John Malkovich Interview, Beowulf

Posted by: Sheila Roberts

MoviesOnline sat down with John Malkovich at the Los Angeles press day for his new movie, "Beowulf,” directed by Robert Zemeckis based on a screenplay by Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary. "Beowulf” stars Ray Winstone in the title role, Anthony Hopkins as the corrupt King Hrothgar, and John Malkovich as Unferth, King Hrothgar’s retainer and counselor. The film also features Robin Wright Penn, Brendan Gleeson, Crispin Glover, Alison Lohman, and Angelina Jolie as Grendel’s mother.

John Malkovich is one of cinema's most in-demand actors, and works frequently in both American and international productions. He has worked with many of cinema's leading directors, making indelible impressions in such films as: Liliana Cavani's "Ripley's Game,” Spike Jonze’s "Being John Malkovich,” Jane Campion's "The Portrait of a Lady,” Wolfgang Petersen's "In the Line of Fire,” Gary Sinise's "Of Mice and Men,” Bernardo Bertolucci's "The Sheltering Sky,” Stephen Frears' "Dangerous Liaisons,” Steven Spielberg's "Empire of the Sun,” Paul Newman's "The Glass Menagerie,” Roland Joffé's "The Killing Fields” and Robert Benton's "Places in the Heart.” He has twice been nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, in 1985 for "Places in the Heart” and in 1994 for "In the Line of Fire.” His performance in "Places in the Heart” also earned him the Best Supporting Actor Award from the National Society of Film Critics and the National Board of Review. In 1999, he won the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Supporting Actor for "Being John Malkovich.” He recently starred in the epic adventure "Eragon” based on the best-selling novel. Upcoming are such films as "The Great Buck Howard” with Tom Hanks, "Drunkboat,” "Gardens of the Night,” "In Tranzit, "Disgrace,” "The Mutant Chronicles” and "Afterwards.”

Malkovich is a longstanding member of the groundbreaking Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago. He joined the company immediately upon completing college, and between 1976 and 1982 he acted in, directed or designed sets for more than fifty Steppenwolf productions. Malkovich's debut on the New York stage in the Steppenwolf production of Sam Shepard's "True West” earned him an Obie Award. Other notable plays include "Death of a Salesman,” "Slip of the Tongue,” Sam Shepard's "State of Shock” and Lanford Wilson's "Burn This,” which he performed in New York, London and Los Angeles. He has directed numerous plays at Steppenwolf, including the celebrated "Balm in Gilead” in Chicago and off-Broadway, "The Caretaker” in Chicago and on Broadway, "Hysteria” and "Libra,” which Malkovich adapted from Don DeLillo's novel.

Malkovich has also acted in several acclaimed television productions and won an Emmy Award for his performance in the telefilm "Death of a Salesman” directed by Volker Schlöndorff and co-starring Dustin Hoffman. His other television credits including the recent miniseries "Napoleon” and the acclaimed HBO telefilm "RKO 281,” both of which garnered him Emmy Award nominations.

In addition to directing "The Dancer Upstairs,” Malkovich directed three fashion shorts ("Strap Hangings,” "Lady Behave,” "Hideous Man”) for London- based designer Bella Freud. In 2003, his French stage production of "Hysteria” was honored with five Moliere Award nominations, including best director.

John Malkovich is an amazing actor, producer and director and we really appreciated his time. Here’s what he had to tell us about his new film:

Q: Do you still live in Paris?

JOHN MALKOVICH: No, I never lived in Paris. I lived in France but never in Paris. I lived in the countryside.

Q: So America again?


Q: Have you seen this film?

JOHN MALKOVICH: No, I have not. I’ll see it Monday. I’m shooting another movie at the moment and I have an enormous amount of text for Monday and Tuesday. At my advanced age it requires rather more repetition that I would have hoped.

Q: What attracted you to this project?

JOHN MALKOVICH: Well, a lot of things. I had an old friend who had worked with Robert (Zemeckis) before who spoke very highly of him. I had always found him a very interesting and innovative filmmaker. I liked the script very much and I liked the group involved and the process interested me a great deal also.

Q: Was there initially more in the script about your character’s transformation into a Christian?

JOHN MALKOVICH: Well I heard Steve (Starkey – one of the producers) and Neil (Gaiman), one of the writers, discussing it upstairs. I’ve not seen it so I think there is a cut in it that I just heard them discussing, but yes, that was fairly solid in the script. I’m sure there’ve been any number of cuts and changes.

Q: All of a sudden you’re wearing this large cross and it just seemed rather abrupt.

JOHN MALKOVICH: Yeah, that could be, but of course at that time is when they went from their Norse Scots to Christianity and began to expand across the world.

Q: Does the lack of costuming or set hamper you at all in terms of imagining where you are at the time?

JOHN MALKOVICH: No, not really. It seems it works well in porno and it works well here. Not at all. I grew up essentially doing theater so it’s exactly the same. Most of that…all of those things are lovely to have and in a classical film, of course, they count a great deal and they do a lot to set the time period, to set the mood. They give you an indication of a character’s social standing, class, background, education, perhaps even his view of the world. But if those things are in the writing, extant in the writing, then that doesn’t really matter. They can all be added on after. Anyway, you could have a costume in this if you wanted one. They all have to be … you couldn’t wear opaque things, but you could wear things that allowed light to shine through if you chose to.

Q: You mentioned this process intrigued you. Could you elaborate a little on that?

JOHN MALKOVICH: Well because… Alright, say you do a normal day of filmmaking. Sometimes that’s 1/8th of a page, sometimes it’s 3/8th of a page, normally let’s say it’s 2-1/2 pages, maybe 3. Now it’s probably a little more than it used to be but not always. So you may be acting for a total of 20 minutes a day. In this, you act the entire day all the time except for the tiny amount of time it takes them to sort of coordinate the computer information, let’s say, and make sure that the computers are reading the data and that you’re transmitting the data. It interests me on that level because I’m a professional actor so I’d just as soon act as sit around. On another level as a producer, as a filmmaker, it interests me because as I was explaining earlier, our company, Mr. Mudd, we did a film a few years ago called Ghost World. Now Ghost World was translated from an adult comic adapted into a "regular movie” while trying to maintain some qualities of a comic book over sort of a 6 or 7 year period. If this process got to the point where it was financially doable and take the example say of satellite phones 20 years ago compared to portable phones now and that might give an indication of how the technology will cost itself down perhaps. One wouldn’t have to do that. One could just say, "Okay, this is it. We like the comic book. Let’s shoot it. Let’s get the people. It’ll be fun.” At least the shooting part is incredibly fast. By 10am on our first day of shooting for Beowulf, I think we had finished our third day’s shooting. So the future isn’t coming. It’s well onto us. It’s on to us in your business in a big way and it’s on to us in our business in a very big way and whether this process will become part of that future, I’m sure a lot will ride on the performance of this film actually. I don’t think it could kill it, but I’m not a great prognosticator about the movie business or anything else, but it could really add a dimension to filmmaking that personally I find really interesting. I don’t care if I look like myself. It doesn’t interest me really.

Q: It is pretty clear though that for this film the post production phase was substantially longer than the actual shooting.

JOHN MALKOVICH: Yeah. That’s the second part of the question as to what will happen to this process. And again, I would just say if you had a computer during the time of dial-up, okay, you’d just want to take it and hurl it off a building because it’s so long and so laborious and so irritating. So I think normally the way it works in America, if people believe there could be money in it, then they will apply themselves to also cutting down that time because it was two full years, nearly two full years of post production.

Q: How familiar were you with the original poem and had you read it?

JOHN MALKOVICH: Yeah, we had to study it where I went to high school. I think we got smacked if we couldn’t recite a certain number of stanzas. It was in the Old English class and I think my rendition was exemplary. [Laughs]

Q: Did you go back and re-read it in preparation for the role?

JOHN MALKOVICH: No I didn’t go back and re-read it because I find it isn’t very helpful. If the script…. How would I put this delicately? I’ve done scripts or movies that I’ve rewritten almost in totality. I’ve done scripts that I’ve rewritten every night during shooting. I’ve done scripts that I’ve written before we started shooting. But if someone is actually in charge of that and very capable of being in charge of it, then I think the best thing to do is to leave them alone and I’ve done a lot of literary adaptations and you know, as I say, when you have a hundred people or however many people in a cast go back and say, "When I was rereading Les Liaisons Dangereuses, I saw that my character had a scene where he was trying on gloves.” That’s fascinating, but it’s not in the movie and the script is the thing. The play is the thing Shakespeare said and if it’s not achieved, okay that’s a different question. But I think the script is achieved. I think they’re saying what they set out to say so I didn’t see any point in going back.

Q: Would that apply to playing Tom Ripley or in that case, did you look at Patricia Highsmith?

JOHN MALKOVICH: I not only looked at Patricia Highsmith, I completely rewrote it. But again, that’s not… meaning I’m not trying to cause controversy or talk out of school. It was because it wasn’t right and one would be told it was going to be right in some future utopian world, but pretty soon you start shooting and it’s not right and I always try to avoid those cases. And furthermore, when you’re a professional actor, that’s not really your job. I mean a couple of few times it’s fallen to me to do it and people kind of signed off on that but it’s not something I’d ever seek out and I’d rather do what a director wants. They’ve worked on the script. And if you don’t agree, normally I would say, "Don’t do it then” or "Too bad for you.” And if I read something, you know, a guy sent me a script the other day and he’d been torturing me to read it and I had 50 other scripts and I was shooting a film and I’d just finished directing a play and I had a lot of lines to learn and he just went on and on calling me. So finally on the day off I read it. I called him immediately and said I have absolutely no interest in doing this. "Why?” "Because it’s appallingly bad and I can’t believe I just spent two hours reading it. It’s just nonsense. Nonsense. C’mon man.” But most jobs you do at a certain point you have to give over your trust to the people doing it unless they say, "You know, I know this is not quite right. Take a look at it.” Okay. That’s a different thing. I’d rather not do it but it’s a different proposal. But this, I really liked the script and I think they had a very good idea of what they wanted to say and they said it quite precisely. So, for me, there was no point to go back.

Q: Did you ever get back to Steppenwolf Theatre at all?

JOHN MALKOVICH: Yes, sir. The last time. In fact when Robert called me about this, I was acting in a new play there and doing the costumes. So, two years ago, and then I just opened a play in Paris that isn’t Steppenwolf but I still have my hand in it.

Q: What play is that?

JOHN MALKOVICH: It’s called The Good Canary by a young writer called Zack Helm, an American, but it’s in French.

Q: Did you see the Tracy Letts play at Steppenwolf?

JOHN MALKOVICH: I was supposed to go to a dress rehearsal with our artistic director a couple weeks ago but I think it was delayed or something when Martha (Lavey) couldn’t come in but I will see it in November when I go back to the East Coast.

Q: What’s the movie you’re working on now?

JOHN MALKOVICH: It’s called The Changeling.

Q: Is it a remake of the George C. Scott film?

JOHN MALKOVICH: No. It’s a film directed by Clint Eastwood with Angelina Jolie set in the 20’s here in L.A.

Q: Thank you.

JOHN MALKOVICH: Thank you everyone.

"Beowulf”opens in theaters on November 16th.


Hatchet 2 The Last Exorcism FASTER Red Hill Red Hill Red Hill Hardware The Killer Inside Me A Serbian Film The Last Exorcism