Malcolm McDowell

The actor: It’s fair to say there’s no role too big for Malcolm McDowell. From his first film appearance in Lindsay Anderson’s 1967drama If…, McDowell commanded the screen with his cocksure charm and devilish swagger. That impish quality served him well in 1971’s A Clockwork Orange, lending a sympathetic tinge to the movie’s sociopathic protagonist, and in later parts, like the self-mythologizing head of the Joffrey Ballet in Robert Altman’s The Company. On the occasion of Clockwork coming out on Blu-ray and the U.S. release of Never Apologize, which chronicles the three films McDowell made with Lindsay Anderson, The A.V. Club asked the actor to look back on his long, sometimes checkered career.

A Clockwork Orange (1971)—“Alex DeLarge”
The A.V. Club: Much of the language of A Clockwork Orange comes out of Anthony Burgess’ book, but what made you decide to give Alex a Northern English accent? That’s where you’re from.

Malcolm McDowell: Yes. I decided to do it Northern, because if it’s Cockney, it’s very sharp letters. You sort of expect a spiv or a thug. But Northern, the vowel sounds are much softer, and therefore I felt that the fact that he is this menacing character with this softer sound would be more interesting.

AVC: So you thought it through on those technical terms.

MM: Yes. I mentioned it to Stanley, who went, “Whatever.”

AVC: Although Kubrick lived in England, he was raised in the U.S., and the subtleties of those different accents are lost on Americans.

MM: I know. Actually, there was a good case in point, because he had cast one of the stuntmen to play the eminent doctor—Sir something something. When the guy came in, the stuntman, he had a good Cockney accent, he goes, “Ah, well ’ere Minister, ’ere’s little Alex now.” I started to laugh. He said, “What are you laughing at?” I said, “He’s an eminent doctor, Sir something, he’s not going to have a Cockney accent.”

AVC: There’s a funny link between Clockwork and If…. Stanley Donen was the president of the jury when If…. won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, and you later found out Donen was personally responsible for presenting the film as a compromise choice between polarized factions. Later, you picked “Singin’ In The Rain” as the song Alex would sing while he’s beating a man half to death. You’ve said Donen’s co-director Gene Kelly wasn’t thrilled about that. 

MM: Stanley took it for what it was, and knew it was an homage to him and to Gene. Of course I meant no disrespect. It was instinctive, because they made such an important and indelible sequence out of that. It’s a terrific movie, anyway. I can understand somebody being really pissed, of course I can. It’s a shame.

AVC: It says something interesting about how Stanley Kubrick worked at the time. Kubrick is known as a control freak, doing hundreds of takes until he got exactly what he wanted, but that song, which you suggested using on the set, ends up playing an important role in the plot, and even plays over the closing credits.

MM: It totally, totally changed the movie, I think in the same way Peter Sellers changed Strangelove. It’s the perfect device, that’s what’s so amazing, because it gets us over the rape and beating in this satirical way.

AVC: It also seems representative of the kind of energy and even theatricality you brought to your performances at the time. 

MM: But don’t forget, of course, that Alex was a music lover. He loved Beethoven. He was obsessed by it. And of course it would follow that he would like “Singin’ In The Rain.”

O Lucky Man! (1973)—“Mick Travis”
MM: Can you imagine that ever being made today? The only reason we made it for Warner Brothers was because Clockwork Orange was such a huge hit. I sent them the script, and the director just happened to be in New York, two weeks after the film had opened. I don’t know whether they read the script. It wasn’t an expensive movie, we did it very reasonably, £1.7 million. That was probably $3 million. But it encompassed everything, and the music.

AVC: Just the style of the film is so wild. It opens with a silent-film parody, there are musical numbers—

MM: You know, I’m the one who gets his hands cut off [in the silent film]. A lot of people don’t even know it’s me. I play two parts.

AVC: After you get thrown in jail, Lindsay Anderson puts those statistics up on the screen about how many people are in prison, and it’s as if we’re briefly in a whole different kind of movie.

MM: Nonsense, pick any number you want, it’s nonsense. That was the whole point, though, because people manipulate statistics however they want. So they don’t mean anything, that’s what that’s saying.

AVC: O Lucky Man! started out as a story based on your experience as a coffee salesman, but it grew into this massive, absurd picaresque. When did it leave your control?

MM: I did not write the original 40-page treatment to sell the script with me as the writer. I could care less who did it. I knew it would be a collaboration between David Sherwin, the writer of If…., myself, and Lindsay Anderson. But I’m the start of it. I did write a lot of it, but I don’t need to be credited with that, because David earned his living as a writer. And that was pointed out to me, when I went, “Well, really I should be co-writer.” Then he goes, “What’s your next script?” I go, “Well, I don’t know.” And he goes, “No, you’re not a writer, let David.” To be fair, Lindsay wrote the majority of it anyway.

AVC: Your treatment wasn’t, for example, “And then he comes across a man whose head is attached to the body of a sheep.”

MM: No, it wasn’t that specific.

AVC: I mean the more fantastic elements, generally.

MM: There was the whole fantastic element of the nuclear meltdown, that I handled myself. It wasn’t quite as catastrophic as that, but Lindsay took it to its nth level. Which was great. Which was correct, to do it that way.

AVC: There are little lines here and there that seem like they might be references to you: “This is no place for a boy from the North,” or when you’re serving at a soup kitchen and you’re told not to “put on an act.”

MM: I don’t think the one at the soup kitchen is in relation to me and my career. Of course, the end is the audition for If…. in a very stylized way. It didn’t happen like that—my God, I wish it had, but it didn’t. I kept saying to Lindsay, “I don’t know how to end the damned thing.” He goes, “What happened to you?” I went, “I became a movie star.” He went, “There you are.”

AVC: Was that the actual script for O Lucky Man! he slapped you with? It’s a long, long movie.

MM: Of course. It’s this thick. I said, “Can’t we cut this down?” He had me do a good 15, maybe 18 takes. I don’t remember the number. I remember having the crap beaten out of me. David had rather naïvely put in, “He hits Mick, and Mick smiles the smile of success.” Of course, that’s just a writer’s fantasy. He doesn’t know that you can’t smile the smile of success if you’re hit with a script like that. You’re actually quite stunned. But there was a rather enigmatic sort of look, which was perfect, the look of understanding. It is the Zen moment. It leads back to when I auditioned for If…., this girl [Christine Noonan] slapped me so hard. That was the Zen moment in my life that moved me from there to there.

Never Apologize (2007)—himself
AVC: It’s great that Warner Bros. is taking this opportunity to release Never Apologize, the film of your one-man show about Lindsay Anderson.

MM: Then you know a lot about it, because it’s all there. I was thinking of actually doing a script, a film, about my relationship with him, and maybe playing him. Because it’s a love story, in a way.

AVC: You speak of him with great affection and respect, and playful criticism as well.

MM: It’s almost like a marriage.

AVC: Never Apologize definitely conveys a sense of how creative relationships work. On O Lucky Man!, you and David Sherwin are plotting out who will bring each newly written scene to Anderson, since if you both bring it, he’ll reject it out of hand. 

MM: No, because he’ll think we’re ganging up. “You take this, I’ll take this.” And then he’d go, “Yes, I rather like this, that’s not bad. Good work today, boys.” It’s like the master at school giving us an A. It’s unbelievable. That’s the way we did the damn thing. It seems inconceivable now, but that’s the way it was done. I had it in the back of my mind, maybe, to do it, and to write the script about the whole relationship, and the whole thing of the films and everything, because I thought that people would never see that. And we could do that reasonably cheaply. It wouldn’t have to be on location with him looking around and going, “Who is this girl?” “Oh, that’s my girlfriend.” “Get her off the set!”

The Player (1992)—“Malcolm McDowell”
MM: Bob was a friend of mine. We were friends for 35 years. I love Bob Altman. I always admired him so much, because I always thought he was a genuine voice. If you wanted to know what was going on in America for all those years, just go rent Altman’s movies. He was a unique person, and anti-establishment; he hated Hollywood and all that. But what fun to have a night with him. They loved to party, those guys.

AVC: Did you have anybody in mind when you came up with the moment where you confront Tim Robbins’ producer in a hotel lobby?

MM: Actually, I did. I’m not going to tell you who it was. I stupidly said to the man—who I’d worked with, who went on to head three major studios, at which I never worked of course, for one of them. Because I went up to him at a screening, and I said, “Look, if you want to badmouth me, you can do it to my face, not behind my back.” And I just turned. Then I read, oh my God, he’s the head of UA, then he was the head of Columbia. And I went, “That was a bit stupid.” So at least I got the one line I could use, and I gave it to Altman for his film.

Time After Time (1979)—“H.G. Wells”
MM: Oh, I love that part. I love that film, actually. Well of course, I was in love during the filmmaking—how could you not love the damn film? And I’ve always loved San Francisco since. In fact, Mary [Steenburgen] and I went back there six years later, and I’m like, “What the hell do we like about this place?” I said, “My God, even the Tadich Grill is not that good.” So you do see a place through rose-tinted spectacles. It was a wonderful time, and also such a beautiful part. Normally I would have been cast as Jack the Ripper, and I’m so happy David Warner did it brilliantly, and I didn’t have to do that. H.G. Wells was such a fun part. 

AVC: There are recordings of Wells, and photographs, but you don’t seem like an actor who buries yourself in research.

MM: I never do research, unless it’s extraordinary circumstances. But I actually did do research for that part. I called the BBC’s archives office, and I said, “Would you send me recordings of H.G. Wells?” He’d done a radio interview in 1932 or something, whatever it was. Anyway, the vinyl comes, I put it on, and I was so shocked to have this high-pitched, whiny Cockney accent. I thought, “Right, I’m going to take that to Hollywood.” So I sent the thing back, and I went, “Forget about, you know. I’ll grow the mustache, that’s it. That’s the character.”

AVC: Did you ever regret not taking the opportunity to play more good guys?

MM: The thing is, I’ve never been a handsome leading-man type, so let’s not kid ourselves. I’m very happy to be where I am. Of course, H.G. Wells is really a character lead; it’s not a romantic lead, even though it’s a romance. And actually, when the studio sold the movie originally, they sold it as a Jack the Ripper chase movie, which killed it stone dead. If they’d sold it as a romance, a love story, I think they would have done a lot better with it, because audiences loved that film. Mary and I snuck into a screening in Times Square, and the whole black audience were talking back to it. We were like, “Oh my God, this is so much fun!” We loved it; we just had so much fun watching it with them. But because of this dreaded word, “market research,” which has its place but has replaced a nose for the business, ingenuity, whatever, they thought it would be better off sold as a Jack the Ripper movie.

Royal Flash (1975)—“Captain Harry Flashman”
MM: Richard Lester is a wonderful director, a great comedy director, of course. He’d done The Three Musketeers and the Beatles movies. An incredibly talented man, who just withdrew from the business because there was a tragic accident on one of his sets [The Return Of The Musketeers]. Roy Kinnear, who was a friend of mine, was killed on a horse. Actually, he wasn’t killed on the horse; they killed him in the hospital. They gave him the wrong thing, or something. It was tragic, and of course it wasn’t the fault of Dick Lester, but he took it very hard, and he couldn’t bring himself to direct again. Which is our loss. But I also met Roy Kinnear’s son. That was a great treat for me, because I loved Roy. He was such a great actor; he was such a wonderful, roly-poly character, and a wonderful comedian. It was very, very tragic.

Royal Flash, it was a lot of fun to do it. It was really sad that we didn’t start that franchise with the first book. But there was so much baggage attached to it that Dick Lester said, “To hell with it, let’s just do the second one.” That’s why there’s this whole thing at the beginning with him at the fort—that’s the whole of the first book, right there. Awarded the V.C., because he had the Union Jack draped around him. Of course it fell on him, hit him, knocked him out, and he got entwined in it. It was a great part, but it didn’t really quite gel. The script was a bit overlong, then they introduced the partisans halfway through. Just a bit too much going on, I think. But Oliver Reed was wonderful as Bismarck.

AVC: The books aren’t that well known in the U.S., but that must have been a hugely anticipated film in Britain.

MM: Yes, I think so. But in Britain, there again, it should have been the first one, and I think people just went, “That’s weird.” So they didn’t go see it.

Star Trek: Generations (1994)—“Dr. Tolian Soran”
AVC: You’ve gotten some flak for killing Captain Kirk, haven’t you?

MM: I like to razz the Trekkies a little bit. Who doesn’t? It’s trainspotting, isn’t it? But they are very well-meaning, actually. I’ve done a couple of Star Trek conventions, and they’ve only been really welcoming. I don’t do too many of those things, but I’ve found them very cordial, and I’m very happy with the film. I think it’s a terrific film, Star Trek: Generations. It was nice to be in [William] Shatner’s last one, and do the dastardly deed myself. It was nice to work with Patrick [Stewart], because I hadn’t worked with him since Stratford-on-Avon, 1965. As I like to say, he was playing old men even then.

Fantasy Island (2002)—“Mr. Roarke”
AVC: You told Shatner that half the audience would hate you for killing him and half would love you, by which you meant they were sick of seeing him in that role. That’s never happened to you. You’ve had a few TV opportunities, like Fantasy Island, but they haven’t lasted long.

MM: I wish they had done. I’d rather got used to the life in Hawaii. But unfortunately, the scripts weren’t that good. It was a great shame, but it’s all to do with script, you know. I’ve got this new show called Franklin & Bash, and this time we’ve got really top-drawer writers that are fantastic. And these two kids are fantastic, Breckin Meyer and Mark-Paul Gosselaar.

Heroes (2007-08)—“Daniel Linderman”
AVC: The verdict from the fans is that the show went off the rails at some point.

MM: I had nothing to do with that. They made some dumb choices, but Tim Kring is a very talented man, and he will come back with a great series, I have no doubt whatsoever. I wasn’t even sure whether I should even do this thing. I thought, “I don’t know, I don’t think I want to do a TV show, a reoccurring bit.” Anyway, I was talking to my son, Charlie, my older one. I said, “Have you ever heard of this thing, Heroes?” He goes, “Dad, I love it!” I went, “You do? Oh, I’ve just been offered something.” He goes, “Oh my God, you got to do it!” I went, “Oh my God, I think I turned it down. All right, listen, I got to get off the phone. I’ll call my agent. Are you sure I should do it?” “Yes!” I call my agent, said, “You didn’t turn it down yet, did you?” He went, “No, no, I knew you’d be calling back.” I said, “I’ll do it.”

I had no idea they’d been building this Linderman character up all season. It was a culmination, and this incredible character. I was very happy, and it just worked beautifully. Baking pies, it was a great scene. Then it was such a success, that character, even though they killed me off. But it was so successful. They brought me back for the next season, but unfortunately, the man who’d written my thing originally was off on another series. He was doing Kings with Ian McShane. McShane is a terrific actor. I like McShane a lot. He’s another one who found a career late, which is great. I mean, better late than never.

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