After musical dramas featuring a serial killer and a notorious libertine, the actor returns to the stage as a tyrant. He talks about playing sociopaths and why he gave up voting
John Malkovich in Just Call Me God, a collaboration with director/dramatist Michael Sturminger and organist and conductor Martin Haselböck. Photograph: Paul Sturminger
According to the cult film Being John Malkovich, the actor’s consciousness can be accessed via a portal hidden behind a filing cabinet in a Manhattan office. Meeting him in a restaurant behind the Bavarian State Opera in Munich, I mention that I still possess one of the promotional facemasks that were given out when the film was released in 1999. For years, Malkovich’s cardboard countenance hung in a corner of the spare room, until we took it down because it was freaking our visitors out.
“I don’t blame you,” he says politely, with the slightly fey, sing-song inflection that sounds so disconcerting when it emanates from the mouths of the seducers, murderers and psychopaths he is so good at portraying. “I would do the same.”
We are not here to talk about Being John Malkovich, however, but about being Satur Diman Cha, a fictional despot who is the subject of a new music-drama Malkovich has developed entitled Just Call Me God. Billed as “the last speech of a dictator”, it is a collaboration between the actor, Austrian director/dramatist Michael Sturminger and the organist and period instrument conductor Martin Haselböck. The trio first came together in 2009 to create The Infernal Comedy, a music drama based on the confessions of the Austrian serial killer Jack Unterweger, in which Malkovich strangled a couple of sopranos with their bra straps. This was followed two years later by The Giacomo Variations, a quasi-operatic piece that interleaved the memoirs of the elderly Casanova with excerpts from the Mozart-Da Ponte repertoire.
John Malkovich in Hamburg last week. John Malkovich in Hamburg last week. Photograph: Christian Charisius/AFP/Getty Images
Now aged 63, Malkovich has grown a white beard for the part of Satur, which gives him the air of a slightly sinister Santa Claus. A self-confessed fashion addict who designs his own range of clothing, he is wearing what appears to be a distressed, denim version of a traditional peasant’s blouson, though it probably lies well beyond a peasant’s price bracket. Having based his previous music-dramas on the confessions of a serial killer and a notorious libertine, I ask him if his portrayal of a dictator might be seen to complete a trilogy of musical sociopaths?
“It wasn’t conceived as such, but yes, I can see that it might be interpreted in that way,” Malkovich says. “At least, I can’t foresee there being another one, because it takes too damn long to set these things up. I’m in awe of opera singers, but the one reason I could never do it myself is that they all have to know precisely what they’re going to be doing in eight years’ time.”
Whereas the Unterweger and Casanova pieces were conceived around the period instrument forces of the Wiener Akademie orchestra, Just Call Me God finds Malkovich pitting himself against some of the most powerful philharmonic organs in Europe (after premiering in Germany, the piece is due to be performed at the Union Chapel in London, as part of a Barbican programme, and at Birmingham Symphony Hall).
“It came about because our conductor, Martin Haselböck, also happens to be a highly skilled organist,” Malkovich explains. “But the organ seemed to be the natural choice to accompany the mental processes of a dictator. An organ is the most totalitarian of instruments – it can replicate the sound of an entire orchestra, yet all that power is under the control of a single man.”
Malkovich is keen to stress that Satur is a fictional creation. Nonetheless, it’s notable that the dictator expresses a vision of the future in which the super-wealthy surround themselves with borders, fences and walls. In the past, Malkovich has described himself as a “non-ideological” person who has not voted in any election for more than 40 years. Has anything changed since then?
“No. I didn’t vote,” he says. “I retired my democratic right after [Democratic candidate] George McGovern was defeated by Richard Nixon in 1972. Did I miss something? I don’t think so. It kind of goes on tick-tocking from left to right, with two sides shouting and squabbling for what common good I’m not quite sure. As I’ve said before, if politics had anything to do with the solving of problems then you could count me in.”
Does he agree with Senator John McCain’s assessment that curtailing press freedom is the first step on the road towards dictatorship? “That’s very complicated,” he says. “My family were media folk [Malkovich’s mother edited the local newspaper in the mining community of Benton, Illinois]. When I was growing up, you read what came over the telex wire and that was like the word of God. You just accepted it as fact. But over time one begins to discover that’s not the case at all. One begins to ask, what is the truth? What does it even mean? Where do I get it? What do I do with it if I have it? And how am I supposed to manage any of this without expiring from information sickness?”
He becomes even more animated on the subject of restriction of movement. “The issue with borders means it’s becoming impossible for me to work,” he says. “It used to be that you arrived at Heathrow with a valid work permit and they would let you through. Now it’s like 30 pages of stuff, demanding that you account for where you’ve been every day for the past 30 years.”
It sounds like a definition of totalitarianism already, I suggest. “Yes it is! For example, I had to go to Russia last autumn to shoot a film. I told the producers, if you want me to come, you’re gonna have to cut through all the crap to get me into the country. So this woman came from the embassy with her forensic, biometric specimen bag, whatever it was; and the terrifying thing is, she had a passport photo of me that I had never even seen before.”
John Malkovich in The Giacomo Variations with Ingeborga Dapkunaite, Sophie Klussmann and Florian Boesch, 2011.
Malkovich describes himself as living in a state of self-imposed exile: he and his wife, Nicoletta Peyran, maintain a house in Cambridge Massachusetts, but has spent more than half his life living in Europe. Though not for very much longer, it seems. “I have a place in southern France but I can’t see myself keeping it since they have made it quite clear I’m not welcome any more,” he says. “Now if I do a play in Paris it can’t be reviewed in Le Monde. It won’t even appear in the listings, because I’m not considered to be politically sound. Even arts coverage seems to have become so politicised that if you don’t fit into a particular worldview then your play doesn’t exist.”
It seems fair to assume that Malkovich is referring to the successful lawsuit he launched against Le Monde in 2016 over false allegations that he kept a secret Swiss bank account. But he claims that his wrangles with the French tax authorities have left him with no option but to quit the country. “Last year I directed a play, The Good Canary, in London and Paris. I worked without a salary, but, since I was one of the producers, the French authorities calculated that I had earned €25,000 (£22,000). Then they sent me a tax demand for 29,000 euros.” He spreads his hands in a gesture of despair. “I mean, even Elvis didn’t get taxed at that level of stupidity. And you just wonder, what kind of alternate universe are we now living in?”
By this point, Malkovich’s increased agitation has begun to attract the attention of some German diners, who have been discreetly ignoring the movie star sitting in the corner. I’m suddenly reminded of the scene from Being John Malkovich in which the actor crawls through the portal to his own brain and suffers a metaphysical collapse in a smart restaurant full of multiple versions of himself.
“You know, it is a bit like that,” Malkovich says, calming down. “When I first read Charlie Kaufman’s script it struck me as one of the smartest screenplays ever written; but now it seems to have become almost prophetic. The whole political situation feels as if we have gone through a portal into some alternate universe that can’t really be happening. I mean, Brexit – how are you getting along with that?” I tell him we’re still waiting for it to happen, but that purchasing €150 at the airport has cost £151.
“Exactly,” he says, “It’s unreal.” His face broadens into a wide, rictus-like grin. “But do you know when I first realised that Brexit was inevitable? When the EU wanted to introduce legislation that would mess with the British electric kettle. I thought, boy, if I really had absolute power, that’s the one thing I would have the sense to leave well alone.”
Just Call Me God is at Symphony Hall, Birmingham (0121-780 3333) on 21 March and Union Chapel, London N1 (020-7638 8891, barbican.org.uk), from 23-25 March.
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