TORONTO - John Malkovich is, well, being John Malkovich, although no portals affording entry to his mind seem to be in operation here at the Four Seasons Hotel. The actor, who starred as himself, of course, in the trippy 1999 Spike Jonze classic “Being John Malkovich,” is just cradling a cup of coffee, early in the morning, happy to talk about working in his very first Coen Brothers’ production, the madcap spy caper/midlife-crisis comedy/sex farce called “Burn After Reading.”
Malkovich’s role is central - and not just because it involves the Central Intelligence Agency. As Osborne “Ozzie” Cox, a career CIA analyst, Malkovich sets the screwball business in motion by (1) getting fired, (2) cursing like a maniac, and (3) writing his memoirs - which his character haughtily pronounces “mem-moi.”
Burn After Reading
Joel and Ethan Coen
George Clooney, Frances McDormand, Brad Pitt, Tilda Swinton, John Malkovich, Richard Jenkins, David Rasche, J.K. Simmons
(Focus Features; US theatrical: 12 Sep 2008 (General release); UK theatrical: 17 Oct 2008 (General release); 2008)
When said document turns up at a health club staffed by Richard Jenkins, Frances McDormand and Brad Pitt, stuff happens: extortion, secret meetings with the Russians, George Clooney (as a federal marshal) and Tilda Swinton (as Ozzie’s wife) hopping into and out of the sack. It’s nutty stuff, and Malkovich was glad to do it.
“Joel and Ethan called and said they wanted to send me something, and was I free,” says Malkovich, recalling the day he was offered the screenplay. “Apparently they had written the character with me in mind.”
And here’s a quick description of the guy, from its portrayer himself: “He’s someone who has a superiority complex, and not really one that’s very well-founded in reality. He’s a drunk.”
Hmmm, and the Coens thought of Malkovich?
“Well, to be honest, I never think about things like that,” he says. “I’ve done a lot of things, so that someone would think of me for a particular (role) is always - I’m always slightly surprised. But I think they probably thought that I had a talent for dropping the F-bombs.”
Malkovich, 54, had three films at the just-concluded Toronto film fest: “Burn After Reading” is the biggie, and then there’s an adaptation of J.M. Coetzee’s prize-winning novel “Disgrace” (Malkovich plays the Capetown, South African, professor protagonist), and “Afterwards,” a French thriller (“but in English,” its star says). Three films - is that some kind of personal record?
“I would assume so,” he says drily. “I’m not such a great record keeper. But it better be a record - I couldn’t handle any more.”
The actor, who spent close to a decade living in France, now calls Cambridge, Mass., his home. He and his partner, Nicoletta Peyran, have two teenagers, a boy and a girl. The family moved to the Boston area “for our children’s school,” Malkovich explains. “They grew up in France, so French is their first language, so we wanted them to carry on.”
A cofounder, with Gary Sinise, of Chicago’s legendary Steppenwolf Theatre, Malkovich has kept himself busy on stage as well as on screen. He’s heading to Mexico City to direct Gael Garcia Bernal in a play. And he has, oh, five or six films ready to be released.
In “The Great Buck Howard,” he plays an illusionist of dubious merit, sharing the screen with Tom Hanks. In “The Changeling” - his second time around with director Clint Eastwood (after playing the psycho assassin in “In the Line of Fire”) - he’s cast as Angelina Jolie’s priest. “The Mutant Chronicles” is a dark, 23d-century sci-fier. “Gardens of the Night” is about two teenage street kids in England.
Malkovich is also a partner in Mr. Mudd, the production company whose titles include “Ghost World,” “Art School Confidential,” “Ripley’s Game,” “The Libertine” and “The Dancer Upstairs” (2002) - on which Malkovich took his film directing bow.
Mr. Mudd is responsible for a 2007 title that made a bit of noise at the box office, and at the Academy Awards, too: the sleeper indie “Juno.”
And yet here he is, lamenting the current climate of “angst and anxiety” in the business and how difficult it is to get projects green-lit, or even just score a little development dough.
“We’re looking, with Mr. Mudd, to get something going, but there’s this anxiousness in the business right now,” he says, alluding to the many studio specialty divisions - Warner Independent, Picturehouse, etc. - that have recently been shut down. “They don’t want to pull the trigger on anything ... especially from us. They’re worried that we’re too quirky, or smart-alecky. ...
“You know, the films that we’ve done, they didn’t make enough money. If we did two or three ‘Junos,’ then we wouldn’t have any problems.”
As for working with the Oscar-winning writers/producers/directors Joel and Ethan Coen, Malkovich says that the “Burn After Reading” shoot was one of the most smoothly run affairs he’s been involved with. Their stories (“No Country For Old Men,” “Fargo”) might be dark, bloody and odd, but their production style is jovial and efficient.
“I think I would say that the dynamic on this whole film was just really light, and very professional,” Malkovich says. “They’re very calm, and their calm, I think, ensures that they’re really attentive, because they’re not neurotic, they’re not panic mongers, and they know how to have fun.
“And that’s such a good thing. You can find a lot of sympathy for directors who well understand why it isn’t fun - there’s an enormous amount of pressure, films are so expensive to make, it’s an incredible workload, a series of decisions, of options, of rejections, problems, questions. But Joel and Ethan don’t worry that too much.”
Perhaps because they’re too busy imagining scenes like the climactic one with Malkovich’s “Ozzie” in “Burn After Reading.” There he is, a crazed look in his eye, in his underwear and bathrobe, standing on the street in front of his stately Georgetown townhouse, wielding a hatchet.
“It’s not a great idea to put a hatchet in my hand,” Malkovich deadpans. “I’m not sure the public wants to see that.”
Oh, they do. And now they will.