Confessions of an actor

Famed thespian, John Malkovich highlights in "The Infernal Comedy" at Tel Aviv, Eilat festivals.

John Malkovich 370 (photo credit: Olga Martschitsch)
John Malkovich 370
(photo credit: Olga Martschitsch)
John Malkovich is the most inscrutable of characters. At 59, the acclaimed actor, who is here to perform in Michael Sturminger’s long running, hard-hitting chamber theater production-cum- opera The Infernal Comedy: Confessions of a Serial Killer, appears to be pretty comfortable in his own skin.
He looks just as cozy in his threads and makes for a picture of perfect sartorial elegance in a striking designer burgundy suit, with a softly billowing white shirt with sleeve ruffles that immediately bring to mind one of Malkovich’s many celebrated roles, that of the sinister and sensual Vicomte de Valmont in the 1988 film Dangerous Liaisons.
“Nice clothes,” I venture. “I wonder who designed them.” “I’ll let you keep on guessing,” is the Malkovich riposte, in a voice that was once colorfully described as “a reedy, faintly orgasmic drawl.”
The comeback is typical of the man who has long kept his audiences in thrall, suspense and delight for over three decades. The mind and vision behind Malkovich’s highly aesthetic garb is none other than the actor himself, and was produced by the typically quizzically named Technobohemian outfit that Malkovich founded a couple of years ago.
ISRAELI AUDIENCES will have two opportunities to catch the veteran thespian in one of his mesmerizing roles, in The Infernal Comedy – at 9 p.m. this evening at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art’s Recanati Hall, as part of the Felicja Blumental Festival; and at the same time tomorrow at the Eilat Chamber Music Festival.
Malkovich is well-acquainted with the role, having performed it all over the world for the past four years. The production, written and directed by Sturminger, tells the chilling real-life story of Austrian serial killer Jack Unterweger, who eventually committed suicide after murdering 11 prostitutes in Vienna, Prague and Los Angeles.
It is a gripping tale of how the twice-imprisoned murderer returns from the grave for an autobiographical book tour.
The character charms his audience as he spins out the shocking details of his sordid deeds. Each chapter of the book closes with an aria from works by Gluck, Mozart, Haydn, Vivaldi, Beethoven, Boccherini and Weber, performed by two soprano vocalists who provide irresistible prey for Unterweger’s demonic lust. The singers are Israeli soprano Claire Meghnagi and her Slovenian counterpart Bernarda Bobro.
The leading part in a production that fuses high drama, tension and luscious music appears to be a shoe-in for Malkovich, who has a long history of musical endeavors, starting with membership in a folk rock trio when he was in high school in Benton, Illinois. “Yes, I did all kinds of [musical] things in high school,” Malkovich notes. “I sang madrigals and other stuff. But then I stopped for many years, and got through a few million cigarettes.”
The nicotine intake may have dulled what might have been a promising singing career, but Malkovich does not express any regret over what might have been, in any department of his life. “I wouldn’t say I am a frustrated rock star. I was never really frustrated. I always liked music and I have continued to love music, but I have done something else with my life,” he adds with characteristic understatement. Even so, it is not hard to imagine him strutting across the stages of the world’s biggest music arenas, sending his audiences wild with facial calisthenics and almost subliminally delivered body language that, nonetheless, conveys a clear and highly charged message of erotic abandon.
EVEN IF he does not harbor any musical ambitions, Malkovich gets to feed off some rich sonic material in the Sturminger work. “It is a fantastic experience, to get to play with this orchestra [the Orchester Wiener Akademie, from Austria], with this great music and a terrific conductor [Martin Haselbock]. So I get plenty of music.”
Malkovich also seems to get plenty of roles that involve drawing on the less unpropitious side of his own persona. In addition to Valmont, his burgeoning filmography includes a convincingly crafted psychotic political assassin in Clint Eastwood’s 1993 In the Line of Fire, which won him a nomination for both an Oscar and a Golden Globe. In the same year, he kept TV audiences riveted to their armchairs as the menacing Kurtz in Heart of Darkness.
The actor repudiates any notion of typecasting and takes exception to the commonly held view that he has a penchant for less-than-sunny parts.
This is possibly supported by Malkovich’s citation of Kurt Weill in an interview he gave several years ago, noting that the Jewish German-born composer said, “there is a dark spot following us that is the shadow of ourselves.”
“I have connected with a lot of comedies. But that’s not really what people like to see me do for the most part – I mean in theater,” he says, before divesting himself of any control over how he ends up with such roles. “I would venture to say that actually has nothing to do with me.
That’s actually dictated by the public.
The public buys what the public buys.”
But, surely, at this stage of career Malkovich can – to use an operative word – dictate what roles he takes on? “You chose [a role] from among that you have been chosen for,” he replies enigmatically, before proceeding to roll out a long list of characters he has portrayed, some of whom he feels are very different from the dark parts with which he has become associated. “I have played the kings of France and England – who quite possibly weren’t very nice – I have played magicians, I have played comedians, I have played men and women. I don’t think about all that much, because I don’t think about my career, quote unquote. I just apply myself to what I have to do and let other people worry about how that’s defined.”
MALKOVICH ALSO professes a strong preference for treading the boards, as opposed to silver screen work. “Theater is a living thing, not like film – which is essentially dead, and is made up of pieces that are cut up and out together.”
He has also noted a type of creative friction in live stage work that he feels is fundamental to the creative theatrical process. “Acting is like surfing, but you are not the wave,” he said a few years back. “The wave is the collision between the material and the public.”
“That’s where it is, in terms of theater acting,” he says. “The audience is the critical element, and it is a bit like surfing. You paddle your little boat out and you turn your back and wait for the wave to arrive. If it’s a good piece of material, there will generally be wave.”
Presumably, though, it is a wave that Malkovich prefers to surf rather than being engulfed. “Sometimes surfers are engulfed,” he notes, before taking one of his habitual lengthy pauses to gather his thoughts. “Sometimes [as a theater actor], you get yourself into things that are hard to get out of, on a given night, depending on your emotional availability and your access to your own emotions.”
Expect emotion to be front and center tonight in Tel Aviv and tomorrow in Eilat.
For more information: (03) 620-1185