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The Great Lost John Malkovich Interview

In a never-before-published profile from the ‘Rolling Stone’ vaults, the legendary and inscrutable actor ponders his unusual childhood, his volatile temper and what it’s really like to be John Malkovich

John Malkovich in Netflix's Velvet Buzzsaw

John Malkovich in the Netflix original movie 'Velvet Buzzsaw.'

Claudette Barius/Netflix

Nine years ago, Rolling Stone sent me deep into the Provence-Alpes-Cote d’Azur region of France, to interview John Malkovich at the home he kept there. He had two new movies coming out: RED, starring him as an LSD-addled ex-CIA agent, and Secretariat, him as a crusty, goofy-clothes-wearing horse trainer. They displayed Malkovich in great classic, loopy form, and both flicks did well. But for whatever reason — the vagaries of the publishing industry, the mercurial whims of the magazine’s editor — the piece never ran. And so there it sat, safely in inventory, gloomily twiddling its thumbs in the shadows, waiting for change. 

It’s not change, however, that makes the story, at long last, worth publishing now. It’s the recent realization that so little about it needs to be updated in order to present a pretty good up-to-the-moment portrait of the man. He’s in lots of new stuff. There’s Billions, Showtime’s hedge-funder-versus-law-man soap, in which he plays a nefarious Russian oligarch; The ABC Murders, a BBC import now on Amazon Prime, in which he plays Agatha Christie’s ever-punctual detective Hercule Poirot; Netflix’s Velvet Buzzsaw, where he plays a badly blocked painter; and the upcoming Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, due out this fall, in which he plays the judge in the Ted Bundy murder trial. Meanwhile, for the stage in London, he’s prepping a black David Mamet comedy, Bitter Wheat, based on the rise and fall of disgraced film producer Harvey Weinstein.

At the age of 65, Malkovich shows no signs of taking any kind of breather. Circumstances may evolve, but Malkovich seems to remain steadfast, always here, present and accounting for himself, a lank evergreen. That being the case, here’s what I wrote about him nine years ago, unchanged.  What he was then, he’s much the same now — even though he’s far, far different than the Midwestern kid he once was, 70 pounds overweight, sometimes called Fatso, who wore gallumphing corrective braces in his shoes and often waltzed around pretending he was this slim, rakish, scarf-wearing Italian lothario named Tony, his first big escape into character, of which there would be many more to come.

Outside his home, surrounded by the stillness of the French countryside, John Malkovich takes in the distance. Up a far, bleary hill sits a dramatic castle now owned by Pierre Cardin but once overseen by the great masochist the Marquis de Sade. A shadow darkens the vista. Wind is on the rise, and clouds are on the move. Resting in a simple metal seat, Malkovich sips his coffee. He crosses his legs. Stillness continues to surround him. His head, nearly bald, glistens moistly. His lips, thin as worms, are pursed, his tongue flicking through. Nothing has changed. There is a question before him concerning the dominant attitude he presents to the world and what, in his opinion, it might be. He rests one elegant hand atop the other and tilts his chin, as if pondering an answer professorially.

A bit of tree fluff floats by. His eyes follow it. He pinches the filter off a cigarette and lights up. Finally, his lips draw back upon his teeth the way they sometimes do, showing both amusement and disdain, and he says what he’s taken all this time to formulate. It’s going to be some crystal clear insight into himself and his character. It’s going to be pithy, to the point and irrefutable. It’s going to say what Malkovich really thinks of himself. He shrugs. He says, “I have no idea.” And that’s all that he says, all that he comes up with after all this time. He smiles, broadly. Then he goes back to the distance, staring off, looking ever so pleased with himself, as only he can.

In most of his movies, Malkovich has been an oozing, slithering creature, at once charming and terrifying. Everything he does comes off as kind of strange and otherworldly, an effect compounded by the postcoital weariness and buttery menace of his voice, the off-kilter pauses that are creepy beyond measure and the encapsulating swizzle of his eyes, olive brown and obdurate. It’s the attitude, almost, of a committed futilitarian. And his skull — what a grand, clunkily shaped orb it is, tapered at the chin, bulbous at the top, with great, big Dumbo-sized ears hanging off it. As a complete package, he’s indelible and unexpected, a singular, off-slant masterpiece. And that’s true in life as well, especially when it comes to his temper. He is known to have threatened a man with a Bowie knife. He once destroyed a tailor’s shop when his shirts arrived a little late and another time smashed a bus window when the bus wouldn’t stop for him. Even so he is beloved by all who enter his orbit, most especially by those who have acted along side him. “I just have to say, I adore him,” says Sally Field, who starred with him in his first movie, 1984’s Places in the Heart, in which he played a blind rooming-house boarder (and was nominated for an Oscar). “He plays by his own rule book. He doesn’t give a rat’s ass about what lots of us spend lots of time caring about.”

“Working with him was one of the great experiences of my working life,” says Dustin Hoffman, who starred with Malkovich playing his first Broadway role, Biff in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, also in 1984. “When I first met him at the audition, he looked like a homeless person. He had sandals on, and I remember his feet were very dirty. His hair was awry. He didn’t talk much above a whisper. He just seemed… odd. That’s all I could think about. This is an odd guy. I was stunned. I didn’t know it then, but he’s the kind of pure artist who doesn’t care that much about success, if it’s going to compromise his work. That’s key to him, and that he conveyed.”

Since those early years, he has gone on to most often play “cold, obsessive aesthetes in the thrall of demonic visions,” as one enraptured critic once said. He’s been the cruel seducer in Dangerous Liaisons (1988; his defining, breakout role), the chameleonic assassin in In the Line of Fire (1993, earning him another Oscar nomination), and the amusing serial killer Cyrus the Virus in Jerry Bruckheimer’s Con Air (1997; “I love your work,” he says to a fellow killer). At other times, he diminishes the sinister and emphasizes the eccentric, as in Art School Confidential (loopy artist), The Great Buck Howard (loopy illusionist), and the Coen brothers’ Burn After Reading (loopy loopy). And then there’s the singular, resounding instance of him playing himself, sort of, in Spike Jonze’s surreal 1999 film Being John Malkovich, as dreamed up and written by Charlie Kaufman. “It was never going to be anybody other than Malkovich,” says Kaufman. “It’s because he has this quality of unknowability. It seemed to fit the part. You can’t look at his eyes and know what going on inside his head. You’re closed off.” And indeed, no matter the situation, no matter the movie, he does seem to be one of the biggest freakazoid nutjobs ever produced by Hollywood.

DANGEROUS LIAISONS' (1988) JOHN MALKOVICH, MICHELLE PFEIFFERphoto: Snap/REX/Shutterstock

With Michelle Pfeiffer in ‘Dangerous Liaisons.’
photo: Snap/REX/Shutterstock

In the flesh, however, the sense of him is slightly different. His house used to be a farmhouse — it’s wide open, stripped down, stainless steel in the kitchen, a massive tiled wood stove in the dining room, kind of cool if not cold — and as he drifts around from foyer, to kitchen, to espresso machine, to pack of Marlboro Lights, to back patio, to lunch with his French-Italian partner of 20 years, Nicoletta Peyran, an Asian-culture scholar, who he met in 1989 during the filming of The Sheltering Sky, on which she was Bernardo Bertolucci’s assistant, and their two teenage children, Amandine and Loewy, to the patio again, he is unfailingly courteous, well mannered, and so soft-spoken that at times entire sentences go by unheard by anyone. At one point, Amandine says to him, “There a wasp in my room,” and he says to her, “Well, honey, you know what you do? You take a flashlight and you crush it. You just kill it.” And the way he says it, you hardly hear the violence reverberating in the words.

His manner of dress is normal; today, it’s everyday loose-fit jeans turned up at the cuff over a pair of blue high-top All-Star sneakers, white socks underneath, and an oversized gray T-shirt, worn untucked and casual. He likes his red wine and drinks only to the degree that most people do. “Do I drink a little every day? Oh, I don’t know that I’d qualify it as ‘a little’ every day. A half a bottle? That could do me some nights, but some nights, we soldier on.” He went years without smoking; then one night in 2008, while surfing the internet, he saw a picture of shyster financier Bernie Madoff in handcuffs. “I’ll be back in a minute,” he said to his wife. He drove to a store and bought a pack of cigarettes. Madoff had lots of his money. Besides getting him hooked on smoking again, the other effect the Madoff scandal had was to make him work more — or as he puts it, “I had to go back to work in a less dilettantish way, like doing plays in Kuala Lumpur or whatever.”

America? The assumption is that he hates it. Nonsense. “The things I find distasteful about America would really go pretty much anywhere. It’s the volume of the cultural cacophony, all this bad-faith dialogue between political parties, and bad manners, also. It’s become two people shouting at each other on some TV show. It’s not about the solving of problems. It’s a kind of malady, a little bit of a bizarre mental illness. In a way, though, I’m talking nonsense, because I don’t watch television and I don’t read newspapers, and I don’t vote. But, really, what’s to hate? I had an office at Warner Bros. when I was 29.”

In many ways, then, he seems to operate above the fray, at levels that often approach the rarefied and allow him to squeeze the oxygen right out of anything he might have said in the past. For instance, he once reportedly said, “What the public perceives is shit, and what they think is vomit,” and “I only do movies for the money,” but today he says, “No, I don’t think I ever said that,” and then retreats into silence, saying no more. And what about his ex-wife, Glenne Headly, who left him after he started an affair with Dangerous Liaisons costar Michelle Pfeiffer, and who reportedly once said that he is “the root of all evil.” “Oh,” he says, breezily, “I think that was meant ironically.” And then there’s when he said, “It’s hard to believe Michelle Pfeiffer ever said hello to me. Not that she’s not memorable, God knows. But I sort of blocked it out. What I’m trying to say is, when I think of the other person, I don’t think of me as involved with them. They’re uncorrupted by me. As if they were never troubled by my existence.” He thinks about this. “That’s probably verbatim, but do I see myself as a corrupting influence? Not at all. Maybe corrosive. But we all, at times, have to contemplate, as Faulkner said, the sequence of natural events and their causes, which shadow every man’s brow.”

See how it is? See how everything that is maybe true about him, maybe isn’t, or at least not in the way you thought? After a while, it can become a little disorienting, because it is so total. “I’m no expert in this,” he says, continuing on his merry way, “but I think more than a few people view me as someone who is cold, intellectual, arrogant, and, for some bizarre reason, eccentric. Well, I don’t think anyone who knows me thinks of me as cold or as an intellectual. Arrogant, probably. But I don’t see myself as remotely eccentric on any level.” And then he exhales a cloud of smoke and just briefly seems to disappear from view, like he’s become one with all that tree fluff floating around. And then he comes back to say, with utmost sincerity, “I think I had a pretty normal childhood.”

Con Air (1997) Nicolas Cage, John MalkovichPhoto: Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock

With Nicolas Cage in ‘Con Air.’
Photo: Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock

The most important thing to know about Malkovich’s childhood is that it was anything but normal and that he once wanted to be someone who didn’t exist, a guy named Tony. This was in the tiny coal-mining town of Benton, IL. His father ran a conservation magazine called Illinois Outdoors, while his mother sat in a chair, read books, sometimes forgot to turn on the oven to cook the Thanksgiving turkey so that the family went without, spoke in a croaking voice that allowed her to go by the nickname Frog, and just in general let John, his three sisters and his older brother, Danny, run amock. “My mother wasn’t really like a mother. Bless her, she was like a funny, strange friend who lived at the house. And both my parents were exceptionally laissez-faire. You never heard things like, ‘Do your homework’ and ‘Where were you last night?’” Instead you heard the sounds of food fights, or Danny waking up John by farting in his face, or John throwing a fit when he didn’t get his way and pounding his head on the car window until it bled and left scars, or John calling his first-grade teacher “a motherfucker” (or “a cocksucker,” he can’t remember which) and storming out of school after he lost an Easter-egg-hunting contest. He had a wretched temper and sometimes when he lost it, his family would lock him out of the house and from an upstairs window yell, “Mad dog! Mad dog!”

Sometimes you’d also hear the sound of John’s father, a liberal intellectual who had once been in the 82nd Airborne, taking disciplinary action, usually with a belt or his fists. It was a frequent occurrence, because John refused to wise up and because he often went along with the harebrained schemes dreamed by up his grandfather on his mother’s side. His name was Steve. He’d lost one leg in the coal mines and would lose the other to diabetes shortly before he died. “He was a bullshit artist who loved to play the horses and thought work was overrated,” John says. “Essentially, the lesson he taught me was, ‘Fuck ’em, anybody and everybody.’ And I loved him.” And he loves telling stories about their time together, with a smile and a chuckle, even though for John, who never got away with anything as a kid, they always end painfully.

At one point, he wanted to trade up to a fancy, English, three-speed racing bicycle and he’d beat his head on the car window whining about it to his dad, until one day Steve had had it. He said, “Fucking shut up. Listen. Tomorrow you leave your fucking old bike in the driveway, and I’ll run over it. Fuck your father, you deserve a three-speed English racer.” With John in the car, Steve did indeed run over the bike, but John’s dad saw through the ruse, pulled the boy out through the window and began beating him. “And after that,” John says, “I just didn’t have a bike.”

On another occasion, John received doctor’s orders to wear corrective shoes to deal with his pigeon toes. On the way home from buying the shoes, he says, “I kind of went berserk. They were these massive clodhopper things with big steel braces. I was screaming and hitting my head against the window like a lunatic and my grandfather turned to me, mouthing, ‘If you don’t like the motherfuckers, roll down the window and throw them out.’ Before they hit the ground, we were in a powerslide to a stop. I took off running but it didn’t do me any good. My father threw me back in the car and hit me with the shoes.” He goes on, “I don’t want to give the wrong impression of my father. There’s a lot of my mother in me, and some of Steve, and not much of my father. But my father was a person of great charm, and the only thing I feel for him is pure love. I don’t have any conflicted feelings. All of us were a little bit savage. I was never treated unfairly. I probably got less than I deserved.”

Being John Malkovich (1999) John MalkovichPhoto Melissa Moseley/Universal/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

‘Being John Malkovich’ (1999) 
Photo Melissa Moseley/Universal/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

By the time he was 13, John had reached his full height, about six feet, and was a blubbery 70 pounds overweight. That didn’t keep him from having friends to hang out with at the Dairy Treat, however, and he always had a girlfriend. Also, he was a great athlete, a pitcher in baseball and a defensive tackle in football. At a certain point, though, he decided the flab had to go, so for the next six months, he ate nothing but Jell-O and lost it all. It wasn’t that he minded being fat, of course, even though he was sometimes called “fatso,” “fat boy,” and “piggy.” “I wouldn’t want to attribute more sensitivity to myself than I’m capable of,” he says airily, which is how he waves off lots of things that would probably paralyze the average schmoe. “It wasn’t painful at all. I just got tired of it.”

Then again, when he was around eight, he felt the need to create for himself an alter-ego named Tony. “I think most people have — well, no, maybe not most people,” he says, “but, well, maybe a lot of people have the desire to have a different life, probably, maybe especially when they’re young.” Unlike John, this Tony was slim, probably Italian, definitely suave and a spiffy dresser who sometimes affected a scarf around his neck, rakishly. Most often, John was alone while pretending to be Tony, though he thinks he may have asked a few people to call him Tony. And sometimes it was Tony, not John, who took the pitcher’s mound, often leaving a less than favorable impression on John’s father, the team coach, who once said, “If you put half the effort into pitching that you put into the crease of your hat, you’d be a really good pitcher.” In a sense, Tony was John’s first big role, his first big escape into someone other than himself.

One Saturday, Malkovich goes to a flea market in a nearby town, flaneuringly, to look for a handle for his bedroom door, because “the handle in it now is round and slippery and very, very tightly sprung.” He sees a few friends and speaks to them in French, mostly about the theater, because the theater, not film, is what has always interested him most.

Actually, his parents had high hopes for him becoming a park ranger after high school but instead he wound up at Illinois State University, where he first developed an interest in acting. In 1976, he helped found the Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago along with Joan Allen, Gary Sinise and future wife Glenne Headly, which led to a production of the Sam Shepard play True West that soon moved to New York and won Malkovich an Obie. Then came his 1984 Broadway debut, in Death of a Salesman, playing Biff alongside Dustin Hoffman as Willy.

On the day of Malkovich’s audition for the part, Hoffman and playwright Arthur Miller were sitting in the sixth row of the Broadhurst Theater, watching this odd guy with his messy hair and his dirty feet, not expecting much. Hoffman recalls Malkovich saying something like, “You know, I’m sure you’re not interested in me, so just give me a nod, and I’ll go away.” Then he started in.

“It’s a moment that’s fixed in my synapses,” says Hoffman. “He has a cigarette in his hand, he’s smoking and he’s giving a very, very soft reading. I was mesmerized. He’s doing it different than anybody has ever done it ever. He was at first blush poetic and yet able to convey a working-class quality. Arthur looked at me and raised his eyebrows and just nodded. That’s it. There it is. Period.” He takes a deep breath. “To tell you the truth, it makes me emotional just to talk about it.”

The same year, he had his first big movie role, as the blind boarder in Places in the Heart, which earned him his first Oscar nomination. In appreciation, Sally Field gave him a copy of her TV-show-spin-off record album The Flying Nun Sings, a gift which not many people might have appreciated. “Are you kidding?” says Field. “He loved it! He said he couldn’t wait to go home to play it! He told me he would cherish it always! Anyway, I felt it was the proper thing to give him. He’s just unique.”

In the years that followed, he worked steadily if half-obscurely, until first Dangerous Liaisons and then Being John Malkovich turned him into an object of cultlike fascination — “Malkovich! Malkovich! Malkovich!” — as in fact he already was to screenwriter Kaufman. “I first saw him in a video-taped version of True West,” says Kaufman, “and I was like, ‘What the hell is this?’ For me it was like what Robert Duvall says he thought when he saw Brando, like, ‘Wow, you can do that?’ It was an inspiration. And then I remember reading him say something to the effect that, ‘I am feminine but I’m not effeminate.’ I was struck by that. There is something feminine about him but obviously there’s something really big and masculine about him as well. It’d odd. And you can’t look away when he’s onstage.”

In The Line Of Fire (1993) John MalkovichPhoto by Columbia Tri Star/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

‘In The Line Of Fire’ (1993) 
Photo by Columbia TriStar/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

Around the same time, Malkovich began developing a reputation for outrageously eccentric behavior, his own views notwithstanding, and a willingness to put himself out there. One time, on the streets of New York, he got royally pissed off at some threatening, crazy homeless guy, went home, changed out of his good suit, fetched a great, big Bowie knife (“It was my dad’s, the only thing I had from him”), found the guy, let him see the Bowie knife and said, “What were you saying? I didn’t get it. You said I shouldn’t be on the sidewalk? You said that old lady shouldn’t be on the sidewalk? Only you are allowed on the sidewalk? Can you explain that to me?”

“And that was it,” Malkovich says today. “Yeah, OK, I understand guys like him are mentally ill or blah, blah, blah, but I get tired of it. People like that wreak havoc on society.”

Wandering through the flea market, he finally finds a door handle that he can live with and buys it (30 euros: “Ridiculously overpriced,” he sniffs. “It’s a fake”), then gets in his Audi and drives to a deli to buy some prepared food for his kids. After that, he stops by a gas station but the pump is broken, so he resigns himself to asking his son, for the umpteenth time, to get it filled the next time he borrows the car. “Have my children seen Being John Malkovich?” he says. “I have no idea. I’ve never asked them.” He pulls into his driveway and steps inside his home, where he finds himself positioned in front of a mirror, uncomfortably and unhappily.

“What do I think of my skull?” he says. “It’s kind of a nice, round skull. I’ve never liked it, but I don’t dislike it. I’ve never really thought about it.”

He turns away and steps into the kitchen. “I almost never look in the mirror. It’s not my interest, unless I’m, you know, putting on a fake nose or whatever.” He goes on, “A lot of people see their being in a particular way. ‘I believe this, I believe that.’ I’m not like that. I remember once doing some auditions with an actress, and I remember her telling me, sort of during the audition, when the director had stepped out for a minute, her reaction to having watched a film I was in [Dangerous Liaisons], which she passed in the ladies’ room three times during the film, and I thought, ‘Wait, what?’ She had gone to masturbate. All I could think was, ‘Thanks for sharing.’ People think you’re the character you played. I’m more like the guy in Of Mice and Men” — a massively self-deprecating choice, given that his character Lennie is a hulking addlepate — “but that doesn’t keep people from believing what they want to believe. I’m a Midwestern boy. But I don’t really have this belief of, ‘I’m like this,’ at least not that I’m aware of.”

After his affair with Michelle Pfeiffer destroyed his marriage to Glenne Headly, Malkovich underwent several years of analysis to try to sort himself out and says he found the experience useful if trying. “I’m not a big crier, so for the first year and a half, I’d walk in, make noises and stuff, I just couldn’t talk, and my doctor would say, ‘I’m very sorry,’ and I’d say, ‘Thank you. OK. See you Thursday.’ Was I suicidal? I don’t know about that, but I was very depressed and I think he saved my life.” He goes on, “But since the topic was me, allegedly, it was hard. I just feel blah, blah, blah, who cares, so what? I’m a subject that I’m pretty neutral about. I’m like Popeye, really, ‘I yam what I yam.’ I mean, I don’t dislike anything about myself, nor like. I’m pretty neutral in that way. There’s no point to it.”

Malkovich takes a few minutes to deal with some business matters. Since 2002, he has been designing menswear for a line of his own — once called Technobohemian and now just John Malkovich Fashion — featuring shirts, pants and coats in cool Italian and Spanish fabrics (“I am a fabric whore”), and the frustrations involved with that are driving him up the wall. “If I don’t get this fabric that I want or they rip me off on the price of this or that, I can really scream. I mean, doing a fashion line is a real kick in the nuts.” (He may one day also start designing women’s jewelry — “which, like everything else, I don’t know fuck-all about” — and use his land here in France to develop a Chardonnay — “which will either work out or I’ll be an idiot again.”)

Coffee made, he takes it onto the back veranda and allows himself to be interrogated about some of the smaller things in life.

His favorite toothpaste is Tom’s of Maine’s Propilis and Myrrh and his least favorite would be anything like Aquafresh, because, he says, “I don’t require tons of separate colors in my toothpaste. It gets on my nerves.”

He likes the word “dude” and often uses it in texts, as in, “Dude, WTF?” “It’s just so useful,” he says.

Phobias? “Well, I’m probably not the biggest rat lover in the world. Have I had run-ins? I don’t know if I’d call them run-ins. It doesn’t end very well for the rat. How so? A baseball bat.”

His only real hobby is dish washing. “I love dish washing,” he says. “I like ironing, too.”

The only drug he’d like to do, maybe, sometime, is Ecstasy. “I wouldn’t mind that. It is one of those things that I’ve always said, ‘Yeah, I’d like to give that a whirl.’ But I’m always working. Where would I get the time?”

While most people think the Malkovich voice ought to be designated another wonder of the world, Malkovich isn’t among them. “I can’t stand to hear it. I mean, I just can’t stand it. It gives me the creeps.”

He looks out at the trees and the sky, at clouds drifting past. “It’s dry, dry as bone,” he says. “It’s been wanting to rain for the last couple of days but can’t quite figure out how to do it. The wind is coming from the North, with maybe a crosswind. You see how the trees are starting to lean? It will probably blow all these clouds away, because it rarely loses, and that’s what keeps the rain from coming.” Twenty minutes later, he’s studying the trees again. “I’m trying to figure out if it’s a crosswind,” he says. He seems content contemplating the weather, or as content as he ever seems. In Beckett’s Endgame, there’s a line that goes, “You’re on Earth, there’s no cure for that.” It’s one of Malkovich’s favorites. He knows exactly what Beckett means. But it’s like those nights when he decides half a bottle of wine won’t do. He soldiers on.

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