John Malkovich: The Invisible Man

On a narrow road off Craigie Street, deep in the lush property values north of Harvard Square, John Malkovich has gone to ground. It's a comfortable burrow, padded in a rich mulch of private schools and late-model Subarus, not too far from where Julia Child grew creaky, and it's well supplied with squirrels. Even within the muted tones of Cambridge, his house is a wallflower, a triple-decker with a plain brown door and a peaceful mask of unwashed shingling. There's a garage, a brick chimney, and an inadequate lawn with a few unassuming shrubs for privacy. But there's barely a paparazzo within 200 miles.

Yes, Malkovich is in our midst, even if, apart from the odd needling line on the gossip pages, his presence goes unremarked. It's a strange place for a Hollywood actor to be. Boston is, after all, a city where celebrity is still tainted with a touch of the disreputable. The only famous people we understand are politicians, who we abuse, and athletes, who we abuse more. What are we to make of a film star who moved here from France, who never pays homage to Fenway, and who's known to flaunt a beret? He's not an Affleck, certainly. Why, then, is he here?

Very often, he's not. Malkovich spent the autumn away from his $2.8 million house in Cambridge directing a play in Barcelona about a meeting between Sigmund Freud and Salvador Dalí. Before it opened, he told a Spanish newspaper, “I don't trust journalists. You and I would have to talk for 10 hours before knowing first if we can trust one another, and then maybe I could come out with an opinion.”

He wouldn't speak with us for this article either. At the Teatre Victòria in Barcelona, Malkovich refused to answer questions unrelated to his play, while his public relations screens have cordially ignored our months of badgering. Of course, we understand he's private. Famously private, which is a bad combination — one that's sure to draw casual gawkers. The salesladies at the Museum of Useful Things sometimes spy him passing by their window on Brattle Street, and a clerk at the box office of the American Repertory Theatre remembers him at a performance of The Birthday Party last March. The good folks at Crate & Barrel, for their part, haven't seen him since the spring, when he stepped in to buy a desk.

This all still leaves open the question of why one of Hollywood's most recognizable, yet elusive, characters is living here in the first place. And Malkovich himself isn't talking. Of course, ours is not to pout and cry. Ours is but to reason why.

The 19th-century essayist and professional bore William Hazlitt once wrote, “Man is a make-believe animal: he is never so truly himself as when he is acting a part.” That may be true for cinema's chameleons — the Sellerses, the Streeps, the Depps — but what about the leading men who simply light the screen with their own natural wattage? The Clooneys, the De Niros, the Nicholsons — they're less actors than Rare and Wond'rous Beasts, splayed out on film in Technicolor ego.

Malkovich — though not quite one of Hollywood's imperials — belongs to this latter group. He could no more play a Swiss milkmaid than he could a sunny, middle-American family man (unless the family man was David Koresh). Whether he's messing with vampires or 19th-century emotional repression, he's always recognizably Malkovich. His roles take shape around the surprising sculpture of his skull, the serpentine modulations of his voice. It's this voice that's truly his outstanding feature — soft, with an upward inflection at the end of his sentences that suggests all sorts of thoughtful perversions, ideal for the Vicomte de Valmont from Dangerous Liaisons. But it also hints at a fertile inner life and an appreciation for good fabrics. Among American actors, perhaps only Orson Welles had a voice as loaded.

“There's a reason they made a movie called Being John Malkovich, ” says his old stage comrade Gary Sinise, currently of the CBS series CSI: NY. “Nobody can imagine what that may be like.”

Born in the small town of Benton, Illinois, in 1953, John Gavin Malkovich and his four siblings grew up under rarefied parentage — their father was an environmentalist, their mother a newspaper editor. At Eastern Illinois University he discovered acting, after which he switched to Illinois State, where he met the founders of the now-legendary Steppenwolf Theatre Company. When Malkovich joined the fledgling troupe in 1976, he was still a green midwestern boy, unhatched as an international sophisticate. “My first memory of John was seeing him in the halls of Illinois State University with long hair, clogs, and a tennis sweater draped over his shoulders,” says Jeff Perry, cofounder of Steppenwolf.

“I remember John coming in to audition for Home Free, ” says Sinise. “He had on these parachute pants — he was a pretty eccentric guy.”

Fashion sense notwithstanding, Malkovich thundered through the auditions. “He seemed to appreciate the big, jokey style of acting,” says Sinise. “And also the small, subtle approach. I remember seeing him in rehearsals for The Man Who Came to Dinner and The Zoo Story. In one he was very funny, and in the other it was the opposite. Very scary.”

Steppenwolf, now one of the most famous theater companies in America, had a hippie nucleus and included such future worthies as Laurie Metcalf, Joan Allen, and Moira Harris. Led by Sinise, Perry, and Terry Kinney, the company secured a basement space from a Catholic school in the Chicago suburb of Highland Park. A high school friend of Perry had given the company its name, after the German novel, and its members happily set about imitating Herman Hesse's distrust of bourgeois complacency. They worked day jobs to pay for evenings of challenging theater, which led Malkovich's
résumé to sprout such offshoots as school bus driver, office supply clerk, and gardener. They swapped roles and reading material and romantic partners. In the manner of the fervid young and poor, they coalesced into an enclave.

“Such love, such passion, and laughter,” says Perry. “Those years were heavenly. There was a way in which it was hippie and communal fairy dust. The work and the camaraderie were all you needed — that and a little bit of cab fare.”

Sinise recalls one of the terrible evenings when the theater failed to draw any audience at all. “So we'd entertain ourselves. We called it Random Night. Anyone could burst into anything at any time. One time I remember John turned up the volume on 'Blinded by the Light,' and he started singing and dancing an operatic version of the song.” Sinise pauses, wrestling with the image. “It was truly blinding.”

Malkovich's sense of humor is much applauded by his peers, which is surprising given that the majority of his film characters are awful jerks. “One of the many things I love about him is that when people poke fun of him in any semi-intelligent way, he gets a kick out of it,” says Perry. Sinise recalls a late-night performance directed by Laurie Metcalf. Malkovich wore an oversized costume, with one sideburn shaved in the shape of Florida, the other in the shape of a sperm.

In addition to humor, Malkovich possesses an extraordinary talent for the stage. “John reminded me of the Magic Johnson of theater,” says Perry. “Volatile, unpredictable, and aggressively present. Keep your head up, or you're going to get a basketball in the forehead. But there's also an innate sense of subtlety in his work. For the better part of two years, he was inaudible on stage, like Brando mumbling. By making you lean forward, it's exercising control. 'I'm not showing off for you, you're going to come a greater distance to see me, and by watching closely, something will be revealed.'” His style emphasized spontaneity over technical exactitude, the firecracker over the written pause or scripted silence, and this is still evident in his film acting. “There is that excess,” says Perry.

By 1980, Steppenwolf was no longer playing to empty houses. Its audiences had swelled, and so had its ambitions. Malkovich, in particular, wanted to hunt meatier game, so the players packed up their turtlenecks and Harold Pinter scripts and moved to Chicago. It proved a good idea. Rolling forward on favorable reviews, the theater company picked up momentum, culminating in 1982, when Steppenwolf took its production of Sam Shepard's True West to New York. Malkovich and Sinise starred as the two leads. The play's success was instant and sweeping, and Malkovich bowed out with a bouquet of movie contracts.

“Using the work as a steppingstone to individual fame and fortune was antithetical to the way the ensemble had worked,” says Perry, who says that Malkovich had always been ambitious. “But in John's soul, there's something crystallized that was a fundamental aspect of what was interesting about Steppenwolf. There's a raging individualist, even an egoist, in some kind of weird harmony with someone who's very communal.” The troupe, which continues to devote itself to ensemble work, won the National Medal of Arts in 1998.

Malkovich graduated to become a “visiting ensemble player” and then a film star. In 1982, the year of his New York epiphany, he married Steppenwolf actress Glenne Headly. By 1984 he was flirting with Oscar for his role in Places in the Heart. The marquee titles followed: The Killing Fields, The Glass Menagerie, Empire of the Sun, and, in 1988, the movie that made his name synonymous with effete degeneracy, Dangerous Liaisons. It was then that he reportedly began an affair with his costar, Michelle Pfeiffer, leading to his divorce the same year.

In 1993, Oscar once again beckoned Malkovich to the red carpet for his role as an assassin in the Clint Eastwood bang-bang movie, In the Line of Fire. But the nomination, again, went unconsummated. Even so, Malkovich had stamped his name square in the brains of the casting agents. No matter the part, whether restrained, like Port Moresby in The Sheltering Sky, or ham-and-cheese, like Cyrus the Virus in Con Air, Malkovich dominated every scene in which he appeared. He even lent an elegant touch to such explosive feculence as The Man in the Iron Mask.

But it wasn't really until 1999 that his career vaulted into the league of the truly splendid. Charlie Kaufman, an unproven Hollywood scriptwriter, had written a screenplay called Being John Malkovich. Although he and director Spike Jonze didn't know the actor, they made him the central conceit of the story — an ontological satire involving puppets and Cameron Diaz in a bad wig.

“People always ask, 'Why not Tom Cruise?'” says Kaufman. “Well, there's nothing funny about Tom Cruise. Using John was funny without being jokey. There's a quality that he has that's unknowable, and I think that lends itself to the idea of inhabiting his body, looking through his eyes. And his name is really good.”

They didn't know if Malkovich would be amused by the script, which showed him, among other fictions, chumming around with Charlie Sheen. When he eventually read it, he was amused, if not a little concerned that an unknown scriptwriter was obsessed with him. But he took the part.

“We hadn't ever made a movie, and he was putting his name in our hands,” says Kaufman. “It was amazingly courageous of him. And he liked making fun of himself.” The film achieved that rare quality that cements a movie's immortality: It became a perennial video-clerk's recommendation, parsed and dissected by pale young men in cafés from Davis Square to Berkeley. It went cult.

While this had been going on, Malkovich kept a brace of kettles on the boil. He fathered two children with his girlfriend, Nicoletta Peyran, who he had met in 1990 when she was Bernardo Bertolucci's assistant on the set of The Sheltering Sky. The family settled in France. In what's become as much a mark of Hollywood success as co-owning a nightclub, he launched a production company. It's called Mr. Mudd and is reportedly named for a crazy man who drove him around Bangkok during the filming of The Killing Fields. The studio has borne art-house fruit like Ghost World and the forthcoming The Libertine, in which Malkovich plays King Charles II. And, of course, he became the co-owner of a nightclub in Lisbon.

In 2000, Malkovich directed his first feature film, The Dancer Upstairs, an adaptation of Nicholas Shakespeare's novel about a Latin American terrorist group. The New York Times called it “languorous” and “understated,” and while it hardly made the studio accountants hoot in warrior triumph, it was generally well liked. In the past year, he has kept a furious schedule of shoots on the Isle of Man ( Colour Me Kubrick ) and Los Angeles ( Art School Confidential ). He's got a part in the upcoming film adaptation of Douglas Adams's The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, which is sure to endear him to countless nerdy teenagers, a demographic he's so far neglected in favor of the theater-club poseurs. In March he'll return to Steppenwolf to perform in the premiere of Stephen Jeffreys's Lost Land.

His most peculiar burst of creativity, however, has had nothing to do with the theater at all.

Another quote from Hazlitt: “Fashion is the abortive issue of vain ostentation and exclusive egotism: it is haughty, trifling, affected, servile, despotic, mean and ambitious, precise and fantastical, all in a breath.” Yes, but Malkovich likes it. He has always enjoyed the dark arts of couture: He's modeled for Prada and even designed the costumes in an early Steppenwolf production. In 2001, he met an Italian businessman and fashion entrepreneur named Francesco Rulli. “I told John, 'Why don't you get involved in your own company?'” says Rulli. “He started sketching.”

In 2002, they launched Mrs. Mudd, a fashion company selling outfits Malkovich creates himself. “He researches every detail,” says Rulli. “From the buttons to the yarns to the compositions.” Malkovich's Uncle Kimono line is, to quote its promotional literature, resonant of “late 1950s Californian beach boys, some Palm Springs Rat Pack, a touch of lounge lizards, and a recollection of a Swiss banker who's been let go.”

Although his clothes aren't available in Boston yet, they do grace mannequins in Europe, Asia, and, strangely, Minneapolis. “Each piece is a piece of his life, of his mind,” says Rulli. “His personal experiences, his political views, his lifestyle, all reflect into the collection. For example, the Fucking Commie Sweater, or the Nervous Breakdown Jacket, “for men who are PMSing.” There's also the Japanese Spy Suit and a dapper Jazz Sidemen Sweater to better channel the wearer's inner Benny Goodman.

For close to 30 years, Malkovich has vented his artistry on stage and in film. Now he's doing it in seersucker. The man has become a brand.

If this were an obituary, then, what would it say about John Malkovich? He had the most prominent forehead in the industry. In it ticked the mind of an actor, director, designer, and producer. With a bow to cliché, we could say he was a true artist. He was opinionated in the loose, brash way of men who either have great confidence or great bank accounts, although his taste for exaggeration got him in trouble with the British press when he said he wanted to shoot an outspoken journalist. After that, he kept his tongue more firmly clamped.

Then we would name-drop the friends (Javier Bardem, Johnny Depp), rattle off the films, perhaps dwelling on the adaptations of stage works while lightly skipping over Johnny English, and end with the names of his children, Amandine and Loewy. Of course, the obituary would begin with the words, “of Cambridge.”

Which brings us full circle. Why did Malkovich settle on the banks of the Charles when he left France and not the Hudson, or on whatever municipal drainage system passes for landscape in L.A.? Reports conflict on whether French taxes had something to do with it. In a 2003 interview with London's Daily Telegraph he said, “We're leaving [France] for a million reasons.” The only one he specified was the quality of his kids' Boston school.

So that's it, then. With the world as his raw bar, Malkovich settled on Boston because of its superior education options. Perhaps that's all there is to it. Or perhaps it's also because Boston, for all our protests otherwise, is a haven of stodge, a place of sensible shoes and brisk weather, far from celebrity and its lurid fizz.

And far from those damned journalists.