In a group of big and colorful personalities, John Malkovich tends to stand out from the pack. His flair for the unconventional makes him the perfect choice to play characters that are also eccentric.
As the off-the-wall Marvin Boggs in the action thriller “Red,” Malkovich plays a trigger-happy former CIA operative who comes out of retirement to join forces with other former spies when they find out that they are the target of government assassins. At a New York City press conference for “Red,” Malkovich shared his philosophies on retirement, fashion choices in acting, and how he deals with negative reviews.
You’re often the most unpredictable character in your films. Is there any fantasy or character that you would like to play in any films?
Not really. Something has always come up and because we also produce films — my partners and myself at Mr. Mudd [the production company] — the stories that I want to see would probably come through that under those auspices than saying, “I want to play a Person X or a Person Y.”
You seem to put your own unique touch to some of the clothing or accessories that you wear in character. Can you talk about that?
I have a tendency to have very good relationships with costumers. That’s something I generally collaborate with them closely about. I even have several very good friends who are costumers. But obviously, it’s a very, very important element of what you do.
So that’s probably the most important way that I would work on that visual element, in collaboration with the costumer. Or it could be in collaboration with the makeup artist or wig maker or whoever it is, but 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 armors on this movie discussing those very things.
Did you ever read the comic book “Red”? And if so, how do you think it compares to the movie?
I never read the comic book … I met the author, but I didn’t read it. The truth is that 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 or the people directing it, it doesn’t do any good to read the book of something, because what you’re going to be making is the screenplay.
And often, once the actors get involved, it’s really too late to impact on that sensibly. You can impact upon that in small ways, but really that work is done. And that’s really the work of the producers and the writers and directors more than an actor.
How did you handle the comedic elements in an action film like “Red”?
I thought I was being very serious. All I do is read the screenplay many, many times. And when you show up, you get a sense of what people are doing. 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 counterpoint in this scene in this story at this moment?”
And that’s how look at things. I think a lot of times, people overestimate the importance … of roles. I’ve done a few films where I’ve had a fantastic role and maybe even 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 money and effort.
Helen Mirren says that how she played her character in “Red” was partially inspired by Martha Stewart. Did you have anyone who inspired how you played Marvin in “Red”?
[He says jokingly] I actually base all of my characters on Martha Stewart … [He says seriously] I actually did base this character on someone. I would never say who it is. It will be interesting to see if somebody ever gets it out.
Is it a comedian?
No. I could say they’re funny to me.
You’ve had your own fashion line. Why are clothes so important to you?
I don’t know. I always loved clothes and fabric and details. I always like to look at photos of dressed-up people when I was a kid — but even not necessarily dressed-up in a super-glamorous way, but just to see what people wore and how they presented themselves. And then on the other hand, I have been for a long time been a fabric collector. That’s totally removed from any kind of fashion thing.
And then I spent many years working off and on in fashion. I’d be reticent in calling it top modeling. I think it’s probably connected to the fact that I studied costuming in the theater. I have a very specific notion of how things should or shouldn’t look. I wrote and directed three little fashion films for my friend Bella Freud in English, which I loved working on. I did lots of work in fashion over the years.
What can you say about your fashion line?
It’s called Techno Bohemian. I stopped the line I had. I quit about four or five years ago. This one I’m doing, Techno Bohemian, right now I’m working on a fourth collection for fall/winter 2011. It is out of Prato [in Italy], next to Florence.
What kinds of expectations did you have in working with the all-star cast of “Red”?
I thought that would be absolutely fine. I knew Helen [Mirren] slightly a little more. I’d run across Morgan [Freeman] several times in the old days when I lived in New York and so did Morgan. We both just did theater [back then], and I always found him to be very charming and fun to be around and a terrific actor. And Bruce [Willis], I knew probably the least, although I’d come across Bruce a couple of times and had nice chats with him before.
They’re pros … I like watching all of these people. They know what they’re doing, and does Mary-Louise [Parker], whom I had made a film with many, many years ago, and whom I’m very fond of watching and acting with.
And Richard Dreyfuss, whom I’ve seen in tons of things, but working with him was maybe in a way one of the bigger surprises, 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. 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.
Did you get to keep the pink pig?
No, my interest lay more with the camouflage gear. I’m not a pig person by any nature, sadly as that happens.
Did you think that “Red” would be fun to make?
Well, that’s you’re hoping when you sign on: that it will be fun. That’s what saw when I read it, but I never worked with [“Red” director] Robert [Schwentke]. I met him socially several years before. I never worked with anyone else [from the “Red” cast before], except Mary-Louise. So your hope is that it will be fun. Of course, this was fun …
Has your relationship with directors changed over the years? How closely do you follow their direction?
Quite closely, which is what I prefer. When you go into editing, it’s exceedingly important, I think, 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. So in other words, they have an idea about it, and they want pretty much exactly that and only that. I have nothing against that. Then there is probably another kind of actor, which is what I am.
I prefer that the director make clear what they want from me — not to the extent f being a krypto-fascist, because that’s certainly what I’ve had also. It’s kind of dull. Really, I’m not cut out for those few people I’ve run across, and I certainly won’t be darkening their door again.
Robert is not dissimilar to Joel and Ethan Coen. They have specific notions about what they want, and yet they’re also happy to see what you bring. Robert is a lot like that. He watches the actors very closely, and he has opinions about it.
And personally, I revel in that. I think most directors want some options. And I think they’re probably relieved when you think of some. Of course, there are directors who leave you completely alone, and that can be OK, too.
I can go either way or any of a hundred ways, because my basic feeling is directing me is more or less a terrible job. And why don’t you try to be a helpful and constructive presence on the set? It’s not an easy job. And that’s at least what I tried to do in my career, for the most part, I think.
Helen Mirren and Morgan Freeman both say that they don’t want to retire anytime soon. How do you feel about retirement when you get to a certain age?
My feeling on that is with Helen and Morgan. On the other hand, I would say that they’ll retire me when it’s time to retire. I don’t have think they have the slightest compunction about that, nor should they.
I will have lived an incredibly long and blessed life. I will have had the most extraordinary, pretty much undeserved opportunities continuously for 34 years now. I will have worked with and had the pleasure of having met some of the most incredibly interesting people and some of the most gifted filmmakers around the world. When they retire me, sure, I’d miss the people … but that will be that.
How do you see yourself spending your time when you’re retired?
Playing golf? Probably not. I never really thought about that. That’s almost an existential conundrum. I don’t see the point of it, really. It doesn’t make sense to me to retire from what you love — which is not to say that I couldn’t find something else I love. I doubt that I couldn’t find something else I love in fact, but I just don’t see the point.
How did you feel about firing all those guns in “Red”? Did you have a favorite?
The Swedish K is one of the most elegant foreign-meets-function guns that ever existed. I wish I had one. I don’t mean right now. I like to squeeze off a few rounds, like everyone else. I don’t hunt or anything like that. I did show Helen the sign over the armor’s door, which said, “If you know how many guns you have, you don’t have enough.” And Helen said that she was going to use that for her Christmas card.
Guns, I wouldn’t want one, really, but I can appreciate their designs or the elegance of the design or how it actually functions. So I’m happy with all that, but I’m not packing, and I don’t think I will be anytime in the near future.
You got a harsh review for one of your operas in Istanbul. What was your reaction to the review, and how do you do generally feel about reading reviews of your work?
When we played the opera in Istanbul, I didn’t know about it, because I don’t read reviews. But when they sent me that decision, because I so enjoyed it. I was doing a second opera this summer called “The Music Critic” at Julian Rachlin’s film festival in Dubrovnik.
We’d been planning this for a year. The concept was to get all the most horrific reviews of Beethoven, Brahms, Debussy, Cavelle, Schumann, Mozart, Bach, etc. and read these terrible, terrible reviews and then play the piece. And that was a spectacular lesson also I think for performer, critic and audience alike. The young violinist who conceived the piece, Alexei Ogrintchouk, said that he would like to include a terrible review of me and a terrible review of this young virtuoso violinist whose name the festival takes: Julian Rachlin.
And I said, “Yeah, great. Just be careful because I don’t want to seem like we’re putting ourselves in the same company as Beethoven, etc.” And he said, “No, it won’t be like that.” So he sent me, this summer, this fantastic review from Istanbul of the opera, which I just loved. And then they wrote a symphonic piece around it, which is just a spectacular piece. And I interpret the full text of the review, and it’s called “The Malkovich Torment.”
Listen, do you know how I feel about that seriously? I think it’s fantastic and I’ll tell you why: One must always remember that the very the very same thing that causes Person X to love something you do is that same thing that causes Person Y to detest you and Person S to be utterly indifferent. This is life.
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, besides thinking it was extremely funny and really well-written, I could kind of agree or take the point. I’ve made a lifetime of fairly in-depth self-criticism, but people are welcome to help.
This is life. And I hope [the critic] enjoys the piece, because the music is just spectacular, and we’ll probably play it in Istanbul. I love Istanbul, so maybe I’ll take him out for a drink.
For more info: “Red” website
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Interview with John Malkovich for “Secretariat”
“Red” Comic-Con panel
“Red” Comic-Con press conference
Interview with Bruce Willis and Karl Urban for “Red”
Interview with Morgan Freeman for “Red”
Interview with Helen Mirren for “Red”
Interview with Mary-Louise Parker for “Red”
Interview with Ernest Borgnine for “Red”