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John Malkovich: ‘I can’t tell you what it is. You can tell me what it is’

The great US actor is the star of David Mamet’s new play. Just don’t ask him what it’s about

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John Malkovich, 2019

One thing I can tell you for sure about John Malkovich is that he’s a colossal talent. A co-founder of the seminal Chicago theatre company Steppenwolf in the ’70s, his electrifying ’80s stage performances led him to the screen. He notched up a pair of Oscar nominations and capped the century off by starring in Spike Jonze’s brilliantly out-there meta-comedy ‘Being John Malkovich’. Now, finally, he’s returning to the West End after some 27 years away to star in a new play about Harvey Weinstein.

Or is it? After 45 minutes in Malkovich’s singular company I am left somewhat unsure. The play is ‘Bitter Wheat’, and it’s the latest from American provocateur David Mamet, who also directs – apparently he couldn’t find a director he liked who’d do it.

What we know about it: not a lot. But it’s out there that it’s ‘a play about a depraved Hollywood mogul’, whose name is Barney Fein. Barney Fein! It doesn’t take a detective does it?

‘The play is a… comedy,’ says Malkovich in his distinct, whispery-but-firm tones, ‘about a very badly behaved movie mogul and those in his orbit. But I mistrust journalists who want you to tell them what you’re seeing. I can’t tell you what it is. You can tell me what it is to you.’

I explain that I literally haven’t been allowed to see a script, let alone the play. It’s difficult to tell to what extent this registers. The 65-year-old actor is the most Zen human I have ever met: impassively calm with a habit of dissecting questions instead of answering them.

What he will tell me is that Mamet collared him at a dinner party and asked if he’d like to be in a play about fallen film tycoon Weinstein. Malkovich – who had not appeared in a conventional play since the mid-2000s – ‘read it a couple of times and [I] said: “Yeah, okay, let’s do it.”’

He says it’s no longer about Weinstein per se, that Fein is a composite of various unsavoury men who’ve fallen from grace. Vis à vis Weinstein, Malkovich only briefly worked with him and says he never heard any gossip. ‘I don’t live in Hollywood, I don’t have much to do with that life,’ he shrugs.

When it was announced, ‘Bitter Wheat’ prompted scepticism from those wondering if Mamet had anything helpful to contribute to the discourse around Weinstein. In a recent Telegraph feature, Malkovich seemed peeved about this, but when I raise that interview he simply comments: ‘I don’t know what was said, but I don’t really care about that, because it has no application to anything.’

Okay! On why Mamet might want to write about this subject, he calmly replies: ‘So what if he does? Why can only some people have an opinion about this and others not?’ Because it might be crass? ‘I wouldn’t consider it crass,’ he says. ‘Is it a cautionary tale? Yeah, probably. Do I want to be a friend to the character? No. Have I wanted to be friends with any character I’ve ever played? Probably not.’

Why is it funny? ‘Well, there’s something in outrageous characters that we like. And then obviously most people enjoy schadenfreude, they love to see somebody they don’t like brought down. That’s not a quality I have: but go ahead.’

I have never met an actor less interested in trying to sell himself. Malkovich isn’t rude, just… detached. When I ask him if he has any ambitions, he thinks, then tells me he doesn’t. He is one of America’s most brilliant actors and he has returned to theatre, in our city. That it is in this play will prove a sticking point for some. But however people respond, you imagine John Malkovich will be unfazed, still following his own peculiarly serene orbit.

‘Bitter Wheat’ is at the Garrick Theatre. Until Sep 21.

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The Duchess of Malfi, Almeida Theatre, 2019
Photograph: Nadav Kander
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