Sitting in the swamps outside New Orleans, Academy Award-nominated actor John Malkovich looks pretty subdued for a wild-eyed comic book villain. Layered in an hour and a half's worth of makeup including a prosthetic nose and some striking scar tissue, the actor's hands and face also carry a muddy hue that mixes with the down and dirty feel of his character Quentin Turnbull's rabble-rousing speech to his separatist supporters in a scene from Warner Brothers and director Jimmy Hayward's upcoming DC Comics adaptation "Jonah Hex" hitting theaters June 18.
Still, for all the drawl-heavy shouting and intense torch-swinging the actor did on camera during CBR's set visit to the film, Malkovich in person is an ultimately soft-spoken character, leaning back in his crew chair and smoking the stub of a cigarette while occasionally joking with the other members of the film's cast and crew. When he spoke to CBR News and the assembled reporters about his role as the main villain of "Jonah Hex," Malkovich was careful not to compare Turnbull to his former screen villains in pictures like "Con Air" and "Dangerous Liaisons" instead opening up about his collaborative process with his director, his being recruited to "Hex" by Josh Brolin and his comics acting past with Dan Clowes.
Was part of your decision to do this Josh telling you he’s doing it and saying it would be fun to do together?
John Malkovich: Absolutely, yes.
What was it about his enthusiasm that brought you in?
Well, we’re friends. But he sent me the script and I read it and met – at that time it was going to be Neveldine & Taylor – and I met with him when I was out in California and it seemed a thing to do that I thought might make an [interesting] film and might have some success. Then they dropped off or whatever happened...I’m really not privy to that. And [Brolin] told me he met Jimmy, and he really liked him and his take on it. Then I met Jimmy out in California on another trip and said, “Yeah, great.”
No, not so much. I think it’s pretty much based on the comic. I think it’s pretty much along those lines. But I didn’t really ask for input either.
Did they send you the comics when you were deciding?
Yeah, I had seen it a few times before. Jimmy had done some mock-ups of them that he showed me in Los Angeles.
The film seems to have a specific blend of the real and unreal. Can you talk about the decisions you had to make as far as how larger than life you wanted it to be?
I’m not sure that’s really a decision for me. I think that’s really Jimmy’s decision and my theory about that is that I’m a professional actor and if he wants it big or cartoony or not, it’s really Jimmy’s decision. I wouldn’t feel even super-comfortable engaging in that conversation really. I think it’s maybe less cartoonish in a certain way than perhaps what was written, but it still has some incise to it. I’ll put it that way.
When you’re creating a character like this, are all your cues in the script or is it an intense collaborative process with Jimmy?
That really depends on who the director is and what you sense or feel is or is not required from you really. And with Jimmy, Jimmy’s not a control freak, which obviously some of them are in a rather concerning way. I think Jimmy’s quite collaborative, so on this I certainly feel more than welcome to offer a suggestion or ask a question. And yes, I probably prefer working that way, but I don’t have to...[Jimmy's] pretty open, I’d say. I think he responds to things. He seems quite instinctive, so he responds to the way something makes him feel in the frame and that’s good. And if he wants more, he asks for more. If he wants less, he asks for less.
A lot of people won’t be familiar with your character. Can you talk about the character you play?
Turnbull was a Southern plantation owner and very wealthy and very powerful. He feels Jonah has caused his son to be killed in a way, so there’s a big sort of revenge factor there. Turnbull also leads a group of kind of marauders, former Confederate soldiers. Eventually he hopes to overthrow the government...my character’s not so much involved with [the supernatural]. Maybe a tiny bit. At a point in the story, Hex has kind of aberrations, and I appear very briefly as one of those, and we sort of work that out together. It wasn’t really quite what’s in the script.
Were you a fan of the genre?
Well, we’ve done, in production, we’ve done two comic novels: "Ghost World" and "Art School [Confidential" by Dan Clowes], so I’m not really an aficionado. I know a bit about it. I liked comics when I was a kid and read them and everything, but for me work is work. Everything allows for possibilities and failures.
I never really did a Western Western. I was going to do one with Tommy Lee Jones, who’d written a very beautiful script of Cormac McCarthy’s book, but then I think somebody else is doing it, which I liked enormously, but I never really did one. "Of Mice and Men" was sort of the closest. I’ve always liked to watch them.
As the villain, is your performance more restrained or animated?
Well, I don’t know, I spent the entire last two nights yelling, so I don’t know how restrained that is.
Having done both stage and screen, do you bring your stage skill set more so for this kind of role?
Yeah, you could. I mean, it’s probably...to make a very blanket statement, it’s maybe more energized in a certain way than what one might do in some films. But, I think probably the skill set that is most important is comic books have certain archetypal notions and the skill set I would have though came in so handy was having worked so much on the scripts that you can say, well we can’t really do that because it doesn’t fit into this mold. But we can do it like this or we can do it like that and that would be absolutely fine. And so we’ve worked a lot of the text, especially the text my character has.
The scene we just saw you perform seemed to have a Shakespearean quality to it. Is that indicative of your character on the whole?
Well, I think one of the things we were looking at when we were looking finally at the script was to try and, you know, if the action can be constituted so Josh’s character can remain quite laconic and non-verbal and iconic in a way and archetypical, then obviously that’s preferable, which sometimes means that the other people have to do the blah, blah, blah and the exposition, which is also fun. So, with this, we just felt that it could kind of maybe go deeper than what was there originally. Why a bunch of grown men would sort of decide to overthrow the government. Somebody was saying – I don’t know if this is true. I didn’t verify it, but somebody was saying the other day that in Vicksburg [Mississippi] they first celebrated the Fourth of July in 1976, which is holding a bit of a grudge I would say. So we wanted to try and communicate what these men feel, but in a fairly succinct [way]. This is by far the longest sort of ramble in the thing, but before that part really just sort of, in a way, said who they were, but we already know that.
You've played so many villains in the past, how would compare Quentin Turnbull to some of the other villains you've played?
John: They all have their own sort of life stories and experiences and reasons for being the way they are, I mean, good, bad, or indifferent so I wouldn't really compare them.
"Jonah Hex" opens in theaters on June 18. Check out more coverage with the cast and crew on CBR, and be sure to take a look at our new Jonah Hex Hub!