In the Coen brothers’ latest black comedy, Burn After Reading, John Malkovich stars as (in his own words) “a drunk and not very smart CIA analyst who’s kind of a dick.” The longtime Steppenwolf Theatre ensemble member called during his vacation in France.
Time Out Chicago: You’ve said you don’t see most of your films. Do you plan to see this?
John Malkovich: I don’t know about most, but I don’t see many, that’s for sure. Maybe it’s most. Yeah, I will see it.
TOC: How do you decide which of your films to watch?
John Malkovich: You do a film but when it comes out two or three years later, you’re in Europe when it comes out in America and you’re in Asia when it comes out in Europe. Plus, a lot of times you can see through the experience that it’s gonna turn out to be something you don’t necessarily want to rush out to see. Let’s put it that way.
TOC: Any particular films in mind?
John Malkovich: I have millions in mind.
TOC: Based on the Burn After Reading trailer, it looks like you’re once again the severe-looking meanie. Have you reached a point in your Hollywood career where you’re playing a Malkovich persona?
John Malkovich: To a certain extent in Hollywood you’re a product, and your product is whatever sells the most, and whatever sells the most is whatever the public likes to see you do—if anything. I mean, I’m not saying they have to like to see me do anything. Maybe they’d like to see me fall off a building. And the media can make anything true or untrue. So if you do 80 films and you play a bad guy ten times, then you’re a bad guy, and then the media repeats that.
TOC: So my asking that question in fact makes it more so.
John Malkovich: Absolutely, yeah. And then writing it makes it more so. And see, it’s funny how no one ever says to me, “Hey, why do you write and direct fashion films for Bella Freud? Why don’t you do that less? Doesn’t it upset you?” That’s the media. Why don’t people ever ask me why I play Austrian painters all the time or make films in Portugal?
TOC: How many of those have you done?
John Malkovich: Well, I just played Klimt in a film and I make films with Manoel de Oliveira whenever I can or with Raúl Ruiz, but the media operates in very broad strokes. Just take last year: I didn’t play someone quote “bad,” or I think “meanie” was your phrase—or the year before that or the year before that. They pick out Con Air or In the Line of Fire or even Les Liaisons Dangereuses. And you sort of go, “What?”
TOC: I have to ask about “Bathing with Bierko”: the Internet clip in which actor Craig Bierko interviews you in a tub. Were you both naked in there?
John Malkovich: No, if I remember, we had swim trunks. And it’s a tiny tub, my God.
TOC: In a Newsweek interview, he said you told him one reason you wanted to do it was to piss off your sons.
John Malkovich: I think he’s joking. That’s pretty funny, though. No, I only have one son.
TOC: One son and one daughter, right?
John Malkovich: Yeah, and they don’t pay the slightest attention to what I do or don’t do. And anyway they see me as a constant embarrassment, so nothing would surprise them.
TOC: Why did you get in the tub with him?
John Malkovich: I thought the idea of doing a kind of, you know, two grown men, rub-a-dub-dub, in the serious Charlie Rose–ish style just seemed too good to pass up.
TOC: That one, I’m guessing, you did see?
John Malkovich: No, I never saw it. I got three or four calls saying, “Fantastic, great, hilarious” and three or four calls or e-mails saying, “Will you never stop being an ass?” I wouldn’t even know how.
TOC: Between that clip and Being John Malkovich, you clearly have a sense of humor about yourself.
John Malkovich: I don’t understand how somebody wouldn’t have a sense of humor about themselves. I’ve lived with this person for almost 55 years. Imagine how asleep or utterly unperceptive and clueless you would have to be not to see yourself as absurd for the most part.
TOC: The scene in Being John Malkovich where a guy in a car throws a beer can at your head: I heard that wasn’t scripted but just a drunken extra.
John Malkovich: One could certainly wish for that, but no, sadly, that isn’t true. It was scripted, and it was gonna be cut because Spike [Jonze] felt we were running out of time. And he said, “Anyway, no one would be able to drive by and hit you in the head with a beer can.” And, like, 20 people within hearing range raised their hands and said, “Well, I’d like to try, Spike.” So a writer chucked it and hit me in the head on the very first take. But it was scripted.
Burn After Reading opens Sept 12.