There is an elephant in the room as I sit down to interview John Malkovich about the latest film he stars in Seneca -- On The Creation Of Earthquakes, world premiering as a Berlinale Special Gala in Berlin.
I sit alongside four international colleagues, as Malkovich holds court from the other side of the glass tables separating us. He’s sporting an all-brown ensemble, complete with tweed jacket, a pair of ON sneakers in Pompeian burgundy and a light cotton shirt with tiny colorful embellishment at the cuffs and neck. Yet, the more the actor talks, the bigger the elephant grows. In fact, Malkovich never mentions Julian Sands, the actor’s good friend and fellow thespian who went missing in the San Bernardino mountains in California more than 5 weeks ago, leaving no trace. Sands’ photo is featured on the postcards for the film, which is directed by US-based German filmmaker Robert Schwentke, stacked neatly on the tables in front of our interview subject.
I’m not alone in interviewing Malkovich, as this is what is called a roundtable, where several journalists get to ask him questions and the resulting answers by our subject are open game for all of us, we can grab whatever quotes we need from them. The aforementioned glass tables separating us are indeed round, which is not always a given, and Sands’ likeness, in full garb as Rufus, the character he plays in Seneca complete with blue eyeshadow and one long golden earring, is the looming presence in the room. To me, he overshadows his friend John, about whom we so often talked together, at different times during our 20-year plus ongoing friendship. Sands’ absence is personally heartbreaking and while I observe my colleagues, their faces lit up and excited at being in the presence of Malkovich, at his haughty best, my own mood is somber and sorrowful.
Asked what drew him to this project, Malkovich admits that he found the screenplay, “not the character or the period when it takes place” the most interesting aspect. In it, a joint collaboration between Schwentke and co-writer Matthew Wilder, Lucius Annaeus Seneca the Younger’s writing is used as dialogue, voiced by the actor as an ongoing, droning monologue, interrupted only occasionally by lines uttered by Tom Xander, who plays Nero, Geraldine Chaplin as Cecilia and the supporting cast, including Sands. Malkovich calls the script “a very smart, evocative, funny screenplay, in its way.”
Acting in the TikTok generation
When prodded about the lack of philosophical ideas in today’s world, Malkovich cracks a joke, “I don’t think many people look to philosophers for ideas anymore, they look to TikTok.” He continues, “I would be surprised if the modern social media audience even heard of this movie, in fact I would be alarmed if they did.” Strangely, when MIME published the first trailer from Seneca, our readership spiked, so Malkovich could be wrong. In fact, Seneca the man, particularly how Malkovich portrays him in Schwentke’s film, is a post-Augustan influencer of sorts, always demanding attention and even ready to end his own life, if the occasion will garner him “views” and “likes”.
Malkovich started in movies 40 years ago, almost to the day we meet up for this chat. He admits not remembering the good ol’ times fondly, as there was a lot of time spent waiting around, “then, every set up took hours, you sat around waiting for lights half of your life,” he says. Today’s process reminds him more of a theater production and as he himself comes from that tradition, Malkovich seems to concede that he prefers this more modern method of filmmaking. Though he is on the fence about the delivering of the medium, which, in the age of at home streaming, no longer demands a commitment from the audience.
Theater is like surfing
“Theater is like surfing,” Malkovich says, “at 8 o’clock at night, or 2 in the afternoon, you get on your little board, you paddle out, you turn your back to the sun and you wait for the wave.” In his younger days, Malkovich admits that he thought “I was the wave and my colleagues were the wave — I no longer think that’s true. I think the wave is the collision between the public and the material, that’s what creates the wave — it’s not us, we just ride it.” This wisdom came to him in his fifties, the 60-something year old actor confesses.
“I don’t really know what boredom is, I hear about it, often from audiences of my work” the actor jokes again, speaking about his life and work, which switches back and forth between theater, film and occasionally, TV — like his turn as the English aristocratic pontiff in Paolo Sorrentino’s The New Pope, which streamed on HBO in the U.S..
Shooting in Morocco, again
What was it like for Malkovich to film in Morocco, where Seneca was shot? “I filmed for many, many months in Morocco, many years ago,” the actor admits, alluding to the time he was there with Bernardo Bertolucci, filming The Sheltering Sky, based on the novel by Paul Bowles. “I know it fairly well, but this shoot was much more contained, we travelled much less — we only really left Ouarzazate to go to Essaouira for a day of two.” He continues, “it’s rare when a location adds a kind of magic to an experience, a location is a tool usually.”
Although really familiar with Morocco, having filmed in Tangier, Ouarzazate and many other locations for the 1990 British-Italian production, Malkovich admits he hadn’t been to Essaouira and says the port city, known for its wind and hence a surfing destination was “quite interesting, and I liked going there.”
Pushing a boulder up a hill, hoping to survive
Although not any more, Malkovich has been involved in fashion design, with his eponymous clothing line launched in the early 2000s, followed by Technobohemian in 2011, which sold at boutiques across the world. I ask him if fashion played a part, pardon the pun, in his portrayal of Seneca, whose clothes are a mix of Moroccan jellaba chic with a touch of Pasolini’s Medea thrown in. “That’s very important in movies, I’m generally very close and have a lot of friends who are costumers, and it’s something I have always paid a lot of attention to in projects.” Is it part of the wave, I hear myself interrupting him. Then realize, I should have let him continue instead.
“Movies are different, because movies don’t have momentum and they’re not living — they’re plastic,” Malkovich indulges my silly interruption anyway. “One is like holding onto a runaway train," he says, "and the other is like pushing a boulder up a hill with some colleagues, hoping to survive.” He also concedes that clothing, costume design “is super important in movies, I think.”
Right after this interaction, Malkovich crosses his left leg over his right, turning completely away from my side of the roundtable. He never turns back, making it challenging for me to ask him anything further. And just as well, as my own creativity seems to have run dry. Or maybe it is the sadness taking over again, as I imagine that boulder, being pushed by Malkovich and Sands, up a hill, one last time.
Top image courtesy of the Berlinale, used with permission.