Malcolm McDowell: The Icon in the Flesh

BY ANDREW FISH

Malcolm McDowell
Malcolm McDowell (Photo by lukeford.net*)

Interview conducted for Venice Magazine

With his blue-eyed gaze and air of perpetual amusement, Malcolm McDowell has been captivating audiences for over four decades. His charisma and intensity strike a cultural nerve, tickling the imagination of everyone suspicious of the status quo. The actor’s first subversive triumph came in 1968 with his role as a percolating revolutionary at a boarding school in Lindsay Anderson’s If…. Ending his character’s scholastic career with gunfire and a devilish grin, the young star caught the attention of Stanley Kubrick, who cast him in A Clockwork Orange. McDowell’s portrayal of the sociopathic Alex in the 1971 classic was an incendiary moment in film history. Opinion of the film was so split that it was nominated for four Academy Awards and banned in Britain for 27 years. Whether glorification of brutality or commentary on crime and free will, A Clockwork Orange created a whole genre of pop-culture art, fashion, and philosophy. His bowler hat, single eyelash, future-British slang, and carefree love of ultraviolence and Beethoven, lifted McDowell to iconic status, and he’s continued to earn it ever since.

Anderson, whom McDowell had come to consider a mentor, tapped him again to star in O Lucky Man! (1973), a sweeping, surreal journey through every nook and plateau of British society — a film that didn’t stop for a second and never looked back. He completed Anderson’s trilogy with the black comedy Britannia Hospital in 1982. He played a World War I fighter pilot in Aces High (1976), whose smirk and swagger masked a pain that was turning him to drink. McDowell flipped the industry’s lid as the title character in Caligula (1979), the violent and sexually explicit tale of Roman Emperor Gaius Caesar Germanicus, produced by Penthouse magazine publisher, Bob Guccione. That same year, he starred in Time After Time as author H.G. Wells, who traveled to then-present-day San Francisco in pursuit of Jack the Ripper and fell in love with a bank employee played by Mary Steenburgen. McDowell and Steenburgen married shortly after and remained together for 10 years. He performed alongside Nastassja Kinski and John Heard in the darkly erotic Cat People (1982) and cut loose as Reggie Wanker, an outrageous parody of Mick Jagger, in the psychedelic rock & roll sendup/love letter, Get Crazy (1983).

McDowell worked relentlessly through the 1990s and 2000s. He became a go-to bad guy, yet punctuated his portfolio with the unexpected. Amid his roles in 1990 as an interplanetary saboteur in Roland Emmerich’s Moon 44 and a high-school principal who installed killer-robot teachers in Class of 1999, he played humanitarian and Nobel Peace Prize-winner Albert Schweitzer in Schweitzer. He also appeared as an antagonistic police chief in the Danny Glover-starring Bopha! (1993), Morgan Freeman’s directorial debut. He played himself in Robert Altman’s The Player (1992), and teamed up with the auteur once more as the director of the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago in The Company (2003), co-starring Neve Campbell. He’s affectionately infamous among Trekkers as Dr. Tolian Soran, the man who killed Captain Kirk in Star Trek: Generations (1994), and he had a go at situation comedy as a stuffy professor on “Pearl” with Rhea Perlman (1996-1997). McDowell took on the role of Mr. Roarke, previously inhabited by Ricardo Montalbán, in the updated “Fantasy Island” (1998-1999). He ascended by any means necessary as a ruthless, foulmouthed heavy in Gangster No. 1 (2000) alongside Paul Bettany, and probed the mind of Michael Myers’ as psychologist Sam Loomis in Rob Zombie’s redux of Halloween I and II (2007 and 2009). With numerous stage credits to his name, McDowell brought his one-man tribute to Anderson, “Never Apologize,” to London and Edinburgh. The performance, as well as a wealth of archival footage, was released on DVD in 2007.

It was at a screening of Gangster No. 1 that McDowell met director Tamar Simon Hoffs, who cast him as the patriarch of an endearingly confrontational Irish family in Red Roses and Petrol (2003). “She gets her own way by charm,” McDowell beams, “and she’s got bags of it.” Their followup collaboration is Pound of Flesh, co-starring Timothy Bottoms, which sees McDowell as Noah Melville, a college professor with an infectious enthusiasm for languages and Shakespeare. By night, he sends female students out as escorts to pay for their tuition. Everything’s going fine until a young woman is killed and Melville’s life and delusions of altruism begin to collapse.

Having gotten his start on the small screen with guest roles on shows like “Crossroads” (1964), “Z Cars” (1967), and “The Newcomers” (1967), McDowell is still a familiar face on television. On NBC’s “Heroes” (2007-2008) he played Daniel Linderman, a powerful and ruthless businessman with the ability to heal the sick and injured. On HBO’s “Entourage” (2005-2011) his character’s mentorship, split, and reconciliation with Ari Fleischer (Jeremy Piven) gave a look into the bad blood and pathos behind a Hollywood changing of the guard. (McDowell tells us he’s been approached to reprise the character in the proposed “Entourage” film, and that he’s keen to do it.) On TNT’s comedy “Franklin & Bash, McDowell plays Stanton Infeld, senior partner and eccentric patriarch at a major Los Angeles law office, who hires a couple of rambunctious young lawyers (Breckin Meyer and Mark-Paul Gosselaar) to jump-start the firm’s mojo. Always up for some fun, the English thespian lends his voice to animated characters like Vater Orlaag on Adult Swim’s “Metalocalypse” and Grandpa Fletcher on Disney Channel’s “Phineas and Ferb.” Animated versions of “Batman,” “Superman,” and “Spider-Man” have also featured McDowell’s unmistakable cadence.

With eight current and upcoming films, by his count, McDowell clues us in on his role as a producer in L.A., I Hate You. “There was a very funny scene in it,” he smiles, “where I say to this young actor, ‘Would you kill for the part?’ And he goes, ‘Well, yeah.’ And I went, ‘No, no, no. Would you kill for the part?’” Recently released was Suing the Devil with Tom Sizemore and McDowell’s “good mate,” Corbin Bernsen. “I was determined to do it because it was such a wonderful part, to play the devil,” he says. McDowell is especially looking forward to Monster Butler. “It’s such an incredible part,” he relates. “It’s a great script written by a dear friend, Peter Bellwood, and it’s based on a true story of this con man, who was a Scot, who in his late or middle 50s becomes a serial killer and kills five people in as many months. The thing about this character is he could have been a captain of industry, a politician, or whatever he wanted to be. It’s just that at some point in his life, he went this way when everybody else goes that way. He’s incorrigible and you can’t help but love him, but then, of course, he turns into a cold-hearted killer. But it’s funny. It’s a black comedy. This is what Warner [Bros.] said to me: ‘It’s Clockwork Orange 40 years on!’”

A family of deer crosses the dirt trail as we drive toward McDowell’s home near Santa Barbara. He greets us warmly as we enter a living room that’s decked in eclectic finds. He offers some Perrier only to find that his kids have snagged the last of it. “They all drink the stuff like it’s coming out of the tap,” he calls from the kitchen. As we sit down, we hear woodpeckers tapping on the roof. The sound is ominous yet somehow comforting. The scene is set. The following interview took place in September 2011.

You’ve played many characters who diverge from the norm.

Malcolm McDowell: You mean I play a lot of oddballs? [laughs] Of course I do. I mean, listen, I’m not here to deny it. I’ve often played a lot of strange people, and people that I would not personally like to meet. That is true. But the thing about film acting, and acting in general, for me, is that I really want to enjoy myself. I want to have as much fun as I possibly can when I work. I think it’s important because I think it shows on the screen, somehow, even though it shouldn’t, that there’s this light, this sort of energy behind the eyes. And to me, a lot of these odd characters suit that kind of thing. I guess you could say I’ve played a lot of heavies, and that would come under that category. But having said that, I’ve pretty much played the full spectrum. But oddballs are fun for me. I love playing them. Misfits.

I’ve enjoyed watching you play characters who represent the lifting of repression. I saw that especially in If….

That movie really takes a dagger and sticks it in the heart of the [British] establishment through their schools, and the revolution in a boys’ school. Of course, the great Lindsay Anderson, a genius director that I was very fortunate enough to work with, he didn’t make it a sort of realistic piece. It’s real, but not realistic, in that it’s not a documentary-style movie. It’s very stylized, very poetic, and so all the shooting of the parents at the end is a sort of imagination rather than to be taken literally, a la that horrific massacre in Columbine, for instance. But it’s meant to stun and shock the audience rather than incite them to violence.

That’s a really important distinction. A Clockwork Orange was accused of inciting violence when it was really a commentary on societal problems.

Thank you. That’s right.

What are your thoughts on removing a criminal’s free will to allow him to fit into society, as the government did in A Clockwork Orange?

Well, that basically is communism, isn’t it? Because if you tae away a person’s will and make them an automaton, that’s sort of what the communist theory is: make everybody equal. SO yes, the bottom line is it is about the freedom of a man to choose. The brilliance of Anthony Burgess, who wrote the novel, is that he makes his hero, his anti-hero, an immoral man. So the dilemma for us, as the audience, is how can we really like this immoral man? I mean, he’s a rapist, he’s a murderer. Of course, he does have the saving grace that he loves classical music.

“It’s a sin!”

“It’s a sin! It’s a sin!” Look, my brief was very simple. I had to make people, the audience, accept me and not sympathize with me, but enjoy what I do. And the only way I could think about doing it was to have a sort of love of life, a joie de vivre, so that whatever he’s doing, he’s loving it. He’s enjoying it. Now that’s infectious, so you go with it. It’s only when you come out — and then you go, “Wow.” And we were accused of fascist tactics by no lesser personages than The New York Times’ editorial section. Stanley [Kubrick] wrote a very good letter in answer to it and I wrote one myself, too. Listen, I understand. When that film came out, people were horrified and shocked. It’s overwhelming to look at. I mean, it spawned so many social changes, that film. That one film — in music, in fashion. It’s staggering how many videos were on MTV that you could draw a line directly to Alex and the droogs or the Korova Milk Bar, from Madonna on down. And they’re still doing it. A group called Slipknot, who I love, they did it not long ago on one of their videos — which I’m happy for. Of course, the way the audiences see that film now is very different. Young audiences just fall about laughing, which they never did when it came out. It was dead silence. But the reason that it is so popular with young kids is that they now latch on to the political side of it — Big Brother, the government — which they can certainly relate to now. It’s become relevant all over again. They screened it at the Egyptian, I think five years ago or something. A new print, pristine, absolutely beautiful. I was there. At the end I went to the bathroom, and I came out and I passed a kid in the corridor. He must have been 16 or 17. He passed me and he goes, “Hey, man. Clockwork, right?” And I went, “Yes, that’s right.” He goes, “Which part?” And I went, “Well, you know, ‘the guy.’” He went, “The old guy?” He thought it was a new movie.

That’s quite a statement about Kubrick’s forward-looking vision.

Brilliant. You’re talking about one of the best that ever lived.

Tell us about Pound of Flesh.

Lovely film. I’m very proud of it. It’s a tiny budget, made here by a great friend, Tammy Hoffs. She worked very hard on it. It’s a very interesting subject, and rather timely because there have been a few professors that have been caught for doing this. I had no idea that it was so popular, but there’s been two or three recently. I mean, facetiously I say, here’s a professor who sets up an escort agency because he figures, well, the girls are going to have affairs at college. I mean, that’s what you do at college, isn’t it? You drink, you have affairs, you party. Noah Melville, the character I play, figures that he’d rather they be looked after by very rich clients, so they can pay for their scholarship — which takes, of course, the onus off the government for loans, et cetera. I mean, this is going through his mind. Of course, any sane person who’s outside of this circle looks at it and goes, “Are you kidding?” But I can see where he’s coming from. I can see it. It is, of course, a terrible lapse in judgment. I wanted to make him one of those kinds of teachers who you never forget. I know I had one in school that taught history. He made history so exciting and I always looked forward to it and I always excelled at it because of the teacher. I wanted to have that kind of influence on the students, for him to be such a charismatic sort of guy who engaged them, never bored them, really takes it to them. Then there’s a dilemma going on. There’s an emotional pull, because obviously what he’s doing is breaking the law.

Let’s talk about “Franklin & Bash.”

I’ve done a few television shows; I am not that experienced, but this is by far the most superior in terms of the writing and the characters and all the rest of it. Having cast these two young guys, who are great — Mark-Paul [Gosselaar] and Breckin [Meyer] are fantastic, and have great chemistry. And then this wonderful part they came up with for me. But then, you know, you’ve got [executive producers] Bill Chais and Kevin Falls, who have come with incredible pedigrees from “The West Wing” to “The Practice.” I love the character and I love everyone connected with it. The cast is incredible; Reed Diamond playing my nephew, he makes me crack up. I don’t know how I can keep a straight face with any of them. And Garcelle Beauvais, she’s so beautiful. All of them, though. I won’t pick any out because I am amazed at them all. All these young actors are so damn good.

Your character lives life on his own terms, and does it successfully.

He’s very successful. Of course, he’s incredibly bright. He’s a wonderful, almost benevolent character, who then [you realize] had a very mixed past of weird stuff, and that slowly comes out. In the last show we find out that he’s [committed] capital murder, and then you find out that he’s had, a few years ago, great drinking bouts and whoring. So there’s a dark side to him, which is delightful, but he has such a quirky and wonderful sense of humor.

You had worked with Breckin Meyer before, on an episode of Adult Swim’s “Robot Chicken.”

Breckin Meyer, for being such a short man, is extremely talented. I think per cubic inch he’s up there with the most talented I’ve worked with. He’s actually not even that short, but I do tease him about it, just to keep ‘em on their toes.

You play Vater Orlaag on “Metalocalypse,” another Adult Swim show.

I just did five of them yesterday. Isn’t it great? I just go in every few months and knock off a few. And on my travels, I have fans coming up saying that they love it. It’s amazing what the middle of the country, real America, likes, and I’m amazed at how much they loved “Entourage,” being a very much “in Hollywood” thing. [Creator] Doug Ellin is one of the finest comedy writers I have ever worked with, and honestly, I think this last season is up there with any of the best seasons ever. I mean, he’s going out with a bang. It’s a brilliant, brilliant show.

I liked the story arc leading up to your reconciliation with Jeremy Piven’s character.

That was a beautiful little arc, and actually quite touching. Who would’ve thought?

I’m curious about your process. I read that you asked Lindsay Anderson for guidance on how to play Alex in Clockwork, and he gave you this perfect piece of advice: to smile like you did in If…. after your character was caned.

Yeah, the close-up. He said, “There’s a close up of you when you look at the prefects and you smile.” He goes, “That’s how you play it.” I went, “Yes, what a genius piece of direction.”

Is it fun for you to play scary characters?

Yes, brilliant, it’s a brilliant con, it’s a sleight of hand. I love magicians because they do the sleight of hand and you can’t see it and it’s so beautiful to watch. And I think acting is like that, living is like that — my God, it’s absolutely like that. The thing is, you can’t stand still as a performer. This is why I love to do voice-overs or video games. It’s so great because the kids, they are so affected by them. I played the President of the United States in “Fallout 3” and I can’t tell you how many people noticed — and the reach of it. It’s staggering and because I have young children, I’m very, very aware of doing stuff that they see. So I don’t want to be an elitist. It’s great doing all kinds of stuff and learning how to do it, because it’s a different technique.

Is your work liberating for you? I was watching Get Crazy, which seemed like so much fun.

It’s oh-so-much fun doing that. To play a rocker — I’ve always felt close to rock bands because somehow I think Clockwork Orange is like a rock band — it’s like being in a rock band. I feel a great affinity with musicians. I love musicians, I really do. And if I could sing at the drop of a hat, I will. I’ve never done a musical, but I’ll sing in whatever it is, just for fun, but in character.

Like “Singin’ in the Rain” during the torture scene in Clockwork Orange…

In character. It couldn’t be smooth; it had to be deadly. A post-script of that: a year after the film, after we shot that, maybe a month after it had been out, I came to Hollywood to do some press and meet with some people at the studio. My handler [from] Warner Bros. said, “Malcolm, there is a party in the flats of Beverly Hills, I think there are gonna be a lot of movie stars there. Do you want to go?” I went, “What? This is why I’m here. I’m a kid from Liverpool. Are you kidding me? I’d be so thrilled to go!” So we go and the guy comes up and says, “You’re not gonna believe it, but Gene’s here.” And I went, “Gene?” “Gene Kelly.” And I went, “Oh my God, I’d love to meet him.” So we go up to Gene Kelly, who’s got his back to me, and he taps him on the shoulder. He says, “Gene, I’d like you to meet Malcolm McDowell.” He turned around, looked at me up and down, looked right through my eyes, turned around, and walked off. I [said to the handler], “Listen, I understand, it’s all right. Don’t worry. I cannot blame him.” But, of course, it was not meant to be a dig at him or his incredible work.

So Gene Kelly was not pleased.

No, and I wish I’d … I never met him again, but I wish I could have explained it to him. But it really was best left alone. I do see his point, because for the younger generation, they can’t see Singin’ in the Rain now without thinking of Alex in Clockwork Orange. And, of course, at the end, on the credits, it’s Gene himself singing and I think that he must have felt that he was duped or something.

But in the end, it’s all part of a greater history.

Two great films. Singin’ in the Rain is a great film. [Co-director] Stanley Donen was a great man and an incredible director, and became a friend. And then, of course, Kubrick. There they were.

Very different takes on the human condition, with one little similarity connecting them.

It’s called synergy, is it not? “Synergy.” That’s the line I had in the Paul Weitz film, In Good Company [2004].

When you opted to do Caligula, did you worry about what the fallout might be?

No. Honestly, you can’t second-guess what’s going to happen. If you’re offered a film script about ancient Rome written by Gore Vidal, you’re not going to turn it down. It’s Gore Vidal, for God’s sake. At first, I didn’t inquire as to who was putting up the money; I just sort of left that to Gore. I wasn’t really involved in that, and then he asked me to go meet with Claire Bloom, who I’ve always admired tremendously. He said, “We’re meeting in the Penthouse Club in London.” And I went, “You mean the Playboy.” And he went, “No, the Penthouse.” I went, “We’re meeting Claire Bloom in the Penthouse Club? How come?” And he goes, “Well, Guccione is backing the movie. Just think of him as another one of the Warner brothers.” That’s what he said to me. Famous last words. Of course, he took his name off of it. We were in the middle of shooting and I said, “That’s great that you’re taking your name off it, but I’m now lumbered with it.” So I just did the best I could. And do I regret it? Absolutely not. I got to work with Peter O’Toole, John Gielgud, and of course, Helen Mirren, who I’d worked with, I think, two or three times. She was in O Lucky Man!, and she was also in a Pinter [television project] that I did with Laurence Olivier, Alan Bates, Helen, and myself. Just four actors, called “The Collection.” And it was fantastic. It is absolutely an amazing piece and I’m very proud of it.

Tell us about working with Robert Altman.

Who wouldn’t love that man? I mean, seriously, if you look at what he created and the movies he did over that period of time, they’re so Americana. And, of course, he made a pretty brilliant one about the English aristocracy, too, in Gosford Park (2001). I think Bob was so much fun for actors to work with. We all loved him so much. [He was] very much loved, very much missed. I was a friend of his for 30-odd years. He’d call and go, “Hey, what are you doing, kid?” I’d say, “Are we going out?” He’d say, “You betcha.” We’re on the town, being naughty, it’s early hours. That generation loved to party, and we had some great times. Then when I was doing Caligula in Rome, he showed up and there was a big party at my villa. So I said, “Bob, come on, you’ve gotta.” He goes, “I gotta meet this Gucci guy.” So I took him up to meet Guccione and Bob goes, “Hey man, I like your shoes.” And I went, “What? Not Gucci! Guccione, Guccione!” He goes, “Oh, I thought you were making those shoes.” [laughs] It was hilarious. He knew who he was. Guccione traveled with an entourage. It was like, “The great Bob’s in town.” But when the real Bob came in, the real talent… these memories … Wow, it was just absolutely amazing. It was fabulous.

Do you think that your own experiences at boarding school as a kid were part of what attracted you to some of the roles you took in the beginning?

No. I mean, of course it helped but, actually, I loved school. I loved it. I went to a school where the principal, the headmaster, loved the theater and instilled a love of the theater in me. He’s the reason I really became an actor, I suppose, if you go all the way back.

So your experience in boarding school wasn’t like Mick’s in If….?

No, it wasn’t like that for me, but I understood it. There were moments of isolation and depression and longing and that’s what I used in the part. As far as I know, I didn’t do any acting in If…. I was just cast because of who I was, and I totally empathized with the part. I knew this guy; I loved this character. He was a really extraordinary sort of standard-bearer. A real, pure rebel. A pure revolutionary. Not a political one, a pure one, and such a hero, in a way. And very naïve, of course. Some of the lines like, “I would love to walk out into the sea, make love to this girl once, and then die.” Completely naïve, but the kind of thing that a 16, 17-year-old would say. He was such a beautiful person, in a way, Mick Travis. My production company is called Travis and I’ve always just loved that character. I could never, ever, do it again, or I could never get close to it, because once you do it, it’s done and you can’t repeat that naïveté and that beauty of it. There’s a beauty in something that you do for the very first time. And when you play a really wonderful part in a movie with a great director, a genius, then there is no way you can repeat that. And it is the purest performance I ever gave and anything else after that is sort of tainted in a way. There’s other influences, but that was pure Lindsay. I loved him so much and I’m going to do a movie, a real movie about an older man and a young actor, and how he influenced his mind and how the whole dynamic worked. And I’m going to go back to Cheltenham [Anderson’s alma mater and the school where If…. was shot]. So now I get to play him and I’ll find a young actor to play me. It’s about a very Greek thing, about an older man teaching a younger man the way through life, giving him a roadmap. I don’t know whether he meant to or not, but that’s what he did. That’s what I took from it.

You did O Lucky Man! with him, which is, at least ostensibly, the same character.

It’s the same name, but not the same character. It’s a very subversive film. It’s an amazing movie, really. And it never really found its audience. It has its huge admirers and it’s shown in pretty much every film school. Lindsay was at a place in his life where he was very pessimistic and so there is a little bit of stuff like that in the film. It has an amazing score and it’s a very different thing to pull off. It’s a picaresque film.

It weaves around relentlessly. He’s arrested as a spy, caught in military crossfire, and then he’s in a meeting with a billionaire and his assistant.

Yeah, and he jumps out of the window, gives you his briefcase — you’re his assistant. It’s brilliant; it’s wonderful. [Anderson] was very prickly, but geez, what fun we had.

How do you go about creating your characters?

Honestly, I don’t do any research. Or very rarely, unless it’s really specific. I played this man who executed the Tsar and his family in Russia and his name was Yurovsky. I was asked by a Russian director to play this part, which I was amazed by, because why would they want an English actor? So I got the script and it was very good, and it was a wonderful film. It’s called The Assassin of the Tsar [1991]. And so I read the script and it’s in period, 1917. My only question to the director was this: “How does a Russian smoke a cigarette? Would somebody please teach me to do it?” When I knew how to smoke a cigarette, I knew how to play that part. One tiny detail. Because honestly, what’s important? This is what Lindsay taught me: Here’s the scene; what’s the moment? You go, “Well, I think this line’s it.” No, it’s not necessarily a line. It could be between the lines. You clear everything, in focus, to the moment, you play the moment, and move on. Very simple, and that’s what I try to do. It’s so inherent and I don’t even think about it, because that’s the way it is. And what I really enjoy doing is improvising. I’d love to do a sitcom with Richard Lewis, all improvised. I love him and we’re great mates, and I could just imagine us going into a bookstore to buy a book or something. It would be a whole kerfuffle because that’s just the way we are.

What do you love about what you do?

I love the camaraderie, I love the excitement of discovering, and the amusement of discovering another person inside of me. I always try to find the amusing side of things, even the most horrific characters. That’s what I look for.

Original publication date: September 2011


*Photo by lukeford.net, used under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license.

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