You could spend a lifetime preparing to interview John Malkovich. For starters, there are his films, about 90 of them – mainstream, indie, European art house, schlocky, literary, self-referential, lots of stinkers and a few classics. But he says he doesn't even like movies. So then there are his more esoteric projects: a photography exhibition by Sandro Miller in which Malkovich re-created iconic portraits, including Dorothea Lange's Migrant Mother; collaborations with classical musicians in which he reads out venomous critiques of the great composers. Finally, there is his real love – theatre. Fortunately, Malkovich doesn't expect you to have seen all his work. In fact, he gives the impression that he would be happy if you had seen none.
I first interviewed him 27 years ago, when he had just made In the Line of Fire, a thriller in which he plays an assassin determined to kill the American president (and which is one of his classics). He didn't mention the film once in our hour-long meeting. Today he is supposed to be promoting Space Force, a Netflix comedy. Again, he doesn't mention it, until I ask at the end of our call. Instead he talks about loss. All sorts of loss, from weight (shedding 32kg – 5st – as a teenager) to hair to money – and even three siblings in their 50s. But, oddly, the more he talks about loss, in that hushed, melancholy voice, the more I begin to suspect he is one of life's unlikely optimists.
I saw a picture of Bernie Madoff in handcuffs and said to my wife: 'I'm going to go to the corner to get a packet of cigarettes. I think we have a little problem with Madoff'
Malkovich is 66 and into his fifth decade in the film industry, and he insists he has been winging it the whole time. “I certainly never had a plan.” Would it bother him if he never got another job offer? “No!” He sounds positively enthused. “It would require a change in the way we live. But we already did that 12 years ago. So that would be fine.”
In December 2008 Malkovich lost his life savings. "Our then business manager had invested pretty much everything we'd ever made with somebody called Bernie Madoff. " Madoff defrauded thousands of investors out of an estimated $64.8bn and was given a 150-year jail sentence in 2009. "Everything I'd ever made was gone."
Malkovich had been directing a play in Mexico City and had just returned to New York. “I saw a picture of Bernie Madoff in handcuffs and said to my wife: ‘I’m going to go to the corner to get a packet of cigarettes. I think we have a little problem with Madoff.’” How did he feel? “You know, that was a couple of days of shock, I suppose.” He tells the story with such languid insouciance that I initially assume it must be for effect – but I don’t think it is. This is the real Malkovich.
How many millions did he lose? “Oh, I don’t know. A lot. But I don’t think it mattered that much. We just made changes to the way we lived and the money we spent.” What changed? “I had to do more work that paid for a number of years, and work all the time. And I stopped paying for everything. I just stopped paying for friends and family for a time. And we used to spend a lot of money producing movies that lost quite a lot of money. That stopped.”
Was he angry? “No. Not really. The first couple of days.” Malkovich talks more slowly than anybody I know. Pretty much every word is accompanied by a pause. His language is flat and restrained – almost self-consciously untheatrical – even when telling the most dramatic stories. “After a couple or three days, you go: ‘You’re lucky to be alive, you’re lucky to have a job.’ Almost no one has money in the banks. I read somewhere that a huge percentage of Americans wouldn’t have $400 to put between their hands in an emergency.”
My brother didn't get anything he didn't deserve. That's not saying I didn't love him – he's gone now. He could be hilarious, very smart and extremely witty, but he was quite the torturer. People get sick of being tortured
Malkovich grew up in a fairly privileged, but combustible, family in small-town middle America. His mother owned and edited the local paper in Benton, Illinois, and his father became an environmental journalist and activist. He grew up with three younger sisters and an older brother and has talked about the violence of his childhood – beatings from his father and his brother, Danny.
Today he says there was nothing remarkable about it. “You crossed the line and you got a beating. That was very common at that time. Sure, I had a lot of violence growing up, but so what?” Is it true he would chase his brother with a butcher’s knife? There is a long pause, even by Malkovich standards. “My brother didn’t get anything he didn’t deserve. That’s not saying I didn’t love him – he’s gone now. He could be hilarious, very smart and extremely witty, but he was quite the torturer.” Another pause. “People get sick of being tortured.”
At the age of 16 he weighed 102kg, or just over 16st, and was nicknamed Piggy. “Kids aren’t very nice,” he says. He went on a jelly-only diet and lost almost a third of his body weight. Yet even when he was mocked by his peers he had style and self-belief. “I used to play baseball, and when I was young my father was my coach. He always said to me, if I cared about playing half as much as I cared about how I looked while playing, I could have been a very good baseball player.”
In fact Malkovich had wanted to become a professional pitcher. He only started acting because he fancied a girl in the drama group. Even then his route into acting took detours. He drove a bus, dabbled in biology and sociology at college, then studied theatre at two universities in Illinois, dropping out of both. He moved to Chicago and became a founding member of the Steppenwolf theatre group, alongside Terry Kinney, Jeff Perry and Gary Sinise (who directed and starred with Malkovich in Of Mice and Men).
In its early years the theatre's ensemble also included Glenne Headly, whom he later married, and Joan Allen. The latter said the young Malkovich, who dressed in an array of purples and long scarves, was a cross between Oscar Wilde and Franz Liszt. He was compared to Marlon Brando after he burned up the stage in Sam Shepard's True West in 1980.
Four years later he received an Oscar nomination for his first (non-extra) film part, playing a blind man in Places in the Heart. Dangerous Liaisons made him a household name in 1988. His on-screen affair with Michelle Pfeiffer was replicated off screen and led to the collapse of his marriage to Headly. He ended up with neither woman and suffered a year-long depression. In 1989 he made The Sheltering Sky and fell in love with the second assistant director, Nicoletta Peyran, with whom he has been since.
Slightly boss-eyed, balding by his early 20s, with legs like sequoias and an incipient belly, Malkovich made an unlikely leading man. But there was something about him – part brute, part beauty. He had grace, swagger, energy, sexuality. His contradictions made for a thrilling presence. The first time I met him he gave a little bow when he introduced himself. He may have been 1.9m, or 6ft 2in, tall, and heavily set, but he reminded me of a geisha.
In films he has excelled at preening seducers. There are the obvious ones (the foppish predator Valmont in Dangerous Liaisons) and the less obvious (the crazed Mitch Leary in In the Line of Fire is utterly bewitching). He can still be every bit as seductive today – his fabulously vain John Paul III in Paolo Sorrentino’s classy TV series The New Pope is irresistible.
Does he recognise himself in these characters? Not really, he says – apart from the vanity. “Many of these characters are cold or cruel or intellectual.” Is he cold in real life? He sounds hurt. “Maybe shy sometimes. I don’t think anybody who knew me would consider me cold. I may be wrong. And seducer the same – I wouldn’t associate it with myself. Intellectual I wouldn’t associate with myself. More class clown than any of that.”
He says he loves playing for laughs. One of my favourite Malkovich films is a little-known comedy called The Great Buck Howard, in which he plays a famous magician fallen on hard times. It is a gloriously hammy performance. He sounds delighted when I tell him. “Yeah, I enjoyed doing that immensely and am glad you noticed. I prefer to have fun.”
I was shocked Harvey Weinstein even got a sentence. I don't know anybody who believed he would go to jail. It's a terrible thing if somebody's job depends on what sexual favour they will give in return for work
Really? There are so many stories of him being tough and intimidating, I say. “I was athletic, and I guess fairly strong in some ways, but don’t consider myself tough; I don’t consider myself someone looking for trouble.” So these stories are apocryphal? Try me, he says. Well, what about the time you were mugged and ran home to get a knife, threw the mugger against a tree and said if he ever did it again he would be dead? “It’s pretty apocryphal,” he says. Okay, the time you broke a bus window with your fist in temper? “True. They wouldn’t let me get on the bus.” Were you in a lot of pain afterwards? “I was, yes.”
Malkovich does bullying rage with aplomb on screen. He recently played a character based on Harvey Weinstein in the David Mamet farce Bitter Wheat. So many actors tell you they need to be able to sympathise with their characters, but Malkovich’s isn’t having any of that. “I don’t feel the need to be sympathetic. I didn’t see much in that character to feel sympathetic with.”
Was he shocked that Weinstein got a 23-year prison sentence? “I was shocked he even got a sentence. I don’t know anybody who believed he would go to jail.” He says it is too early to know whether the #MeToo movement has changed the culture of the film industry, but he hopes so. “It’s a terrible thing if somebody’s job depends on what sexual favour they will give in return for work.” Was that the culture? “Sure.”
Did he experience it first-hand? “When I was young I had a professor in the theatre department who made some advances that were unwanted. I was 19; he was in his 50s.” Malkovich says he was lucky. “I just said it wasn’t my thing, sorry. It was someone I was fond of and I liked. So life went on. I did transfer schools, but not really because of that. The Weinstein situation is very different. It was transactional. It’s terrible for women, but it’s horrific also just for the idea of work.”
Perhaps Malkovich’s best-known film is Being John Malkovich, the brilliant absurdist comedy in which a puppeteer discovers a portal into the actor’s head and then flogs tickets for it to the public. Malkovich plays Malkovich, or the Malkovich we think we know from his parts – serious-minded, arty, sleazy, with a volcanic temper. “I don’t consider it to be so much about me as about the future and about the nature of celebrity.” He says that when he read the script he loved it, but he asked the screenwriter, Charlie Kaufman, if he could direct it and Kaufman could make it about Tom Cruise. Kaufman gave him a firm no.
For a number of years Malkovich lived in France with his family. (His children are 30 and 28.) Now he is back in the United States, living in Cambridge, Massachusetts, just outside Boston. Throughout lockdown he has been at home with Peyran, who is now an academic, and their daughter, Amandine, who works in a grocery shop; his son, Loewy, is in Oregon, computer coding. No actors, then? “Oh, no!” He sounds pleased.
The actor has a reputation as a warmongering neocon – he was in favour of invading Iraq and once said of the death penalty “I would have no problem pushing the switch while having dinner.” But today he tells me he can’t stand politics and hasn’t voted since 1972’s US presidential election, when he cast his ballot for the Democrat, George McGovern. “I guess I think the system is pretty corrupt.”
Yet his latest project is a political satire. Created by the celebrated TV comedy writer Greg Daniels and Steve Carell, Space Force stars Malkovich as a slow-talking scientist alongside Carell's manic General Mark R Naird. It is uneven but entertaining, part Dr Strangelove, part Veep, part soppy soap. Donald Trump has said he wants to get astronauts back on the moon by 2024, but Malkovich says the concept predates the president's ambition. Does he think it is a good idea to revisit the moon? "I don't know. It might be a better idea than creating more lethal versions of viruses in labs," he says, gnomically. "But it may not be the best idea we've ever had."
I ask why he is working so hard these days – for the love or the money? Both, he says. “I always love working.” Again, he says, he has been lucky.
But you have not always been lucky, I say – I was staggered to read that three of his four siblings (all of whom became journalists) died in their 50s. It must have been devastating, I say. “Yeah,” he says. “But what can you do about it? Amanda, then Mother, then Danny, then Rebecca – and that was all over a five-year period from 2009.” Did it prompt an existential crisis? “No. I try not to worry about things I can’t control. Unless, say, you had a terrible mother, I don’t think anybody enjoys their family or siblings dying. I liked all mine. But what can you do? It’s the final act in life.”
It is unusual to find someone so accepting. Does he have a religion, a guiding philosophy? “Not really,” he says. He tells me a story – about shooting a film in a small town in Canada and being asked to talk to a little boy with leukaemia, whose hair had fallen out. “They wanted me to talk to him because people somehow think people in the movies have some power to do good. He was self-conscious about his hair, and I said, ‘We’ve got the same haircut,’ and he said, ‘Yes, but not for the same reason.’
“And that is how I look at life; I was very lucky. I’ve been luckier than anybody I know. Luckier than all of the children in my family, all of whom were more interesting or more talented or smarter than me. So when things have happened that have been sad and difficult, I don’t feel the need to complain about them.”
So, in a way, that is a philosophy, I say – and a surprisingly positive one for someone who sounds so relentlessly downbeat. “Yeah!” he says, with an audible surge of enthusiasm. “I’ve never been a negative influence. I think I’m quite a positive person, all in all.” – Guardian
Space Force is available to stream on Netflix from Friday, May 29th