Brain Humor

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

But are celebrities, whose blowjobs are already officially interesting, perhaps more likely to respond to the fear of people wanting to get inside their heads? Would they not identify with the vessel? Jonze: "Part of being a person is just being, you know, the insecurities that make you think, lead you to want, feeling, having the feelings of wanting to be somebody else."

Malkovich: "I agree. But it's also a lack of narcissism to think, He's interesting, wonder what he thinks, what he must feel. To have that kind of voyeurism must imply some respect for the other. It doesn't just mean that whatever you're doing is pathetic. It means also that you kind of know what you're doing, but you don't know what they're doing, and it might be nice to find out. I've never wanted to be anybody else without particularly liking myself."

While it's not unreasonable to wonder how an oddity like Being John Malkovich will impact its star's career, the man himself seems more concerned with the potential spillover into his personal life. "If you're an actor who plays people, you can say, 'Look, I'm a professional actor, fuck off, go bother someone else.' But if you start becoming the subject, then I think that's clearly a line that's crossed."

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

And what happens now that he's crossed it? "I don't know, we'll see."

Laughing, Jonze tells him, "At the very least, people are going to come up to you and say, 'Hey, you were in that jewel-thief movie.' "

"I think it'll probably just be that," says Malkovich. "People will go, 'I love you in that jewel-thief movie' instead of saying some line from Con Air."

Without taking anything away from Jonze or the cast, it's clear that the real revelation of Being John Malkovich is its screenwriter— who, in New York, seemed a little overwhelmed by his first brush with public exposure (he'd skipped the film's world premiere in Venice). A couple of weeks later, speaking on the phone from the safety of his home in Los Angeles, Kaufman was relaxed enough to answer a few more questions.

You seem reluctant to say too much about the film. I want to allow people to have their experience of it rather than an experience colored by something I say.

Does it pain you to hear people's interpretations? No, I actually get a kick out of it. I don't think it's possible to misinterpret the movie. And I certainly don't mind if a critic interprets the movie. If it's not me, it feels a little cleaner.

What kind of films do you like? I like things that I don't see as commercial. Not that I'm anticommercial but if I feel like something's been designed to manipulate or control me, I bristle.

I hate to do this because people see it, and go, oh, that's what you're doing. A lot of David Lynch . . . now that I've named just one it's going to seem even more so. I'm going to have to name a list of people: Mike Leigh, David Cronenberg, the Coen brothers, Tom Noonan's film What Happened Was . . . I like it when no one's telling me what I'm supposed to feel.

Tell me a little about Human Nature [a film Jonze and Kaufman are producing, written by Kaufman, to be directed by music-video veteran Michel Gondry, with Patricia Arquette starring]. Spike said it was about a woman who grows hair at an uncontrollable rate. It's difficult to describe it without making it sound wacky, which it isn't. It's about people struggling, lost people.

Like Malkovich. Hopefully not too much. It doesn't have a supernatural component.

So the hair thing is a medical condition? There are medical conditions like that. The film doesn't deal with that element, though. It's just what it is.

I hear you've also written a script about [Gong Show host] Chuck Barris [with Mike Myers reportedly interested in the role]. It's called Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, and it's adapted from his memoirs, in which he claimed he was an assassin for the CIA. I was interested in whether it was true, and if not, why he would say something like that— it's fascinating to me either way. I've also written a script for Jonathan Demme's company. It's called Adaptation, and it's an adaptation.

So it's a meta-adaptation? Perhaps. It's based on Susan Orlean's The Orchid Thief, a nonfiction book about the world of orchid collectors, and specifically this man, John Laroche, who stole a rare orchid out of a swamp in Florida.

Are you working on any original screenplays? I'm working with Michel Gondry on a story that takes place almost entirely in someone's memory.

What's it called? Right now it's called "Untitled Memory Project."

That's catchy. Maybe you should keep it. I might. I've done stranger things.

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