The actor who has played himself and performs the part of God in a famous advert came down to earth to confess: “Portugal, my favourite”.
“Hi, I’m John!” This is how this coffee-loving God who we are used to worshipping on the silver screen introduces himself. Malkovich, the man, is infinitely more down-to-earth and continues to give off the discreet charm that he emanated in the role of Valmont, the seductive Viscount in Dangerous Liaisons (Stephen Frears, 1988).
Visiting Portugal for the 4th edition of the Estoril Film Festival, the actor and director talked openly about his long-standing love affair with the country and revealed a virtually unknown facet of his creative talent: that of fashion designer. Used to being inside the skin of his characters, John Malkovich now creates “skins” for other men, the result of a connection with the fashion world that began in 1999, when designer Bella Freud asked him to direct a short film where she presented her new collection. After the success of the Strap Hanging project, the actor discovered that he could also design clothes: “I only do it because I enjoy it; it’s more a form of self-expression. I don’t know if I can say that it’s connected to acting, but my collections are certainly influenced by what I do.”
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An example of this is the collection he presented at Estoril, which he called Technobohemian: “I read that word in a novel and I thought it very descriptive of a certain lifestyle. On one hand, we’re surrounded by technology; on the other hand, ‘techno’ in Greek means the art of living. As for ‘bohemian’, it’s just that. This clothes collection comes with influences of a lifetime of travelling and other experiences that I would define as a bohemian life.” And how does cinema figure in his collections? “I made a very bad film that was set during the American civil war, but there were things in the wardrobe that I really liked. I didn’t copy them, but it was a great starting point. Also, there are pieces that I’m sure were inspired by my role as Gustav Klimt (Klimt, Raúl Ruiz, 2006). I’m a bit mad about Viennese history that coincides with the end of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, especially the people who lived in the city, like Freud, Klimt, Schiller … that could be an influence.”
Love at first sight
More than just an influence, his passionate relationship with Portugal began last century and, despite his comings and goings, the flame still burns: “A great friend who knew Portuguese producer Paulo Branco phoned me saying that he wanted me to do O Convento (Manoel de Oliveira, 1995). I asked who the director was – who I knew by name only –, and because there was no script for the film, I wanted to see some of his work. After looking at seven or eight of his films I was convinced, I phoned Paulo Branco and told him that I thought Manoel fantastic and wanted to be part of the cast.”
This is how ended up coming to Portugal for the first time and discovering Setúbal and the Arrábida mountains, where the filming took place, completely enamoured with the almost diaphanous beauty of the River Sado estuary where it meets the Atlantic and the Tróia peninsula: “There was something special there, a je ne sais quoi. There are places, because they’re unique, could be anywhere in the world, but Portugal is very…Portugal! This is how this connection began.” A connection in which Malkovich went from seducer to the seduced: “After shooting O Convento, I came back quite often. I travelled around a large part of the country but, with the exception of the Alentejo, I know the coast best. As for the cities, I visited the main ones, Faro, Évora, Coimbra (with its magnificent university library), Porto and Aveiro.”
At that time, the actor was unaware that his relationship with the country would become official with a marriage of convenience: “12 years ago, I was in the Pap’Açorda restaurant, when I overheard a conversation between José Miranda and Fernando Fernandes (the restaurant owners) about a new project. I understood what they were saying because they were speaking in French with someone who looked like a footballer. I approached them, apologised for butting in, and told them to call me if they needed an investor. They were very nice but explained that they had all they needed, so I didn’t think anything more about it. A year later, they phoned me saying that the coasts were higher than first estimated, like always (laughs), and asked me if I’d be interested in a partnership. I told them yes, and the next day I caught a flight to Lisbon.” The result was becoming a partner in two of Lisbon’s top nightspots. The restaurant Bica do Sapato and the club Lux-Frágil, which have been leaders in music, gastronomy and trends in the Portuguese capital.
The Importance of Being Oliveira
In the years that followed, John Malkovich returned to Portugal countless times, either to visit his partners or for a family holiday: “We had two major driving holidays, just travelling around. I remember that once we drove from the Spanish Costa do Sol to Lisbon. And on the other, we visited Bussaco. We loved the Grande Hotel da Curia and we thought it was hilarious for the hotel to have a special room for women to talk freely without irritating their husbands. At the time, I thought this is fantastic! Bussaco is wonderful and is unlike anything else I’ve ever seen”. The uniqueness of the landscapes and the moments in the forest planted on the orders of the Barefoot Carmelites in the 17th century, linger in the actor’s memory and wine cellar: “I still have a bottle of wine from the Palace Hotel do Bussaco that I’m going to open soon, because it’s getting very old.”
Another thing that Malkovich loves is Porto, the city of Manoel de Oliveira, the director with whom he has made two films, Vou para Casa (2001) and Um Filme Falado (2003). In fact his passion for Portugal invariably overlaps with the film director (who is still working behind the camera at the age of 102): “Before joining the cast of O Convento, my best friend called me and asked me what I was doing. I explained that I was watching a film by a Portuguese director who I was going to work with and he wanted to know what the film was. I told him it was an incredibly beautiful short film shot in 1929. There was a long pause on the other end and then my friend said: you mean, it’s a film about 1929… When I told him that he’d heard right the first time, he was perplexed!” (laughs).
The elder statesman of the world’s directors is actually one of his gurus: “He’s a visionary. I loved working with him. Sometimes I think that what we learn in life is impossible to teach, to communicate. What is unique about Manoel is his vision of things and the way that vision is represented in his films. He films like nobody else. For him, scenes are like long-term memory, as opposed to quick sensations or experiences.” To illustrate what he means, Malkovich recalls the scene from a film by Manoel de Oliveira where the viewer stays by a chapel door for many minutes. First looking at the grass blowing in the wind, then following the footsteps of a woman walking down the hill, picking up the key of the chapel, she opens the door and goes inside: “Throughout the whole scene we stay outside and we never enter the chapel with the woman. I can’t think of anyone else who would do that. It’s evocative and lyrical, but it’s also very descriptive of life.”
John Malkovich’s favourite line from 20th-century cinema is found in a film made by the Portuguese director: “The last line of Vale Abraão is brilliant!” And so, quoting the master filmmaker’s work from memory, the actor, director and sometime fashion designer ends the interview: “Ninguém imita, melhor do que eu, uma bela vida.” (Nobody imitates a wonderful life better than I).
by Patrícia Brito
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