Man with ‘no fear of failure’ takes Golden Alexander

THESSALONIKI – There are some voices you never fail to recognize. One of them belongs to John Malkovich, that formidable actor of marvelous transformations who proves that you can’t find the stuff that makes a real performance in any costume or prop. «I don’t think even John can tell you how he does it,» said producer Russell Smith of Malkovich’s versatility and ability to so profoundly embody a role. Malkovich and production partner Smith were at the Thessaloniki International Film Festival this weekend, where Malkovich was presented with a Golden Alexander on Sunday night for his body of work and his contribution to cinema. Partners at the Mr Mudd production company – along with Lianne Halfon – this dynamic duo goes way back. Friends since their late teens, their shared passion for the stage and screen has led to numerous notable projects, the most recent of which is «Juno,» a comedy drama penned by Diablo Cody and directed by Jason Reitman, set for theater release in early 2008. In his capacity as an actor, Malkovich will be appearing in «Beowulf» – the epic fantasy drama directed by Robert Zemeckis and also featuring Robin Wright Penn and Anthony Hopkins – opening in Greece on Thursday. While at the TIFF, which runs to next Sunday, Malkovich and Smith gave the public plenty of opportunity to direct questions at them and hear their opinions. A master class set to begin at 11 a.m. yesterday at the John Cassavetes Theater in the port warehouse complex attracted hundreds of festival-goers – lined up and pushing at the doors from 10 a.m. That was followed up at 2 p.m. by an open press conference at Warehouse C, the festival’s nerve center. Malkovich and Smith’s collaboration dates back to Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater Company, of which Malkovich is still a major guiding member and for whom Smith produced 50 plays in a five-year period. Times have changed since then, they both agree. «At Steppenwolf [which he joined fresh out of school in 1976] we just wanted to put on plays. We didn’t think of being famous… That’s much different now and I think that it’s a prodigiously weighty cross to bear. The focus can be on anything other than that which you like to do,» says Malkovich. Change is not all bad, according to the actor, who also spoke of advances in technology opening new roads of expression. New technologies like YouTube, he says, where anyone with an idea can shoot a video that will be watched by millions of people around the world, «give a wonderful democracy,» a gateway of expression for people who don’t have the means to produce a movie in the conventional manner. Malkovich is often – incorrectly – identified with playing the bad guy. Of the 70-odd roles in which he has appeared on screen, he portrays a villain in just a handful, and anyway, «I don’t like to look at characters that way,» he said. Smith also added that actors often become typecast because studios demand that they repeat successful roles. On the subject of roles, Nicholas Gage – the acclaimed author of the autobiographical «Eleni,» which was made into a movie in 1985 starring Malkovich in the role of the author – who was in the audience yesterday morning commented on what he called the actor’s «sly sense of humor,» asking him why he hasn’t played many comic roles, «maybe like Cary Grant in the 1930s,» he said. «They haven’t been suggested to me,» answered Malkovich, who then went on to remember how Stephen Frears made him watch Grant in Alfred Hitchcock’s «Notorious» time and time again so he could capture something of the role for «Mary Reilly.» «Stephen would come in and say, ‘So, have you watched it?’ ‘Yes,’ I’d say, ‘It’s right there, in the machine.’ ‘Well?’ Stephen would say. ‘But that’s Cary Grant!’» Another member of the audience asked him is he’s ever experienced a complete mental block on stage or frozen in a film. «I have no pronounced fear of failure,» answered Malkovich. «To get scared you have to be afraid of failing. I’ve failed many times and plan to fail for years to come.» On a different question regarding the course of modern-day cinema, both Smith and Malkovich agreed that it can be hard to find interesting screenplays. Smith also added that the predominance of the studio system has crushed independent filmmaking. «The future of this business is unknown,» he said. «American independent film,» he added on the same subject at the press conference later, «has completely evolved into a small portion of the studio system. Every studio has an independent section.» Independent filmmakers, he continued, «have come to mean people that raise money from rich relatives.»On the subject of finding material and writing, Malkovich quoted William Faulkner from his 1950 speech accepting the Nobel Prize for Literature in Stockholm: «The young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat. He must learn them again. He must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid; and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed – love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice. «Until he does so, he labors under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, of victories without hope and, worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands.»