Malcolm McDowell on Clockwork Orange at 40, Caligula at 32, and Never Looking Back

On the one hand, there's nothing Malcolm McDowell can tell you about A Clockwork Orange that he hasn't told someone else before. The 1971 Stanley Kubrick classic -- adapted from Anthony Burgess's novel about a young hooligan caught up in a dystopic society's attempts to cure "ultraviolence" -- has pretty much been parsed, discussed, annotated and mythologized down to atomic bits over the last four decades, most often with its star McDowell leading the way. On the other hand, it's hard to resist a storyteller so gracious and enthusiastic that you want to forget everything you know just to learn it all over again.

But that's McDowell, with whom Movieline spoke at the tail end of his press tour supporting Clockwork Orange's 40th anniversary Blu-ray, which arrives on shelves May 31. (A companion box set, the 10-disc Stanley Kubrick Essential Collection, will debut the same day.) Having quickly established the reality of our Orange saturation, it seemed worthwhile to move on to a range of other milestones of the 66-year-old actor's career -- his three films playing Mick Travis for legendary British director Lindsay Anderson, his struggle to make the best of the infamously depraved but "nearly, nearly good" Caligula, his time sharing a set with Sir Laurence Olivier, and more.

So this is the end of the line for the Clockwork Orange press tour, which has taken you to New York, Los Angeles...

Los Angeles, Cannes, London, and this is it. There's a day of press tomorrow, and then I'm finished. For a while. Until the next anniversary.

Did you even do this much press for the film when it opened in 1971?

No. Nowhere near. That's what I was laughing about! This is ridiculous! Why do people care about this? I'm just amazed. But they love it. The kids love it. Every generations seems to find this movie -- especially kids going to college. They put up the posters and just really make it their own. It's just fantastic.

It does keep the legacy alive, but do you think these younger fans actually get it? The themes, the satire, the darkness, etc?

Probably not. But they get that it's anti-establishment, it's anti-Big Brother. If they get that, then you're halfway there. That's good. And also, they love the look and they love the language. It's one of the most quoted movies I've ever done. Just the language alone: "Viddy well, viddy well," all that stuff.

Should we even be here, though? After 40 years and now this entire press tour, what's left for you to say or know about A Clockwork Orange?

Well, look: I take this seriously, talking to people like you. It's your job and it's my job to make it interesting, so I try to give as much energy as I do the first interview of the day. I try to tell the stories in an interesting way and [as] something that's fun for me as well. So I may alter them slightly just to keep myself interested. But of course there's nothing that I haven't been asked. It's been 40 years; it's been pretty much uncovered by now. But it's such a great movie, and I feel like I'm a curator of the movie -- I can pass on the knowledge of it for the next generation or whatever, and try and let people know how we did some things. I feel like that's my responsibility because Stanley's no longer here to do it.

Kubrick probably wouldn't be doing it anyway; after a certain age, he tended to let his work speak for itself. Is there something to be said for that technique?

You can do that for so long, but you can't tell me that people aren't curious, because they are. It's one of the most iconic films ever made. There are, of course, other iconic films of that period, certainly, but not all are invited to the Cannes Film Festival to play in front of 600 people and [have] yet another DVD/Blu-ray edition and all that. It's really remarkable. The only other one I can really think of is Lawrence of Arabia, but that's a totally different genre -- a different kind of movie altogether. But this has always been on the cutting edge.

And I wonder, "Why do the kids love it today?" It's no longer the revolutionary look it once was. It's no longer shocking in terms of the violence or anything else. But I do think the legacy is the political one. And basically, at the end of the day, what is the film about? To me it's about the freedom of man to choose whether he's immoral or moral. That's what the whole thing boils down to. For me, anyway.

I was browsing your profile page on IMDB, which can be notoriously unreliable, but--

I've never been on my site there.

Well, it lists 202 roles in 47 years. Some are voice parts in animation or video games, others are TV guest spots, but still. Even if we cut it down to 150 with film and TV--

Yeah, I think I've done around 120 or 130 films.

Right. There are not of actors in that company.

There are not a lot of actors that are still working at my age. I'm not really playing grandfathers, you know? I guess that's one of the lucky things: I get these terrific, edgy parts, whether it's killing Captain Kirk or whatever. A really big, juicy heavy. It's such a fun thing to play, and you can relish it and love it. I've been really lucky like that. I mean, the part on Entourage... He's such a bastard, but such a delicious one. And anyone who can best Ari has got to be a great character. I go back in the beginning of June and shoot the last one, which will be rather sad, honestly. I think it's one of the best-written comedies -- for me, certainly up there with Seinfeld and The Larry Sanders Show.

Considering you've been talking about playing Alex for decades now, is there a role among those 120 or 130 films you feel might have slipped through the cracks or deserves some attention of its own?

There's a few of those, but the truth is I never look back. My most exciting role is the next one.

Well put. Is there one you'd do over?

No. There really isn't one I'd want to revisit. Also, you know, the roles when I was young... I can't play those anymore. It's such a privilege to play something -- especially on a film -- that's so indelible. It's for eternity. It's gone out there in this weird space. In a way , you don't want to touch it. That's it. Whether it's good or bad, that's it. And a lot of it is not very good. A lot of it's shit. But it doesn't matter. That's the way it was. Not everything can be great. We can't make more than one Clockwork Orange in our lifetime. That's evident. Just to be part of film history for doing one is a great privilege, really.

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  • James says:

    McDowell seems like a gracious, charming and honest man who understands his job and takes it seriously in every way. How nice to read an interview with someone like this!

  • Thanks! He was indeed quite refreshing. They don't make 'em like that anymore.

  • SD says:

    My dad introduced me to Lindsay Anderson films - especially if..... It resonated more with his childhood schooling than mine but I still really love it and happily recall the discussions we have had about it and what it (might have) meant.
    For someone who has had such a long and varied career as McDowell it is perhaps unfair to label his first film role as my favourite but it is. And his most quotable too.
    Thank you for the interview.

  • raincoaster says:

    He's right about Caligula. Not so sure he's right about Olivier, though. He left a lot of chewed scenery behind him.

  • Joyce W says:

    Great article about a very fine actor and some of the legendary people he's worked with. I didn't know that a Kubrick DVD collection had come out. I'm going to save up my $'s cause I sure would like to have that.