Some actors play themselves, or a version of themselves, in every film they make. John Malkovich is not one of them. Instantly recognisable he may be, with his chilling staccato voice, but on screen, it’s different. “I don’t think personally I’m much like any character I’ve ever played, including John Malkovich,” he laughs, referring to Spike Jonze’s brilliant absurdist 1999 comedy Being John Malkovich, in which a puppeteer, played by John Cusack, finds a portal into Malkovich’s head.
Yet from the sadistic killers he inhabited in Con Air and In The Line of Fire, which won him an Oscar nomination, to his scheming French count in Dangerous Liaisons, Malkovich has always strived to find characters far removed from his own personality. "I am quite acerbic. It's always been natural to me," he says, and there's a dry, deadpan humour when you meet him, which is not always apparent in his roles.
Now 64, the Illinois-born Malkovich is quite the Renaissance man. A major player in Chicago's influential Steppenwolf theatre company, he has acted and directed on stage for the bulk of his four-decade career, although it was his role as a blind man in Robert Benton's 1984 film Places In The Heart that shot him to fame, earning him his first Oscar nomination. He has since moved on to producing movies – recently Demolition, with Jake Gyllenhaal – for his company Mr Mudd, while his screen work ranges from a cameo in Zoolander 2 to popping up in Eminem's video Phenomenal in a rickshaw.
This week, Malkovich returns for a more substantial role in Mile 22, the pulsating new action film from Peter Berg, who directed him in 2016's Deepwater Horizon. Scripted by first-timer Lea Carpenter, it stars Mark Wahlberg – now in his fourth movie with Berg – as Jimmy Silva, a senior intelligence officer in a US paramilitary team. "It's a spy versus spy story," explains Malkovich, who plays Bishop, the man "directing the operations", seemingly free from any outside interference, in this fight against enemy intelligence.
While the bulk of the movie is taken up with Silva and his team shepherding a South East Asian intelligence source (Iko Uwais of The Raid) to safety, it's interesting to note that the foes faced by the Americans are once more the Russians, almost three decades since the Cold War ended. "The Russians, the ever-present Russians, in the new American narrative … it's a delight to re-find that narrative again," sighs Malkovich, with a tinge of sarcasm in his voice.
After the recent reported Russian interference in the US election, perhaps this is no surprise. Malkovich has even played his fair share of Russian villains; notably in John Dahl's gambling drama Rounders, he was the smiling mobster Teddy KGB, chewing up the English language like it was tobacco in his mouth. In the recent season of Billions, the TV series about hedge fund managers, he popped up as the ruthless Russian billionaire Grigor Andolov.
For Mile 22, Malkovich was particularly keen to reunite with Berg after his experience on Deepwater Horizon, about the real-life BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. The film deals with the explosion on the eponymous offshore drilling rig that led to one of the biggest ecological disasters mankind has ever faced. In it Malkovich plays the crucial role of Donald Vidrine, the BP suit who arrogantly believed the rig was capable of withstanding any meltdown.
The actor was impressed with Berg’s approach. “I thought he did a spectacular job on [that, with] a very difficult topic. It was highly underrated, especially his work. He just did a great job telling a story that we already knew, at least the results of if not the ins and outs.” When the chance to work with Berg again arose, he jumped at it. “Pete’s wild,” he says. “You have to be on your toes with Pete, because anything can happen. We did 67 scenes in my first three days. Normally, you might do four or five scenes.”
Much of this, says Malkovich, is down to the nature of modern filmmaking. “Now that everything in movies is really accelerated, there is less and less time to shoot. It used to be four months, then it was three months, then it was ten weeks, then it was nine weeks, then it was eight, then it was six, now it feels like three minutes. It’s a very accelerated time, but I love working with Pete. He gets it done without fuss or fanfare and really quickly and in an interesting way.”
Curiously, for one with so much experience, Malkovich has only ever gone behind the camera once, directing the Latin America-set The Dancer Upstairs, starring Javier Bardem, in 2002. "It's such a nightmare to get a film up and get it going. I don't have the patience really. Not for the directing work; I like that, it's very enjoyable and it's a delight. I'm not saying it's easy or I do it well or don't do it well. That's something I like very much." Mounting a production "is just too much agro", he adds. "Movies take too long."
Malkovich, who has two children with Nicolette Peyran, his long-term partner since the late 1980s, is these days more geared towards the eclectic. Last year, he played a dictator on stage in Just Call Me God, a production that premiered in Hamburg. More recently, he recorded narration for another stage production Egmont, reciting words of the German literary titan Goethe (translated into English by his old friend Christopher Hampton) to the sound of Beethoven.
Does he prefer theatre to film? “I never think of it as less or more. I started directing in theatre at the same time as I started acting in theatre, and it’s a different part of the brain. Do I prefer one or the other? No.”
Acting is still high on his agenda; he has just completed Velvet Buzzsaw, an art world satire from Nightcrawler's director Dan Gilroy, alongside Jake Gyllenhaal and Toni Collette. "I don't know that I like anything as much as watching really good actors work," he says.
You can imagine most will be watching him.
Mile 22 is in cinemas across the UAE from Wednesday