John Malkovich

Academy Award winner, inveterate optimist

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How does today find you, John Malkovich?
Oh, very well. It’s been a nice, quiet day. Just doing a little reading, and some light gardening. Not too much today.

Sounds lovely.
[Laughs]

What originally interested you in Which Way Home, this film about little kids who risk all to get to the U.S.?
Well, I’m so terrible with dates, but four or five years ago I was doing a play in Chicago, and I was sent the 11 minutes of material that Rebecca had shot already and compiled and edited. At least a version of it. And we all thought it was extremely powerful and an important aspect of a story that is a hot-button topic, but is often not one that is accompanied by the human aspect.

I was impressed, or horrified, by the multiple levels of this story. From these kids and their squalid home lives to the people that try to help them along the way to the smugglers that prey on them.
Well, you know. It’s a really complex issue. And there is an enormous amount of illegal immigrants who do our work for us and raise our children and cut our lawns and plant our trees. There are quite a few illegal immigrants gracing our jails. There are quite a few illegal immigrants doing jobs that we either, I don’t know, won’t do, or don’t want to do or can’t do, maybe. And there are people who think they add a lot to the culture, and there are people that think the issue is profoundly disruptive. I’m sure there is some truth in most of those positions, but normally we don’t see the human side of it. It’s just 20 people in a car running off the road in San Diego, or you find a corpse out in the desert somewhere. And people have written about it—and written well—but this, I think, has quite a human take on the story because it concentrates almost wholly on children.

Many in the film, as expected, viewed the U.S. as this land of plenty, where all their problems would magically disappear. Do you think that view will change, in light of the fact that we no longer have any money?
Well, I think our economic troubles are fairly relative, in comparison with what theirs have been, really, forever. Since the conquistadors. So I think it’s fairly relative, but I’m not sure what effect this downturn will have. Obviously that’s related to how severe it gets, which I don’t think anybody has any idea of, and how long it lasts—nor do I think they have much of a notion about that. It is a downturn, but I think I noticed the other day there were quite a few people on Wall Street who, even last year, lost billions and made millions. I think it’s really beginning to bite some people hard, but I’m assuming it’s worse in Mexico.

More than half the kids who undertake this journey die before they reach their destination. Would you be willing to make this trek?
Uh, no. I wouldn’t have thought so. I mean, it’s amazing that they do that. Those kids are pretty quick, aren’t they? When your survival depends on it, you figure out the train without a schedule. And some of those kids are already, in a way, street kids, and are old beyond their years. I’m sure some people on the route help too. They’re not all coyotes. Most people see a kid doing that and the majority would not want to harm them. Of course, there are those that would take advantage of them, as happens every day.

You get the sense that the kids are old beyond their years, but they also seem kind of blithely ignorant of the danger they’re in.
Well, for them, I’m sure it’s a great adventure. It’s probably the great adventure of their lives. It’s a life-and-death thing, and there’s a ton of literature written about how adrenalized people are in a war, and theirs is a real struggle for survival, and they see that as a single blind turn of a card where they risk everything. And I’m sure, with that, they seem at times elated, and at times very worldly and on top of it, but at times they just seem like little tiny kids who don’t have the slightest idea what they’re talking about.

Even after some guy informed them of the grossly high mortality rate, they all still wanted to go.
Yeah, sure. Kids all think they’ll live forever, and they’ll get out of it, and it’ll be the others that buy the farm. But it’s not always the others that buy the farm. We all buy the farm, eventually. Kids just don’t have any awareness of that. I have teenagers. There’s no point in talking to them about the danger of anything. They just can’t wait for you to shut up so they can go do what they’re going to do anyway, no matter what you say. And I was like that. Usually I don’t bother, because I’ve already said it 500 times and it falls on deaf ears.

Yeah, what do you know, anyway?
Absolutely. Sadly, I think to a great extent, kids don’t learn from their parents’ experience. They only trust their own. I think it was ever that way, and that’s fine. It’s exceptionally frustrating for parents, but I don’t see that that’s going to change anytime soon, in maybe the next 50 generations. They’re just not interested. These kids need to believe that they can find a better life across the border, and I’m sure some do, but I don’t know that really anybody can be aware of how difficult it is unless they’ve done it.

You’re a well-traveled man, popping up all over the place. Which way is home for you?
[Laughs] I don’t know, I always sort of always considered myself pretty profoundly American. But, if I was asked to define, I’d just say Midwesterner. It’s true that I’ve lived overseas for years and years. My work this year has been France, Mexico, Czech Republic, Vienna, Spain, and God knows what’ll happen when my three weeks are up here. I spent a lot of time living in the States, and we were just back recently, for the better part of five years. When our kids get out of school we’ll take off again, but I don’t know where. It’s a big world, and I like to get out and see it. I like to do things I haven’t done before in places I either don’t know or don’t know well.

Which Way Home, which Malkovich coproduced, airs on HBO Mon 24.

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