John Malkovich in conversation with Jim Sharman

John Malkovich in conversation with Jim SharmanPhoto - Brigitte Lacombe

The steps of Sydney’s Town Hall are usually peppered with people. People waiting to meet friends, lovers, potential lovers, lovers of punk music, lovers of punk, lovers of music - the business men, the dull eyed teenagers, the middleclass women with brassy hair, the motorcyclists, the artists, the retailers, theatre goers, film buffs/makers. Everyone. Together. Waiting as they stand on the steps and await a meeting.

The steps of Sydney’s Town Hall were not different tonight. Congested with folk shivering with the anticipation of witnessing a meeting of a different kind – that of John Malkovich and Jim Sharman. One, an international (though a somewhat unwilling or exiled) celebrity and the other an acclaimed theatre, film and opera director.

Currently in Sydney for the Sydney Festival performing in the The Giacomo Variations, a collaboration with Michael Sturminger, Malkovich has acted in 65 films and was one of the founders of critically acclaimed Chicago-based Steppenwolf Theatre Company. Perhaps best remembered for his performances in films such as Dangerous Liaisons and Being John Malkovich, Malkovich is also well known for his endless capacity to shape shift – the seducer, the intellectual, philosopher, the coward – and often within a single role.

The conversation starts coyly almost casually. Sharman and Malkovich sit and mirror each other in black leather chairs. Nearly mumbling into their hands as they both prop up their chins. Occasionally sipping from a coffee cup, he meets Sharman’s questions with a calm, considered, yet articulately passionate response, sometimes pausing to correct or clarify before he’s finished the thought – not because he is rambling – but because he is refining, sharpening his words, so that all may clearly get his point.

There is a brief familial role call, a personal biographical summary of life in small town America as a Croatian American, a few musings on where Malkovich hailed from – and turning points that lead him to theatre and then to film and then to a voracious pursuit of art.

When asked about the art of seduction, Malkovich responds with an intelligent knowing – “Seduction is like theatre, you have to be where you are. You have to be in the present… and allow the person looking into you to read the quality in you that they need in order to be seduced by you.”

Before long, during a discussion on the role of fathers and sons in American literature, the topic turns to Faulkner, Miller and Shepard Sharman hands a sheet of paper to Malkovich and asks him to read a monologue from Shepard’s Buried Child – to hear the cadence, the delicacy of American language spoken by an American actor. The room falls silent. Arm hairs prickle as he casually releases each word as spontaneously as though he had conjured them himself… and in full control of the matter’s meaning and purpose.

In working in theatre, across the world and across several decades, Sharman asks about the impact of when an ensemble is broken up by the demands of a nomadic profession, a profession based on sky-rocketing celebrity. And the response is that of an artist who truly values collaboration – in the spirit of solving the problems which performing presents – an anecdote. When filming the scene in which the line “It’s beyond my control” has etched itself into the consciousness of all who have seen Dangerous Liaisons, despite a frustrating day on set, Malkovich extended the shoot to work with Pfeiffer to get it right. Honing, focusing precisely in, unrelenting in the pursuit of truth. It is the work which fascinates and drives Malkovich, not the celebrity as he confesses “I was never a topic that interested me.”

Despite his calm demeanor and a voice so smoothly rounded he could make butter melt by merely uttering a haiku, there is a restless, ferocious curiosity in him. He is quick to quote (very casually) Faulkner’s 1950 Nobel Prize Speech on writing, quick to declare that this restlessness is some urgency to “try things I haven’t yet tried” and to continue to think about things.

Perhaps the most succinct and powerful thought of the conversation was that about the differences between theatre and film. Sharman and Malkovich are both experienced masters in their involvement with both art forms. Malkovich says, “Theatre is ephemeral, living organism… based on ‘you had to be there.’ And its not even related to film, they are not even cousins. Theatre is more like surfing. [As an actor] You ride a wave – the collision between the material and the public... your job is to hang on. With film you just need a few good seconds, you don’t need to act. People say to me ‘The camera never lies, and I say, that’s what it is there for.’ You cannot lie in a play. Don’t do a play if you have to lie. Your job in a play is to hang on while the material whips you around.”

It is this deft summary that exposes the personal and visceral experience of storytelling that reveals so much of Malkovich’s investment in his craft and which leaves us up-heaved. This is the stuff that doesn’t wish actors to “break a leg” on opening night as the customs suggest, but as Steppenwolf Theatre Company wishes “protect yourself” – to be brutally open, engaged and involved in the danger of the collision between the audience and the idea.

Rapturous applause fills the Town Hall. As we leave, the conversations float – the stunning simplicity of the thoughts the uncompromising talent, the fearlessness in the face of failure “always my shadow and my companion,” the power. The power of being present in Malkovich’s present presence.

Sydney Festival 2011
John Malkovich in conversation with Jim Sharman

Venue: Sydney Town Hall, Sydney
Date/Time: January 17 at 7pm
Duration: 60mins
Tickets: $50 – $30
Bookings: Ticketmaster 1300 723 038

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