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Malcolm McDowell Grilled on the 40-Year Anniversary of ‘A Clockwork Orange’

”The audience is sitting there in stunned silence. And I’m thinking, ‘They hate it! Oh my God!'“ says the actor, 40 years after the release of Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece

He’s starred in over a hundred movies, but none of them measure up to “A Clockwork Orange.”  Malcolm McDowell sat down with The Wrap to talk about Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece, which will be celebrated Tuesday' with the release of a 40th Anniversary Blu-ray package.

What was your reaction seeing "A Clockwork Orange" for the first time?

When I first saw it, I was completely blown away. And in fact, I was sitting next to a friend of mind and I was saying, “Give me a cigarette, give me a cigarette.” I went back on the cigarettes and I’d been two years off the damn things. I was right back on them cause of that damn movie.

You’ve made over a hundred movies, but this is the one that really stands out.

You mean “Suck” is not there in the same class, or “Class of ‘99”?

But it was early in your career, and how to you reconcile the fact that it never got better than "Clockwork"?

When it first came out, the audience sat there in stunned silence. And I’m thinking, ‘They hate it! Oh my God! We made a comedy, there’s not one laugh! These people!’ And I’m going, ‘What is wrong with the Americans?’ I was blaming the Americans, but it was the same in England. They just sat there stunned. And it was only when time caught up, now with an audience of young people who see this movie, they laugh at every nuance, everything. So now I’m happy because I see the movie that I made, that I thought I made, and they love it for the black comedy.

What was the overall sense of Stanley Kubrick?  What was he like to have a beer with

He had a theory. We went to a Chinese restaurant in Boerum Wood, probably the worst food I ever had. We’d be sitting there and he’d go,"‘I have a theory that these Chinese waiters are spies." I go, "What?" He goes, "Oh yeah, I mean how the hell do you think they’re getting all this information? And what better place? A Chinese restaurant!" I go, "You’re kidding!" He goes, "No I’m not. I’m not kidding at all." So we had this great, long discussion about it. I mean it’s ridiculous but who knows?

He does seem a bit paranoid, driving his car at 20 miles per hour in a crash helmet …

Yeah, well I have actually seen the crash helmet once, so he went through periods, y’know. You never wanted to get behind him leaving a location because you know how tiny the roads are in England. If you got stuck behind him, it would take you an hour longer to get home because it would be so slow.

Based on the materials on the disc, it’s easy to assume he wasn’t an actor’s director, he wouldn’t talk about character.

No, he wouldn’t at all but that doesn’t mean to say that he’s not an actor’s director because it just means to say that he didn’t really know. It wasn’t his expertise but he gave you tremendous reign to just to get out there and just fly with it, which was just fantastic. He was always encouraging more, more, go further. I was always having the battle with him, you know. I did one scene, and it’s really an improv, where I’m coming into prison and standing behind the white line and all that stuff.  I rehearsed it and he goes, "Is that it?" I went, "Yeah, that’s it." And he went, "That’s really boring. I don’t know if I can shoot that." And I went, “Hey, you can’t be high all the time. You’ve got to give the audience a little time to regroup." So we had this back and forth and I never heard another thing about it.

They say the one thing great directors have in common is they know what they want. But it seems he only knew what he didn’t want. Can you talk about the 50 takes and …

I only once got to 50 takes. He hadn’t got into that really paranoid state yet that he did get into in later movies, I understand. But I think that maybe he was more sure of himself when he made this movie. He was pretty much at the top of his game. He was 47, plenty of energy, all the intellect and all the experience. I mean he was a master. I used to say to him, “Hey, why don’t you go to the bathroom, take a pee, because every time you come out of that bathroom you’ve got another idea.” I mean he must be peeing there, thinking of something. He’d come running out and say, “What about …!” And you’d go, "Oh my God! Get back in there!"

Can you describe your relationship with Mr. Kubrick in the years following “A Clockwork Orange”?

Non existent. It was a shock. I was deeply wounded and hurt and I never really forgave him. But having said that, it was probably my naivete. I expected everyone to react like Lindsay Anderson, who became a great friend. I presumed that would happen with Stanley, but it didn’t.  In retrospect, I think personal relationships sort of scared him, outside of his marriage, or something. I really got in his head, I know. I think that maybe it scared him or maybe I was just naïve thinking we’d go on and be great, great friends and it disappointed me when I never heard from him again, except when he wanted something.

What did he want?

I teased him because I knew he was doing “Barry Lyndon.” And so I called him up and I said, “You won’t believe this, I’ve just been offered ‘Casanova.’” Now I know “Casanova”’s close enough to "Barry."  He went, "What?!"  He goes, "Look, Malc, listen. I’m going to send a driver. I just want to see the script, two hours, that’s it." I went, "Stanley, now if it was your film, you would like me to give a director your script?! I can’t do that in all good conscience!" And I’m winding him up and at the end, I was going on so much about it, there was a long pause and he goes, "You’re kidding, right?"  I went, "Yeah, I’m kidding."  He said, “You son of a bitch.” I’m still happy about that.