Brain Humor

Playing Head Games with the Director, Writer, and Star of Being John Malkovich

As self-parody, Malkovich's performance is immaculately brutal— he's portrayed as a windbag, somehow respected even if no one can remember anything he was in except "that jewel-thief movie." By the end of the film, he's literally reduced to a puppet— and forced to perform something called "Craig's Dance of Despair and Disillusionment" in a towel. Yet, Malkovich says, "My concern was never about making fun of me. My only concern was that the things that made it appealing to make fun of me also made it difficult for me to make the decision [to be involved]. If you're a public person who's constructed a quieter private life, the world is so freakish that this makes you a target. You're opening a door, you could become a sort of stalker's delight, and that concerned me."

Is he speaking from experience? "The last [stalker] I had was in England. I hit him on the head with my knuckles about 400 times. I never saw him again. I was doing a play in the West End. He was outside after the show with a sandwich board on which he had scrawled hundreds of thousands of times with an ink pen, 'I'm waiting.' And I just sort of literally flipped my wig— I was wearing a wig— and went downstairs and just started rapping him in the head, and said, If you really think you're going to come here and play a psychopath with me, you'd better go away and study for a while. I've been waiting for you my whole life. When I talked to a psychiatrist, he said it was probably very well-handled. Not because of the bullying but because if they sense the fear, that's fatal. It's not a massive concern of mine. Usually it's pretty harmless. Phoebe Cates had a Japanese guy who moved from Tokyo to New York and changed his name to Phoebus Catus. . . . "

Having read and liked Kaufman's screenplay at an early stage, Malkovich eventually met with Jonze in Paris after receiving a call from Francis Ford Coppola, now Jonze's father-in-law (Jonze recently married Sofia Coppola), who told him, "We'll all be working for this kid in 10 years." Says Malkovich, "I realized that if I said no, this really original, funny thing that talks about really important ideas either wouldn't get made at all or wouldn't get made in the spirit it was written." Replacing the subject, he adds, "would be like saying if you wrote a script about Jackson Pollock that suddenly you had to make it about Rembrandt because they both work with crayons."

State of being: John Malkovich, 1999
photo: Robin Holland
State of being: John Malkovich, 1999

Even if he was playing "himself," Malkovich says he felt in no position to offer any insights or request changes to his portrayal "because the script by its nature takes that right away. I don't think Charlie's stupid, I think he knew enough about me to know I'd probably find it funny on some level. The only fear I had was that in the desire— the very good and proper desire— to get the film done, Spike and Charlie would feel like they had to make it gentler, or less mocking."

Jonze adds, "Not only did he liberate us to be mean, he said the meaner the better. On the shoot, he made everyone comfortable with playing with this character John Malkovich, not taking this character seriously, and it enabled all the other actors to feel very loose. There's this scene where Malkovich and Catherine Keener are having sex on the sofa, and she slaps him on top of the head, and it makes this really loud smacking sound, and I don't think she could've done that if John hadn't come into it with this attitude of having fun with it himself."

No less than Malkovich's gameness, Jonze's well-established flair for understating the ridiculous (see matter-of-factly insane music videos like "Praise You" and Daft Punk's "Da Funk") is what juices the film. Kaufman says it was the exact approach he'd had in mind for his delirious fable. "I never envisioned it as wacky. I'd always thought these people's situation was a terrible one, tragic and serious, and Spike interpreted that in a very nonstylized way, so that you didn't get lost in the pyrotechnics, or the weirdness of it."

Spike? "Yeah, well, I mean, I guess I figured the less you show, the better. And, um, the less we try and, you know, the more we leave open to people to just imagine, what you want to fill into the blanks, the more, um, the more sort of real it would be."

The burden of interpreting the movie falls on Malkovich: "I think there's a need for us to escape ourselves for some period of time, escape our existence, our ridiculousness, our nature. And there's the idea that a celebrity's blowjobs are interesting and yours aren't, which our culture insists on as a constitutional right and our media promulgates in the most vicious, irresponsible, ludicrous, cynical way. But there's also something deeper which is very innocent about this film— the metaphor of discovery. In the case of actors, writers, directors, you open that portal and that's really what we get to do. We get to go somewhere for Warhol's 15 minutes. In that way, the film is a defense of the theater, of movies, of creation, and it's very moving in a weird way— people going through a process of creation to discover everyday joys. In that way, it's sort of like Our Town."

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