NEW YORK — John Malkovich arrived in New York two years ago "with enough clothes to last about a week." Like legions of actors who have come here and will be coming in the future, he had modest hopes of finding a niche on the New York stage.
"I didn't know what was going to happen, but I figured I was at least as good as most actors, either here or in a basement earning $50 a week," Malkovich recalled, referring to the fact that he had spent the previous six years acting and directing with Chicago's Steppenwolf Company in a high school basement.
What happened? First, he scored an overnight success in the Off-Broadway production of Sam Shepard's "True West" and in Dustin Hoffman's Broadway revival of Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman," along with directing an Off-Broadway revival of Lanford Wilson's "Balm in Gilead."
And almost immediately upon the first glowing reviews of his work as an actor, he was cast in two films: Robert Benton's "Places in the Heart" playing Sally Field's blind boarder, and "The Killing Fields," in which he plays a photojournalist on the front in Southeast Asia. He placed second last month in voting among both the Los Angeles and New York film critics in the best supporting actor category and was voted best supporting actor of 1984 by the National Society of Film Critics for his performances in the two films. "Places in the Heart" also earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor.
Now, just 30, Malkovich was on a brief hiatus in production on his third film, "Eleni," in which he plays a former New York Times reporter, Nicolas Gage, obsessed with finding the Greek judge who sentenced his mother to death in 1948. He said he gets three or four new film scripts a week, "and more offers to act and direct in plays than I can count.
"You're lucky to even have a job, let alone jobs that people would kill for, and more money than most people, and I, need," said the actor, in the Spartan Upper East Side terrace apartment he shares with his wife, actress Glenne Headly. "The downside is turning from somebody who really works at something into a commodity--someone who is 'bankable.' Once you are out in the marketplace, you're in real danger.
"There's a big difference between just acting and being in the business," he said, contrasting the work of the Steppenwolf Company, which he helped found in 1976 with some college friends from Illinois State University, with the commercial movie market into which he has been catapulted. "We were an actors/directors theater. We did some very good plays, and some that were so bad you could cry just looking at them. But we were doing work that would challenge us and enable us to grow, instead of being 'pigeonholed' and playing types.
"To a certain extent, you sell out. You can rationalize that more people will see the work . . . that you can do things in films that you can't do on stage-- everyone seems to be fascinated by the movies--but in the end, you wonder, 'What am I doing here? Am I just here for the money?' Let's face it, if you've done a lot of plays, two to three hours nightly, most movie characters are not very challenging and in the end are pretty much out of the actor's control, and can even end up in pieces on an editing-room floor.
"I really can't say how I will find working in movies in the end. I still don't know what I'm doing, and a lot of stage actors just can't cut it at all in the movies. I may be one of them."
Malkovich said he was offered several film roles before undertaking "the obvious challenge of playing a blind man" in Benton's film. And of his far smaller role in "Killing Fields," he said: "The character wasn't that important to me, but I really liked the story and the feelings it generated in me about Southeast Asia, the war in Cambodia, as well as about fortitude and the will to survive."
He said he really didn't care much for his role in "Eleni," but expressed satisfaction with his input.
"I'm starting to feel that I should stand up more for my own ideas, and even be willing to risk conflict for something I think is important. I've always done this in the theater, but so far in movies I've assumed that others know more than I do. You have to go around the block a couple of times," Malkovich said, with a glint in his eye that seemed to say he was learning the ropes of the movie business fast.
Malkovich said he'll next rejoin Dustin Hoffman in remounting "Death of a Salesman" for CBS-TV. Then he plans to return to his stage roots in that Chicago basement to direct a play for Steppenwolf.
"Who knows for how long I'll want to do films and make a lot of money?" he said of his projected return to basics at a pinnacle in his career. "The point is, it's no big deal or big sacrifice (to return to Chicago) if this is who you really are.
"A lot has happened to me in a short time, and after a while you want to pull back, to run away. Besides, I know all this activity will not last. . . . It's only now, as I'm being 'discovered.' "