BY DENNIS KING
NEW YORK – Being John Malkovich – consummate film and stage actor, theatrical impresario, opera director, disco owner, clothing designer, international bon vivant – is clearly something the man relishes while not taking himself too seriously.
While mixing it up with journalists during a press day hosted by Summit Entertainment on the release of his latest film, “Red,” Malkovich proved himself a man for all seasons while spanning such topics as his acting philosophy; his love of costumes, props and fashion; his attitude toward directors and his surprisingly enthusiastic embrace of critics.
For “Red,” he plays Marvin Boggs, a deeply paranoid, ex-CIA operative who is forced out of reclusive retirement by his former, over-the-hill colleagues when they themselves become assassination targets in a dastardly government conspiracy. Malkovich, who joins an all-star ensemble featuring Bruce Willis, Helen Mirren, Morgan Freeman, Richard Dreyfuss, Mary-Louise Parker and Ernest Borgnine, waxed on about the pleasure of watching other actors work.
“I thought this film would be absolutely fun,” he said. “All of the cast I knew slightly. Helen I knew more, but I have run across Morgan several times when I lived in New York and we both just did theater, and I always found him very charming and fun to be around. And Bruce I knew probably the least, although I’d come across Bruce a couple of times and had nice chats with him before. They’re all pros.
“I like watching all these people. They know what they’re doing,” he continued. “Of course, I’ve seen Richard Dreyfus in tons of things, but working with him was maybe one of the bigger surprises because having never worked with him you really see why he was one of the biggest movie stars in the entire world. He’s absolutely fantastic to watch, and I think all of us felt that way. Not that we were shocked or stunned, but I think we all felt that way, that it was tremendous fun to watch Richard.”
Malkovich said he was only vaguely familiar with the graphic novel on which “Red” is based, and he grinned slyly when told it was much darker and more violent than the movie.
“So it’s more a violent book than comic book,” he quipped. “I met the author, but I didn’t read it. The truth is, unless you’re involved in the adaptation or unless you have sufficient lead time and you’re in a position with the people producing it, it doesn’t do any good to read a book (of the source material) because what you’re going to be making is the screenplay.”
On his approach to film acting:
“All I do is read the screenplay many, many times, and then when you show up you get a sense of what people are doing,” he explained. “And I always look at the whole thing, not really what I’m doing because whatever I’m doing will happen anyway. I look at the whole thing and see basically – are you a point or a counterpoint in this scene, in this story, at this moment? That’s really how I look at things.
“People often ask me about roles,” he said. “I’ve done a few films where I’ve had a fantastic role, and even maybe I was OK in it. But if the film isn’t good you’re much better off not having made it. Even if it was a wonderful role. If the film doesn’t work it’s just a big waste of time and money and effort.”
From his background in theater, Malkovich said he developed a skill in films of using props and costumes to distinguish characters.
“I have a tendency to have very good relationships with costumers,” he said. “Generally, I collaborate quite closely with them, and even have several very good friends who are costumers. But obviously it’s a very important element of what I do. Or it could be in collaboration with the makeup artist or wig maker or whoever it is. Anything that has some impact in a visual term, because that’s the first thing an audience sees. I spent a lot of time with the armorers on this movie discussing the various weapons.”
When he was told that Helen Mirren said she based her character, a sniper turned domestic diva, on Martha Stewart, Malkovich laughed.
“I actually base all my characters on Martha Stewart,” he said. “Somehow people lack the discernment to have ever grasped that. That’s very funny, what Helen said. That is really good.”
Malkovich said he has always had an affinity for clothes, and that has allowed him to broaden his horizons beyond acting.
“I’ve always loved clothes and fabric and details,” he said. “I always liked to look at photos of people dressed up when I was a kid. But not even dressed up in the super glamorous way but to just to see what people wore and how they presented themselves.
“ And I have for a long, long time been a fabric collector – that’s totally removed from any kind of fashion thing,” he said. “And then I spent many years working off and on in fashion. I think it’s also connected to the fact that I studied costuming and costumed in the theater. I have a very specific notion about how a thing should or shouldn’t look. I wrote and directed three little fashion films for my friend Bella Freud, an English designer, which I loved working on. I just did a lot of work in fashion over the years.”
All of which, Malkovich said, lead to him creating his own fashion line.
“It’s called Technobohemian,” he explained. “I stopped a line I had four or five years ago, and for this one I’m right now working on our forth collection for fall-winter 2011. It is out of Prato, next to Florence.”
Most people would think an actor of Malkovich’s stature might be reluctant to give much control of his performances over to directors. But, he said, he enjoys being closely directed.
“Quite closely, which is what I prefer,” the actor said. “When you go into editing it’s exceedingly important that the director has a catholicity of options. I think there are basically two schools of acting – some actors are highly reticent to commit anything to celluloid that is not their choice. In other words, they have an idea about it and they want pretty much exactly that or only that.
“Now I have nothing against that,” he said. “Then, there’s probably another type of actor, which is what I am, which I would prefer that the director make clear what he wants from me. Not to the extent of being a crypto-fascist, because I’ve certainly encountered that and it’s kind of dull.
“Of course, there are directors who leave you completely alone and that can be OK, too. Really, I can go either way, or any of a hundred ways. Because my basic feeling is directing a movie is, more or less a terrible job. And why not try to be a helpful and constructive presence on the set. It’s not an easy job and that’s at least what I’ve tried to do in my career.”
Malkovich’s expansive, philosophical attitude toward his art also extends to reactions from critics. He welcomes their input, good or bad.
“One must always remember that the very same thing that causes person X to love something you do is that self-same thing that causes person Y to detest you and person S to be utterly indifferent,” he explained. “This is life. And it behooves performers starting out that once you put yourself in the public eye, there will be people who profoundly dislike you. And all gradations in between. It’s OK. When I read that review (a particularly scathing from he got recently from a Turkish critic), besides thinking it was extremely funny and well written, I could kind of agree or I could take the point. I’ve made a lifetime of fairly in-depth self-criticism, but people are welcome to help.”