John Malkovich faces "Disgrace"

The screen icon on playing Coetzee's doomed hero, rewriting other people's scripts and making terrible movies

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published September 18, 2009 6:17PM (EDT)

Still from "Disgraced"
Still from "Disgraced"


Jessica Haines and John Malkovich in "Disgrace."

Perhaps the great mystery of John Malkovich's acting career is the question of how a guy who presents essentially the same diffident, sardonic, pseudo-aristocratic demeanor in every role can successfully inhabit so many different characters. Malkovich has played action-movie villains, activist preachers, second-rate magicians and, infamously, a self-important, womanizing movie actor named John Malkovich. (To suggest that Malkovich played "himself" in "Being John Malkovich" is to misunderstand both that movie and the nature of acting; you might as well say that while playing a deranged assassin in "In the Line of Fire" he played himself too.)

In his earlier career, first on stage and then on the screen, Malkovich played plenty of American-guy roles: Biff in "Death of a Salesman," Tom in "The Glass Menagerie," Lennie in a 1992 version of "Of Mice and Men." But the 55-year-old Malkovich, a native of suburban Chicago, has become increasingly internationalized over the years, and is most closely identified with such erudite, untethered and morally dubious characters as the Vicomte de Valmont in "Dangerous Liaisons" and Gilbert Osmond in "Portrait of a Lady." Those characters, and most others he has played, cash in on the ambiguity Malkovich jokes about on talk shows: He seems as if he might be gay and also might be a ladykiller, as if he might be literally sleepwalking or might be morally and existentially exhausted.

Certainly the role of David Lurie, a 50-ish white South African academic who is the troubled and troubling protagonist of "Disgrace," is one well suited to Malkovich's skill set. The film, made by the Australian husband-and-wife team of director Steve Jacobs and writer Anna Maria Monticelli, offers a straightforward adaptation of J.M. Coetzee's unforgiving novel about race, gender, sex and power in post-apartheid South Africa. Although "Disgrace" is among the most critically celebrated novels of the last several decades, its depiction of white privilege, black violence and an individual woman's response to rape managed to anger seemingly every corner of South African society. In fact, it was Coetzee's final novel to be written and set in that country before he emigrated to Australia in 2003.

As I discussed with Malkovich, Jacobs and Monticelli's unadorned adaptation is highly effective in the long haul, but risks alienating the viewer almost from the outset. Lurie appears the virtual embodiment of white male arrogance, an English professor who views himself through the prism of Romantic poetry and who pursues an exploitive, obsessive affair with a much younger, mixed-race student. You can't say that he rapes her, but the issue of consent between an inexperienced young woman and a practiced seducer -- one with direct power over her academic future -- is complicated, to say the least.

When the student presses academic charges against him, Lurie barely tries to defend himself; it's as if he can see another life out there, beckoning him from the new South Africa. He has no idea how difficult that will be. In the second half of the movie, he goes to live with his daughter, Lucy (Jessica Haines), who grows vegetables on a remote ranch she must share with Petrus (Eriq Ebouaney), a black man who used to be her tenant and may soon, thanks to land reform, become her landlord. In this gorgeous but more than faintly sinister landscape, David and Lucy must face the loss of nearly everything: their power and privilege, their land, even their personal dignity and their ability to protect themselves. Does a viable, peacable interracial society lie on the other side of that personal terror? It's a question Coetzee's novel, and the film, barely tries to hint about, let alone answer.

Malkovich phoned me a few days ago from his home in Paris -- where the early fall has been gorgeous, he says -- to talk about "Disgrace" and his peripatetic career as an actor, producer and director in both film and theater.

Had you read Coetzee's "Disgrace" before you took this role?

Yeah, I know his work fairly well. In fact, I've been offered two other projects based on his work. One is to direct an opera based on his book "Slow Man," in Brussels. Also, a friend of mine has long been developing his novel "Waiting for the Barbarians" as a film.

Can you even afford to think about the source material, as an actor? Ho relevant or irrelevant are the novel and its themes when you're trying to play a character in a movie?

That really depends on what's expected or required of you. Some directors want a collaborator, some directors want a conceptualizer, some directors want a writer, some directors want an actor. Some directors want a meat puppet. That's really up to them. I'm happy to do any or all of the above, even at the same time. In general, though, a film isn't a novel, and it's really the director and writer's job to interpret the novel. As an actor, you just interpret the screenplay.

Which was it in this case? Were you a collaborator, or just an actor?

An actor. I didn't have any involvement with any other aspect of it than, you know, "Learn your lines and stand where you're told." Which is fine.

Early in the film, David Lurie seems like such an odious guy, just an embodiment of both white male privilege and academic pomposity. You're really running the risk that the audience is going to hate him.

Yeah, well, you'd need a lot more finesse than I have, to evade that with this character. I think a lot of times there's this idea that people only like the nice person, the hero, the person who does a good act, the person that can be relied on to save the day and do the right thing, etc. In fact, not many people are like that, so when they see someone like that in a film, they're actually watching something in a language they don't speak. Everybody knows deep down that there's some complexity and contradiction to them. Painted in a stark light, many of the things all of us do could have the same result: We see we're not heroic.

Now, at the same time, certain things about the character become clear in the movie that I didn't see in the novel. There's a symmetry to David's journey: He begins with this certain kind of dignity, which maybe is just artificial. And he ends with a kind of dignity which is much more hard-won, and comes with a tremendous amount of pain.

Well, Coetzee's not the easiest read, you know. I don't mean that to say you prefer easy reads. I mean, I would probably say the same. Sometimes in Coetzee, I want to say, "Yeah, I get it. What would you like to say here? Why don't you say it?" In some of his work, that's a constant. In a film, you have to make choices. You have to say certain things very clearly.

David's only defense as to why he pursues and seduces this young woman is that he's actually fallen in love with her. It's so difficult to give this guy the benefit of the doubt, but is he telling the truth?

Yeah, I would say probably so. To whatever extent he's capable of "falling in love," which I would say is not to a great extent. But it's conceivable, only just.

Here's something else I saw in the movie: A fair amount of the Romantic poetry he studies -- Byron, Keats, Wordsworth -- is quoted in the screenplay. I remember thinking that in the novel all that was all sardonic, like it's just pretentious frippery that needs to be stripped away before David finds out who he really is. I didn't feel that way in the movie. I thought the poetry was actually important in understanding what he goes through, what happens to him.

Yeah, I completely concur with you. If you meet someone in an office building and he tells you he's writing an opera about Byron -- of course many people's first impulse might be to throw him out the window, or jump out themselves. That doesn't mean there isn't anything of merit in Byron or Keats or Shelley, who wrote things of great beauty. It doesn't stray far from his ability to grieve over animals but not over much else. It's a kind of rupture in his soul. He can appreciate the beauty or delicacy or subtlety, say, of this work of the Romantic poets, but not the beauty or delicacy or sorrow of some of the real people around him.

I think through the course of the film that changes, starting obviously with his disgrace, then the difficulty of his relationship with his daughter -- although he doesn't realize it, he has nowhere else to go -- and then changes through his relationship with the woman at the kennel. [David has a brief affair with a woman close to his own age.] Probably the biggest thing that changes about him is that he has to accept his daughter's journey and its conclusions.

You're talking about the fact that his daughter is raped and becomes pregnant. She decides not to press charges, not to tell anyone, and to have the baby. That has been interpreted as an allegory for South Africa after apartheid, which I suppose is exactly the kind of thing you don't think about, playing a character in a story.

Yeah, that's a question better directed to Steve and Anna Maria, because I've never had any discussion about that with them. Probably they have a great many thoughts about that, but I don't have any, because it doesn't matter to me. When you play a character, you can't represent white, public-school-educated South Africans, or Afrikaners or whoever. You can just try to be a person.

You know, I'm a major admirer of "The Dancer Upstairs," the film you made in 2002 that's set against the crazy urban-guerrilla warfare in Peru. It was so weird and so powerful, and I've been sitting here ever since waiting for you to direct another movie.

Well, that's very kind. Someday when we're in the same town, I'll get the other three people who admired that film and we'll have a big dinner. There aren't many, that's for sure. I really like directing and I'd be very happy to do it again. I have various projects bouncing around in my head.

I do a lot of theater, and it's so much simpler. Not the directing of the thing, but the fact that you don't have years and years of blah-blah-blah before. If I want to do a play, I just call someone in a town and say, "I'd like to do this, do you want to do it?" They read it a couple days later and say, Yeah, sure, let's do it. Can you do it in April?" I say, "I can't do it in April, can you do it in June?" And they say "Yeah," and that's it.

"Dancer Upstairs" took eight years of nonsense. You know, I'm not that young! It doesn't mean enough to me. Of course I care; I wouldn't have done it if I didn't want to, and I wouldn't have put it out if I didn't like it. I worked on it very hard and it's something I really like. But I can't spend that amount of time on something when it's not at all productive.

I also produce, so I already have all that delight anyway. "Ghost World" took six years. "Which Way Home," this little documentary we just did, took, I don't know, three or four years. A play -- essentially you do some work on the set, you have to cast it before work starts, but then you're talking about six weeks, 10 weeks, and it's up.

How does the balance work for you in your acting career, between taking roles to sustain your life and your other projects financially, and taking roles in projects that really engage you?

You know, it's funny. I think you never know what'll engage you. When I was younger -- not that I'm in any way not overly arrogant now -- but when I was younger, just for argument's sake, let's say that I was more arrogant. I always thought I knew what I liked and didn't like and how it would be. The older I got, the last 15 years or more, I began to understand that I didn't know very much of anything about anything. You never know what'll be a great experience and you never know what you'll love doing.

I came from the theater, where you never dreamed of changing the material. In movies now, it wouldn't be at all weird to say, "You know, it's a good story and a good structure, but everything I say and half of what I do is garbage. Let's change it." See, that's something you just don't do in the theater. It's unimaginable. Once I started to avail myself of that possibility, then you're doing less things that you think are naff or useless, you know what I mean? You can have an impact on them.

In a script like "Disgrace," it's a very good script. It was always a good script. I didn't have anything to say about it, nor did we ever have a conversation about it. With other things that could be equally interesting, they're waiting for someone to put their house in order. When I started doing movies, you never dreamed of saying, "Excuse me, why does this scene seem as if it were written by someone who has absolutely no familiarity with either the English language or human psychology or behavior or storytelling or blah-blah-blah." You just said, "OK, my line is 'Fuck you, I'll blow you away.'" You get paid the same amount anyway.

But it helped me produce a lot of movies with a lot of writers to say, "OK, if we sit down and work in good faith and we're serious, we can really improve this." In the last film I did, I gave my feedback on it, I said, "I want to rework this and I want you to look at it. It'll go to the director, and if he approves, it'll go to the producers. If you like it, great. If you want me to redo it one time or 20 times, I'll redo it. If you hate it and want to stick with what we have, great." Never once, in all the films I've done that with, did we end up sticking with what we had.

You know, directing a movie is a tough thing, and writing one is a tough thing. It helped me that I had so much experience working in some version of a collective. As an actor, you're just part of a machine. It's nicer when the machine seems to work well and is pleasant to be a part of, but the only thing that really matters is if the film is good. What really matters to me, though, is what the experience is like. Because I can't control how the film is. I want a good experience with people I like to be around, where I feel I've exercised with them, in good faith, to the best of my limited capabilities. But even if you don't do that you can make a good film. And even when you do do that, the film can be terrible. I've had that happen quite a few times.

I won't even ask you to cite examples.

You'd best not, because I wouldn't. But you get used to that as an actor. I've done a lot of movies. You go and see it -- for years, every time I saw a movie that I was in, my reaction would be, "Oh, that's what you wanted to make? Why didn't you say something?" In the theater, you know, you do it every night. It's always a little different, or a lot different. It's an organic, ephemeral thing, and I love that. Because it reminds me of life. You had to be there. And movies aren't at all like that. They're not organic, not ephemeral. That has its charm also.

"Disgrace" is now playing in New York, with wider release to follow.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

MORE FROM Andrew O'Hehir

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Beyond The Multiplex Movies