Horsing around with John Malkovich

Perfecting an intense onscreen persona comes easily to John Malkovich. He has wowed (and sometimes scared) audiences by playing a mastermind criminal in Con Air, a misguided policeman in Les Misérables and a cold killer in In the Line of Fire. Of course, who can forget (or understand) his kooky performance in Being John Malkovich? We chatted with the Hollywood favorite, who was in town to promote his newest movie, Secretariat, which opens Friday. In the family-friendly story, the 56-year-old actor leaves the crazy behind to play real life horse trainer Lucien Laurin.

Do you have a lot of experience with horses?

“I have some. When I was a kid, I liked to ride. Then I didn’t do it for many years. Doing movies, I have worked with horses quite a few times. I love horses, I just don’t trust them an inch. Horses are weird. You can be on a horse and squeeze off 500 rounds of gun fire, and they’re fine. But then you can be on a horse, and they see a garbage bag two miles away blowing across a field, and they go nuts.”

Are you a big fan of Secretariat?

“I always loved him and watched all the races. ESPN Sports Century did a fantastic program about Secretariat. It’s 20 minutes, and you can see it on YouTube. His race at the Belmont is the single most impressive athletic feat. I still can’t believe it. It just seems utterly impossible, and he was accelerating at the finish line, so it’s not like he was tired. That was the most amazing athletic thing I’ve ever seen.” The characters in the movie overcome many obstacles in order to help Secretariat win.

What did it mean for you?

“There’s a man in the ESPN program who was there the day of the Belmont race. In the pro- gram, he refers to it quite hauntingly as an almost supernatural event. I think anytime you see something like that, whether done by ani- mals or people, you’re reminded of the extraordinary capacities and potential of living things to create beauty. That’s why I love and loved watching him. You couldn’t teach Secretariat about running, he ran his own races.”

How many horses played Secretariat in the movie?

“We had six. One looked right and had a great temperament, and a couple could run. They had to have makeup because Secretariat had distinctive spots and, I think, white on his right leg. But you really, really couldn’t duplicate him. He was so immense. His head, his shoulders . . . he looked like a horse of war, not a thoroughbred.” In the movie, Secretariat’s owner Penny Chenery (Diane Lane) believes her horse will win, no matter what the critics say.

Was there a time in your career where someone believed in you and made a difference in your life?

“A couple of instructors in college and most espe- cially a teacher for all of us kids who started Steppenwolf [Theatre Company]. His name was Dr. Ralph Lane. . . . I wasn’t really raised to need people to believe in me. I was raised to believe it was up to me. But in the early days of Steppenwolf, when we all worked our eight-hour day jobs, and none of us made any money for the first seven or eight years, we had a lot of people who believed in us. If it wasn’t for critics like Richard Christiansen and our board members it would have been very difficult to keep going.”

So you have two movies coming out a week apart, “Secretariat” and “Red”, which opens Oct. 15. That must feel pretty awesome.

“It just kind of worked out that way. I liked both of them, and they are both very different. Sometimes, sadly often, you make a movie and have a great time, but the [movie] is not very good. And then sometimes you have a terrible time, and it turns out to be a great movie. But these were both enjoyable, and I think they’ll both be good, so I’m happy about that.”


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