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BRIEF ENCOUNTER

He does costumes too

Being John Malkovich means there's more to life than screen acting.

January 08, 2006|Susan King

"THE LIBERTINE" has been a project close to John Malkovich's heart for a long time. Even though he's not sure how long.

"I'm terrible with years," he said recently. "I know I am 51." (He has since turned 52).

Actually, he played the leading role of the hedonistic Earl of Rochester in "The Libertine" on stage a decade ago at the Steppenwolf Theatre Company, the Chicago group Malkovich joined in 1976.

In the feature film version of the period drama, which opens Friday (after a brief appearance for Academy Award consideration), Johnny Depp takes over the reins as Rochester, and Malkovich, who also produced the film, costars as King Charles II.

It's been more than 20 years since the world first took notice of Malkovich -- first off-Broadway in the Steppenwolf production of "True West," for which he won an Obie, and the next year on Broadway in the revival of "Death of a Salesman" and as Sally Field's gentle blind tenant in "Places in the Heart," for which he received an Oscar nomination.

Malkovich made his well-received feature directorial debut with 2002's thriller "The Dancer Upstairs," starring Javier Bardem. And he also sent up his screen image in 1999's "Being John Malkovich," written by Charlie Kaufman and directed by Spike Jonze, and in the creative team's next film, 2002's "Adaptation."

Malkovich also has his own men's clothing line, Uncle Kimono, for which he does all the designs, but he's not exactly sure which stores carry his wares. "It's a little bit everywhere," he said in his whisper-soft voice. "I don't follow much where it is."

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With all of your movie work, do you still find time to act in and direct plays?

Absolutely. I just finished four months in Chicago [at Steppenwolf] doing a play. It is a new play by Stephen Jeffreys, who wrote "The Libertine," called "Lost Land." I didn't direct, but I acted in it and did the costumes. And last year I did a play in Spain and directed it. Three years ago, I did a play in Paris.

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When you worked in Spain and France on stage, did you do the plays in English?

I did them in French and Spanish. It is a lot of work, but I have done quite a few things in French now. The main difference I have found is that French is not a language of stress -- you can't really put emphasis on the things you would like to put emphasis on. It really doesn't work that way.

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How do you compensate for that?

The first time I did, it drove me nuts, but later I started to like it, really. I like the feeling of not having the slightest idea of what I am doing. But it was strange to get used to, because if your training is what to make a sentence do, it was a big change. But then you concentrate on other things, there are other things you can do.

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Do you still live with your family in the south of France?

No, we moved. I still have the house. We are back in America in Boston.

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Why did you decide to return after living more than a decade in Europe?

Mostly it was an ongoing tax battle with the French. I have had great years there. It was very nice. It has been great, and I still work there a lot, and I hope to still live there in years to come.

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You had done "The Libertine" on stage at Steppenwolf playing the leading role of the Earl of Rochester. Was it odd playing Charles II in the film?

No, not at all, except the man who played Charles II when I played Rochester was probably a lot better than I am. I wanted to do the movie and see the movie get done.

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Why were you so intent on having it made into a feature?

Well, for me, I always saw it as a cautionary tale. It is about a person's responsibility to their talent first off, and I thought that was very well drawn in the play. Rochester was born a diamond and worked to make himself into coal.

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"The Libertine" is the first feature directed by commercial and video filmmaker Laurence Dunmore. Had you worked with him before?

I worked with him very briefly on a Eurostar commercial for the train between London and Paris. And I was very impressed with him and am very glad that he did this. It was a rough road.

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Why was that?

The public for something like this could be limited. It's a rough story, but I think a very interesting one. I never thought about playing Charles. That was really on Laurence's and somewhat on Johnny's insistence. I thought there would have been quite a few English actors who could have done it.

Originally, I was going to direct it, but that fell apart because of the scheduling. I went back to another film which I had decided to direct years before which also had fallen apart, "The Dancer Upstairs." In the meantime, I met Laurence and I thought he should have a go at this.

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It is true that Depp was your one and only choice to play Rochester?

I am not sure what we would have done if we did not [get him]. It took years. Sometimes things do. When I first wanted to do "The Dancer Upstairs," everyone said, "Who is Javier Bardem?" That is the way things go.

If you prefer to spend your time doing things that you are interested in, you have to understand you may be the only person [who is].

-- Susan King

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