Interview: John Malkovich takes to the Barbican stage

Last weekend saw the opening of The Infernal Comedy: Confessions of a Serial Killer (2010) starring John Malkovich. Loosely speaking, it is a play that merges baroque opera with dialogue telling the autobiographical tale if Austrian serial killer Jack Unterweger. The play has met with critical success and is touring until November when Malkovich will then open with a new work in Paris. Many people are unaware of Malkovich as a stage actor instead recognising him for his blockbuster roles as Cyrus the Virus (Con Air [1997]) or Lennie Small in Of Mice and Men (1992). Malkovich actually cut his teeth on the boards in the 1980s and it was here that director Stephen Frears asked him to play Valmont in the 1988 film Dangerous Liaisons.

Dangerous Liaisons was screened on Saturday at the Barbican as part of their ScreenTalks programme, where actors and directors discuss their work after a screening. Dangerous Liaisons was an important point in Malkovich’s career and make him the public figure many of know today, I would like to say love but Malkovich’s eerie and slightly off putting demeanour hardly inspires love, admiration for his dynamic and powerful roles would be more appropriate.

Malkovich and I met in the Barbican’s Cinema One where we settled down to discuss not just John Malkovich the actor but also John Malkovich the writer, director, producer and fashion designer (check out to see his fashion label).

Joe Walsh: You initially began your acting career in theatre and you set up the Steppenwolf theatre group, then following that went on to film so this is something of a return for you with The Infernal Comedy. What is it about theatre that you love more than film?

John Malkovich: It’s living, its ephemeral, reminds me of life, its organic and like life you kind of have to be there. Film does great things but they are other things.

JW: Do you feel film is too detached?

JM: No I wouldn’t go that far, it’s what it is, but the process isn’t really a living process. They [film and theatre] aren’t even cousins but they both have great things. I mean of course it is a shame if you ever do something that is actually ok on stage and that you maybe can’t do it the next night, that’s a shame but that is why it reminds me of life.

JW: You have written, directed and produced throughout your career; do you prefer that element of the industry rather than the acting side?

JM: I like producing but only certain elements of it. I can’t stand to have meetings. I am not so interested in what other people think of it. This is not because of any sense of innate arrogance on my part, although I don’t lack that, but because you have to do it. You have to produce your movie, you have to work with the writer, you have to make sure that the story you are telling is compelling and well written and is something that audience wants to sit through to see the end of it to see how the story works out. So yeah, I enjoy some aspects of producing, but I am not so good at sitting on a set and saying “Hey can we rack the crane!”

JW: You have directed and produced a lot for both theatre and film, and it seems that these are the elements where you drive lies. It must be a very different process from acting, is it?

JM: Yeah Sure, I mean if you want to make a film, like when I directed a film about 10 or 11 years ago and that took 8 years to make. Where as if I wanted to do the same thing on stage all that would take would be one phone call pretty much to anywhere I wanted to do it. I just don’t have the kind of money to produce films on my own, but I can, at least in some periods of my life, produce a play and the good thing is I don’t have a boss or someone I am responsible to for x amount of money, but for film it costs a lot of money, a lot more than I’ve got.

JW: As well as the acting you also have a great love of Portugal where you have your restaurant come nightclub, and also your fashion brand Technobohemian, what pushed you in those other artistic directions?

JM: I spent a lot of time in Portugal over the years and a couple of gentleman I knew there had a fantastic restaurant I love. One night I over heard them talking to a French footballer so I understood what they were saying. I heard that they had a new project and just said if you ever want an investor call me and a year later they did. But I don’t do it, they are great, I don’t have to do anything except occasionally go and eat fantastic food.

JW: What are you planning next for theatre?

JM: I do this [The Infernal Comedy] and the other opera concurrent with this, it is called The Giacomo Variations, it is about Casanova. I will be doing both all year until the third week of November when I go direct Les Liaisons Dangereuses in Paris and do the costumes design for that.

Joe Walsh