Will the real John Malkovich please stand up? Actor. Director. Producer. Clothing designer. Opera singer—it’s hard to pin down the 63-year-old multihyphenate. Ever since Spike Jonze’s surreal 1999 comedy Being John Malkovich, in which the actor blew up his own persona by playing a caricature of himself, it’s been difficult to parse the genuine Malkovich from his fictive counterparts. Is he some kind of arrogant and effeminate tyrant, as he is depicted in the film—a hair’s breadth from the maniacs, psychos, and cruelest of antiheroes he’s become famous for playing, from the brutish brother Lee in Sam Shepard’s play True West to the vicious seducer Valmont in the 1988 Oscar winner Dangerous Liaisons? Or is this just a ruse—one more variation on his chameleonic identity?
Earlier this year, Malkovich launched a short film called John’s Journey promoting his new fashion line. In the film, he’s tossing the pages of a screenplay into a fire, defending his fashion career (“If you’re known for one thing, it’s hard for people,” he explains), and walking through Paris as we hear the voices of skeptics on the soundtrack (“Come on, John, we’ve got movies to make”). All the while, he’s wearing an array of ornately patterned shirts, jackets, and scarves of his own design. But is it serious, or self-parody, or something in between?
While speaking on the phone from his home in France, Malkovich allows his many edges to come a bit more into focus. His interest in design relates to his acting, in that “they’re both forms of self-expression, and they’re both pretty detail-oriented,” he explains in his famously crisp, silky diction.
But there’s something else—a dark whimsy that underlies his work. If you look closely in his new line, for example, at one particular pattern—called Mr. Mudd—it stands out as eye-catchingly absurdist: the design features little images of a man’s head, wearing the same Kufi-like, round, brimless hat, with different expressions on his face.
“The drawings are of my first movie driver on the film The Killing Fields,” which chronicles a genocide in Cambodia. “He was a convicted murderer called Mr. Mudd,” Malkovich says dryly. “His philosophy was, ‘Sometimes Mr. Mudd kills and sometimes Mr. Mudd doesn’t kill.’ That struck me as quite comprehensive, rigorous thinking, and always stuck with me,” he continues. “When I started drawing this fabric, I just decided to draw him with a bunch of different faces.”
Malkovich gets his inspiration, for both design and performance, from a variety of people, places, and materials. In 2003, his first line, Uncle Kimono, was motivated by a photo of a mustached, dapper Japanese man in 1930s Los Angeles. His second venture, Technobohemian, launched in 2010, was a reflection of a newly perceived kind of cosmopolitan man of the world. Both collections included many of the same types of clothing as his current line, from linen jackets to Bermuda shorts to patterned shirts and scarves.
“I don’t go through such wild changes,” he admits. “I don’t follow trends. My aesthetic is my aesthetic; there are differences in production and quality, but I mistrust all the BS of fashion,” he says. “I don’t feel like I need to have a concept and do everything in the color of cream.”
While he prefers certain high-end fabric manufacturers, he’s also not afraid of blendingman-made fibers like polyester into his clothing. “Because it’s going to wrinkle a little less. And that’s a good thing if you travel a lot like me,” he admits.
Such is the more practical, less-glamorous side of Malkovich. Though earlier this year he was performing in his third collaboration with theAustrian organist-composer Martin Haselböck, in a performance called Just Call Me God: A Dictator’s Final Speech, he can just as easily take a step back from such highfalutin endeavors. “I am someone who can go: ‘What the fuck am I doing at theElbphilharmonie in Hamburg doing my third opera–classical music hybrid piece?’ For a boy fromBenton, Illinois, that’s very unlikely.”
He speaks fondly of his rural American upbringing (“I don’t think I could be more Midwestern if I made a conscious effort to be,” he admits), which may explain his down-to-earthness. In fact, the more you speak with the thespian, the more he seems concerned with authenticity than obfuscation.
“I’m very much against fake emotions in acting,” he says, discussing his principal craft. “I hate when actors talk acting bullshit, but speak about it in the simplest way: emotion isn’t generated by me; emotion is generated by the material. In the theater, I always compare acting to surfing: you get on your board, paddle out, and turn your back against the sun, and you wait for a wave; and the wave is caused by the collision between the public and the material, and you ride the wave. If the material is good or great, then there’ll be a wave and you ride it.”
Over the years, Malkovich admits that his film roles have become less emotional because of the material; he also resists the idea that he identifies with the villains he’s portrayed on stage and screen.
“If you’re asked to play Cyrus ‘the Virus’ [a criminal mastermind] or that guy from In the Line of Fire [a crazed ex-CIA assassin], then that’s what you’re asked to do,” he says. “People go to see Con Air; they didn’t go to see me as Gustav Klimt. And that’s okay. But I don’t have any particular attraction to that kind of person. It’s what that I’ve been hired to do. And I try to do it the best I can. Maybe I do it well; maybe I don’t, but it’s often what I’m asked to do.” He would prefer, he says, “a light comedy.”
In the next year, Malkovich is displaying his full range as an actor, appearing in no less than six new feature films, including Hollywood flicks (Unlocked, alongside Noomi Rapace), independents (Valley of the Gods, as a reclusive trillionaire), crime thrillers (Unchained, with Antonio Banderas and Adrien Brody), and, yes, comedies (The Wilde Wedding, reuniting him for the first time with his Dangerous Liaisons costar Glenn Close).
“I keep doing what I’m doing,” he says matter-of-factly. “I just finished three collections; I go on tour with a different classical music piece; I want to develop another music piece with a pianist; and I think I will go back to yet another classical music hybrid thingy called The Music Critic.”He’s also reprising another music-and-theater piece called Report on the Blind, attending film festivals in Kazakhstan and Angoulême, France, and will preside on the jury of the textile trade fair Première Vision Paris to decide the world’s finest fabric. “That takes me through the autumn,” he says. “Then, I don’t know. But I don’t want to just sit around.
As seen in CR Men’s Book Issue 5
Photographys by Terry Richardson
Fashion by Ron HartlebenEND
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