Marianne Gray talks to John Malkovich about his latest film, his vanity and his first love, the stage

When I met John Malkovich to talk about Disgrace, the film of J.M. Coetzee’s novel, he hadn’t seen the film yet and was positively tremulous, if a word like ‘tremulous’ can be associated with the forceful Malkovich.

‘I am looking forward to hearing how it does because the film-makers say J.M. Coetzee likes the film,’ he tells me. ‘It is very faithful to the book but the screenplay has expanded from the novel. These are always worrying things.

‘But far more worrying is my South African accent. When we started shooting I was to have an English public school accent but then the director [Steve Jacobs, husband of the scriptwriter Anna Maria Monticelli, who adapted the book] changed it to a South African one, which meant four or five hours a day with a voice coach. I also narrate the story and things like the background history, so it had to be a perfect accent. It was hard work and quite unsettling, especially as it’s a really hard accent to catch. But, then, the book is unsettling. It’s a book that gets under your skin.’

In Disgrace, Malkovich plays the University of Cape Town academic David Lurie, who is denounced for an affair with a student and goes to live with his daughter on a farm in the Eastern Cape. Jessica Haines plays Lurie’s daughter Lucy, and Eriq Ebouaney plays Petrus, a local farmer. The novel won the 1999 Booker prize for Coetzee, who is now based in Adelaide, Australia.

‘I knew J.M. Coetzee’s work well and it seemed like a good thing to join this film. I was reading Waiting for the Barbarians when I was asked to do Disgrace. I love South Africa and the people. I think Cape Town is a dream place. The country is extraordinary, incredibly beautiful, and we worked on some splendid locations, but I think it might be easier to go there on a holiday rather than on a job. It was a hard job. No time to enjoy the country.’

Malkovich (the name is of Croatian descent) is 56, shortish, balding, with faintly crossed light-brown eyes. He talks so softly in his beautifully modulated fey voice that one is obliged to lean in to hear. Perhaps his attraction comes from a certain unspoken dangerous edge to him. He’s an oddity with a powerful, unsettling presence.

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Elegant in a striped suit, tie and white shirt, he loves clothes and has done some modelling for designer names. He admits to valuing his wardrobe very highly, which seems really decadent for a man who exudes a feeling of hesitancy, intensity, nervousness. Maybe he’s just a man who has mastered using disturbing pauses in the conversation to throw you off the trail and stay 100 per cent all there himself.

It is easy to see how he has riveted people to their seats in films like Dangerous Liaisons or The Killing Fields or more recent ones like Burn After Reading and Changeling. Extraordinarily, in spite of his respected film career, he has only twice been Oscar-nominated, for Places in the Heart in 1985 and In the Line of Fire in 1993, and has never won the coveted golden statuette.

He says he is impossibly vain, and tales of his temper and his eccentricity abound, although he claims to be, by instinct, ‘preternaturally calm’. His most famous quote is possibly the following: ‘I’ve never used drugs. I don’t drink. My idea of fun is to stay home and stain a piece of furniture.’

Home for ten years was a house in France, about two hours up the coast from Cannes, which he shared with his partner Nicoletta Peyran, a production assistant he met in Morocco while making Sheltering Sky in 1988. He speaks impeccable French and is clearly very at home in France.

‘I adopted France and it gave me a complete lifestyle, language, culture, ways to live and how to bring up a family.’ His children are Amandine, 17, and son Loewy, 15. However, in 2004 the couple moved to America, to Boston, reportedly as Malkovich was at ‘war’ with France’s tax authority, the Fisc.

Malkovich was born in a quiet coal-mining town Benton, Illinois, 300 miles from Chicago. His family were remembered as temperamental folk. His mother published the local paper, his father was a conservationist but they were wildly different from the rest of town. He recalls his strongest childhood influence as being his whiskey-drinking jockey grandfather, who cruised the streets in a pink Cadillac. He and his brother and three sisters apparently terrorised the neighbourhood.

He grew up thinking he’d either be a forest ranger or a journalist, and at university planned to major in environmental studies but ended up majoring in theatre.

‘I was always aware of acting. I remember watching movies on TV when I was young, thinking, “Oh, come on, that isn’t acting.” Then my friend Gary Sinise and others started a theatre in the basement of a church. I joined them for rehearsals the next day and never really left.’

He was hailed as ‘the new Brando’ in Sam Shepard’s True West. The theatre group became the famed Steppenwolf Theatre Company of Chicago, now with its own 500-seat theatre, and with productions that go all over the world.

‘My first love is definitely the stage. I love working on stage and have directed many, many productions. I feel I am a very experienced theatre director. Not so with films, yet. In films I seek colourful roles and am happiest in art-house movies.

‘When the cameras roll I enjoy myself and I stick to my lines. By and large, I’m not a massive improviser. I write and I’m happy to write lines, but I don’t particularly write lines unless I’m paid for it, and it can also be an insult to whoever wrote the script.

‘When the camera rolls I feel a buzz. I’m not saying I would die without it — I certainly wouldn’t — but I have learnt over the years to have fun in front of the camera. I know that I prefer the theatre because I’m free and I’m not being controlled. Movies are very restrictive. If you get an idea on the third take it’s too late because to readjust the scene would take two hours. But I still enjoy making them.

‘I try never to watch my movies. If they bomb, I think, “Just another failure.” Failure’s a natural part of life. If they do well, like last year with Eastwood’s Changeling and the Coen Brothers’ Burn After Reading, which were both lovely experiences — well, what a wonderful way to go!’

Disgrace opens on 4 December.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated