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The Influences on Our Taste : JOHN MALKOVICH : Performer With a Passion for Words

December 20, 1987|BARBARA ISENBERG

NEW YORK — This is Calendar's third annual listing of Taste Makers, individuals who have brought a distinct focus to 1987 and who we feel will continue to influence the world of arts and entertainment long after this year passes. They were selected not so much for specific contributions in their respective fields but because they are clearly creative forces who move and shape taste. They were interviewed to find out what kinds of influences have moved and shaped them.

We've selected these eight individuals to reflect a broad range of creative work, though each year we try to vary the disciplines. For instance, in 1985 we interviewed architect Arata Isozaki, composer Philip Glass and restaurateur Alice Waters, among others. Last December, the group included choreographer Mark Morris, jazz musician Wynton Marsalis and Vanity Fair editor Tina Brown.

What follows, we hope, is a look at the thinking behind some of this year's brightest creators and commentators . . . 1987's Taste Makers.

This project was edited by David Fox, assistant Calendar editor.

\o7 If plays and movies chronicle society, actors are the interpreters. This intense, self-assured, unpredictable actor-director-producer has the knack for staying on the edge.

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Good writing is everything to John Malkovich. He likes to read Faulkner, act in and direct Pinter. He appreciates "gifted storytellers" like David Lean, and his first go at film producing is "The Accidental Tourist," now shooting for 1988 release and based on what Malkovich considers "by far (Anne Tyler's) best novel."

As an actor he has already won an Obie (for Sam Shepard's "True West") and an Emmy (for Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman") and was nominated for an Oscar (for "Places in the Heart"); director Malkovich won Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle awards (for Lanford Wilson's "Balm in Gilead") a few years ago. He's in two current movies, "The Glass Menagerie" and "Empire of the Sun," and he stalks the Broadway stage nightly as the passionate, angry Pale of Wilson's new play, "Burn This."

Malkovich considers himself primarily a stage actor not only because that's how he started, but also because "the big difference with film acting is you really don't have to be able to act at all to do (films). And also, I don't particularly appreciate my performances being altered and paced, refocused and edited." Why? "Because it's not really something I need help with."

It's not a new refrain for Malkovich, who has been worrying aloud for years about what he's doing in the movie business. He can't recall a single film or film actor that has profoundly influenced his life, saying, "You know I didn't even see 'On the Waterfront' until I was probably 28 years old. I mean, you know I loved it and thought (Marlon Brando's) was a lovely performance, but film actors have not been a huge influence on me, because I think (film) is a highly illusionary thing."

Long involved with Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company, Malkovich, at 34, is probably the most visible of a generation of actors, writers and directors nurtured by that city's strong theater community. According to Gregory Mosher, artistic director of Lincoln Center Theater and former artistic director of Chicago's Goodman Theatre, the key thing about Malkovich, Joe Mantegna "and those other established guys is that they weren't sitting around worrying about what was good for (their) 'careers.' It was year in, year out playing parts that turned them on."

Malkovich clearly is invigorated by fine acting on stage. He goes to London often, and says one draw is the theater. Among the performances he recalls most vividly is that of Anthony Hopkins as the newspaper baron in "Pravda" a few seasons ago. "I never even really thought, 'Is this good or bad, proper or improper?' It was just sort of indelible."

What is it that attracts him to a given part? Consider his current performance as Pale, a coarse, basically unsympathetic restaurateur (whom he himself chose to play in a shoulder-length black wig, something noted in nearly every review of the play, and not always favorably): "I like it because it's not predictably written. . . . (The part) has a lot of sides to it that make it really full, and yet there is also something kind of fantastical about it, almost operatic in a way."

Malkovich shies away from making general statements about what appeals or doesn't appeal to him in terms of acting, directing or producing choices: "If I like it, I just do it." Period.

In fact, the "only real heavy influence" on his craft that he acknowledges is the give-and-take that still goes on with his pals from Chicago's Steppenwolf, including his wife, actress Glenne Headly.

Besides good writing, the one thing that seems to intrigue Malkovich--at least at the time of this conversation--is the possibility of doing more comedies like Susan Seidelman's film "Making Mr. Right," in which he played both a scientist and the scientist's bio-mechanical clone.

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