John Malkovich bristled at the suggestion that he has a habit of playing characters who are dark or demented or at least more than a little eccentric. Most recently, those include Jack Unterweger, a Viennese café society member who murdered prostitutes, and David Lurie, a 52-year-old professor who sexually feasts on one of his students.
“In all honesty, because the media have this thing called Google, they tend to typecast” me, Malkovich said recently, over the phone from Paris, where he was shopping for fabrics for his clothing line, Technobohemian—the latest of the actor-director-producer’s many undertakings.
Of The Infernal Comedy: Confessions of a Serial Killer, the opera about the prostitute-mauling Jack Unterweger, that opened this year in Vienna and will tour in Europe and Canada next summer, Malkovich said: “It’s actually a comedy.”
“When I play Gustav Klimt, they don’t say, ‘Why do you always play painters?’ Or, ‘Why do you always do fashion films?’” (Malkovich directed three short films with fashion designer Bella Freud, the daughter of the English artist Lucien Freud.) “Or why do you always produce smart-aleck movies? Or why do you always do plays?” Malkovich said, sounding as perturbed as his hypnotizingly silky voice will permit.
“I think it has more to do with the fact that certain films made an impact and have a big, popular following. And certain others didn’t. But my work was always the thing. Meaning, I go, I try to work hard, I try to apply myself, and I try to use my imagination… But the rest, I don’t think about it.”
Fair enough, but it’s hard to deny that where Malkovich’s imagination takes him is to the darker corners of character and psyche. His roster of sinister, but always debonair, wretches includes Gilbert Osmond in The Portrait of a Lady; Valmont in Dangerous Liaisons; silent film director F. W. Murnau in Shadow of the Vampire; and seething CIA operative Osbourne Cox in Burn After Reading.
And now comes David Lurie, a college professor in Cape Town, who deals with his metaphysical struggles against irrelevance and mortality by preying on a student. Lurie is the centerpiece of Disgrace, the film adaptation of J.M. Coetzee’s 1999 Booker Prize-winning novel, and is being released in theaters today in New York (the film expands to other cities on September 25).
In the film, there is no attempt to portray Lurie as anything other than repulsive by either Malkovich or director Steve Jacobs, who, in one writhe-inducing sequence, trains his camera dead on Malkovich’s thrusting backside for several prolonged moments before capturing the look of submissive discomfort on the face of his student. The plot grows more despairing when Lurie, his reputation and career tarnished when the affair becomes known, goes to visit his daughter on her farm.
Perhaps it’s the curse of having a brilliantly twisted film named after, and about, you—even those who haven’t seen Spike Jonze’s Being John Malkovich would never mistake it for The Proposal—but Malkovich seems, whatever he says, preordained for the nutty and/or perverse.
Even if he sees it differently. Of The Infernal Comedy: Confessions of a Serial Killer, the opera about the prostitute-mauling Jack Unterweger, that opened this year in Vienna, and will tour in Europe and Canada next summer, Malkovich said: “It’s actually a comedy.”
“Quite a bleak one,” Malkovich added. “But it’s mostly funny, if you ask me.”
As for Unterweger—a writer whose release from prison after his first murder was championed by intellectuals, including Nobel Prize winners Elfriede Jelinek and Günter Grass (once free, he went on another killing spree)—Malkovich has called him “haunting and tragic.”
“I can find him so touching that I can’t even talk when I get on stage,” he told the British press.
Malkovich originally intended to direct The Infernal Comedy, but when he decided to play Unterweger, he opted out. “I never ever act in things I direct, and vice versa,” he said, adding that the return to the stage, where he got his start—Malkovich was a founding member of the Steppenwolf Theater Company in Chicago—has been a comfort.
“If you take the idea that they’re both music, but one’s playing the piano and one’s playing the saxophone,” Malkovich said, “I wasn’t trained to play the sax, but someone asked me to, 26 years ago, and I said, ‘OK,’ for the better or detriment of the viewing public. I said, ‘OK, I’ll try it.’ And I’m still trying. It wasn’t what I was trained to do at all. It’s not my native field. For me, [asking why] I go back to the theater is like asking someone why they go home at night. That’s what I do. I return to the stable every once in a while, then I go on my travels.”
Nicole LaPorte is the senior West Coast correspondent for The Daily Beast. A former film reporter for Variety, she has also written for The New Yorker, the Los Angeles Times Magazine, The New York Times, The New York Observer, and W.