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|'The New Pope' looks a lot like John Malkovich|
John Malkovich, the star of HBO's "The New Pope" in Los Angeles on Dec. 15, 2019. The actor, fashion designer and vintner's role in the sequel season to "The Young Pope" was inspired by Malkovich himself. Ramona Rosales/The New York Times.
by Phoebe Reilly
LOS ANGELES (NYT NEWS SERVICE ).- Oddballs, schemers and psychopaths: In the course of his long career, John Malkovich has convincingly played them all. But whether this makes him an unusual, or unusually perfect, choice for the role of Supreme Pontiff in HBOs The New Pope, he would rather not consider.
I dont think about how Im perceived, Malkovich said. Its not my business. You like Jackson Pollock? Im good with The Night Watch. We all have preferences.
The series creator, Paolo Sorrentino (The Great Beauty), on the other hand, was unequivocal in his enthusiasm for Malkovich as Sir John Brannox, an English aristocrat and former punk musician who reluctantly takes over for Jude Laws Pope Pius XIII on Jan. 13, when the show returns after a three-year hiatus.
The pope is an iconic figure, and John Malkovich is one of the few iconic actors, Sorrentino said in an email. How many actors can boast of their name being used in the title of a film?
Sorrentino was referring to the 1999 movie Being John Malkovich, written by Charlie Kaufman and directed by Spike Jonze, which loosely capitalized on the mystique Malkovich had by then cultivated, mostly by way of memorable villains in films like Dangerous Liaisons (1988), Con Air (1997) and In the Line of Fire (1993), for which he earned his second Oscar nomination.
When it came to imagining his series next pope, Sorrentino was similarly inspired by Malkovich, borrowing the actors slow, meditative diction and unnerving inscrutability as he shaped the character. A troubled soul and fair-weather friend to Meghan Markle, Brannox, who takes the name Pope John Paul III, leads the church warily when compared with Laws glowering, imperious Pius, who had a heart attack and slipped into a coma at the end of the first season, The Young Pope.
John is elegant, suave and ironic, at once light and profound, Sorrentino said of Malkovich. He gives importance to things. But if those things didnt exist, he could easily do without them.
All these features seemed perfect for the character, he added, so I stole them.
As if in service to Sorrentinos impression, Malkovich, 66, roamed a suite at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills on an uncommonly chilly December evening to fuss with the thermostat before giving up and rubbing his hands together for warmth. But unlike his pope, who mourns the inexhaustible imperfection of the world, Malkovich was unsentimental about his own lifes work.
You dont really learn anything, said Malkovich, who has appeared in more than 100 screen and theatrical productions; was a founding member of the Steppenwolf Theater Company, in Chicago; and is also a vintner and a mens fashion designer. Youre comprised of your experiences. And thats what makes you, or in fact breaks us all in the end.
His trademark gaptoothed smile spread slowly across his face: We die and then were gone. Thats OK.
These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
What did you and Paolo discuss in terms of how your character might be a different type of leader than Jude Laws?
When we discussed it, mine was going to be a German who had spent a lot of time in England. Then he became an English aristocrat. The punk rock back story came when the decision was made to make him English. And then we communicated about what I thought was important or we could use more of or less of, et cetera. But it wasnt so much the discussion; the role kind of revealed itself in the writing and rewriting.
Of course with Paolo, most things are revealed when you see what the camera does. His way of putting people in a geography in a room or outdoors, at a time of day pretty much tells you what to do. The rituals, the secrets, the symbolism of the church: Thats a very hard kind of nut to crack with words.
Did putting on the papal vestments prompt something more in terms of connecting to that character?
Yeah, sure. Because the church just fits into all those Ss: symbolism, spirituality, sacredness, secrets. It satisfies a longing that I think naturally exists in people. How do we live? Why are we here? Was I even here? We kind of forget to ask those questions. Thats what I think the church is for. You know, Im an atheist, but I get the point. And thats something I think Paolo, being Italian and being Catholic, just understands on the most profound levels.
We are rich in pontiff-related art right now, between The New Pope and the new Netflix film The Two Popes. Why do you think this subject compels us?
Well, I havent seen the one with Jonathan Pryce and Anthony Hopkins (The Two Popes), but I think it probably came about due to the fact that there are actually two living popes thats a pretty unique thing happening in a religion with a billion-and-change adherents. And the attention isnt that surprising at a time when people maybe are searching for something, some spiritual element, to their existence. Even though the world is wildly more secular than it was 20 years ago, let alone 50 or 100 years ago, the pope is a kind of father and mother that a huge number of people look to for guidance.
Were you raised in a religious household, and was there a moment when you broke with faith?
No. My parents were sort of evangelical atheists. I was religious when I was young, quite possibly in reaction. Just over time, I didnt believe. I dont make snarky remarks about it. Im happy to be in a church or a temple or a mosque. I just dont see that theres some plan. But who am I? Im nothing. Thats just my own feeling.
It was reported that when you were filming in Rome, bystanders handed you their babies to be blessed. Why do you think they did this?
I dont know. There exists this notion that we can be blessed into a state of grace. Maybe somebody can do that. Not me, certainly. I mean, if you give me a baby, Ill keep it unless you want it back. I love babies. Im always detached from, but amused by, the confusion people have between ones characters and oneself.
Like Being John Malkovich, The New Pope breaks the fourth wall when a character remarks on your characters resemblance to the actor John Malkovich. What do you think it is about you that invites this playfulness with your persona?
It sort of seems like my lifes goal is to promote references to myself. But its actually not. I think its not related to me. People sometimes ask me these wild questions about my legacy. What are you talking about? Im an actor. My legacy is Im a jerk-off.
Still, Being John Malkovich must have a certain pride of place for you, either on your résumé or in your heart.
Having a film called Being John Malkovich doesnt really mean much to me. Having had a half-percent part at the inception of Spike Jonzes and Charlie Kaufmans careers means much more. Im happy about that because they made something that was well out of the norm, broke many rules, and introduced two very big talents. People forget Im just an actor in it. I had nothing to do with the conception. I didnt write a word. When I first read it, I wanted to direct it. I wanted the focus to be, say, William Hurt or Tom Cruise or William Shatner or whoever. But Charlie had no interest in that.
You share a scene in Pope with Marilyn Manson. Was he what you expected?
Hes quite church-like. His show theres a lot of pageantry. And a lot of play with the sacred, or not-so-sacred. I dont know his work that much, but I loved doing the scene with him. I think hes very clever, very funny, very easy to talk to.
Youre a winemaker and he makes absinthe. Did you exchange bottles?
I dont think he talked about that. Ill have to ask: I think my daughter likes absinthe.
Did you have any hesitation about stepping into the role of a hallowed figure, or sense any resistance from believers to the scandalizing aspects of the series?
I dont know how the believers regard it, although Id be interested to hear. I didnt really talk to any Vatican figures, but I mean
Jude Law playing the pope? I think its safe to assume that viewership at the Vatican was pretty high. A lot of people like to watch things about their world and what they do.
Has playing the pope and also a Harvey Weinstein-type figure in David Mamets recent play Bitter Wheat led you to any new insights about men in power?
A few years ago, I was touring in an opera-hybrid theater thingy in Europe, Just Call Me God. I played a Saddam Hussein-like figure, but a line I wrote in that was the one thing I know about power is the good never seek it. And thats not wholly inaccurate.
You wrote and starred in a film directed by Robert Rodriguez called 100 Years, which wont be released until 2115. What drew you to that idea?
Its a commercial thing for the Remy Martin company. They explained to me that their premium cognac, Louis XIII, takes 100 years to make. So the steward of it never sees it, and neither does the one after that. And I thought it was kind of a fascinating thing. Perhaps my children, if they have children, those children could be alive when the film is released. Probably more likely their grandchildren. In a way, what Robert and I did was a letter from the dead. Thats quite satisfying.
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