John Malkovich tells tales of Prestige and Pretension

In Being John Malkovich we view the film’s namesake as a staunch performer, resigned to intellectual snobbery. He’s anal retentive, obsessive and unquestionably dull. Is this the real man we see, or perhaps simply a comic shadow? As Malkovich himself said in a recent Hatchet interview, it may be a bit of both.

“Yes, I mean you could say I’m dull and I have a dull life, and you could say I’m pretentious. But aside from those two things which may be close to me, it bears no similarity to my life whatsoever.”

Perhaps it’s better not to comment on these words, to let them speak for themselves. Let’s just say that, in person, John Malkovich is intense. Very intense.

Pretentious or not, you have to admit Malkovich’s work radiates with a power that overshadows any personal shortcomings. Spike Jonze’s quirky Being John Malkovich made him a pop icon in 1999 but Malkovich’s prestige predates that film by about 15 years. He’s directed and acted in countless shows, on and off-Broadway. His performances in 1993’s In the Line of Fire and 2000’s Shadow of the Vampire were masterful, if not a bit chilling. In his newest project, Malkovich takes his act behind the camera, directing and producing. The film, The Dancer Upstairs, follows the plight of an empowered Latino detective on the trail of violent revolutionaries.

The following quotes are some things he told us about his work, his life, and yes, his personal character. Pretentious? Maybe. Eccentric? Perhaps. Intelligent? Without a doubt.

On Being John Malkovich, the film:
“I would hardly think anybody who’s seen that film would think its purpose was flattery. If they did, I think they should take some classes in narratology.”

“I just thought it was a terrific piece of writing. Our production company asked him to change who it was about and if he did so I would have loved to direct it. Charlie (Kaufman) didn’t wish to change what it was about.”

On America
“I think a lot of time the definition of American, in Europe and other places is a definition I wouldn’t fully embrace. It is a big country, and filled with all kinds of people. I’m completely American but I wasn’t raised to be incurious about the world. I wasn’t raised to be threatened or horrified by it. I’m interested in it.”

“I have a deep distrust for ideology. Some might call it a paranoia. I’m tired of ideology. I’ve really had more than enough. People with ideologies are not the only ones who have been lied to. They’re often the people who’ve done a lot of the lying, as we’re finding out today, yesterday, tomorrow and maybe in five years. And the lies will be coming from all sides, and they will be whoppers.”

“People have a tendency to take a position. They don’t read enough history, they don’t think reflectively. They don’t contemplate. They don’t see how what seems evident and obvious and heartfelt today may seem corrupt, brutal, idiotic and despotic tomorrow. It’s only time that reveals this to us, normally when it’s way too late.”

On his decision to play dark roles:
“We live in a society where there are 200,000 homicides a year. And there are hundreds of thousands of people in jail. Starvation and abuse. Cataclysmic occurrences every day. That’s part of life.”

“Of course it’s depressing, but I don’t think it requires any tapping. It is. There might be a billion people who live OK lives. Maybe there are 3 billion whose lives are sort of OK. But that leaves quite a few people whose lives are not that OK. Even if your life is perfectly wonderful, that doesn’t mean you don’t have the little things that go on in your own little mind. You couldn’t get the right parking space, you didn’t ask for the sandwich with butter. I can’t pretend there aren’t dark things in life. It’s not an obsession of mine. If it were, you couldn’t live. You have to try to enjoy your life. It would be very morbid not to enjoy it.”

On his choice to direct:
“There were other things I was really set to direct before, but they all fell apart. I’ve always directed, I’ve direct probably 50 plays and three short fashion films.”

On the revolutionaries in The Dancer Upstairs:
“People like that exist. Movements like that have happened for the better part of the last 50 years. They’ve killed million of millions of people.”

On the intent of The Dancer Upstairs:
“One of the things that the film addresses is human people doing inhuman things. We love to look at anything we find inhuman and act as if it’s not at all troubling, because they’re not human. But see, in fact that’s not true. They’re human, they’re us.”

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