19-01-2011 4-25-44 PM

It was as if the messiah was finally playing the first date of his return season. Sydney Town Hall was gorging itself with apparently hardcore Malkovich disciples. I’d no idea there were so many of ’em.

After a stuffup with tickets as monumental as the building itself, we finally made our way to plush seats, where we awaited this thespian god. In a crumpled white shirt, jeans and Converse low-cuts, he cut anything but a dashing figure. Just as we would have it. For Mr Malkovich, aside from flashes of humour, is a serious minded young man, now inhabiting a rather older body. In fact, his face looked as crumpled as his shirt. He looks, if anything, older than his 57 years. Which, again, is just as it should be, for an actor’s actor. We’d have him wear the collective experiences of characters he’s played,as if he’d had the experiences himself.

That sounds cynical, but it’s not. Malkovich is, unquestionably, an actor’s actor, one of the founders of what is arguably America’s most luminous theatre company: Steppenwolf, in Chicago.

Jim Sharman is a world-class, renowned director of opera, film and theatre. At 21, he directed a controversial Don Giovanni, for Opera Australia, crowning a run of groundbreaking experimental productions for ye Old Tote. But you, and the rest of the world, probably know him best for Rocky Horror. Jim is not an interviewer. But he was last night. Or became one, during the course of the evening, which ran a little over an hour or so, but which seemed relatively intensive, yet relaxed.

Both men seemed nervous to begin with, and there was plenty of mumbling and stumbling. There was a long-winded, if not very illuminating discussion of seduction. If we were expecting seduction 101, from an acknowledged master, we didn’t get it; rather, a series of rather cryptic allusions to its nature.

There is much discussion at his family’s expense: he paints them as crazy and violent, but there seems to be an underlying affection there too. He confesses extremism in his own personality: when much younger he slimmed his heavy frame down to an athletic one by eating a large bowl of jello each and every day for an extended period. Mmm. The Malkovich jello diet. Could it be any worse than Atkins?

He was born and raised (in America, after all, you’re raised, or raised up, or used to be) in smalltown Illinois, making his way gradually to Chicago, via St. Louis. It was there he escaped his kooky Croatian relos, discovered and immersed himself in theatre, a vocation he’s never left and for which he’s always hungered. He even says he works “quite a bit harder now” than when he was 22. It was around that age that, alongside Joan Allen, Gary Sinise and Glenne Headly, he became a charter member of Steppenwolf, which took him to New York just a few years later, to star in Sam Shepard’s True West, which the Sydney Theatre Company recently staged with Phillip Seymour Hoffman in the chair and Wayne Blair on the stage. From there, he went from strength to strength, as actor and director. And Obie to Obie, among other gongs.

Beyond that, it would be too laborious to chart his highly distinguished career, which has so many highlights on stage and film. But of course it was Dangerous Liaisons that transformed him into a star, even if he’s remained among the most reluctant of celebrities. “I wasn’t a subject that ever interested me,” he claimed, seeming utterly sincere.

Even in declaring repeated caveats that he’d no intention of denigrating the “artistry” that can and does inform cinema, he seemed to have a greater reverence for the stage, insisting that while it’s well and good, one doesn’t necessarily have to be an actor, let alone a great one, to succeed on film, or be loved by the camera. A man who could count the likes of Bertolucci among his friends and who has carved out as successful a career in that medium as treading the boards, was remarkably scathing, if very articulate and quotable on the subject.

“Theatre is an ephemeral, living organism; more like surfing. You ride a wave. You don’t create the wave. The wave is a collision between the material and the public. You just ride the wave. Your job is to hang on. With film, you just need a few good seconds. People say the camera never lies. I say, that’s what it’s there for. You can’t lie in a play. Don’t do a play if you have to lie. Your job in a play is to hang on, while the material whips you around.”

There was name-dropping on both sides of the interview equation, but it was Malkovich who took the trouble to contextualise at least a couple of these, without stooping to patronise us. It was Malkovich who was aware of the audience and, even in being candid, seemed to also be acutely aware he was, after all, on a stage. Even his sips of coffee from a takeaway cup seemed measured.

This was an occasion that could have proved flat and tedious, but Malkovich did offer us some insight into what makes him tick. His introspection is palpable, especially when he confides failure as his “shadow and constant companion”. One way or another, he seduced us, so perhaps his lack of straightforwardness or clarity on the subject is deliberate. After all, explaining it would surely sap his transfixing mojo. His seductive prowess was no more evident than in his instinctive reading, sight apparently unseen to that point, of an excerpt from Shepard’s Buried Child. Despite a penchant for a naturalism that sometimes involves compromising diction (which, regrettably, put me in mind of William Hurt’s garbled lines, last year, in STC’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night), even this casual encounter with his live performance skills was spellbinding.

In just 60 minutes, we discovered a surprising amount about what it’s really like to be John Malkovich, a man who rarely smiles or laughs, on film, or on stage. But it seems to me the real John Malkovich neither stood up, nor sat down. The real John Malkovich is still offstage. That’s where he exists. And only there. Which is as it should be. It’s what gives the public Malkovich cachet, mystique; a strange, haunting, powerful, alchemical, impenetrable charisma.

The details: John Malkovich was in conversation with Jim Sharman on Monday, January 17 at the Sydney Town Hall. He appears in four performances of The Giacomo Variations at the Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House from tonight, January 19.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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