Dissecting John Malkovich

An emotional tango with the director of ‘The Dancer Upstairs’

When you talk to him, John Malkovich sounds so calm, so reserved, so blissfully anti-temperamental, you feel like nudging his shoulder and asking, “Hey, is there a there there?

But there’s plenty there.

Malkovich is probably Hollywood’s most unwilling iconoclast. His fame is, in part, the result of devoting decades to the acting “craft,” both onstage and in film. But it is in cinema, actually, where Malkovich piqued the curiosities of mainstream moviegoers. Somewhere between his debut performance in Roland Jaffe’s The Killing Fields (1984) and Being John Malkovich (1999), that quirky portal-to-the-brain hit with an addictively simplistic catchphrase—“Malkovich, Malkovich, Malkovich”—the world embraced him for playing characters with an unsettling indifference. Nominated twice for an Oscar—Places of the Heart (1984), In the Line of Fire (1993)—and the recipient of numerous Golden Globe and acting award nods, the dent Malkovich has made in Hollywood seems divinely inspired if not richly deserved.

For this actor, it’s simply work, perhaps nothing more. Case closed. Interestingly, while attempting to draw feature-story blood from his entertainment veins during a recent interview about his directorial debut in The Dancer Upstairs, it was clear Malkovich’s icy yet classy-cool demeanor—something that smacks more of common professionalism than an intentional slap across the face—could frost even the most feverishly frisky media hotplates. (Attention Mary Hart: Forever-perky-but-aging botox babes don’t stand a chance here!)

It’s not that Malkovich isn’t jazzed about The Dancer Upstairs—and he should be, considering how much acclaim the indie film has been receiving—it’s just that he doesn’t feel the need to get all emotional about it. Digging deeper, perhaps this has something to due with the fact that it took more than 15 years to bring this project to life.

Inspired by a London Daily Telegraph article about Nicholas Shakespeare’s book, “The Dancer Upstairs” and a 1988 Granta Magazine article written by Shakespeare called “Searching for Guzman,” Malkovich began soaking up the controversy surrounding Abimael Guzman, the leader of the Peruvian revolution known as the Sendero Luminoso, or The Shining Path (1980-1992). Shakespeare’s accounts chronicled a police detective’s 12-year search for Guzman, which ended in a peaceful arrest above a Lima dance studio—the dancer had been one of Guzman’s chief lieutenants. Shakespeare’s novel, however, took the facts and weaved a love story—between the detective and the dancer—around the real-life terror. At one point, in the ’80s, Malkovich trekked to Peru to witness, first-hand, how the culture was effected by the revolution, then, in its heydey. By the time Shakespeare’s novel was named Best Novel by the American Libraries Association (1997), Malkovich really wanted to direct the film version, but when he officially embarked on the project, he found himself bumping heads. Certain Hollywood producers weren’t that eager to dig into their showbiz trousers to fork over the cash needed to make his movie, especially without a big-name acting star attached to it.

True, The Dancer Upstairs had “indie” written all over it. The deep, emotional story would require viewers to think, perhaps even question their own moral boundaries. Captivating as it was, it simply wasn’t the standard get’em-in-get-’em-poporn-get-’em-a-good-seat-get-’em-out fare delivered by bigger studios. It was anything but Jim Carrey. Malkovich was drawn to one particular actor—Javier Bardem, the Spanish actor who’d received an Oscar nomination for Before Night Falls. Once the film found its financial footing—Malkovich is also credited as producer—the price tag hovered at a nominal $4 million and the shooting schedule spanned nine weeks—a quick turnaround for any picture.

But the end result proved powerful. As a director, Malkovich intentionally, it seems, delivers his audience directly onto the front steps of Latin-America and keeps them there. (You can practically feel the tropical breeze.) He’s also able to pull from Bardem a remarkable emotional intensity. He is thoroughly believable as beleagured Agustin Rejas, the lawyer-turned-detective bent on capturing the delusional anarchist who dubs himself Ezequiel. As the film unfolds, detective Rejas ping-pongs from his so-called happy, married-with-a-kid life to tracking Ezequiel’s wrath—the masses are so captivated by the mysterious rebel their actions only become more terroristic in nature. But there is romance. Laura Morante is Yolanda, the ballet teacher who instructs Rejas’ daughter. As detective and teacher find a surprising connection, the revolution behind them heats up and the film manages to balance the turmoils all parties face with the betrayal found in the most unlikely places.

Malkovich is apt at keeping things interesting for a fine two-hour-plus excursion, culling from the richness of Nicolas Shakespeare’s tome. Here, Malkovich expounds upon The Dancer Upstairs, and his life, in general:

Good Times: You were taken by the story of the Sendero Liminosa Revolution.Why?

John Malkovich: I don’t know why, particularly, because it was in that hemisphere and their philosophy seemed so unique and obscure and bizarre. [I was taken by it] for a lot of reason really.

GT: And you preferred to not have American box office stars in this? Do you feel that would have distracted from the story you wanted to tell, if say, a big name star was attached to the project?

JM: That was never really an option, because I could never imagine any [big name star] would even be interested.  I didn’t see the point in it really.

GT: So, then the bankable star thing was an issue? Was that the reason the original producers pulled out of the project?

JM: I never really asked why. Maybe they didn’t have the money, or maybe they didn’t think I’d try to do for it that amount of money—for such a little amount of money. Maybe they were big liars. I never asked.

GT: What impressed you about Javier Bardem?

JM: It wasn’t so much his style, it was his talent and his presence. I don’t think he has a particular style. If he does, he seems to adapt it most readily to the task at hand. To me, it was just that he was such a great actor and had a great presence.

GT: Bardem has said that ultimately this movie is that of one man’s soul? Can you elaborate?

JM: It’s about a lot of things, and certainly that notion plays into it and is one of the things the film addresses. I think you could also say it is the nature of corruption. I think it’s about a lot of things.

GT: Can you talk about directing and acting? Is there one you enjoy more than the other?

JM: I’ve directed for some 27 years now and I always liked directing although I had never done it in the cinema. Things never worked out; they were on the stove, as it were, and they just sort of fell apart. But I would say they (acting and directing) are no more than distant cousins really.  And I did enjoy directing [this film] very much and maybe I’ll do it again and maybe I won’t; I have no idea. I do not know what the future holds really.

GT: Do you enjoy acting?

JM: It’s my job, but do I love to act? Probably not … because it’s work. There is a reason why it’s called work and not play. There’s a reason for separate words for them in the language, but I can like to act— a lot. I’ve had great fun being an actor at times. And I think I am lucky to be able to still be able to like it take joy from it and from the work of others.

GT: So, what did you learn about being a first-time film director?

JM: Well … I don’t know if I learned anything, really. I think you learn something, even if it’s just a bit of arcane technical knowledge or if it’s just to work with people, or [to know] what’s important in the telling of the story with everything else you do. I learned for next time, to have a little more money and a little more time, but you know, as far as a specific lessons learned, I couldn’t say.

GT: Any interesting directorial influences?

JM: I’ve always been huge fan Carol Reed (The Third Man, The Agony and the Ecstasy), but that doesn’t particularly apply to this film.

GT: Why Carol Reed?

JM: Why? Because I like the way he tells the stories and often like the way he looked at the world—and his style and his wit.

GT: The last book you read?

JM: Samantha Power’s book “Problem from Hell: America in the Age of Genocide.”    It was excellent

GT: The last movie you saw?

JM: That would be harder. Hmm… the last movie I saw? Um, what was that?  I am just trying to think. I so rarely go to the movies. I read more. I can’t really remember the last movie I saw.

GT: Do you feel there are any misconceptions of you?

JM: I don’t know what conceptions the public has of me really. I never think about it much and I never really read anything about myself. I have to know what the conception was to be able to call it a misconception and I have no idea if there even is a conception and if it’s even widely shared. I have the tendency to think that people don’t think about me and don’t have a conception of me and that seems wise—both for them and for me.

GT: What could Hollywood use more of?

JM: Better movies.

GT: What bothers you most?

JM: Bullies bother me a lot.


GT: Any guilty pleasures?

JM: No.


GT: Your thoughts on fame?

JM: I don’t think about it

GT: Are you deep or practical?

JM: There’s nothing philosophical about me; I am completely practical.

GT: Freud of Jung?

JM: Freud.

GT: Meat or veggies?

JM: I prefer meat, but I eat a lot of veggies.

GT: What’s the most interesting thing you’ve learned about yourself lately?

JM: That I have a lot to learn.


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