Mr. Malkovich, last year alone, you shot five films and a television series. Do you have any intention of slowing down?
I would say I sped up considerably, just last year I started a TV series, and I rehearsed a play in Riga, Latvia, while I was doing that. Then I did two classical music tours, I acted in a film based on the Schubert song cycle, then I did another tour, now I am doing this tour, but now we are rehearsing a symphonic version of the Music Critic, and at the same time, I was working on the new project that I am doing.
That sounds like a lot, aren’t you tired?
I have an awareness that it all could end tomorrow or this afternoon — God knows. I am 68 years old. So I am not afraid of losing steam: there are just things I want to do still and I am aware that my time is limited. I even could argue that I like work now more than I did when I was young! I think that might be accurate. I couldn’t say it for certain, but generally I quite like working and all the challenges it presents and all of the experiences it gives us.
“I wouldn’t know a character that I personally had much in common with, and I don’t look for that.”
What makes you say you enjoy work more now?
I was lazier when I was younger. I am not sure I had a great work ethic when I began. I had no familiarity with the business or anything about it or what it demanded. I am not sure I was certain that acting is what I wanted to do with my life. I did it, I was part of a group of people who started a theater called the Steppenwolf immediately after university when we were 20 or 22 years old. It was not spectacularly easy and probably made me question as much! I liked some of the things we did and the results we achieved, but I still was not necessarily convinced that that’s what I wanted to do with my life.
Was there a moment where that changed for you? Or did you just naturally grow into a love of acting through time and experience?
There wasn’t a specific moment, not really. I remember many years ago, I was doing Sheltering Sky in Morocco in the 1990s, and I asked Paul Bowles, the writer of the novel, “When did you realize that you weren’t going to live in America anymore and were going to stay in Morocco?” He looked at me and he was just completely horrified because he had been in Morocco for over 30 years. He said he was still thinking about it. (Laughs) But that seemed to me quite a good answer when I thought about it.
So you’re still thinking about it?
I may still be figuring out how I get out of becoming an actor! (Laughs) I have done so many different things in my life, and it would not surprise me if I did something else altogether either! So I am not still thinking about it. My point is that I just think about the work, what am I doing, what I need to do, how can I do it…
Are you also thinking about the next role, who to work with, how to choose a character you can relate to, and things like that?
No, I wouldn’t have thought so! I don’t know if there is an identifying factor except that’s how I make my living. I would classify all my roles simply as work. I suppose I was never very interested in a genre, it was never an interest of mine. I don’t mind working with established directors or first-time directors, being in a little part or a big part. I wouldn’t know a character that I had much in common with, and I don’t look for that.
You aren’t interested in telling your own story in some way? Not even in interviews?
Doing press can be interesting if you happen upon a good or interesting journalist, which happens. It can be quite a silly and uninteresting thing, too, because one of the things it demands is an almost innate interest in yourself and your story, and that’s not a huge topic of interest of mine. That’s why I try to avoid it if I can — not out of any humility or contempt but because it’s not a huge field of interest. I leave that to others.
But doesn’t every person have an interesting story to tell?
Of course. But if we agree with Warhol that everyone has their 15 minutes of fame, I have had 40 years of it. That’s a lot more. And I am not sure my story didn’t fatigue me from the beginning: “Little fat boy from a little village in Southern Illinois…”
I’m sure your story is more interesting than that.
Well, I came from a tiny town where there was nothing to do. You had to make up your activities and use your imagination to amuse, entertain or stimulate yourself. I spent a lot of time in nature with my father; we canoed quite constantly… I don’t do that very much anymore, mostly because I am busy all the time. We had a farm in Provence for 30 years, so I am very happy in the countryside. I am not someone who needs a lot of the activities or social or cultural life that cities provide. I am happy in the quiet.
Before you became an actor, you even worked in National Park.
Yes, I worked in Glacier National Park in Montana. I was on the trail crew which essentially meant repairing bridges, keeping trails open, and getting them open at the beginning of the season; which meant a lot of dynamiting snow slides and things like that. We were also on the rescue crew when need be.
And was there ever a need for that?
We could be called upon to fight fires, but we only had one the season I worked. I don’t remember that much about that season, except it was quite dull! You had your tool you dug ditches with, and you had your 50-pound bag of water on your back — but it was generally pretty dull. And then when it isn’t dull, it can be bad news!
Were you ever scared?
I don’t know if I would call it scared. It’s more aware. Certainly even helping to fight that one forest fire, I was very aware of what could happen, if things go badly. I am always aware of risk or lack of risk in anything I do, in all situations. So, I’d call it simply being aware of what can happen in life very suddenly.
“Am I afraid of death? Not that I know of, but I’m aware of it.”
Are you generally afraid of death?
I don’t think so! You can’t know that until the moment of your death, at which point you will probably not be afraid because you won’t be there. I have a very old friend who called me last year to say, “Okay I am done. I am not fighting this anymore. I am checking out. I am calling to say goodbye because I am not conscious most of the time. I am cutting off the painkillers.” He seemed okay. That was not the moment of his death, but it was within two or three days. He was a wonderful artist, and he couldn’t draw anymore because he couldn’t hold the pencil, so I can’t say I blamed him.
What was your reaction to receiving that call?
I can’t say I tried to argue. I wouldn’t say I was calm, but I tried to respect his wishes and give him whatever support I could offer. People can watch or hear or read or look over someone or something dying — and there is always a relief it isn’t you. Is it narcissism? I guess it is people’s basic way of being.
I’d say that’s just a normal part of grief; we can’t help the emotions that come up in those situations.
Of course, having that conversation made me very aware that my time is coming. My friend Bobby was two or three years older than me when he passed. My sister died at 50, my other sister died at 53, my brother at 59, my father died at 53. My father was someone I had great respect for… So I am not any stranger to death. I have high school-grade friends who died before they were 20. I kind of know the dance, but I am not in any hurry. The clock is ticking. So, am I afraid of death? Not that I know of, but I’m aware of it.