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Past Article

Dancers: Malkovich, Bardem and Morante
By Nina Rehfeld
September 28, 2003 - 5:19 PM PDT

John Malkovich

Based on the novel by Nicholas Shakespeare, The Dancer Upstairs tells more than a few stories at once. One of them is a love story. Agustín Rejas, a high-ranking police officer played by Javier Bardem, and Yolanda, his daughter's ballet teacher played by Laura Morante, fall in love. Another is the story of a country in South America - it goes unnamed in the film, but no one tries to hide the fact, either, that what happens is loosely based on the recent history of Peru - ravaged by an oppressive government on the right and terrorism from the left.

Beyond that, we don't want to say just a whole lot. As it is, the three interviews that follow may contain what some would deem possible spoilers, though nothing much more than what you'd find in most reviews of the film. Nevertheless, if you're a viewer who likes every film presented as a thoroughly blank slate, it might be best to watch The Dancer Upstairs first and then come back to read Nina Rehfeld's interviews with its two leads and this one, with first-time director John Malkovich.

When did you decide to direct?

Many years ago, but the films never happened. It's been 15 years.

What made you want to direct? You'd been directing plays...

Well, sometimes I just think that there are particular stories that I think it'd simply be easier to do myself than try to make someone else do what I want them to do. You know, this film. Can you imagine trying to explain it? To a director you hire? It would be insane.

What were some of the projects that didn't make it?

I was supposed to direct a film called The Talented Mr. Ripley about 15 years ago. A film called Marie and Bruce, based on the play by Wallace Shawn about an American housewife who screams at her husband for about an hour. I was supposed to direct a film called The Libertine about the 17th century English essayist, dramatist, poet, sodomist, man-about-town Lord Rochester. I did it on stage as an actor, but I wasn't going to act in it. Johnny Depp was going to, and hopefully, still will act in it. I was much too old, even when I did it on stage, but on stage, it doesn't matter. And they just all fell apart. One reason or the other.

I read that you were going to act in this one at some point.

I was standing outside the theater where the people were assassinated, but I was cut... Yeah, I didn't make the cut. The performance was judged unsuccessful by certain parties.

[laughs] What was it about this particular book that inspired you to make the movie? Are you familiar with South American history?

Yes. I was in Peru for a few weeks in the mid-80s when Sendero was very active. Sendero started in the 70s, but really, the most violent aspects of the movement were in the 80s. Late 80s, even. I was there, in fact, the first night they blacked out Lima. So, partially that and partially because I fell in love with the story.

Why did you choose not to name Sendero or Peru?

That was partially because of what happened in the novel, that the specific country and specific movement weren't mentioned. Mostly, it's an homage to the Costa-Gavras films and, in particular, The State of Siege. You're not told what country it's in.

Is this film more about politics or morality?

It's about corruption. And the various types and manifestations of corruption. I don't see it as being really that political at all. It's political in its refusal to promulgate a particular ideology since so many of them are so murderous. But to me, it's much more a reflection on the nature of corruption than anything political.

What did you think about the negative reaction at the [press] screening?

I heard some guy shouting. I assume he's a... left-wing fascist? Yeah, fine. But the thing is, did he watch the film? What's the last thing Guzman says? When Rejas asks him, "Is Yolanda with you, Captain?" He turns and he says, very politely, "Everyone's with us, Captain." In fact, the policeman was very respected in Sendero's circles. Because he didn't kill him. And had no intention of doing so. You know, we got death threats before we started making the movie, so...

Did you have many problems when you were shooting?

Not that I was aware of, but we shot in Ecuador, not in Peru. Not for political reasons, but because it's too logistically difficult in Peru. To get the landscapes or things I wanted are very, very, very far from Lima. I mean, they're there. It's an incredibly beautiful country. But it's hours and hours. I had neither the time nor the money.

Why such a theme?

It's not a resolution of what to do about corruption, it's a reflection on the various natures of corruption. Just a reflection. Life is corruption, surely.

You are one of the few American actors to really have a career outside the US. Is this a conscious decision, or...?

It's not conscious, but... it's a big world, you know? I remember meeting a friend of mine, a journalist who used to write for Le Monde. We met while we were shooting Dangerous Liaisons, and he said [French accent], "Oh, it's such a folly. You make this novel, it's terrible. It's so French..." Ok, fine. I understand. Great. And I said to him, "But... Henri, you mean one of the greatest French novels, arguably the best epistolary novel ever written - arguably - is so limited that only a French person could understand it? Do you realize what you're saying about French culture? You really think it isn't good enough that some kid in Malaysia couldn't pick it up and read it and find it remarkable? Do you have that little faith in readers? Or in writers?" I mean, it's strange to me. It's bizarre. I just don't have that. He may be right, but it's just too nihilistic for me.

Is there something about European culture that keeps you here as opposed to American culture?

"As opposed to," only in the sense that they're diverse. And that they're different in every European country, and I've certainly worked in or traveled in all of them. They're very different cultures already, for a start. And there's pretty much something of interest in all of them, as there is in America. You know, there's often this really facile assumption - and I'm not saying you're making it, either - that there's no culture in America. A) It's not true. At all. And B) It's certainly a different type of culture, and you could make an argument and say it's not high culture. In some way, whatever that means. But you know, I love living here [in Europe]. I love living in Chicago. I always didn't like New York as much. Nothing against New York. I just like Chicago. I like to go back there. But you just have one life. I mean, apparently. People say other things, I suppose, and maybe they're right. But as far as I know it to be, you have only one life, and I spent 35 fantastically lucky years in America. And yeah, there are things I don't like there, like there are things I don't like, neither about myself nor about anywhere.

Where do you call home?

France. I live there. It's the only house I have and that's where I live. But I go everywhere and I work everywhere.

Did you work closely with Nicholas Shakespeare?

Very. I called him after we did the option on it. I didn't know Nicholas, although we had many friends in common. I asked him to write the screenplay, so he did the screenplay, but he'd never written a screenplay. You know, he did a first draft, and I said, "Great. Let's go to work. We'll do it together and work every day." We worked usually ten, twelve, fourteen hours a day. We'd work for really concentrated two-week periods and then go away. He came to France several times. We worked in London.

We wrote a whole huge swath of it when I was shooting Con Air. You know, Jerry Bruckheimer's film, which is why I was going to call our production company "Jerry's Kids." Because he kind of paid for everything. We worked together well and very happily. All the time. For two, two-and-a-half years, and then, I had to redo some things that just had to do with scheduling issues and cuts and changes and stuff that I did on my own, which I, of course, faxed him, and he'd approve or alter them as he wished.

You've done a fashion line. What sparked that?

You know, most of the things I've done in my life are because someone asked me to. They just happen to hit me in the right mood. I'm very stupid that way. No, on a given day, if someone said, Ok, do you want to be an astronaut? I mean, really, I don't want to be. But I might be. It's sort of a part of an actor's personality. If you're auditioning actors, and this person has to be able to fly an attack helicopter, actors will always go, "Yeah, sure." "Yeah, but can you fly it if Ground Control is in Swahili?" "Yeah, yeah, sure."

And that's what happened with your fashion line?

No, no. I work in fashion, with an Engish designer, a great friend of mine that I love. A great, great women's designer called Bella Freud. We've done fashion films.

And you've designed these clothes?

Yeah, yeah. I mean, I wouldn't sign my name to something I didn't do. Not even I would do such a thing.

[laughs] Do you regret having made any particular film?

[laughs] Yeah, just being too... You know, I worked for years in the theater. We couldn't pay the rent. We didn't have a refrigerator. We lived out of a cooler. Finally, you know, I got to be 29 years old, and I thought, I want to make money. Yes, it's very nice and you can do very nice things with it, [including many] that don't benefit me. Yeah, I shouldn't have done most of them. Obviously. But the thing about a movie is that you don't really know that before you do it. And that is a slight problem sometimes.

At the beginning of Dancer Upstairs, there's a quote, "It's a mistake to give people what they want." Is that something of an artistic motto?

No, I'd love to give people what they want, A) if I were capable, and B) if I knew what it was. Because C) they don't know what it is. 'Cause they're just like me. No, no, that's not quite what she says, actually. She says, as Faye Dunaway said when Bonnie and Clyde came out, "I was just trying to give people what they wanted." And she says, "That's a mistake, really. I know. You use everything you've got trying to give everybody what they want." That's slightly different. And certainly, it's not a motto, but it's true.

Javier Bardem >>>

John Malkovich
Javier Bardem
Laura Morante

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Nina Rehfeld
A freelance journalist based in Berlin, Nina Rehfeld's reviews, interviews and articles have been published in several major German papers and magazines. For more info, see the Kulturbotschaft.

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