Three years ago, a young actor quietly slipped into New York from
Chicago, where he had acted and directed for six years with a bunch of college chums who called themselves the Steppenwolf Theater Company. An off-Broadway producer had decided to import a production of Sam Shepard's
True West that had earned Steppenwolf favorable reviews in Chicago, and although the actor was happy to go along for the ride, he was so skeptical of the play's chances for success that he only brought four days' luggage with him.
He's been back to Chicago since then, but never for very long. Practically from the first line he uttered as Lee in
True West -- a balding menace in a grimy, oversize undershirt, he breathes beer in his brother's face and deadpans, "So, Mom took off for Alaska, huh?" -- John Malkovich was a sensation. His dangerously infantile performance, later televised in PBS's "American Playhouse" series, started racking up the kind of critical raves ("An acting hole-in-one" -- New York Times), honors (the Clarence Derwent Award for Outstanding Newcomer, an Obie, and its Chicago equivalent, a Jeff Award), and peer-group adulation (everyone from Athol Fugard to Morgan Fairchild lined up for tickets) that greets an actor's debut maybe once in a generation. Those who caught his act in
True West could tell they were getting in early on what was bound to be an extraordinary career.
Before long, Malkovich was flying off to Thailand to play an American photojournalist in Roland Joffe's
The Killing Fields. Then he spent three months filming in Texas as the blind Mr. Will in Robert Benton's
Places in the Heart, which earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor. He won a Drama Desk Award for playing Biff opposite Dustin Hoffman's Willy Loman in the 1984 Broadway revival of
Death of a Salesman. (A television version of the production, directed by Volker Schlondorff, was broadcast on CBS September 15.) Most recently, he traveled to Spain to take his biggest film role so far, in Peter Yates's
Eleni, based on Nicholas Gage's autobiographical best-selling book.
In Eleni, Malkovich plays Gage, the New York Times investigative reporter who returns to his homeland Greece, thirty years after the civil war there, to research the life and death of his mother, who was executed by Communist insurgents for arranging the escape of her four children to America. The film tracks two parallel stories -- Eleni's struggle to raise her children in the war-torn village of Lia and her grown son's effort to locate the people who sentenced his mother to death and to exact his revenge. The starring role belongs to Kate Nelligan as the ennobled peasant Eleni Gatzoyiannis, but the engine of the movie is Malkovich's haunting performance as the son whose obsession to know the details of his mother's death combines a reporter's passion for exactitude and an Oresteian quest for retribution.
Malkovich is no overnight sensation. At thirty-one, he's too old and too odd-looking to be a male starlet. That he became known as a stage actor first, rather than a television or film star, is largely the legacy of his background in Chicago theater, which has a strong tradition of continuity and ensemble playing dating back to the Second City company that nurtured the likes of Elaine May, Mike Nichols, Alan Arkin, and Barbara Harris. The rewards of working with a company of like-minded actors encouraged Malkovich to develop his unusual gifts in a tiny Chicago theater rather than throw himself into the free-lance talent pool in New York or Los Angeles.
With Steppenwolf, Malkovich started out playing a series of brooding sons -- Tom in
The Glass Menagerie, Biff in Death of a Salesman, the narrator of
A Sorrow Beyond Dreams (Peter Handke's memoir of his mother's suicide). All that changed, he says, "when my hair fell out." That's when he started taking roles like Steve in
Say Goodnight, Gracie, who makes his entrance wearing a gorilla suit and brown derby, or Mr. James in a particularly notorious show called
Big Mother. "It was a School of Large Props play, all mug-and-run," Malkovich recalls with satisfaction. "I wore a black Afro wig, and I painted on these greasy sideburns, one in the shape of Florida -- with a star by Tallahassee -- and the other in the shape of a spermatozoa."
The freedom to experiment with impunity that the Steppenwolf company encourages made Malkovich determined not to be pigeonholed. Even while performing on Broadway in
Death of a Salesman, he continued to direct plays, as he frequently had with Steppenwolf. He mounted a sensational off-Broadway revival of Lanford Wilson's
Balm in Gilead that transformed Wilson's low-life drama into a street opera by pumping it full of songs by Bruce Springsteen, Tom Waits, and Rickie Lee Jones. His next assignment was directing Kevin Kline, Raul Julia, and Glenne Headly (a Steppenwolf actress who is also his wife) on Broadway in Shaw's
Arms and the Man. (In August, Kline left the production and Malkovich took over as Captain
From the outside, this looks like one of the best-planned careers in show business. You make your big-time debut playing a Sam Shepard wild man, and then you play Arthur Miller's all-American good boy. In one movie, you play a photographer; in the next one, you're blind. Downtown, you're an extravagant rock'n'roll director; uptown, you're the master of Shaw. When you meet John Malkovich, though, he comes across more like a space cadet than a one-man media event.
It's a summer afternoon, and I've been waiting in front of the Cafe 43 for twenty minutes when I spy a familiar figure in a fashionably anti-fashion outfit -- drab purple long-sleeved shirt buttoned to the top, baggy brown trousers, and ginky grandpa glasses -- crossing the street from the Century Cafe and disappearing into a parking garage. Feeling Like Alice in Wonderland chasing the White Rabbit, I follow him through the garage into the Cafe Un Deux Trois and lead him back to what was supposed to be our meeting place. Granted, all three cafes are on the same block. He blames the confusion on his manager and his publicist. The truth will out -- recalling his first meeting with Sam Shepard, Malkovich allows as to how "that man is vaguer than I am. Which out to be illegal."
The ever present Walkman nestles next to the ashtray and pack of British cigarettes. Tall and somewhat stony faced in repose, he speaks softly in the measured midwestern drawl of someone who doesn't like to rush into things. When he laughs, he has the lazy grin and goofy rolling eyes of a sheepish kid.
His high forehead and curly sidelocks give him a leonine air that, onstage, he can use to scary effect when he wants; offstage, he's dreamier and apparently harmless -- a soft-boiled egg. He reminds me of the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz.
It's all an act, of course. He knows how to be sweet and make you laugh and remember your first name, but when it comes to business, Malkovich is a man of steel. After all, this is the guy who kept Dustin Hoffman waiting for six months before starting
Death of a Salesman while he went off to do a movie. This is the guy who was offered a custom-tailored leading role in Sam Shepard's new play
A Lie of the Mind -- and turned it down because it was too much like the part he played in
True West. Malkovich has spent his career as an actor calculating how to get the biggest effect from the smallest gesture, and when he knows what he wants, he doesn't budge.
As he orders iced coffee and a fruit salad, I recall an interview I did with him and Gary Sinise, his director and co-star in
True West, when they'd first hit New York. At the time, they were mostly intent on getting national recognition for
Steppenwolf. Did Malkovich imagine then that in a couple of years he would be an international movie star? "I wasn't thinking at all. I was just being there, Don," he says in his play-dumb voice. Because he's not a movie buff -- "I like to read prob'ly more than anything. Or watch sports or play sports, or listen to music" -- he didn't have his heart set on being in movies. "I guess I wanted to do a movie, but not just to do one. I wanted an interesting one with people I liked and a story that...I mean, I know movies aren't necessary, but if one could say, 'Suppose that they were,' I wanted to do one of the more necessary ones."
The Killing Fields would seem to fit the bill. Roland Joffe's picture graphically dramatizes New York Times reporter Sydney Schanberg's account of the four hellish years his Cambodian assistant Dith Pran spent trying to escape the Khmer Rouge regime. But Malkovich was initially indifferent to the idea. "I met with Roland, and I don't think he liked me, and I didn't really like him. We sort of got in an argument because, like, he's a Marxist wooly-head, and I'm not. And I thought, What's easier than to make an antiwar movie? Who wants to be in a war, for God's sake? I don't, and I don't know anybody else who does. It just bored me, really."
Reading Bruce Robinson's script changed his mind completely. It wasn't the anti-American screed he had anticipated, but a story, as he puts it, "about this little man's struggle to remain alive and be a person in the midst of a great stupidity." There were other appealing aspects to
The Killing Fields. The company included South African playwright Athol Fugard and avant-garde performance artist Spalding Gray, both of whom Malkovich admires, especially Gray. And the opportunity to travel to Thailand was a big plus. At the director's suggestion, Malkovich and several other actors -- including Sam Waterston and Haing S. Ngor, who played Schanberg and Pran -- spent two weeks in Bangkok and the north of Thailand improvising and being tourists together before the film started shooting. "Apart from his enormous contribution to the film itself, John's a great enemy of boredom," Waterston remembers. "We had a mad driver who John used to deliberately provoke into even more insane stunts, like setting speed records between locations. And he made Haing teach him to say all sorts of insulting and foul things in Cambodian, like 'You speak like a lazy dog,' 'Shut your filthy mouth and go to sleep,' and some other stuff I can't repeat."
Although Malkovich is very much a minor character in The Killing
Fields, Robert Benton thinks it offers a good glimpse of the actor's humor. "That scene where they're sitting on the terrace of the American embassy in the rain, waiting to be evacuated, and he's talking about disguising themselves as chickens and getting out -- that's very much John." Benton had been a Malkovich fan since seeing
True West, but when he went after him for Places in the Heart (originally for the part that Ed Harris ended up playing), the director found himself competing with his pal Dustin Hoffman, who wanted Malkovich for
Death of a Salesman. The play ended up being put on hold until the movie was finished. "It was Dustin's fault, really," says Malkovich, with his lazy grin, "because he spoke really well of Benton, and he doesn't speak well of many authority figures. He's the quintessential terminal juvenile."
For Places in the Heart, Malkovich visited the Lighthouse for the Blind and found a blind black man who taught him to cane chairs and make brooms. But as Benton observes, "He approaches a character the way a writer does more than any other actor I know.
He does research, but he has a very good inner clock. When he has enough, he stops and creates the character in his mind and allows his instincts to work."
Although Benton remembers the cast -- a fine ensemble including Sally Field, Ed Harris, Amy Madigan, Danny Glover, and Lindsay Crouse -- as an inseparable team, Malkovich recalls keeping pretty much to himself. "Ed and Amy are really wild," he says. "They love to slug a few cases down and go play some pool at whatever bar they can find. But I don't drink, so I'd stay around the hotel and read. Dallas is kind of scary. I don't really like cowboy hats and cowboy boots and diamond rings in the shape of Texas. All that gets on my nerves."
What gives Malkovich such immediate distinction is that his performances always seem to come from somewhere deep inside, from what he is rather than what he does, from his silence as much as his speech. There's a stillness that sets his character in
Places in the Heart apart from the others. Robert Benton notes, "He said once, 'If I'm blind, I don't know what I look like in the mirror.' So his face had a slackness to it, the kind of repose that if you caught sight of it in the mirror you would compose it in some way." And Malkovich's portrayal of Biff Loman in
Death of a Salesman was a radical break from the usual conception of Biff as an overgrown adolescent. "I saw him, even as a child, being quite withdrawn," says Malkovich. "A good athlete makes people come to him -- I never understood why he should be bubbly." His low-key take on the character not only contrasted sharply with Dustin Hoffman's hyperemotional performance but fueled it further, exactly the way Biff's best intentions always exacerbate his father's demands.
Like many good actors, Malkovich is rarely satisfied with his work: "Most of it has just been a terrible misunderstanding." He feels he's competing not just with himself or his peers but with "every performance ever made. The obstacle in anything you do is that the audience will say, 'I've seen that before in other plays,'" he says, pushing aside his half-eaten salad and lighting another cigarette. "It was bad enough when all you had to deal with were the performances one person could see onstage in a lifetime. Now, with films, it's more than a lifetime. That's what's scary about films."
Another disheartening aspect of film is that the finished product is often far removed from the original conception. What first attracted Malkovich to
Eleni was the book's detailed presentation of both sides of a political revolution. "You have
State of Siege, Missing, Under Fire -- stories that say, 'Aren't the Communists great, aren't they very much for whom the bell tolls?' Factually, that's not quite right. What they did in Greece was hideous and insidious. I wanted to be part of a story that told the other side." But screenwriter Steve Tesich ultimately eliminated all the social political detail that made Gage's book fascinating and complicated, reducing
Eleni to a simplistic pro-government, anti-Communist melodrama. Although Malkovich is too loyal and gentlemanly -- too politic -- to bad-mouth the film, he indicates that it turned out differently than he expected and chalks it up to the exigencies of filmmaking.
Nothing about the mechanics of film-making seems to intimidate Malkovich -- nor does anything else, apparently, least of all working with stars. Recalling his audition for
Death of a Salesman, he says, "So many famous people, I mean stars, were shaking in their boots waiting to read with Dustin. I wasn't scared. I just went for him and started flinging him around.
He loved it. He wanted people who'd challenge him. For one thing, I'm not the nervous type. But also, you know, Dustin's an excellent actor, but I felt like I've worked with some great actors all my life."
It's another afternoon a week later, in Washington, D.C., and Malkovich has been working with some great actors for a couple of hours.
He's presiding over a rehearsal of Coyote Ugly, one of two Steppenwolf productions invited to play at the Kennedy Center during the summer.
It was the first show Malkovich had directed in Chicago since his success in
True West. As a star's return to the fold, and especially in the gilt-chandelier-and-red-carpet setting of the Kennedy Center,
Coyote Ugly is a typically perverse Steppenwolf choice. The actors refer to Lynn Siefert's play, a grotesque Sam Shepard-like comedy about an incestuous family living in the Arizona desert, as "Greek tragedy meets 'The Beverly Hillbillies.'"
Watching them work, I notice that the actors indulge in some gross-out comic antics I recognize from Malkovich's performance in
True West -- hitting themselves, devouring food and spewing it out, punctuating lines with the kind of bizarre gestures usually associated with retarded children. Over a cheeseburger at the Riverside Towers coffee shop later, I ask if the other actors were imitating him. "No, I think it's a common language that we pick up from each other," he says. He's eager to correct the impression that he's only interested in wild-man, rock 'n' roll-type plays and points out that the lion's share of his work as a director with Steppenwolf has been highly literate British drama, including nearly all of Harold Pinter's plays. Still, he admits that as a group "the most frequent directions we give each other are: more stupid, less stupid, more like a person, less like a person. It's bred into us in a sense."
Malkovich grew up in a southern Illinois burg called Benton. He didn't start acting until he went off to college at Eastern Illinois University, originally to major in environmental studies. He switched to drama in his junior year and finished school at Illinois State University. Two of his classmates, Jeff Perry and Terry Kinney, decided to start a theater in Chicago with a friend named Gary Sinise. "If you knew those guys, you'd know why the idea was so frightening," says Malkovich, who became one of the company's nine founding members in 1976. He proceeded to act, direct, or design between fifty and sixty productions over the next six years with Steppenwolf and other Chicago companies, besides appearing in the locally made television films
The Chicago Story and Word of Honor, which starred Karl Malden.
"I have enjoyed acting a lot sometimes," says Malkovich. We've walked from the coffee shop to the lobby of the Watergate Hotel, where he's waiting to talk about a film project with "Miami Vice" producer Michael Mann (who eventually shows up in a stretch limo, wearing orange socks). "But I have to say I prefer being a director." It seems inevitable that he will go into directing films, if only because he's so passionate about what he likes and dislikes. The latter includes Brian DePalma, films about other films, and the influence of rock video on movies. "They all have no characters and pretty pictures, and every movie has to have incredibly loud music now." On the other hand, he loved
Stranger Than Paradise. "Was it completely successful? Was it compelling every minute? No. But at least I wasn't going: tracking shot, two-shot, over-the-shoulder shot. You know? The camera sat there for twelve minutes. The guy has some guts."
Although he's proved himself as a stage director, it'll probably take someone with guts to hire Malkovich to direct his first film. In fact, Norman Jewison offered him
Agnes of God outright. But according to Malkovich, "He said Columbia would be crazy if they hired me, but he'd support me if I wanted it." He didn't. Instead, he and his manager Phyllis Carlyle recently formed a production company and signed with Warner Bros. to develop a film from Anne Tyler's novel
The Accidental Tourist. Malkovich also mentions Citizen Hughes and Richard Brautigan's
Dreaming of Babylon as properties he might like to film.
On the whole, though, he's taking his time, unfazed by his newfound celebrity or the prospect of unlimited mobility as an actor and director of stage and screen. Accustomed to the advantages of committing oneself to a life in the theater, he's not about to get swept up in the boom-or-bust madness of Hollywood. He did go to the Academy Awards ceremonies this year as a nominee, and he enjoyed it, but he mostly remembers feeling sorry for the crush of reporters outside the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion desperately trying to get a word with arriving celebrities. "Glenne talked for weeks about Rob Weller from 'Entertainment Tonight' and how sad he looked -- like a crust of bread."
Malkovich is silent for a moment, replaying the absurd event in his head. Finally, he speaks. "You know, someone offers you a part, you're nominated for this award, and you're just a jerk," he says. "I think of myself as a person, not a thing. That stuff celebrates becoming a thing."
American Film, October 1985