John Malkovich: 'I Suppose 90% of My Film Performances I Would Never Have Edited That Way'
John Malkovich has been busy as usual of late -- but maybe not quite where you'd usually expect him to be busy. This week's graphic-novel adaptation Red features the 56-year-old in comic-paranoia mode as Marvin Boggs, a kill-happy CIA alumnus with a firearm fetish and an apparently indefinite acid hangover; together with fellow ex-agents Frank (Bruce Willis), Joe (Morgan Freeman), Victoria (Helen Mirren) and hapless civilian Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker), he embarks on an explode-y, bullet-riddled quest to determine why the current CIA regime wants them dead.
Directed by Robert Schwentke, Red arrives sandwiched between another couple slabs of doughy studio bread -- last week's Secretariat (in which he plays colorfully dressed horse trainer Lucien Laurin) and next summer's Transformers: The Dark of the Moon, where Malkovich will appear as Shia LaBeouf's boss. And then there was the blippy, beleaguered comics adaptation Jonah Hex earlier this summer. Movieline caught up with Malkovich recently for an all-too-short conversation about his Blockbuster Period, "actor's telepathy" and why it's good to keep your options open on a film set.
So: You guys looked like you were having a blast with this.
It was fun, yeah. It was.
How does that affect chemistry -- and how, in turn, does that affect performance?
I think it was a really good mix of actors from kind of different backgrounds and cultures and educations. That's part of it, I think. Pretty much all of us come from the theater. That's part of it. And the roles themselves... When you have someone opposite you, pretty much all of whom are movie stars -- including Richard Dreyfuss, who was one of the biggest movie stars in the world at one time -- they can take care of themselves. It's very freeing and fun. I think the nicest experience one has being an actor is when you like watching someone you're working with.
What's an example from this film?
I like watching all of them. They're all very different. But take for instance working with Mary-Louise. I find Mary-Louise hilarious. She's super-sharp and very responsive. She kind of responds to everything everyone around her does. I would say kind of all these people do that. They obviously respond differently to each other. But it kind of ups your game when you're working with performers that you like and respect and, as I say, simply that you enjoy watching.
How did you find yourself responding? To Mary-Louise for example?
Mary-Louise and I have a tendency... I think I've probably only had this with people at Steppenwolf [Theater] or maybe, weirdly enough, with Miranda Richardson, who's nothing like Mary-Louise but whom I've worked with a couple of times. Mary-Louise is the type you kind of get into a face-off with. It's sort of like, "Now I'm doing this -- do you get it?" And she responds, "Yes, I get it." And then it's like, "Now I'm doing this -- do you get it?" And she responds, "Yes, I get it, but I'm doing this. Do you get this?" So it's a kind of -- this sounds so idiotic -- but it's kind of an actor's telepathy. Almost like reading Braille. It's a completely interior thing. You're doing something but you're also following along in Braille. [Mimics reading with his hands] "Did you see this? No? What about this? Uh-oh. Watch out. I think you're gonna get up. Yes, you are. No, I'm not. OK, well you did..."
I think most of the actors on this have that, and it may be best exemplified by Richard Dreyfuss. When he came on at the last minute, a lot of his stuff was changed in his text. All this stuff. And everyone so loved watching him. I don't know Richard; I think I'd met him maybe once or something, but really just like walking by in a parking lot. "Hi, how are you?" Or there's Brian Cox. Good actors love to watch good acting, and I think a lot of them -- oddly enough, far from being jealous of it or threatened by it -- actually live for it.
Yeah! Really. And they're not always the ones people might think they are. They often aren't the ones people think they are. Me, I've been a director my whole life, so there's nothing I love more than sitting there with my piehole shut watching great actors transport me somewhere. And I'd venture to say most of these actors are like that.
You take this character pretty far; I could see you or Robert thinking he might hit the wall at any moment. How did you reign him in?
I didn't so much; that's not my job, really. I instinctively trusted Robert. He looks very intently at what his actors are doing. He multitasks very well in terms of watching everyone. I trusted him because he's the one editing it. I'm sure I went much, much, much further perhaps -- I haven't seen the film, so I'm at a disadvantage -- but I knew absolutely that some things, though I knew he'd found them funny or entertaining weren't going to make the cut. But my feeling about that is to give the director and editor some choices. And on a scene-by-scene basis, they will be the deciders of the tonality of the performance. It's not theater; you're not your own editor. Which means that sometimes, in movies, you can go a little further than you might in the theater, oddly enough.
Now, all that does is presuppose that the person in charge has the requisite vision and taste and mastery of the tonality that you can trust them. Sometimes that's the case, sometimes it isn't. But that's part of being a professional actor. I suppose 90 percent of my film performances I would never have edited that way.
Or good, high 70s. But it's not my film.
Are you generally still happy with them?
Well, it depends on if they're good or not. But even if they're good, they're not necessarily what I would have done if I were in charge. But that's not my business. My business is to give them -- as best I can and successfully as I can achieve it (and often I don't) -- enough options that all those decisions are in their hands, and they have a catholicity, a plethora of options.
[Top photo: Carlos Alvarez/Getty Images]