Haselbock adds: "The incredible thing about John is that he can create atmosphere by just being there. When he is there, it's a different room."
Actors who play villains often say that they find ways to empathize with their characters in order to create a balanced performance, but Malkovich takes a different approach.
"I don't think you have to empathize," he says. "Their existence must be so tortured and fractured. . . . It's not that I find violence super-removed from myself. I do understand it. We're all animals."
Malkovich has played refined psychopaths in such films as "In the Line of Fire" (for which he received an Oscar nomination), "Mary Reilly" and "Ripley's Game." But he objects to any attempt at finding a pattern in his career.
"I've acted in 60 or 70 films, and you've named three," he says. "No offense, but I'm asked that question a lot. It makes me wonder who's doing the repeating, me or the press."
Malkovich says the stage has been a constant source of creative fulfillment throughout his career, dating from his beginnings at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company. Earlier this week, he won a Moliere, France's top theater honor, for staging Zach Helm's "Good Canary."
The actor says he views "Seduction and Despair" as a work in progress. "I'll need a fresh copy of the script, a pair of scissors and some glue," he tells an assistant.
During the four-day rehearsal period, Malkovich shifts frequently between his role of actor and that of director, conferring with costume designer Birgit Hutter, with whom he worked on the 2006 film "Klimt." For this performance, the actor will wear a stylish white suit and dark sunglasses, which was Unterweger's playboy uniform of choiceduring the '90s.
He also consults with video artist Andreas Hutter, whose digital projections provide a backdrop of the subconscious. In one scene, the video follows the stretch of Sunset Boulevard from Hollywood toward Malibu that Unterweger drove on the night of one of his murders.
"I still love directing plays," Malkovich reflects. "I love to watch good actors who surprise and amuse me. In theater, there's unbelievable tedium followed by seconds of beauty and joy. Those moments are why you direct. Theater is so ephemeral, and I love that. You had to be there."
'Seduction and Despair'
Where: Barnum Hall Theatre, Santa Monica High School, 601 Pico Blvd.
When: 8 p.m. Saturday and 4 p.m. Sunday
Price: $25 to $49
Contact: (310) 458-4504