Robinson is the Associate Entertainment Editor at The Onion.
This article originally appeared in The
Onion A.V. Club.
TASHA ROBINSON: What attracted
you to the story of The Dancer Upstairs?
JOHN MALKOVICH: A lot of things.
I traveled in Peru during the heyday of Sendero, which started
in the late '70s and went on to 1992, when Guzmán was captured,
though it's still going on at a lower grade. And
that sort of piqued my interest. Then I read the long article
that Nicholas Shakespeare wrote for Granta, the English
literary magazine, which I was very interested in. I noticed in
his little bio that he was writing a novel about it, and I looked
for the novel when it came out, and I liked it very much, so we
bought the options and started work on it.
TASHA ROBINSON: The book came
out in 1997. Is there any particular reason the film came together
JOHN MALKOVICH: It just took this
long. No one was interested in a film about some far-off land
with brown people, or terrorism, or obscure causes and movements
that murdered people. It just wasn't in the world's interest.
TASHA ROBINSON: The film tends
to present events without taking a strong moral stance, or leading
the audience. Given the current political climate, do you think
it would have been possible to make this film in America?
JOHN MALKOVICH: It wasn't. I don't
know, I think it depends on if they can make money off it. I mean,
anything that money can be made off will never be a problem to
make, no matter what it is. You know, they make porno, and at
the same time, elements of the country are very moralistic. But
no one ever really stops anything that makes money.
TASHA ROBINSON: Do you think there's
a strong political ideology or moral behind the film?
JOHN MALKOVICH: No. I think there's...
Well, that may be disingenuous, in some ways. There's the ideology
of someone who's been force-fed finally vomiting. So, yeah, there
probably is some political ideology in it, but maybe not the expected
TASHA ROBINSON: But that's a single
character's ideology rather than from your own perspective, or
from the screenwriter's perspective. Does The Dancer Upstairs
reflect any of your personal beliefs?
JOHN MALKOVICH: Well, there are
quite a few people in the film with very different ideologies,
so it's not just the story of one man. That's principally the
story, but it's no secret that the idea of these movements...
Which have existed really not since Sept. 11, but for the last
50 years. Every day, somewhere in the world, terrorists will murder
people who have nothing to do with their cause, to promote their
cause, and that's something the world is starting to grapple with
now. And the response has come in all forms. I think it has yet
to find its clarity. It's no surprise that the head of Reuters
popularized the phrase "One man's terrorist is another man's
freedom fighter," because only a journalist could come up
with something so utterly facile and idiotic, and actually obscene,
in fact. But a huge part of the world believes that, and there's
nothing I can do about that. They have their little causes, whatever
they are. And one has to care about them profoundly, or one is
a target. That's the way the world works, the whole world. Ideologically,
it doesn't really matter-I really hate ideology, that's for sure.
But ideologically, there's really nothing to say about it, because
that's what it is. The world is ruled by violence, or at least
the imminent threat of violence. It always has been. This is the
way the world is, and there's nothing I can do about it-I mean,
I can say it, I can observe it, I can have a feeling about whether
that's good or bad. I could have, even, some empirical evidence
that it's good or bad. But it doesn't matter, because that's what
rules the world. Violence.
TASHA ROBINSON: Is there a specific
response that you'd like people to have to the movie? Would you
like them to come away from it with anything in particular?
JOHN MALKOVICH: I'm not a psychiatrist.
I'm not treating patients. I'm expressing myself. They're free
to have whatever reaction they have-and there have already been
quite a catholicity of reactions. People have jumped up and screamed,
"It's a fascist film." "It's a film that's soft
on terrorism." "It's a propaganda film." "It's
a film that debases the great work of Abimael Guzmán."
Somebody asked me at UCLA last week, "I think I missed something.
What's the message?" This very hostile questioner who clearly
had an ideology, who clearly had an agenda, who clearly did not
miss the quote-"message" of the film, but something
disturbed him in the "message" of the film. I told him,
"I'm not a computer person, so to me, messages are things
that go in bottles, or on a telephone. They're not for the cinema."
I can give you my reflections, but I don't want to give you a
message, whether I have one or not. It's not my job, and it's
also very arrogant. You know, I'm really not interested in someone
telling me that something's good or bad. I'm interested in the
cost of things. In this film, there are very different messages,
but they're just people expressing what their concerns are at
the time, and what they think at the time. It's not up to me.
It's up to people to choose what they care to hear.
TASHA ROBINSON: But don't most
fictional stories tend to validate some characters over others,
to present some characters as more empathetic, or more justified,
JOHN MALKOVICH: Well, it depends
on how skilled you are, and most people aren't skilled, so I would
say no. Not to give the film away, but I think one of the people
in this movement couldn't have been treated more sympathetically,
and I don't approve of the movement in any way. Because part of
the difficulty of life-we've done it for centuries-is trying to
figure out why humans do inhuman things. We still don't know,
do we? I mean, I agree with Samuel Beckett [in the play Endgame]:
"You're on earth, there's no cure for that." Why? I
don't know why, and by the way, you're not going to figure it
out. But, yes, it may say certain things, but my reflections are
usually about the notion of cost, human cost, not "Do this"
or "Don't do that." I can't tell people what to do.
I have no idea myself.
TASHA ROBINSON: You say you've
heard a lot of criticisms and reactions to the film. Have you
heard any that you consider apt, or legitimate?
JOHN MALKOVICH: No, because it's
not up to me. I can't agree with the fact that I'm more or less
a man and that I'm 49 years old. [Laughs.] What's to disagree
with, or agree with? They're just my reflections. They're not
anything more, or anything less. First of all, I don't read reviews.
For 20 years, I don't look at articles, I don't do all of that.
So someone would have to come up and engage me in a conversation
about it, and say, "I take issue with this film because..."
Etcetera, etcetera. For example, some women have taken a feminist
stance against the portrayal of some of the women in the film,
saying they're either shallow or they're dangerous. Not at all
true. Again, they're coming into the theater with something. When
you ask, "Is it a political film?"... Well, 13 years
ago, the most political thing you could hear in the United States
Of America was, "Who put the pubes on my Coke can?"
This was really high politics. This was the catastrophe. I don't
think I would be alone now in finding all of that distasteful.
I found it distasteful then. I found it a reduction of serious
issues to the most pathetic dialogue, the most unimaginably pathetic
reduction. But I was told then that it was incredibly political,
and one who didn't understand that was an incredible pig. I mean,
I may very well be an incredible pig, but I'm one who's read The
Second Sex, and they haven't. Just to be clear. But see, I
don't have to take that politically, just because it's shoved
down my throat. I can see it for what it is, in my opinion, and
they have to see it for what they think it is. And I can't convince
them. I don't convince them, nor are they fully succeeding with
me. What I find... You can pick them out when you go through a
discussion. Who comes to something blindfolded and gagged-well,
not gagged, unfortunately, but blindfolded and with earplugs.
They're very easy to spot. I showed [Dancer] in France,
and someone's girlfriend asked why the quote-"Arab"
music played when the quote-"terrorist" was dancing.
Totally ignorant of the fact that I've used that artist's music
three times in films, that he's a great performer, and that it
has nothing to do with anything. If I had used the real music
Guzmán danced to, which was from Zorba The Greek,
then I suppose Greeks would have asked me, "Why are you slamming
the Greeks? Is it just [because of the Greek guerrilla group]
November 17? Are you for the junta?" You see? You have to
be really ferocious about these idiot criticisms. You have to
scratch back. It can't be tolerated. Go and look at the film.
Don't talk to me, don't listen to what I say, look at the film.
Don't come in here and tell me the same thing you already thought,
don't tell me what you hoped to have seen, or hoped you would
be offended by and were, because then I know you're not very bright.
And not because you don't like the film. You can like it or hate
it-I don't really care, and there's nothing I can do about it
anyway. But I think you essentially . . . Criticism is pretty
much like everything else in life. Consider the source first,
and consider whether there's any sense to it. Of course, it doesn't
matter with a film, because the film is already finished, so it's
really irrelevant. But consider the source, and what the criticism
is itself. Listen, and finally you have to decide, is there anything
interesting there? I haven't heard a lot, except when I go to
question-and-answer sessions. And sometimes what we call criticism
is something that someone brought to the room long before the
first frame of the film started. They brought it to the room because
I irritate or offend them. They brought it to the room because
they don't believe what they heard this film purports to believe.
There are a million of these things. And when you work, you have
to do your own work in the end. I don't make these "true
to yourself" speeches, because we're not true to ourselves
anyway. Frankly, I think that whole idea is kind of idiotic. But
I would say you have to do the best you can, and you have to give
your reflections. Especially when you direct a movie, as opposed
to acting in it. Because when you're acting, that's not your job.
TASHA ROBINSON: Was it more of
a transition for you to go from stage directing to film directing,
or going from acting to directing?
JOHN MALKOVICH: Neither. It was
going from stage acting to film acting that was the big transition,
because one's alive and one's dead. One's impulse and one's anti-impulse.
One is, "If it's not in frame it doesn't exist," and
the other is, "You can't frame what I do. I decide when,
I decide where, I decide how. I and my peers, doing it live right
there." One is true, one is false. So they're very different.
I think they both have always interested me. I'm not obsessed
with acting. I don't read about acting, or follow acting, or know
much about acting. They interest me as work, as a piece of work.
That was a big adjustment, because they're very, very different
things. But directing a film is no adjustment, because from the
very first second I worked on a film, I was always with the technicians.
I'd done all that for 20 years.
TASHA ROBINSON: Do you find stage
acting more inherently satisfying?
JOHN MALKOVICH: Not really. No.
I mean, stage acting is more visceral fun, or more reactionary
knee-jerk fun. But not always. It's more of a grind, more physically
exhausting, but it's also more of an exercise in childlike belief,
in exercising your imagination, etcetera, etcetera. Film can also
be great fun, and sometimes less physically exhausting, though
of course the days are very long. And you have to learn a different
kind of concentration, because when you do a play, the whole play
is behind you all the time. It's more like grabbing onto a speeding
train and hoping to hang on, whereas with film acting, you're
pushing the train up the hill with a group of people, and hoping
it doesn't roll back down and kill everyone. Which it usually
does, but, you know, c'est la vie.
TASHA ROBINSON: Do you tend to
see a difference between actors and directors who have a stage
background and those who don't?
JOHN MALKOVICH: Not really. I
don't think it's any help, having a stage background, to act in
movies. For instance, Javier Bardem is as fine a young actor as
I've ever seen anywhere, and he's never done a play. I mean, his
mom's a famous theater actress, but he's never done a play. So
I don't think it matters. I don't think it hurts, either. It's
sort of like asking, "If you play the saxophone, will you
be a better guitar player?" On the level of being a musician,
maybe it gives you a sense of the rhythm of things, or how things
should sound, maybe, but it's not the same instrument at all.
You're not blowing on something, you're strumming it. You're making
chords, and you're doing this and that, and playing notes, and
so on. But it doesn't make you a better guitar player. I think
it's fairly irrelevant.
TASHA ROBINSON: Did working as
an actor teach you any methods that helped you in directing?
JOHN MALKOVICH: Yeah, of course.
Most film directors are absolutely clueless as to what to say
to an actor-as if there's any one thing. It's just about knowing
how to communicate with people, how to create an environment where
they feel... I don't like these sort of lovey words like "safe"
or "protected," because doing a play isn't dangerous.
[Points out 35th-story window.] Window-washing here is dangerous.
A play generally isn't dangerous, because very few people get
maimed or killed doing one. But where they feel comfortable and
supported in the work they do, and where their instincts or their
opinions or their questions are taken seriously, or at least as
seriously as a play is. But, you know, actors mostly want to be
treated as peers, like most people. Of course, some are nuts,
some are neurotic, some you can never help, some you could never
make comfortable. But that's true in anything. Most people are
capable of profiting from a decent work environment.
TASHA ROBINSON: What's your ideal
JOHN MALKOVICH: You know, it really
depends. I like someone who's really rigorous about choices actors
make, and who's not afraid to insist on a more profound choice,
a more original choice, a deeper choice, a more provocative choice,
etcetera. Rather than go, "Oh, it's brilliant, you're great,
let's move on." I prefer the former to the latter. But I
don't really mind what a director's like, because in a way, you're
really there to fulfill their vision. You're working for them.
You're a figure in their painting-you're not the artist. That's
just the way I look at it. So I don't much mind what their method
is. I've done a lot of movies and plays, I've worked with so many
directors, and I don't mind what their method or personality is,
very much. The ones I prefer are really collaborative, to the
point of being overly demanding. But if they're not, that's okay,
TASHA ROBINSON: Are you tired
of Being John Malkovich jokes yet?
JOHN MALKOVICH: I haven't really
heard many. I mean, I did the film, and it was very funny, but
I don't really hear things like that so much. I mean, I hear little
intended puns on the title, but I don't really pay attention.
It doesn't bother me. It's a good film. I'm happy with it, and
I'm glad I did it. But I don't think about it much.
TASHA ROBINSON: Do you think about
any of your films in particular after you do them?
JOHN MALKOVICH: No. The ship has
sailed. I'm always doing something else, always on to the next
thing. I have other things to think about. I don't watch them,
I don't look at them or reflect on them. In a very, very, very,
very rare instance, maybe, but just for a few minutes. I'm not
like that, you know? In this business, I think you need to get
used to not looking back.
TASHA ROBINSON: Your characters
often tend to be dark, cold people, though not necessarily people
in classic villain roles-more ambiguous characters with their
own agendas, like Valmont in Dangerous Liaisons, or Gilbert
in Portrait Of A Lady. Do you think of these characters
JOHN MALKOVICH: Valmont, I would
characterize as someone with great charm and also great sentiment,
but who was totally in ignorance of himself, and a complete emotional
coward. A villain, not at all. Gilbert, it's hard to say. Someone
very manipulative. "Villainous" is a stronger word.
Cold? I think he did feel things; he just didn't have the slightest
notion of how to express them. Whereas Valmont did know how to
express them, and just decided not to at every turn. I think they're
just grayer people than one normally finds in the cinema, rather
than being good or bad.
TASHA ROBINSON: Your most memorable
roles all seem to fit into that category, though. Do you consciously
seek out gray roles, or do you turn down roles that you feel have
too simplistic a take on good and evil?
JOHN MALKOVICH: Well, I did Con
Air. That was fairly simplistic. I think I have nothing to
apologize for when it comes to simplicity. But I don't seek out
any roles. You just choose from among that which you've been offered.
No one ever says to me, "Hey, would you like to do a remake
of It's A Wonderful Life?" They just don't ask me
TASHA ROBINSON: Do you ever regret
that? Are you worried about being typecast?
JOHN MALKOVICH: I've had more
variety, probably, than anybody working. It's just what the public
chooses to remember is six or seven of my films. I've done comedies,
tragedies, farces. I was the troubled son for many years, and
people asked me why I was always the troubled son. I've done about
everything there is to do. How could I have more variety? If you
mean more variety like getting into a big Hollywood film, I couldn't
care less, really. I'm sure I'm missing out on specific roles,
but there's nothing I can do about that. As I say, you just can
do what you're offered. I suppose there probably are other roles
I could have done, or would have liked to have done, though I
can't think of any. But if I had done them, I wouldn't have liked
the film, probably. So then what's the point? I don't want to
sound like Edith Piaf, but what's the point of regretting, trying
to be different from what I am, or have a different history than
what I have? I've been so lucky, it's absurd, so I don't really
want to be anything else.
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