The first time I sat in the same room with Malcolm McDowell, it was not to talk to him but to listen. The occasion was a Chicago Film Festival screening of McDowell's first film IF…, after which McDowell sat down to talk about the film and his career. I didn't moderate that particular event; I simply sat and took in his greatness.
The next time I'm in the same room with him will be this weekend as part of the Flashback Weekend Horror Convention here in Chicagoland, August 12-14 at the Crowne Plaza Chicago O'Hare. The event will feature a number of great guests, including Robert Englund, Michael Rooker, Sid Haig, Lance Henriksen. Doug Bradley, Christina Lindberg, Kane Hodder, a cast reunion for NIGHT OF THE COMET, cast members from "The Walking Dead," and so many more. McDowell will do a special Q&A with attendees on Saturday, August 13, which I'm hoping to moderate.
As wrong as it may seem, my first exposure to McDowell's work was when I snuck into a showing of A CLOCKWORK ORANGE at the age of 13 or 14. The local multiplex in my town (six whole screens) used to do summer vintage matinees at 10am, Wednesday mornings, and for some reason, they programmed the notorious Stanley Kubrick offering one week. A lot of films I saw at that period "changed my life," but A CLOCKWORK ORANGE shook me in ways I wasn't used to. I'd never seen rape in a movie before, and it took me a long time after to be able to see the act again on film without having my mind return to this movie. But there were ideas going on in this movie that were so new and bizarre, that I simply couldn't process them all upon first viewing.
But since is a Legends interview, fortunately McDowell and I got to spend a decent amount of time talking about all aspects of his career, from the Mick Travis trilogy (IF…, O LUCKY MAN!, and BRITANNIA HOSPITAL) to TIME AFTER TIME, CAT PEOPLE all the way up through STAR TREK: GENERATIONS, GANGSTER NO. 1, Robert Altman's THE COMPANY to more recent comedies like BARRY MUNDAY and EASY A, as well as, the HALLOWEEN movies and his recent T.V. work on "Heroes" and "Franklin & Bash."
In more recent years, McDowell has gone from leading man to one of the most recognizable character actors working today. The man loves to work. I had one of the best times talking to McDowell. He's a great storyteller and has clearly given his career and the roles that he's best known for a great deal of thought. And he's worked with some of the greatest director and co-stars on both sides of the pond. I can't wait to meet him in person at Flashback Weekend. Please enjoy Malcolm McDowell…
Capone: Malcolm, how are you?
Malcolm McDowell: Good. Hello, how are you?
Capone: Good. I guess my main mission is to prep people for your appearance here in Chicago. Let’s just start at the beginning. As a youngster, were there were any particular films or actors that you remember being infatuated with and you couldn't wait to see again?
MM: Well, I did love gangster movies and I did love James Cagney, always. He always made an impression on me. But you know as a real child, I remember of course FANTASIA, the Disney movie, which was so incredible and especially for it’s time it was just amazing. I loved that, and so that made a big impression on me, definitely.
Capone: What was it about Cagney that you were so impressed by?
MM: I don’t know; I just loved him. I think it was his extraordinary machine-gun-like delivery which I loved and then just the way he moved. He was so energetic, so compelling that you couldn’t keep your eyes off of him. I think that’s what I felt mostly about him.
Capone: And that was true not just when he was doing gangster roles, but there were ones where he was playing the guys who were running a theater company, he had the same kind of delivery for both yeah.
MM: Exactly. Of course, his great performances, and there are quite a few, but YANKEE DOODLE DANDY, where he’s dancing. It’s just amazing and beautiful to watch. Really amazing.
Capone: You mentioned that you like gangster films, and I was going to bring it up later, but I think certainly in the last couple of decades of your career that your performance in GANGSTER NO. 1 is one of my absolute favorites.
MM: Oh thank you.
Capone: I don’t know what your thoughts are…
MM: [laughs] I love that film. I think it’s amazing. I think it’s a great film and I know it’s very profane and very violent, but that’s exactly what it's about, and if you can get just past that, it’s an amazing piece and a very true picture of gangster life in London. He is such an extraordinary character in a way, of course a psychopath, but great fun to play and actually at the end, that was a little bit of a nod to Jimmy.
Capone: Was it?
MM: Just a little homage from me remembering the great man. I think I said to the director “This one is for Mr. Cagney.” We all had a good laugh about it, you know.
Capone: And the whole film has some great, fully-realized gangster characters, which you don’t get that much lately.
MM: Oh, I know, it’s terrific.
Capone: So let’s go back into the early years of your film career. When you got those chances to play the Mick Travis character in IF… I was actually at the screening in Chicago when you came in for the film festival.
MM: Oh yeah, yeah.
Capone: This was a couple of years ago, but yeah I thought it was really terrific.
MM: And you know, I love Chicago anyways. It’s one of my favorite cities, and I have such great memories of Chicago and doing THE COMPANY with the Joffrey Ballet, it was just one of the greatest experiences of my professional career and working with Altman and those dancers, who were so adorable and getting to really know Jerry Arpino was extraordinary. It was just an extraordinary time and being in this beautiful city was great.
Capone: I hope you have a chance to revisit it when you come up.
MM: I don’t think there will be much chance this time. It will be a quick in and out, but that’s okay.
Capone: So back to IF… and O LUCKY MAN! and I realize these are very different films even though you are playing a character with the same name, there’s a different take on each one of them. What did that mean to you at the time to revisit that character? To play him and then be able to revisit him with [director] Lindsay Anderson and [writer] David Sherwin.
MM: That’s the highlight of my career in a way. It’s rather sad they came so early on, but it was a highlight in my life not so much in career terms, although of course it was, because IF… was my first movie with this great director, who wa just an incredible talent, I mean that goes without saying, but he was one of the great directors of his period. The great thing about Lindsay, and he was not only a great director, but he was a great friend and he became, I supposed the nearest thing to a mentor that you could possibly imagine. I liked him very much as a man and as a person. I always had a great time in his company. He was prickly [laughs]; he was a bit of a curmudgeon, but if you got past that--and by the way, we had tremendous rows from time to time. We always made up and moved on and he was pretty volatile, he was.
But to do IF… as your first film, it’s a classic. It’s one of the greatest movies I’ll ever make. I was so fortunate that it just panned out like that, so that was great, and then to do O LUCKY MAN! with him, which was partly my story and able to work with him again. I did a couple of plays with him too, which I enjoyed very much, and then we did BRITANNIA HOSPITAL, which was about the sickness of the state of Britain, which is still pretty sick by the looks of things.
Capone: Based on the last week’s events, yeah I’d say there are still some issues.
MM: I know. It could happen here to and it has done and it may do again, because it’s just that with this meltdown of the economy, I think there’s nothing for young people. They leave school and there are no jobs, there’s nothing for them to do, and I think that’s sort of the basis of it, but I don’t know. That’s what the newspapers seem to be reporting anyway from England.
Capone: Speaking of misspent youth… It’s interesting that people, with regards to A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, people tend to forget that film was set in the future, it was considered science fiction to a degree, because today maybe it doesn’t seem quite as far in the future, it seems a little too in the present.
Capone: Tell me about what your feelings were about genre films like horror and science fiction at the time, and why you decided you wanted to be a part of that film.
MM: Well, I didn’t go out saying, “Oh, I must do a science-fiction film.” I mean if you do something like A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, of course, it is science fiction in a way, and it bridges the divide between that and horror. It’s hard to say what category that should be in, that film, but I think obviously for me, it’s the most important film I’ve done, because it’s one of those iconic movies that seems never to go away. Always it’s found by the next generation, and that’s fantastic really to have one of those. It’s so rare for an actor to be involved with anything like that, and anyway that’s a very important film for me obviously.
Capone: I’ve read a lot of stories recently when you did some interviews when the BluRay of the film came out and you were sort of telling stories about working with Stanley Kubrick and it seemed like he really embraced your spontaneity and theatricality and your ideas without too much discussion or debate.
MM: And that's entirely because of Kubrick working with Peter Sellers, who brought so much spontaneity to DR. STRANGELOVE and came up with these ingenious ways of playing multiple characters almost on the spot. Sellers was a brilliant impressionist and stand-up comedian. And once the cameras were rolling, there wasn't time for discussion, and of course those are the moments that you never forget in his movies.
And they are things that I came up with in a similar fashion that really were not written in the script; I had a few of those in CLOCKWORK where I would just come up with it. For instance, the whole “Singing in the Rain” routine. I just started to sing it automatically. I didn’t even think about it, it was like I sat down and had a really good think about that, it just happened, and if you’re in the character enough, things like that do happen luckily. Anyway there were quite a few things like that on CLOCKWORK that were improvs and ad-libs, and Stanley saw it and started laughing and knew that that was the way the scene would be going, and then you rework it and make it work.
Capone: I don’t know how it’s been for other generations, but certainly my generation, but there’s a rite of passage in seeing that film for the first time, and everyone has a story about sneaking into it when they were much too young, despite their parents trying to keep them away from that movie.
MM: Of course, the more the parents say “You can’t do this,” the more they want to see it.
Capone: Oh yeah, well that was a big part of it, exactly.
MM: [laughs] That’s a big part of it, I know. And you know, most kids of course can handle it, even fairly young ones, I’m talking 11 and 12. I’ve had kids come up to me and go, “I first saw it when I was 12,” and I always say “And what were your parents smoking?” or something and sort of be flip about it. But I think that every college kid that gets to college, if they haven’t seen it already, they see it at college and they;ve found their movie. They embrace it. Every generation seems to do that, and it’s amazing that 16, 17, and 18 year olds find this movie and they love it. Every generation seems to love it, so it’s amazing really.
It's a great testament also, not only to Stanley, but also to Anthony Burgess. It’s Burgess’ masterpiece, and Stanley did a brilliant job of transferring it to the screen--there’s no question about that. But it’s Burgess’ book that really… I mean I carried around that book with me every day I did the movie and I would say, “Stanley, wait a minute, in the book…,” and he would go “What does it say?” and I would read it out, and he would go “Oh yeah, I forgot about that. Okay, well, I don’t know how we are going to work that in…” But that’s the way it was.
Capone: So you were protective of the source material then?
MM: Yes I was. I was absolutely. Yes, because we were making his bookm as far as I was concerned, and that’s why Stanley wanted to do it, he loved it. He totally loved it.
Capone: From a few years later, another film of yours that I’ve always really liked and for many different reasons than a lot of your other work is TIME AFTER TIME, mainly because it’s just sort of nice to see you play a decent man. You didn’t get too many of those.
MM: No, I know. I never get decent guys. It’s true.
Capone: And a romantic lead on top of that.
MM: And a romantic lead, which they never asked me to do again, so I guess wasn’t that successful, but I loved playing a character of whimsy, and that’s what H.G. Wells was. He was a whimsical character, and it’s quite a difficult thing to pull off in a way I think, well for me it was, but I enjoyed it so much and I loved of course working with Mary [Steenburgen] and doing that whole thing in San Francisco. It was great. It was really great.
Capone: And David Warner did a great job as Jack the Ripper.
MM: Oh, David was wonderful, and of course David and I went back years and years, and we're still great friends. Every time I go to London I call him up. We go to dinner and catch up on our lives, and it’s amazing really.
Capone: Do you wish that--and maybe the options weren’t there--you could have played more of a mix of the good and the bad characters in your films? Or was that not even really an option?
MM: It wasn’t really an option. The thing is this, you can only choose from what you're offered, and if you are never ever offered the kind of good-guy roles then you’re going to be out of work for a long time. And my belief has been, “It’s always better to work,” because that’s the only way you are going to improve your craft, by working, and that’s the only way. So the thing is that I generally went, “Well if that’s it, then that’s it.”
I remember once saying to my agent in London after doing all of these wonderful movies, so I had to say, “Is there anything out there?” He would go, “Well, there’s only one movie being made out of London this year, and it’s called THE PASSAGE, and it’s got Anthony Quinn and James Mason, and the're offering you a part. I went “Oh? What part?” He goes “Well it’s a Colonel in the SS.” “Oh God! Well okay.” To work with those two was a great thrill, and it was so much fun to get to know them, but the film was not very good, it was not a very good script.
Capone: Besides those two, I remember Christopher Lee was in that movie…
MM: Christopher Lee is in it, a small part as a gypsy, and Patricia Neal.
Capone: There you go.
MM: Listen, they had the pick. I mean, it’s a wonderful cast, it really is, and I’ve got some of the worst and best reviews in my career for that performance, because I just decided to play the whole Nazi regime in one character, and the producer was very, very happy with the choices. He said, “At least you went for it. Everybody else was hiding behind rocks all over the Pyrenees pretending they weren’t in this terrible film." I just went “You know what? I’m being paid, I’m just going to go out on a limb and do it,” and I did and I quite enjoyed it, but a lot of people thought it was too much and, listen, it probably was. I don’t know.
Capone: Well you’ve got to figure though that you were going with the director [J. Lee Thompson] who did GUNS OF NAVARONE and he’s making a war film that you're probably in good hands.
MM: I know and I loved him. He was such a great guy. What a terrific guy, he really was. That was fantastic working with him, and of course I got to really know James Mason very well and that was great.
Capone: One of my absolute favorite horror films in general, plus I’m a Paul Schrader fan, is CAT PEOPLE. That’s just such a psychologically complex film. Did it matter at all to you that there almost no connections to the original film?
MM: No. I tell you, the original film is not that good. I know a lot of people go “Oh my God, it’s such a great cult film.” I don’t care. It might be a cult film; I watched it and I went “What the hell is with this? It’s so awful.” But I have to say there is one sequence when she is in an indoor swimming pool like the YMCA or something with the shadows of the cat, and I know they did it for no money at all. So this was truly a terrific scene, and I think that one sequence made that film completely a cult film.
Paul did a terrific job with the script and opening it out and doing it, and I think it was a really interesting movie and of course you had Nastassja Kinski, who was I think 21 or 22 at the time and had to have been one of the most beautiful women in the world and a good actress to boot, a very good actress. She was so good when she was very, very young in Roman Polanski’s adaptation of Thomas Hardy's TESS.
Capone: Sure, I saw that.
MM: A very good actress. Anyway, it was fun working with her; she was a very nice girl.
Capone: Skipping ahead a little bit, I’m sure a lot of people bring this up, the STAR TREK movie that you were in, GENERATIONS…
MM: “The man who killed Kirk.”
Capone: That’s got to get you as many cheers as it does jeers at this point.
MM: I think most people cheer now. [laughs]
Capone: Did you realize the significance of that moment at the time?
MM: I certainly did, because I turned it down a couple of times.
Capone: Because you didn’t want to be that guy?
MM: No, the just wanted me to do it without really paying me. They thought it was enough to be a part of film history. In the end, I did it and it was fine and I enjoyed of course working with [William Shatner] and Patrick [Stewart] and all of the cast were very nice. I think it’s a good film. It stands up quite well in terms of the STAR TREK stuff. It’s one of those things. I only did one. I feel a bit of an impostor when I go to these panels and they start talking minutia about “In episode 79…,” and I’m just like “Oh my God.”
Capone: I was going to ask if you had been to a STAR TREK convention as a result of being in that film.
MM: I've done one in Vegas. It was hilarious, and the joke is I have a nephew who was in "Deep Space Nine." Alexander Siddig [who played Doctor Bashir[ is my nephew, and I got to one of those conventions with him. It was lovely. We were laughing about it, but it was fun.
Capone: How funny. You mentioned THE COMPANY earlier, and I did want to ask you about that, because you made a couple of films with Robert Altman. Tell me about your relationship with him. Like Kubrick, he must have been pretty open to however you wanted to play or change your character.
MM: He was. He was very open to it and of course he requires his actors, whether they are professional or brought from the street, to be in it and to just do it, and it’s fantastic. Altman is the master of just making it look cinematic and interesting. I can think of lots of instances, but one in particular where Neve [Campbell] had to come into my office, with me as the artistic director, she was the dancer, and she was trying to ask me… she wants to be elevated in the company. And there’s lots of things going through my mind, one is I don’t want to say no, because I don’t want to play the heavy. I don’t want to disappoint her, but there’s no way she’s ready for this, and all of those things are going on.
So we played the scene as written, Bob was next door with the earphones watching a monitor and he comes in and he goes, “Hmm, that was pretty boring.” I know really, okay. Nothing like a bit of confidence for the actors. He said, “Listen, this is it. Neve comes in, she comes to you. You walk over to this door, open it, and you ask your assistant 'Make me a pot of tea.’ You come in, you sit down and then you get up again and you go to that door and you open it and you tell them to shut up that they are making too much noise, you come back to the desk, and she starts again, you look at your watch and you go, ‘Whoa hold that thought, I’m late’ and leave.”
I went, “Well, but what about the scene?” And he goes, “That is the scene.” And you know, he’s so right. It’s so cinema. He’s such a man of the cinema and of course he’s right, who gives a damn about what you say? Nobody, but in these actions of her trying to talk to me and me making these excuses and having my attention diverted by any excuse to get away, because he’s feeling uncomfortable, because he doesn’t want to to be pressured into giving her an answer, that’s brilliant and it moves beautifully and the movement of the scene is always moving.
There was another one I heard that he did in GOSFORD PARK, when they were walking down the corridor in the country house, and it was a lot of blah-blah talk. So he just said to Derek Jacobi, who was one of the butlers, “Why don’t you run up the other way chasing a dog.” [Laughs] The whole scene was about this damn dog. You don’t really hear a thing about what the hell they are talking about, it doesn’t matter, but it just elevates it to cinema, and that’s the genius of Bob Altman.
Capone: I know a lot of people who are going to be at this convention are going to have seen you most recently in the HALLOWEEN films. Were you hesitant at all to take over Donald Pleasence's part? Did you ever work with him or see his version of Dr. Loomis?
MM: I knew Donald Pleasence. I knew him. Not well, but to have a drink with and a very wonderful erudite, smart man and a great raconteur. He was always one of those actors that one looked up to who had got it right you know between stage and film. He did everything and always played the rather sinister brilliantly. He was the king of all of that; he was incredible. So when I was asked to do it be Rob Zombie, and I'd seen one of Rob’s movies and quite a movie it is too, THE DEVIL’S REJECTS.
Capone: That’s a great movie, yeah.
MM: It really is. God, the energy that Rob brings to the work, there was no question. I had never seen the original [HALLOWEEN], so it didn’t really matter and I had said to Rob, “Should I see it to see what Donald did?” and he went “No, you better not, just do your own thing.” So I’ve never seen Donald do it, but I can imagine exactly what he did, and I have never seen it to this day.
Then when we came to do the second one, and Rob called me, I was on the golf course and I remember I said “Oh God, I don’t want to just play the same part again. Why don’t we make him an absolute prick?” Then he goes, “That’s a great idea, let’s have some fun with it.” So basically, because he’s been traumatized and at death’s door from the first one, we thought “Well, you could do anything after that.” So they put him on this book tour, and he’s the only one to have made any money out of these tragic events--typical doctor you know. So no I had no hesitation at all of doing it.
Capone: Okay. In the last couple of years, you were in a some comedies that I was lucky enough to see. One was BARRY MUNDAY and then as the principal EASY A.
MM: Yeah, EASY A is lovely.
Capone: Two movies I really admire, and people forget how much humor you always inject even the more diabolical roles that you've played. Is that important to you to make people laugh at your crimes?
MM: [laughs] Completely and utterly. It’s everything to make it humorous, because you know you’ve got to have a smile. We're doing these ridiculous things, and BARRY MUNDAY is fun and especially I think EASY A was. It was one scene and I wanted to do it, because I lived in that town. It was just a little two-minute drive for me down to the school, so it was perfect, and it’s a very good script. I liked the script a lot, and Emma [Stone] is so good. She is such a terrific actress.
Capone: You're on a series now called "Franklin & Bash" and between that and "Heroes" and "Entourage," there’s a good chance that there are some younger people out there who just from your TV work. Is there any differentiation for you between film and TV at this point in terms of what you want to do?
MM: And how you do it? No. The series is kind of nice, because it’s for cable, so you don’t have to just grind it out. You do 10 shows a year, and that’s like three or four months of your time, and the rest of that time you can do movies. So it’s sort of the ideal job. It’s really the best of everything, and I like it because I don’t have to carry the show. It’s these two young guys, and I’m their boss, the head of the law firm, but I don’t feel like I’ve got to be there for 16-hour days, which of course they have to. If you're doing a television show and you're the lead, you better have to love hard work, because that’s what it is.
Capone: Before I let you go I did want to ask you about a couple of things you have coming up. One was the SILENT HILL sequel. Who do you play in that?
MM: I’ve forgotten his name [Leonard Wolf], but I’m a blind man who has been locked away in a dungeon for pretty much all of his life. I’m not sure what relationship, whether I’m her father. I can’t remember now, because I was only there for like four days, but it was a lot of fun doing it. I had to wear these milky-white contacts, which was sort of bizarre in itself, but I did enjoy it, I must say. I enjoyed doing it. It was a very nice scene.
Capone: Your character does have the same last name as Carrie-Anne Moss’ character, so I’m guessing there’s some relation there.
MM: Yeah that’s it. I think I’m supposed to be her father, but I never got to see Carrie and I know her personally. We're old friends, but I never got to see her and I just worked with the young girl who was rather good.
Capone: And then you made a film written and directed by Amy Heckerling.
MM: I love that film, it’s called VAMPS. The lovely Richard Lewis is in it. I had a lot of fun with him.
Capone: It’s kind of neat that Amy has made another movie with Alicia Silverstone too.
MM: I know, and Alicia is so good in this movie. I think it is just now finished. It’s just finished, and I think it’s ready to be seen.
Capone: It’s got some great people in it. Who do you play in that one?
MM: I play Vlad “The Impaler” basically, and he’s one of the vampires, and they're kind of in this home. It’s a lot of fun and I spend a lot of time knitting, and Amy is really a wonderful talent and an original voice, and that’s what’s so nice, doing something like this with her because her take on it is always really interesting.
Capone: There’s a pretty long list of things that you’ve got coming up in the next couple of years. Is there anything else that you might want to talk about?
MM: I think the only thing that I would tell you is next spring, I will be shooting a film called MONSTER BUTLER, which is something that I’ve wanted to do for years, and finally we have the money and we are about to do it.
Capone: And what’s the premise there?
MM: It’s based on a true story of this incredible con-man who in his late 50s becomes literally a serial killer. He kills five people in as many months and it’s a sort of--I hate to say this in a way--A CLOCKWORK ORANGE 40 years on.
Capone: And you are this character?
MM: Yes, he’s played by me.
Capone: Good. Have you got a cast lined up for that besides you?
MM: Well we're going to do it in the spring, so the cast will be all really the best English actors. Hopefully people like Ray Winstone, Joanne Whalley said she wants to do a part in it, John Hurt, just great actors. I love it.
Capone: Then, I'll see you in the next few days in Chicago.
MM: Alright, well wonderful. Listen, it was fun talking to you.