It’s another sizzling day on the island of Sicily. The sun beats down on the Mediterranean. Its rays’ reflections on the water make your eyes squint. A slight intake of breath and the inner cavities of the nose burn from the heat. A few stories below, children are building mud castles in the sand, and, like a scene out of Dangerous Liaisons 2.0, on the phone, John Malkovich – one of the world’s most eminent actors – is reciting a passage by William Faulkner with full-bodied gravitas.
“I give it to you not that you may remember time, but that you may forget it now and then for a moment and not spend all your breath trying to conquer it. Because no battle is ever won he said. They are not even fought. The field only reveals to man his own – Aaah his own… his own…” The actor’s voice wanes as he searches for the words. “His Folly,” he builds again. “And despair, and victory is an illusion of philosophers and fools.”
The words from Malkovich’s favorite novel, The Sound and the Fury, reference a man offering his son his father’s watch. The musings over the keeping or forgetting of time, published in 1929, are of particular relevance to the conversation. Since 2016, the actor has been a partner of one of the contemporary world’s greatest watchmaking brands – the greatest if price alone were the deciding factor. “He’s just someone, I think, who is very clever,” says Malkovich of Mille. “What he does is super complex and very expensive; but that has always been a part of the world,” he seems to shrug. “People like pretty things, and purchase and collect them just like art.” This October, Malkovich will join Richard Mille at the contemporary art exhibition Frieze, in London; the haute Horlogerie brand is a partner for the second year. Does he ever consider that the whole art scene is overpriced hype? “Well, I imagine most things are,” he remarks.
Timepieces weren’t exactly a talking point at the dinner table when Malkovich was growing up in Illinois, USA. Born into a multicultural family with Croatian, Scottish, and French roots, he recalls his father owning “the same old watch forever,” and has no idea what happened to it. Rather than family legacy, Malkovich and Mille bonded over mutual feelings of the “state of the world” today. “He seemed to me as someone who wanted to be very clean and straight about everything, which isn’t always the case, let’s say. I think he wants to make sure that the people he works with are straight and clean. Of course,” – he starts laughing – “I’m not referring to them being heterosexual.”
In a week’s time, the actor will attend the Venice film festival, where, alongside Jude Law and director Paolo Sorrentino, he will promote the upcoming series The New Pope. “Things come up,” he says of his roles and how he selects them. “I never imagined playing an English Pope, or the King of France, or the King of England, or the Baron de Charlus, or the Vicomte de Valmont.” He states that he is not someone who dreams of playing any role. “That’s not a mentality I recognize,” he affirms. “I think that people who sit around dreaming, ‘I want to play role X,’ what you are really saying is that you want to show people how great you are by playing ‘blah, blah, blah.’ No. That doesn’t interest me.”
So what does Malkovich seek to show people? “Nothing,” he answers, his voice dropping in one fell swoop. “I want to do things that interest me.” The actor dives into something of an oral tango. “You know, when I was a little, fat kid, it would have been well beyond my imagination, or anybody’s – I would posit – that I would play the Baron de Charlus [in the 1999 film Le Temps retrouvé]. Why did I do it? Because I thought it was interesting. Did I do it because I wanted to show that I could do a film in French? No, I had no idea that I could do a film in French. Did I want to show how so-and-so French and European aristocrats should be played? Not at all. I loved Raúl Ruiz, the director. What it shows or doesn’t show people never interested me in the slightest.”
Despite his irreverence, Malkovich is conscious that the majority of his interests have the end-goal of being sold. He finally shuttered his beloved eponymous fashion line when he admitted, after almost 20 years, that it just wasn’t performing. (“An incredible waste of money, probably an incredible waste of time. For the most part, I loved doing it – not saying I loved the fashion business.”) His Richard Mille work is therefore in line with everything he does. Except, of course, in this role, he plays himself. In the campaign images Malkovich is his own man. Leaning against an ancient stone wall, he stares directly at the camera, lips pursed. The silk kerchief tied around his neck nudged by an invisible breeze. His hand rests provocatively on his belt buckle, sleeve pushed up slightly. On his wrist, an extremely at and sleek tonneau-shaped automatic RM 67-01 watch with a function indicator that mimics a car’s gearbox – cars being a passion of Mille and also an interest of Malkovich.
How does the actor bear to expose himself in this way? “I am intrinsically shy, but perfectly sociable,” he starts. “Of course, actors, people, always have this thing that they want all this attention. I don’t particularly want any attention. I’ve had too much attention already. I think that’s a misconception, a misnomer, a misunderstanding,” he says, drawing out the “s” like a serpent before serving another round of verbal tango. “Do I particularly like speaking in public? No. I don’t see anything interesting about it. Do I try and avoid it? Pretty much at all costs; yes. Why? Because I don’t think I have anything interesting to say? Oh, I don’t know, but what’s the point of saying it? It would only be misunderstood, misapplied, purposely corrupted – and I go, what’s the point; really?”
Of all the things that interest him – acting, directing, screenwriting, drawing – what does Malkovich derive the most satisfaction from today? “I’m not sure I know what satisfaction is,” he answers. “Or, if I do, as Mick Jagger said, ‘I can’t get no.’ I like to work and that is its own satisfaction.” He continues, “The challenge is its own satisfaction. Failure is its own satisfaction. Success is just failure in the making. I like to work. That’s all.” He quotes German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, “Nothing is so fatal to a dream as its realization.”
Malkovich works all the time. He’s acted in more than 70 films. He’s played the psychotic bad boy in blockbusters like Con Air and In the Line of Fire, for which he was nominated for a best supporting actor Oscar at the 1994 Academy Awards. There have been suave seducer roles in period dramas like Dangerous Liaisons; character roles in Of Mice and Men and Places in the Heart, for which he earned his first Academy Award nomination in 1984; and he played himself in the arthouse film Being John Malkovich. He’s performed on Broadway and directed theater in London. For more than a decade, he has been a part of hundreds of hybrid classical music presentations around the world. He also made a cameo in a 2015 music video by Eminem. In the last 10 years, he has done seven films, four TV series, and three classical music tours. From this past May through to September, he has performed in the London West End play Bitter Wheat eight shows a week.
When Malkovich speaks, some words are delivered in an unexpected cadence. Former late-night show host David Letterman once did a Top Ten Things That Sound Creepy When Said by John Malkovich. The unusual scale – a “No” can hit an E sharp note – leaves the listener gripped by this erratic song. “I think very few people like the sound of their voice,” says the actor. “And I don’t know how many people are happy with their looks. What percentage of people on Instagram use unfiltered, real photos of themselves? Would it be less than one percent? I don’t think that’s unique for men or women, or think it’s particularly odd. You have to not care. When I look at myself, it doesn’t really matter if I like the way I look or if I like the way I sound. It matters if what I was trying to do was effective.” The call drops and Malkovich calls back, apologizing. His phone overheated.
As can perhaps be expected, Malkovich is not on social media and holds little regard for the platforms. “I call it anti-social media because it’s so terrible for you. It has and will continue to create generations of malignant narcissists,” he says. “You can’t even do an interview and say, ‘This is my opinion.’ Because you’re not allowed one. That was different 30 years ago. Is it more democratic now? Yeah, that’s the good news and the bad news. Everybody sees themselves as sort of hyper woke ‘warriors for justice.’ And as incredibly unique as they are just so cool.”
Having navigated the celebrity lane for decades, Malkovich explains that he keeps his head by keeping it down. “I don’t get involved in other people’s business and wish they would learn to do the same,” he comments. “But they won’t because everybody knows what’s best for everybody else. I’m not into telling people how to live, how to vote, how to be. It doesn’t interest me. I don’t know how they should be. I’m pretty sure they shouldn’t be telling others how they should be. But they can if they want and they will anyway.”
He comments that “some artists stay interesting their whole working lives, although, I don’t think that’s very common.” It’s not, of course, but not all artists are John Malkovich. The conversation ends with the same polite formalities with which it started. That afternoon he will return to London’s West End for another rendition of his play. Working and therefore satisfied, and most likely unconcerned by an audience enthralled.
Originally published in the fall/winter 2019 issue of Vogue Man Arabia