John Malkovich: “My mother referred to me as a plodder, which I think is absolutely true”

“I’m not a profound person”, John Malkovich told a star struck audience in Nicosia this week, where he engaged in a discussion about everything from his movie and theatre work, to his family life and even his take on artificial intelligence (AI) and social media – or as he puts it, “antisocial media”.

For someone who is arguably one of the best actors of his generation, it was surprising to find out that acting in movies has been a kind of “means to an end” for Malkovich; his true love is theatre. After his family of course.

Below are some of the highlights - and laughs - from the exciting talk:

What we lose and what we gain as we grow older

Asked what we lose and what we gain as we grow older, Malkovich referred to the inevitable loss of physical abilities; but followed up with a funny anecdote:

“Although I did three films with the Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira, who was still working every day when he passed away at 106. And the first film I did with him he was 87 years old.”

He said they were in a part of Portugal that has quite steep hills and cliffs, and he wanted to show Malkovich and Catherine Deneuve who he was filming with, a cemetery. “And he went to open the door of the cemetery and it was locked and he was very unhappy. So we walked down the steep hill another couple of hundred metres and he tried to open the other door to the cemetery and that door was locked as well. So he just jumped on it. And when I say he climbed on top of the wall, the wall was six feet high, and he jumped on it with one movement. He was 87. Like a cat. And then he turned to Catherine and said (holding hand out): ‘Madame?’ and she was ‘Non, non’. And the grip said to me ‘Don’t you hope you can do that when you’re 87?’ I said I couldn’t do that when I was 27!”

Overall he said, you lose a lot of things physically as you grow older; but mentally he feels ok. “I think probably I think less about things that are not super important,” he said

What’s important?

What’s important, he was asked?

“Well for me the important things are family – we have a two-year-old granddaughter and that’s a delight of our lives.” Here he referred to a friend whose mother got a t-shirt printed when she had her first grandchild: “’Had I known grandchildren were this much fun I would’ve done it first.’ And that makes sense to me,” he said.

And then work. “I have a tendency to have friends at work, which is very lucky. But even if you’re philosophically predisposed to understand that life is short, which that isn’t quite true; I’m 70 years old, so that isn’t quite true. But it is short for some people. Three-year-olds get leukaemia.

Life is short and I don’t have that many years left to do things that interest me. So that’s quite important in my life, more important than it would’ve been 20 and 30 years ago.”

Any regrets?

“Yes. Regret like guilt is an essential component of life I think. Our western societies are built on the notion of guilt really to a certain level and sort of regret is also a necessary component of life. But like self-criticism, it has a place and it has a super important place, I think, but it can’t have a crippling place. It should be intellectually cohesive, why you feel regret, why you feel culpability and it probably should have some teaching aspect in it,” said Malkovich.

The story behind Being John Malkovich

Being John Malkovich is one of the actor’s most well-known movies and a kind of cult classic. During his talk in Nicosia, the actor revealed how he came to film it.

He had just finished filming a movie in California and he was about to get on a plane back to Europe and he only had a couple hundred pages left in the book he was reading, so he phoned the production office up and asked if there was anything for him to read. “My partner and old friend Ross said, oh yeah, there is something for you to read. Oh ok, great well send it out. He goes yeah I will. So he sent it out and I looked at it and it was the script that said ‘Being John Malkovich’,” he explained

“I started reading the script and I thought this is brilliant, this is fantastic writing, who wrote this script?”

He read it on the plane, called Ross and said: “Well I finished the script and I’d like you to meet with this Charlie Kaufman and tell him I’d like to direct it.”

And the rest is history!

“I mean what is John Malkovich? What does it even mean,” Malkovich pondered. “I’m not a public person actually. I mean of course I am, but I don’t have any concept or interest in that. And I never have and I never will.”

He went on, “My mother referred to me as a plodder, which I think is absolutely true, that’s who I am. Little by little, make it better. Being John Malkovich, is nothing like me at all, which I think is part of its brilliance.”

Why theatre?

“I mean I grew up in the theatre so for me that’s home. Cinema was more like, I got known for being a saxophonist but I play the piano. So, yeah it’s music, it is still music, but it’s not really what I do,” Malkovich explained. “I got to learn with wonderfully interesting people at the very least and I’m very appreciative of that and will remain so. But I grew up in the theatre, that’s what I like. Theatre reminds me of life. Why do I say that? Because you had to be there. The show they see tonight will not be the show they saw last night. The show they saw last night exists only in one place: in their memories.”

He added, “So theatre is organic and like life, you had to be there.”

“A lot of people’s lives go wrong by doing what they hate”

During a Q&A session that followed the talk, Malkovich was asked whether pursuing a career in theatre was a risk. “My belief is just, do what you love. A lot of people’s lives go wrong by doing what they hate.”

He pondered, “Anyway, businesses close every day, hospitals close. What’s safe? What’s removed from all risk? I don’t think there is anything. I don’t see it as any more risky than anything else. I mean the real risk is doing something that doesn’t interest you. That’s a risk. In my opinion.”

“If AI is so smart why is it so bad at spellcheck?”

Asked about his views on social media and AI, Malkovich said: “I’d divide that into two questions, or two segments of a questions: the first is social media, which I call antisocial media. I don’t think it’s very social speaking to other human beings on social media, it’s absurd. Unless you’re profoundly stupid.”

He added, “The second part, AI, I always say this. If AI is so smart, why is it so bad at spell check? I don’t find it smart at all. When AI can paint The Night Watch, I’ll wake up. When it can do Mozart, Schumann, Dostoevsky, I’ll pay attention. But I don’t think that will ever happen. People can do spectacular things. Beautiful things. They’re imperfect vessels of course, and I wish people would get used to that. Just accept it. Nobody’s auditioning for Christ. We’re imperfect but humankind has made some incredible things and I don’t see anything beautiful AI has made.”

Last but not least, Con Air!

John Malkovich was the baddie in the action movie Con Air, where he starred opposite Nicolas Cage back in 1997. And here he had hilarious tale to tell. He was working with the novelist Nicholas Shakespeare when he received the script.

“This script comes one day and the parcel comes, before email and all that, and it said Con Air produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, starring Nicolas Cage and all that. All the characters were named after the romantic era poets and I put it back in the parcel and I pitched it to the end of our kitchen,” he said, adding, “Which is a long way”.

At the end of the night, Nicholas Shakespeare asked if he could read the script as he had never read one before. “I said yeah of course read it sure. And he came down the next morning and he said ‘I’m just so glad to know that I’m working with someone like you, with such integrity, with such blah blah blah and he went on to describe some of the, let’s say, flaws in the script. And he wasn’t very filled with praise about its literary quality. And he said ‘I’m just so glad that you won’t be doing that’. I said wait, no Nicholas stop, of course I’m doing it. And he said but you didn’t even look. I said I saw what I needed to see. It’ll make a few hundred million dollars and I’ll agree to it, and I’ll do it.”

And that was how he came to star in Con Air!

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