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Malkovich: ‘I Can Make Any Character Unlikeable’

The actor grilled on his new movie, ”Disgrace.“


John Malkovich, the scariest character actor not in Hollywood, stars in “Disgrace” as a South African professor who sleeps with his student and is banished from the university. He heads into the post-apartheid hinterland to find that the racial, gender and cultural politics that once ruled his country have shifted in alarming ways.
Grilled by Sharon Waxman, the actor who in a 30-year career on screen has tried to murder the president, made Michelle Pfeiffer succumb and crawled into his own brain weighs in on villains and moral turpitude. “Disgrace,” based on the novel by J.M. Coetzee, opens on Friday in Los Angeles.
How did you come to do this film?
They had wanted a couple of other actors who weren’t available, or didn’t like the deal. My agent sent it to me when I was doing a play in Chicago four years ago.
Do you see this film as a portrait of South Africa after apartheid?
It’s not a documentary – I think James Coetzee has articulated that. But I wouldn’t feel qualified to make something that says, ‘This is how it is in South Africa.’ For me it was really just the novel, the screenplay.
You shot in South Africa?
Two weeks there, and Australia.
How did you approach finding this character?
A novel could help you, but that depends on who your collaborators are. That isn’t really your job as an actor. When you arrive, you’re there to interpret Coetzee’s interpretation. It’s his allegory of the years since apartheid, not mine. I don’t have one.
But your character illuminates a tragedy?
He illuminates a tragic interior landscape. No, I’m not shy about that — I like to think I can take any character and make him unlikeable.
You wanted to make him unlikeable?
I don’t think about stuff like that very much. I don’t think about people that way.
Which way?
That these are unlikeable, these are likeable. These are good. These are bad. I don’t see the world that way. How we’re told to approach the world doesn’t meet up with my experience of the world. Which is that people whom I quite like — maybe not to the extent Will Rogers liked them, but not so far either — are simply more complicated than they’re purported to be.
You like moral ambiguity?
Not so many are so clearly good or so clearly bad. I mean especially regular people. I don’t mean particularly anything other than normal human interaction.
So you see normal people as better than they are thought to be, and worse than they are?
That’s pretty close. ‘Worse’ is pejorative. I would just say more complicated. They say "I’m very religious" — but then they hire hookers to watch them get in and out of automobiles. I’m not naming names. That’s not the worst thing in history. It just should be a warning to us all not to shoot our mouths off. Not to present a picture that’s fundamentally judgemental without keeping in mind our own frailties and our own oddities.
Like your character David Lurie?
Of course someone like David Lurie – well, he teaches romantic poetry to people who don’t have the slightest interest in it, and don’t find anything remotely beautiful or human or touching, even anything in it that doesn’t induce narcolepsy.
Of course you look at them and say, ‘They’re stupid, because I quite clearly see beauty in it.’ When really – they may be shallow, but I don’t know if I like the same things I liked when I was 18.
Do absolute words like "evil" and "truth" annoy you?
They exist in the real world. Sometimes they’re demonstrable. If they’re not factually demonstrable they’re intelligible. Or instinctively felt and correct.
In literature, the real job is to get underneath, and inside and say, "If you lived my life and viewed the world the way I viewed it, you would see my actions make perfect sense to me even when they’re incomprehensible to me with time."
I’m not sure the character in "Disgrace" would do the same thing. Not just have a relationship with his student, who he clearly held great power over. Which was clearly inappropriate — i.e. bad — but you’re trying to describe a journey at the end of the film that he does at the beginning.
It makes for interesting viewing for the public. We have a tendency to think they’re not complex, the public. I don’t think that. I think they can be a lot more complex than I can ever dream of being.
We’re definitely putting you in the complex category.
I don’t know about that. See, I don’t say, "Do what I do or you’ll suffer eternal damnation." But I’m only 55.


They’re a reflection of what I find in human behavior. My own baffles me sometimes. But so does everybody else. They’re just as baffling as I am to myself at least.
Where does that come from in you?
I don’t know. My analyst spent seven years on that. I think I always had some impulse to try and understand how people viewed the world. How their interior life worked. One could say that’s because my own bored me, or because I didn’t want to look at my own. I don’t know why. I always had that.
When I look at a really good script I think, when this character wakes up in the morning: what do they see? Is it beautiful? Is it precious? Ephemeral? Is it just one nightmare or one missed opportunity after another? Is it a series of missed connections. How do they view the world?
Good literature, which can include good screenplays, that’s evidence on the page and it’s sometimes discovered in the playing.