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Malcolm McDowell

Actor - "A Clockwork Orange", "Evilenko"
Interview by: 
Suspiriorum

An actor who doesn’t really need much of an introduction (although I seem to be writing one anyway!), Malcolm McDowell burst onto the screen with a stunning performance in Lyndsay Anderson’s 1969 classic “If…”, & has since chalked up an impressive filmography, eating up the screen in films ranging from “A Clockwork Orange”, “O Lucky Man!”, & “Time After Time”, to “Gangster No 1” & “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead”. It’s always a thrill to see his name on a poster or DVD box, since you can rest assured that he’ll be worth watching even if nothing else in the film is. His latest tour de force performance is in director David Grieco’s “Evilenko”, a terrific film inspired by the Russian serial killer Andrea Chikatilo, which is released on UK DVD in June 2006. It’s not too often I get the chance to talk to a screen legend like McDowell, so when I was given the opportunity to do a telephone interview with him in relation to “Evilenko”, I jumped at the chance.

HV: Hello Malcolm. Thank you for speaking with us. 

MM: No Problem.

We’re talking about “Evilenko”. In this film you play a paedophilic serial killer.

Yes, that’s right. Not a charming part.

Not really. How do you go about playing a part like that?

Well, you know I’m not really a method actor in that I didn’t talk to psychologists or psychoanalysts. I was involved with this film from the very beginning, so this goes back 8 or 9 years before we shot the film, because I had a house in Italy next to my friend David Grieco, in Tuscany. We’ve been friends for 25 years or more. And I encouraged him to direct the film. He wrote & directed it, so of course I was always going to play the part. I never really thought he’d get the money, but when he did it was a weird thing because I didn’t really know how to play the part, to be honest. I thought well, he’s one of the most unsympathetic characters I’ve ever been asked to play, a horrible man with nothing redeeming at all. He is a psychopath, a schizophrenic, so he gave me a load of tapes of the real man – this Chikatilo who’s a Russian who existed, & this fictional character is based on. And I was watching these tapes, & they weren’t helping at all – it was just tapes of this guy, & there was eight hours of it. It was nonsense really. And I don’t work like that anyway – I said I’m not playing him, so what’s the point? But the very last shot was of Chikatilo in a cage in the courtroom, & as the camera came past he gave this very weird facial smile & I realised that that was how I was going to play the part. Normally as a film actor you work from the inside out, but here I worked the opposite way, from the outside in. I found all the facial expressions, the physicality of it, the birdlike walk & all that first, & then the inner thing came later. It was really because I didn’t want to go home with this character. So I’d just throw the costume down, walk off & go & have a nice dinner in Kiev & not have to think about it, because it’s what is coming from the inside. But of course the man was nuts anyway, it wasn’t as if he was a rational human being. He was a communist, wasn’t he? The clever thing that David did was to tie the fall of communism to his loss of identity, which kick-starts his throws into mayhem, his killing spree & all that. Of course, I’m not saying that it wouldn’t have happened anyway, but that is what kick-starts it off. 

I agree, it does provide an interesting backdrop to the character.

Exactly. It gives a reason, which is a valid reason – a loss of identity. So that was very good.

Were you very aware of the real life case before?

Yes, I was aware of it, but I didn’t know much about it. I’d seen that documentary they did “Citizen X”. Did you ever see that?

I didn’t I’m afraid, no.

Well, that’s a documentary about the real guy. And I’d seen that, but you know ours is not about him. We used that to fabricate a whole fictional story around it. And the whole ending of our film is completely different, you know how the cops trap him & all that stuff, & “We’ve done a good job”; & he’s barking, you know – he’s completely raving mad!

You’re best known for playing darker, anti-hero type roles. Is there anything that particularly draws you to playing that kind of material?

No, it is drawn to me. You can only do what you’re offered. I suppose I wish I’d got more straighter-type parts, but at the end of the day I can’t complain because these sorts of roles are really fascinating to do. They keep you on your toes, so I don’t really mind doing them if I can find something that’s a little different, that I haven’t done before.

Is there anything you particularly look for when you’re reading a script or choosing a role?

No. You just know instinctively when you read a script within the first 3 or 4 pages whether it’s really going to interest you or not. It’s just an instinct – I don’t know if it relates to the writing; of course if it’s written by someone you know, or by a director you know or admire of course that makes a difference too. That’s what it’s really about – who you’re going to be working with.

Are there any people you’d particularly like to work with?

Ooh, there’s a lot of them. There’s a whole slew of people. But the person I’d really like to work with is my son, who’s just graduated from the AFI [American Film Institute], who’s a director now. So it would be lovely if I could work with him.

Do you have any favourite roles that you’ve played?

I think in the last few years I’ve been lucky to get some really good parts, starting with “Gangster No 1” – a terrific part in that, & “Evilenko” of course. And a film I did with Robert Altman called “The Company”. I loved that part, & I loved working with him, & I loved the whole world of the dance & ballet company. It was great fun to dive into that for 6 weeks in Chicago with the JAOPLIN ballet. But I always think of the next part as being the most interesting. I tend not to dwell on the past if I can help it – I hate watching my films, for instance.

So have you got any projects coming up you can tell us about?

Well I’ve got a lot of projects, parts that I’d like to do, but it’s all a question of whether they get the financing. It’s so difficult nowadays to finance these films – first you have the money, then it falls out; it’s ready, it’s going to go, & then it’s not. It’s such a mess. I’ve got two films this year that I was supposed to do that have just completely fallen by the way one way or another. What, with the British Tax thing – they’ve changed the incentive now, & all that so there’s no funding. It’s a mess. And the Germans no longer really – they fund German films, but they used to fund Hollywood films, & that’s had a big knock-on effect, huge.

Do you prefer working in Hollywood or independent, or does it not matter?

It doesn’t really matter… To be honest with you, I’m really a child of independent movies just because that’s where the more edgy subjects lie. 

Absolutely.

I do the occasional Hollywood part because, you know, you’d be crazy… But you know they’re never going to give me the part I want in Hollywood, because they all go to five actors. It could be a description ‘British, early 50s, limps’ – “Oh yes, we’ll get Tom Cruise!” It’s just meaningless really. Whoever’s H-O-T. You know, Tom Hanks – AGAIN. Tom Cruise – AGAIN.

That does always seem to be the way.

Well, you know that’s just Hollywood taking out an insurance policy. Because they think - & who can blame them? – that these actors bring in huge audiences. But I think it’s been proved time & time again that that’s not correct. Look at it, right now the biggest film is “X-Men 3”, & there’s no huge stars in it really – its “X-Men 3” people are going to see. The Tom Cruise movie “M-I 3” was disappointing. I think it made a gazillion dollars, but it was still seen as disappointing.

They have different criteria for disappointment compared to Indies.

Yeah.

I think probably your best-known role is in “A Clockwork Orange”. Do you ever get tired of people asking about that film?

No – it is what it is. It’s a great film, & it’s lasted through the generations. I suppose I’m very lucky… very lucky & each generation finds the film as their own. The film could have been made yesterday.

It does seem quite ahead of its time.

Yes, I think it was. I did a couple of movies around that time – “If…” & “O Lucky Man”, the Lyndsay Anderson films & they just don’t date. A great film won’t date, you know you can watch John Ford films as many time as you want & you’ll never get tired of them. It’s like looking at a great painting, you can always find something else in it, & I think that’s true about great films.

How did you feel about Kubrick withdrawing “A Clockwork Orange” in the UK?

I wasn’t really aware of it, because I wasn’t living in the UK. I’ve been here [LA] since ’82, I think it was released – alright in the early 70s. But he withdrew it after it played for a year in the West End – it wasn’t like it was withdrawn when it first opened. I think what it did was to build up a kind of myth about the film that was out of proportion really. It’s a shame that British audiences couldn’t see the film up until recently. Alright, they’d bring in pirated copies from Paris & all that - it’s quite amusing, but it was never banned in America of course, & England is I suppose a small market in the whole world. But I was disappointed that my compatriots couldn’t see it, so it was great a few years ago when they re-issued it, & you can get it now – it was even on Channel 4 I think!

It was, yeah.

I was happy about that.

Well, just one final question then about “If…”. What are you memories of making that film & working with Lyndsay Anderson?

Well, that was my first film, & it’s only fondest memories of all because it was the first. It changed my life 180 degrees, here to there. From being an unknown actor doing whatever you could get to being offered stuff & reading scripts. Suddenly it was a whole different life for me. I have a lot to be grateful to Lyndsay Anderson for, & he was also a great man & a great friend. I’ve collaborated with him on many projects – films & plays, & I was very fond of him. We were very close friends up until the day he died. And in fact I do a one-man show in the theatre about him & my relationship to him, because he meant so much to me.

Well, that’s all the questions I’ve got here.

Well, have a good one – it’s a beautiful day here in California.

And it’s grey & cloudy here in London!

What a surprise! Well listen, let’s hope England do well in the World Cup.

I hope so too. Thank you very much for speaking to me; it’s been a real privilege.