkovich’s true love – with character roles in big Hollywood comedies and action movies bookending foreign arthouse projects and long stints directing for the European stage. How else to explain roles like Cyrus ‘The Virus’ Grissom in the Nicolas Cage classic, Con Air? Or Trump-esque baddie Pascal Sauvage in Johnny English?
‘”Con Air’ was like living outside with a pack of wild animals”
“I don’t so enjoy watching those films,” he muses. “I don’t mean to specifically point out those films in particular, but in terms of the action genre, I just don’t watch it. But Con Air I loved doing because it was all those men… it was kind of like living outside with a pack of wild animals. I can enjoy doing it without it being something that I would choose to actually watch.” For Johnny English, the opportunity came with the bonus of being able to drop in a few obscure digs at disgraced French businessman Jean-Marie Messier (who briefly made the financial newspapers back in 2002 for misusing company funds) – something that was almost definitely not picked up by anyone who saw it. “For me it was also all about doing this idiotic voice [goes into a ridiculous French accent] ‘Oh my family av ad a ouse ere for centuries blah blah blah…’ Of course, if you live in France that’s the kind of language you hear every time you hear English tourists speaking. We wound up with a silly cartoon version of a man, which I think is why so many children from a certain generation love that.”
Settling into a comfortable older age – looking more like Sigmund Freud than Michael Stipe as he enters his late 60s – Malkovich seems to be picking slightly more projects that speak to both sides of his personality. Arty but successful shows like Paolo Sorrentino’s The New Pope. Blockbusters with decent directors like Peter Berg’s Mile 22. And comedy with something to say like his latest show, Space Force.
“I just thought it sounded a very funny, very timely idea, and a pretty target-rich environment really,” says Malkovich, before trying to steer the conversation to ancient Greek aesthetics, Brutalist design and Soviet collectivism.
Dragged back to try and explain the plot of the show, he manages to keep things abstract. “The best laid plans of mice and men often go astray,” he says. “Something I think most people can relate to on a day-to-day basis, even people who are successful or even very successful in their field, is that you just may not be qualified to do what’s being asked of you. There is a lot of comedy in that because there’s also a lot of pain in that. Pain and comedy tend to go hand in hand, or at least hand in glove.”
Wandering off topic again to talk about the future of cinema after the lockdown (“I’ve said for a long time that I don’t know how long movie theatres would last. This could be the final toll of that mournful bell…”) and how it once took him five years to watch Sexy Beast on DVD (but that’s okay, because “everything changed the moment you could watch a film whenever you wanted to on VHS or CD…”), things take a bleaker turn as he describes his last few months spent cancelling productions around Europe when theatres closed down, postponing planned film roles and holing up in his chateau to wait for lockdown to end.
“I don’t know how long movie theatres can last”
So where’s the silver lining? What does Malkovich do to lighten the mood when things look bad? What makes him laugh?
“Lots of things make me laugh,” he says, putting on a weird high-pitched voice. “Behaviour. Sometimes childishness. Extremes of emotion can be funny. A chimp in a space suit hurtling towards the sun.”
“There’s a scene in Space Force when they solicit a monkey to repair a space craft. You see him in his little chimp-stronaut suit, with his little helmet on, then he’s hurled in a trajectory towards the sun and everything falls to pieces. It just reveals the sort of pathetic-ness of people. Even in outer space big dreams don’t often come true. I know according to Disney some dreams can come true, it can happen to you, but they can also not come true. That’s pretty hilarious to me…”
So who the hell is John Malkovich? We still have no idea.
‘Space Force’ arrives on Netflix on May 29