When I was invited to visit the set of Jonah Hex last year, I’ll admit the first thing that excited me was the chance to talk to John Malkovich. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been a huge fan of his work, so getting the chance to ask him a few questions about playing Turnbull (the villain of Jonan Hex) was a real thrill. And while you might think because of the intense characters Malkovich plays on screen that his personality might be in some way similar, I can report he’s as calm and relaxed as anyone I’ve ever met. But the same couldn’t be said for all the visiting journalists, as I could tell we were all a bit nervous asking him questions.
Thankfully, whatever he was game to talk about anything, and during our on set interview he told us why he wanted to get involved, how he created his character, the makeup process, was he a fan of the genre, his rehearsal process, and so much more. If you’re a fan of this great actor, you’ll love getting the chance to either read or listen to what he had to say:
Before you read the interview, if you missed the trailer for Jonah Hex, I’d watch it first.
Question: Was part of your decision to do this Josh telling you he’s doing it and saying it would be fun to do together?
John Malkovich: Absolutely, yes.
What was it about his enthusiasm that brought you in?
JM: Well, we’re friends, but he sent me the script and I read it and met, at that time it was going to be Neveldine/Taylorand I met with them when I was out in California and it seemed a thing to do that I thought might make an interesting film and might have some success. Then they dropped off or whatever happened, I’m really not privy to that. And he told me he met Jimmy and he really liked him and his take on it. Then I met Jimmy out in California on another trip and said, “Yeah, great.”
Did you have input into the look of your character at all?
JM: No, not so much. I think it’s pretty much based on the comic. I think it’s pretty much along those lines. But I didn’t really ask for input either.
Did they send you the comics when you were deciding?
JM: Yeah, I had seen it a few times before. Jimmy had done some mock-ups of them that he showed me in Los Angeles.
The film seems to have a specific blend of the real and unreal. Can you talk about the decisions you had to make as far as how larger than life you wanted it to be?
JM: I’m not sure that’s really a decision for me. I think that’s really Jimmy’s decision and my theory about that is that I’m a professional actor and if he wants it big or cartoony or not, it’s really Jimmy’s decision. I wouldn’t feel even super-comfortable engaging in that conversation really.
Could you say what he decided?
JM: I think it’s maybe less cartoonish in a certain way than perhaps what was written, but it still has some incise to it. I’ll put it that way.
When you’re creating a character like this, are all your cues in the script or is it an intense collaborative process with Jimmy?
JM: That really depends on who the director is and what you sense or feel is or is not required from you really. And with Jimmy, Jimmy’s not a control freak which obviously some of them are in a rather concerning way. I think Jimmy’s quite collaborative, so on this I certainly feel more than welcome to offer a suggestion or ask a question. And yes, I probably prefer working that way but I don’t have to.
A lot of people won’t be familiar with your character. Can you talk about the character you play?
JM: Turnbull was a Southern plantation owner and very wealthy and very powerful. He feels Jonah has caused his son to be killed in the way, so there’s a big sort of revenge factor there. Turnbull also leads a group of kind of marauders, former confederate soldiers. Eventually he hopes to overthrow the government.
How long do you spend each day in makeup?
JM: I don’t, Christian does. He’s the makeup artist, I just sit there. It’s probably an hour and a half or so, it’s a while.
You’re filming in anamorphic widescreen. Can you talk about your love of widescreen?
JM: I like anamorphic. I’ve done a few films like that. It makes for some differences because mostly I know frames by the lens and it kind of cuts that in half, so that’s a kind of oddity too. And I never watch video, so I’ll only see it when it’s done probably. I’m sure it looks good. I’ve worked with Mitch twice before, so I know him well as a cinematographer. I’m sure it will be good. Jimmy is quite visual, so…
JM: He’s pretty open I’d say. I think he responds to things. He seems quite instinctive, so he responds to the way something makes him feel in the frame and that’s good. And if he wants more, he asks for more. If he wants less, he asks for less.
Can you talk about your character in terms of the supernatural aspects?
JM: Well, my character’s not so much involved with that. Maybe a tiny bit. At a point in the story, Hex has kind of aberrations and I appear very briefly as one of those and we sort of work that out together. It wasn’t really quite what’s in the script.
Were you a fan of the genre?
JM: Well, we’ve done, in production, we’ve done two comic novels. Ghost World and Art School, so I’m not really an aficionado, I know a bit about it. I liked comics when I was a kid and read them and everything, but for me work is work. Everything allows for possibilities and failures.
And the western genre?
JM: I never really did a western western. I was going to do one with Tommy Lee Jones, who’d written a very beautiful script of Cormac McCarthy’s book, but then I think somebody else is doing it, which I liked enormously, but I never really did one. Of Mice and Men was sort of the closest. I’ve always liked to watch them.
As the villain, is your performance more restrained or animated?
JM: Well, I don’t know, I spent the entire last two nights yelling, so I don’t know how restrained that is.
Having done both stage and screen, do you bring your stage skill set more so for this kind of role?
JM: Yeah, you could. I mean, it’s probably, I mean to make a very blanket statement, it’s maybe more energized in a certain way than what one might do in some films. But, I think probably the skill set that is most important is comic books have certain archetypal notions and the skill set I would have though came in so handy was having worked so much on the scripts that you can say, well we can’t really do that because it doesn’t fit into this mold. But we can do it like this or we can do it like that and that would be absolutely fine. And so we’ve worked a lot of the text, especially the text my character has. I don’t really think of characters that way because they all have their own sort of life stories and experiences for being the way they are – good, bad or indifferent. So I wouldn’t really compare them.
Was there a particular moment that you were looking forward to? Do you look forward to scenes or is it just one day at a time?
JM: Not really, one day at a time.
I am curious about your rehearsal process and how important that is for your performance?
JM: Well, it depends. I mean, a lot of time rehearsals are taken up with other things other than preparing a character. I mean, in other words, if you do rehearsals for the most part on stage, then that’s actually pairing a character, but normally for films you don’t rehearse very much and if you do you don’t rehearse for very long. And at least in my experience, a lot of time in films, what you’re really doing is giving the script a final look over. Not so much, you know, oh is my character pigeon-toed. You don’t really have time for that.
You worked on Beowulf, which is a radically different process. Can you talk to working on that bleeding edge of technology and what you as an actor bring to that?
JM: Well, I don’t know if I bring anything, but I loved doing that. It was really fun. It was exactly like doing a play rehearsal. I mean, you don’t stop for anything, there are no set-ups, there’s no costumes, there’s no costumes or continuity. Even camera direction doesn’t really matter very much, so all the knowledge or experience that one might have gleaned in a number of years of doing it don’t really apply very much. I think it’s perfect for theater actors, that process. We all loved it. Tony Hopkins, Brendan Gleeson, a lot of the actors in that came from theater. I don’t know about Robin. She probably did some, but a lot of the people that played the traveling group as it were, I think the vast majority were theater actors. So, for us, it’s perfect. It’s really just another rehearsal.
Would you do it again?
JM: Absolutely, in a second. And I liked Robert very much.
The scene we just saw you perform seemed to have a Shakespearean quality to it. Is that indicative of your character on the whole?
JM: Well, I think one of the things we were looking at when we were looking finally at the script was to try and, you know, if the action can be constituted so Josh’s character can remain quite laconic and non-verbal and iconic in a way and archetypical, than obviously that’s preferable, which sometimes means that the other people have to do the blah, blah, blah and the exposition, which is also fun. So, with this, we just felt that it could kind of maybe go deeper than what was there originally. Why a bunch of grown men would sort of decide to overthrow the government. Somebody was saying, I don’t know if this is true I didn’t verify it, but somebody was saying the other day that in Vixburg they first celebrated the fourth of July in 1976, which is holding a bit of a grudge I would say. So we wanted to try and communicate what these men feel, but in a fairly succinct… This is by far the longest sort of ramble in the thing, but before that part really just sort of, in a way, said who they were, but we already know that.
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