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A lot has been said and written about John Malkovich’s distinctive parlance—that languid, deliberate way of speaking that makes you hang on his every last word, either when he’s playing a role or chatting with you through a Zoom window. For the better part of the last half century, the Emmy-winning and Oscar-nominated character actor has brought that distinctive Malkovichian flair to a bevy of memorable roles: Mr. Will in Places In The Heart, Mitch Leary in In The Line Of Fire, Al Rockoff in The Killing Fields, Vicomte Sébastien de Valmont in Dangerous Liaisons, Biff Loman in Death Of A Salesman, Cyrus Grissom in Con Air, and Osbourne Cox in the Coen brothers’ Burn After Reading, just to name a few. And who could forget the surreal experience of watching him play a heightened version of himself in Spike Jonze’s Being John Malkovitch?
A month after his 70th birthday, Malkovich shows no signs of slowing down. His latest role gives him an opportunity to deliver a softer—and perhaps more amiable—performance than the ones for which he is probably best known. In The New Look, Apple TV+’s handsome series (premiering February 14) that dramatizes the rise of the French fashion industry in the aftermath of World War II, Malkovich plays Lucien Lelong, the couturier who played a prominent role in discovering and nurturing young talent (including Christian Dior) and keeping the industry afloat in Paris during the Nazi occupation of France.
On a recent video call from Los Angeles, Malkovich chatted with The A.V. Club about Lelong’s close friendship with Dior, his own love for fashion, why he doesn’t take moral guidance from artists (or anyone other than himself for that matter), and the iconic past roles and projects that seem to follow him wherever he goes in the world.
The A.V. Club: Everyone knows Christian Dior, Coco Chanel, Cristóbal Balenciaga, and Pierre Balmain, among many other portrayed in The New Look’s iconic era of French fashion. But Lucien Lelong is almost regarded as this forgotten figure from that time of couture. How would you describe the importance of Lelong in Dior’s story, and what kind of research did you do in preparation to play him?
John Malkovich: There wasn’t so much research. There is a bit of information about Lelong, which I read, and quite a number of photos and a bit of information about his life, et cetera. But he is, as you duly noted, a figure kind of lost in history. My research for this, or anything else, usually has to do with the script, meaning my work is on the script. What am I saying and what am I doing, if it’s not clear, if it’s too expositional, if it’s too impersonal, if it’s not specific enough? That’s what I do. So I want to know what I say and what I do, [and that] the actions my character takes are clear and compelling, essentially. So most of my time is spent with that. During the research time, I was playing the lead in a French film in Brittany, so I didn’t have a lot of spare time because I was playing a huge role in French and very busy with that.
But I read every script and say, “Okay, do I know what I’m doing here? Is this accurate? Is this good? Is it sensible?” And obviously, the main part of Lelong’s character in this story is his relationship with Christian Dior, who he hired and cultivated and supported as a designer and whom he had a very close friendship with. I think he loved Christian Dior, and he loved perhaps most especially his talent and not only because of what Dior’s talent and Dior could do for the Lelong fashion house but for its own sake. I think people who can recognize and support beauty and support creation are very important people and fairly rare. They exist, thank god, but they’re not so common. And it was, if not largely through Lelong’s efforts, at least partially [because of them] that the French fashion industry survived being based in Paris and helped launch the post-war era of great success and notoriety for the industry, starting with his Théâtre de la Mode immediately following the war and then with the New Look. So he was an important figure in those senses.
AVC: So much of the dramatic tension in The New Look comes from these characters being forced to make impossible choices. Chanel chose to close her couture house but was later criticized for working with the Nazis; Lelong’s designers, including Dior, chose to make dresses for the wives of Nazi officers, in part to survive the Nazi occupation of France. The show obviously picks up toward the end of World War II, but it’s worth noting that Lelong had the wherewithal to realize that the closure of his fashion house during the war would have disastrous implications for not only himself but also the people around him. He was employing hundreds of workers who likely would not have survived financially if he had closed his business. Even though we might not necessarily see it onscreen, how would you describe Lelong’s internal struggle?
JM: I think he had great affection and even humor often with designers and with creative people in general. They were a little bit alien to him. I don’t think he was particularly creative at all, but he appreciated their abilities and sensibilities. But in a time like the French occupation, people like Lelong had to make accommodation with the situation which they found themselves in, which was either you design evening gowns for Nazi wives and mistresses or you don’t have a business and you may not have a life. Millions did forced labor. Millions went to Treblinka, Bergen-Belsen, Dachau, Auschwitz, et cetera. So he made the accommodations he had to make. He kept the Nazis at arm’s length, in some ways—for instance, their dream to move the entire French fashion industry to Berlin and have it become the German fashion industry.
But he also had his designers make gowns for Nazi wives and mistresses, and that was an accommodation he had to make. I don’t think he was happy about it. I don’t know that any French were happy about it. I know France fairly well and have spent a huge amount of time there over the years, but that’s the situation they found themselves in. The French defenses were pierced, and they were an occupied country, and that could have gone on for a month, a year, or a thousand years, and they had no idea what it would be. So they made the accommodations they had to make, and the people in the resistance did not accommodate. People make choices in times like that, and often the choices are what they feel will be the best way to survive this period for themselves, their families, their loved ones, their businesses. Most people make accommodations in those situations.
AVC: The show poses an interesting question: Can we separate the art from the artist, or are the two inextricably linked? Considering all the work that you have done, where do you stand in that conversation?
JM: Well, I think the only real purpose of art is to remind us of beauty that humankind can create. But just because humankind can create beauty and certain artists can create beauty with some degree of even regularity, let’s say, it doesn’t necessarily make them better people, nor does it make better people of the ones who see and appreciate beauty. [For] some, it makes [them] very jealous. [For] some, it has no effect on them whatsoever—they don’t appreciate it, they don’t believe what person X considers beauty to be beauty. They don’t like Mozart, they don’t like the Beatles, they don’t like Rembrandt, they don’t like Schumann, they don’t like Rei Kawakubo. It’s fine. Such is humanity in all its kind of forms and colors. But I don’t look for moral guidance from artists, I’ll put it that way, and that’s not a criticism of artists. This [judgment] is up to each of us. Most of our, let’s say, moral universe comes from, of course, our parents, our genetics, our curiosity, and our experience. And I don’t look to either, by the way, a president or a pastor—I’m not religious—or an artist for moral guidance. I have to find mine in myself based on my life. So I just don’t look for that in creative people. I know wonderful people who are creative. I think they’re wonderful, as far as I know. But I wouldn’t seek moral guidance, really, from anyone except myself.
AVC: I read that you have a history in fashion as well. When did you first develop an interest in designing clothes? And what are you able to express in that art form that you aren’t able to express in any other medium?
JM: I think I was always interested in that from the time I was very young. I have no idea why. I don’t know where it came from. Maybe [I was] looking at photos of people or what they were wearing that I found glamorous or exotic or unknown and unavailable to me personally. But I love fashion because you just take a pencil and a piece of paper and you make something up, and every garment you’ve ever seen is an influence, really. And then you say, “Okay, how would I spin that and how many times can I spin it? Can I spin it four times or 4,000?” It’s a job of details, and the possible options are infinite, really.
And every detail matters, and people who don’t do it or don’t appreciate it in a very, very fine specific form don’t get that. But the details are unbelievably, perversely complicated, and if you go into the fabric fair Première Vision outside of Paris, there are millions of pieces of fabric samples on display. There may be many more than millions! Each one is different. Each one’s made of a different material. Each material flows and drapes and moves differently. It weighs differently. It’s compact or un-compact. It’s a natural fiber or a manmade fiber or a combination thereof. This one gives you this quality. This one gives you that quality. This one is easy on the eye. This one is terribly difficult to work with, but beautiful. It’s just a thing of really infinite options, and I think that’s beautiful. It’s like having a billion different possible lives, and I know people just say, “Oh, it’s silly, it’s frivolous,” and that’s fine. That doesn’t upset me at all. But it’s not frivolous when you’re doing it. It’s very, very easily as detailed and difficult as any job I’ve done in my life or more so.
AVC: Do you still design anything these days?
JM: No, not really. I did about 24 or 26 collections. I always forget the numbers. So that was suits, sports coats, shirts, ties for many years. I sold very little, and when I can’t find a way to sustain the quality of something, I don’t want to do it, really. That’s something I liked too much and had too much respect for to do it when I wasn’t getting what I wanted because I was brought up to be responsible for what I do, [for] my work. I have to decide, I have to do it. I have to accept the consequences when it succeeds or fails, and there are consequences to both. Some of them are not so pleasant. But when I couldn’t achieve that, I didn’t want to do it anymore. But it’s still a fantastic job and I love to see what other people do and always have.
AVC: You have more than 130 TV and film credits and, I’d assume, a huge number of theater credits as well, since that’s where you started out as an actor. When people come up to you on the street, which past characters and projects of yours are they most likely to ask or talk to you about?
JM: Often they ask me if anybody’s ever told me I look like John Malkovich, and generally I say, “No.” Men of a certain age in America asked me about a film called Rounders, a film about poker. I mean, it’s not really about poker, [but] where I played a poker-playing Russian. Depending on the time, for years, it was a film I was in called Con Air, a big action film. It could have been a film like The Killing Fields, which is the first film I was in about the journalists Sydney Schanberg and Dith Pran, who was his photographer during the war in Cambodia, and the takeover by the Khmer Rouge.
It’s funny, my nephew sent me a funny thing just like a month ago, which I had never seen, and it’s a film I was in that the Coen Brothers did called Burn After Reading. When Florida State wasn’t chosen as one of the four football teams in the American College football playoffs, they used a scene I was in. For some reason, it became the meme for Florida State—a scene I was in from Burn After Reading where I say, “This is political, and I’m being crucified and blah, blah, blah.” That was their big meme, I guess, on campus. So I’ve done such an odd catholicity of things and been around an incredibly long time, and I didn’t even start doing films. I was already a professional actor, but I only started doing my first film [when] I was 29, so I wasn’t so young.
I directed a film 20 some years ago called The Dancer Upstairs, and that’s usually talked about in South America, for instance. It became very popular in Brazil and Argentina and Chile, et cetera. In France, Les Liaisons Dangereuses [Dangerous Liaisons] is something they talk about a lot. In England, it’s Johnny English.
AVC: That’s a testament to your body of work. It’s crazy how many things you have been in.
JM: I don’t know about the body of work, but it’s certainly crazy [laughs].
AVC: I also love that you know what a meme is. And for the record, Being John Malkovich was the movie of yours that freaked me out the most as a kid.
JM: Well, you’re not alone. It freaked me out too [laughs].