John Malkovich recently directed his first film, The Dancer Upstairs, but as he's quick to point out, the move behind the camera was a minor step for him; he's been directing stage plays for nearly 30 years. As one of the original members of Chicago's Steppenwolf Theater, he was an award-winning stage performer and director long before he broke into film with an Oscar-nominated supporting role in 1984's Places In The Heart. Various film and television performances followed, but Malkovich's breakthrough came in 1988, with his key role as the sinister, mesmerizing Viscount de Valmont in Dangerous Liaisons. He's appeared in comedies (Making Mr. Right), costume dramas (Portrait Of A Lady, The Man In The Iron Mask), action thrillers (Con Air, In The Line Of Fire), modern dramas (Queen's Logic, Rounders), and a wide variety of stage-to-film adaptations, often of plays he'd performed in onstage (True West, Of Mice and Men, Death Of A Salesman, The Glass Menagerie). Still, Malkovich's most indelible role may have come from an uncategorizable film in which he purportedly played himself. Being John Malkovich, directed by Spike Jonze from a script by Charlie Kaufman, centers on a magical portal into his mind. (Malkovich plays himself first as an oblivious and self-important actor, and then as a demented John Cusack possessing Malkovich's body.) Since then, he's kept busy with half a dozen film and television roles, most notably as driven director F.W. Murnau in 2000's reality-based horror film Shadow Of The Vampire. In 2002, he completed The Dancer Upstairs, a Spanish production that adapts Nicholas Shakespeare's novel of the same name. Javier Bardem (Before Night Falls) stars as a policeman in an unnamed Latin American country, pursuing a terrorist leader closely based on Abimael Guzmán, leader of Sendero Luminoso, otherwise known as Shining Path. While on tour supporting The Dancer Upstairs' American release, Malkovich spoke to The Onion A.V. Club about his hatred of ideologies and movements, the difference between stage and film acting, and why he's more interested in human cost than popular notions of right and wrong.
The Onion: What attracted you to the story of The Dancer Upstairs?
John Malkovich: A lot of things. I traveled in Peru during the heyday of Sendero, which started in the late '70s and went on to 1992, when Guzmán was captured, though it's still going on at a lower grade. And that sort of piqued my interest. Then I read the long article that Nicholas Shakespeare wrote for Granta, the English literary magazine, which I was very interested in. I noticed in his little bio that he was writing a novel about it, and I looked for the novel when it came out, and I liked it very much, so we bought the options and started work on it.
O: The book came out in 1997. Is there any particular reason the film came together this year?
JM: It just took this long. No one was interested in a film about some far-off land with brown people, or terrorism, or obscure causes and movements that murdered people. It just wasn't in the world's interest.
O: The film tends to present events without taking a strong moral stance, or leading the audience. Given the current political climate, do you think it would have been possible to make this film in America?
JM: It wasn't. I don't know, I think it depends on if they can make money off it. I mean, anything that money can be made off will never be a problem to make, no matter what it is. You know, they make porno, and at the same time, elements of the country are very moralistic. But no one ever really stops anything that makes money.
O: Do you think there's a strong political ideology or moral behind the film?
JM: No. I think there's... Well, that may be disingenuous, in some ways. There's the ideology of someone who's been force-fed finally vomiting. So, yeah, there probably is some political ideology in it, but maybe not the expected ones.
O: But that's a single character's ideology rather than from your own perspective, or from the screenwriter's perspective. Does The Dancer Upstairs reflect any of your personal beliefs?
JM: Well, there are quite a few people in the film with very different ideologies, so it's not just the story of one man. That's principally the story, but it's no secret that the idea of these movements... Which have existed really not since Sept. 11, but for the last 50 years. Every day, somewhere in the world, terrorists will murder people who have nothing to do with their cause, to promote their cause, and that's something the world is starting to grapple with now. And the response has come in all forms. I think it has yet to find its clarity. It's no surprise that the head of Reuters popularized the phrase "One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter," because only a journalist could come up with something so utterly facile and idiotic, and actually obscene, in fact. But a huge part of the world believes that, and there's nothing I can do about that. They have their little causes, whatever they are. And one has to care about them profoundly, or one is a target. That's the way the world works, the whole world. Ideologically, it doesn't really matter–I really hate ideology, that's for sure. But ideologically, there's really nothing to say about it, because that's what it is. The world is ruled by violence, or at least the imminent threat of violence. It always has been. This is the way the world is, and there's nothing I can do about it–I mean, I can say it, I can observe it, I can have a feeling about whether that's good or bad. I could have, even, some empirical evidence that it's good or bad. But it doesn't matter, because that's what rules the world. Violence.
O: Is there a specific response that you'd like people to have to the movie? Would you like them to come away from it with anything in particular?
JM: I'm not a psychiatrist. I'm not treating patients. I'm expressing myself. They're free to have whatever reaction they have–and there have already been quite a catholicity of reactions. People have jumped up and screamed, "It's a fascist film." "It's a film that's soft on terrorism." "It's a propaganda film." "It's a film that debases the great work of Abimael Guzmán." Somebody asked me at UCLA last week, "I think I missed something. What's the message?" This very hostile questioner who clearly had an ideology, who clearly had an agenda, who clearly did not miss the quote-"message" of the film, but something disturbed him in the "message" of the film. I told him, "I'm not a computer person, so to me, messages are things that go in bottles, or on a telephone. They're not for the cinema." I can give you my reflections, but I don't want to give you a message, whether I have one or not. It's not my job, and it's also very arrogant. You know, I'm really not interested in someone telling me that something's good or bad. I'm interested in the cost of things. In this film, there are very different messages, but they're just people expressing what their concerns are at the time, and what they think at the time. It's not up to me. It's up to people to choose what they care to hear.
O: But don't most fictional stories tend to validate some characters over others, to present some characters as more empathetic, or more justified, than others?
JM: Well, it depends on how skilled you are, and most people aren't skilled, so I would say no. Not to give the film away, but I think one of the people in this movement couldn't have been treated more sympathetically, and I don't approve of the movement in any way. Because part of the difficulty of life–we've done it for centuries–is trying to figure out why humans do inhuman things. We still don't know, do we? I mean, I agree with Samuel Beckett [in the play Endgame]: "You're on earth, there's no cure for that." Why? I don't know why, and by the way, you're not going to figure it out. But, yes, it may say certain things, but my reflections are usually about the notion of cost, human cost, not "Do this" or "Don't do that." I can't tell people what to do. I have no idea myself.
O: You say you've heard a lot of criticisms and reactions to the film. Have you heard any that you consider apt, or legitimate?
JM: No, because it's not up to me. I can't agree with the fact that I'm more or less a man and that I'm 49 years old. [Laughs.] What's to disagree with, or agree with? They're just my reflections. They're not anything more, or anything less. First of all, I don't read reviews. For 20 years, I don't look at articles, I don't do all of that. So someone would have to come up and engage me in a conversation about it, and say, "I take issue with this film because..." Etcetera, etcetera. For example, some women have taken a feminist stance against the portrayal of some of the women in the film, saying they're either shallow or they're dangerous. Not at all true. Again, they're coming into the theater with something. When you ask, "Is it a political film?"... Well, 13 years ago, the most political thing you could hear in the United States Of America was, "Who put the pubes on my Coke can?" This was really high politics. This was the catastrophe. I don't think I would be alone now in finding all of that distasteful. I found it distasteful then. I found it a reduction of serious issues to the most pathetic dialogue, the most unimaginably pathetic reduction. But I was told then that it was incredibly political, and one who didn't understand that was an incredible pig. I mean, I may very well be an incredible pig, but I'm one who's read The Second Sex, and they haven't. Just to be clear. But see, I don't have to take that politically, just because it's shoved down my throat. I can see it for what it is, in my opinion, and they have to see it for what they think it is. And I can't convince them. I don't convince them, nor are they fully succeeding with me. What I find... You can pick them out when you go through a discussion. Who comes to something blindfolded and gagged–well, not gagged, unfortunately, but blindfolded and with earplugs. They're very easy to spot. I showed [Dancer] in France, and someone's girlfriend asked why the quote-"Arab" music played when the quote-"terrorist" was dancing. Totally ignorant of the fact that I've used that artist's music three times in films, that he's a great performer, and that it has nothing to do with anything. If I had used the real music Guzmán danced to, which was from Zorba The Greek, then I suppose Greeks would have asked me, "Why are you slamming the Greeks? Is it just [because of the Greek guerrilla group] November 17? Are you for the junta?" You see? You have to be really ferocious about these idiot criticisms. You have to scratch back. It can't be tolerated. Go and look at the film. Don't talk to me, don't listen to what I say, look at the film. Don't come in here and tell me the same thing you already thought, don't tell me what you hoped to have seen, or hoped you would be offended by and were, because then I know you're not very bright. And not because you don't like the film. You can like it or hate it–I don't really care, and there's nothing I can do about it anyway. But I think you essentially... Criticism is pretty much like everything else in life. Consider the source first, and consider whether there's any sense to it. Of course, it doesn't matter with a film, because the film is already finished, so it's really irrelevant. But consider the source, and what the criticism is itself. Listen, and finally you have to decide, is there anything interesting there? I haven't heard a lot, except when I go to question-and-answer sessions. And sometimes what we call criticism is something that someone brought to the room long before the first frame of the film started. They brought it to the room because I irritate or offend them. They brought it to the room because they don't believe what they heard this film purports to believe. There are a million of these things. And when you work, you have to do your own work in the end. I don't make these "true to yourself" speeches, because we're not true to ourselves anyway. Frankly, I think that whole idea is kind of idiotic. But I would say you have to do the best you can, and you have to give your reflections. Especially when you direct a movie, as opposed to acting in it. Because when you're acting, that's not your job.
O: Was it more of a transition for you to go from stage directing to film directing, or going from acting to directing?
JM: Neither. It was going from stage acting to film acting that was the big transition, because one's alive and one's dead. One's impulse and one's anti-impulse. One is, "If it's not in frame it doesn't exist," and the other is, "You can't frame what I do. I decide when, I decide where, I decide how. I and my peers, doing it live right there." One is true, one is false. So they're very different. I think they both have always interested me. I'm not obsessed with acting. I don't read about acting, or follow acting, or know much about acting. They interest me as work, as a piece of work. That was a big adjustment, because they're very, very different things. But directing a film is no adjustment, because from the very first second I worked on a film, I was always with the technicians. I'd done all that for 20 years.
O: Do you find stage acting more inherently satisfying?
JM: Not really. No. I mean, stage acting is more visceral fun, or more reactionary knee-jerk fun. But not always. It's more of a grind, more physically exhausting, but it's also more of an exercise in childlike belief, in exercising your imagination, etcetera, etcetera. Film can also be great fun, and sometimes less physically exhausting, though of course the days are very long. And you have to learn a different kind of concentration, because when you do a play, the whole play is behind you all the time. It's more like grabbing onto a speeding train and hoping to hang on, whereas with film acting, you're pushing the train up the hill with a group of people, and hoping it doesn't roll back down and kill everyone. Which it usually does, but, you know, c'est la vie.
O: Do you tend to see a difference between actors and directors who have a stage background and those who don't?
JM: Not really. I don't think it's any help, having a stage background, to act in movies. For instance, Javier Bardem is as fine a young actor as I've ever seen anywhere, and he's never done a play. I mean, his mom's a famous theater actress, but he's never done a play. So I don't think it matters. I don't think it hurts, either. It's sort of like asking, "If you play the saxophone, will you be a better guitar player?" On the level of being a musician, maybe it gives you a sense of the rhythm of things, or how things should sound, maybe, but it's not the same instrument at all. You're not blowing on something, you're strumming it. You're making chords, and you're doing this and that, and playing notes, and so on. But it doesn't make you a better guitar player. I think it's fairly irrelevant.
O: Did working as an actor teach you any methods that helped you in directing?
JM: Yeah, of course. Most film directors are absolutely clueless as to what to say to an actor–as if there's any one thing. It's just about knowing how to communicate with people, how to create an environment where they feel... I don't like these sort of lovey words like "safe" or "protected," because doing a play isn't dangerous. [Points out 35th-story window.] Window-washing here is dangerous. A play generally isn't dangerous, because very few people get maimed or killed doing one. But where they feel comfortable and supported in the work they do, and where their instincts or their opinions or their questions are taken seriously, or at least as seriously as a play is. But, you know, actors mostly want to be treated as peers, like most people. Of course, some are nuts, some are neurotic, some you can never help, some you could never make comfortable. But that's true in anything. Most people are capable of profiting from a decent work environment.
O: What's your ideal director like?
JM: You know, it really depends. I like someone who's really rigorous about choices actors make, and who's not afraid to insist on a more profound choice, a more original choice, a deeper choice, a more provocative choice, etcetera. Rather than go, "Oh, it's brilliant, you're great, let's move on." I prefer the former to the latter. But I don't really mind what a director's like, because in a way, you're really there to fulfill their vision. You're working for them. You're a figure in their painting–you're not the artist. That's just the way I look at it. So I don't much mind what their method is. I've done a lot of movies and plays, I've worked with so many directors, and I don't mind what their method or personality is, very much. The ones I prefer are really collaborative, to the point of being overly demanding. But if they're not, that's okay, too.
O: Are you tired of Being John Malkovich jokes yet?
JM: I haven't really heard many. I mean, I did the film, and it was very funny, but I don't really hear things like that so much. I mean, I hear little intended puns on the title, but I don't really pay attention. It doesn't bother me. It's a good film. I'm happy with it, and I'm glad I did it. But I don't think about it much.
O: Do you think about any of your films in particular after you do them?
JM: No. The ship has sailed. I'm always doing something else, always on to the next thing. I have other things to think about. I don't watch them, I don't look at them or reflect on them. In a very, very, very, very rare instance, maybe, but just for a few minutes. I'm not like that, you know? In this business, I think you need to get used to not looking back.
O: Your characters often tend to be dark, cold people, though not necessarily people in classic villain roles–more ambiguous characters with their own agendas, like Valmont in Dangerous Liaisons, or Gilbert in Portrait Of A Lady. Do you think of these characters as villains?
JM: Valmont, I would characterize as someone with great charm and also great sentiment, but who was totally in ignorance of himself, and a complete emotional coward. A villain, not at all. Gilbert, it's hard to say. Someone very manipulative. "Villainous" is a stronger word. Cold? I think he did feel things; he just didn't have the slightest notion of how to express them. Whereas Valmont did know how to express them, and just decided not to at every turn. I think they're just grayer people than one normally finds in the cinema, rather than being good or bad.
O: Your most memorable roles all seem to fit into that category, though. Do you consciously seek out gray roles, or do you turn down roles that you feel have too simplistic a take on good and evil?
JM: Well, I did Con Air. That was fairly simplistic. I think I have nothing to apologize for when it comes to simplicity. But I don't seek out any roles. You just choose from among that which you've been offered. No one ever says to me, "Hey, would you like to do a remake of It's A Wonderful Life?" They just don't ask me these things.
O: Do you ever regret that? Are you worried about being typecast?
JM: I've had more variety, probably, than anybody working. It's just what the public chooses to remember is six or seven of my films. I've done comedies, tragedies, farces. I was the troubled son for many years, and people asked me why I was always the troubled son. I've done about everything there is to do. How could I have more variety? If you mean more variety like getting into a big Hollywood film, I couldn't care less, really. I'm sure I'm missing out on specific roles, but there's nothing I can do about that. As I say, you just can do what you're offered. I suppose there probably are other roles I could have done, or would have liked to have done, though I can't think of any. But if I had done them, I wouldn't have liked the film, probably. So then what's the point? I don't want to sound like Edith Piaf, but what's the point of regretting, trying to be different from what I am, or have a different history than what I have? I've been so lucky, it's absurd, so I don't really want to be anything else.