At the dawn of the '70s, the legendary faces of British theater and cinema (the Laurence Oliviers, Peter O'Tooles, and Richard Burtons) gave way to one face in particular: the angular, pop-eyed mug of Malcolm McDowell. His performances in Lindsay Anderson's If… and Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange at the start of his career made him an international movie star and a go-to leading man for edgy filmmakers. Since the '70s, McDowell's career has had its ups and downs, but he's always maintained a steady work schedule, largely because of his willingness to try anything, be it sitcoms (the short-lived Pearl), cartoon voiceovers (like Superman: The Animated Series), or the villain role on a popular superhero-themed TV drama (Heroes). On the occasion of the new DVD release of Caligula—a notorious big-budget sex epic produced by Penthouse's Bob Guccione—McDowell spoke about that film, his relationships with great directors, and his dedication to working hard.
The A.V. Club: A lot of actors would've run from something like Caligula, but even though you've made it plain that you have problems with the movie, you've still embraced it over the years.
Malcolm McDowell: Of course. Once you commit to something, you've got to commit the whole way. Try and make the best of it. Now, things weren't perfect on that movie, which is sort of well-known, but as far as my professional ability and my professionalism goes, it doesn't really make a difference whether you're making a Stanley Kubrick film or Caligula. The effort and the work that you do is basically the same. Of course, the result is not the same, but from my own point of view—which is admittedly narrow—it's the same effort. If not moreso. It's much easier to be doing a Stanley Kubrick film.
AVC: How easy or hard is it for you to perceive how a movie is going while it's still in production?
MM: You really don't know, to be honest. You could be feeling very, very good, some of the scenes are fantastic, but maybe they'll screw it up in the editing. Who knows? It's such a collaborative medium, and you're a small cog in a big wheel, and everything has to be aligned to make a great film. That's why there are so few great films. It's sort of like going into battle. If you use the analogy of Waterloo, how lucky was [the Duke of] Wellington that everything just aligned? And also, you can do all the planning you like, but that's only half the story. Real greatness comes from that sort of spontaneity of the moment that takes it into another level. That can never be planned; it happens or it doesn't. And you can't force it. You know, with Kubrick, he wouldn't turn on the camera until there was what he called "a little magic." And so we'd work hard rehearsing it, and try to find that. Sometimes it just wasn't there, so we'd just keep on and on and on. And then actually, out of sheer boredom, I'd do something ridiculous and it was perfect.
AVC: Was it different with, say, Robert Altman? Did he prefer to shoot and see what was happening while you were rehearsing?
MM: Robert was completely different. He was a master of what he does, I think. One of the most extraordinary talents to come out of America, in terms of directing. An authentic voice. But Bob's thing was many cameras. He wanted actors to live in the moment, and he would then choreograph the dance and pick what he wanted. Lots of ad-libbing, of course. Pretty much all the time, you never knew what was on and what was not. So better stay in character. The film that I did [2003's The Company], Bob actually shot in hi-def, which could go on for 90 minutes on a single chip. And I think after about 20 minutes of doing a scene, I'd look at the camera—and he wasn't in the room, he was next door with his earphones on at the monitors—and I'd just say, "Bob! There's nothing left to say!" And I heard, "Cut!" [Laughs.]
AVC: You've worked with a lot of great directors: Stanley Kubrick, Robert Altman, Lindsay Anderson. Which one do you think brought out your best?
MM: Different directors offer you different things, and it's not necessarily the most obvious things. The most nurturing of directors can make you feel too comfortable, and you don't really push for that extra whatever. Lindsay Anderson was, of course, my favorite. He was just a great friend as well, and I knew the style in which he wanted me to work. He wanted me to be real, but never realistic. To work in a heightened style, which was wonderful. He was bored with naturalism and said, "That's nothing to do with us. Save that for television or documentaries. I'm not interested." And so he taught me, really, how to work in a heightened style while at all times keeping it real. Hopefully. And he was my first director, and really ,I couldn't have started with a better man.
Did he get the best out of me? I think he did. I did numerous things with him. The parts that I played in If… and O Lucky Man! particularly were much more voyeuristic kinds of roles. Especially O Lucky Man! I'm always coming into a scene, observing it, and moving on. In fact, this was one of my complaints to him at the time: "I'm not driving this thing. I feel like an idiot. How many more times can I react? I'm getting sick of it. I've got no more reactions! I've done five already!" And we used to laugh about it, but it was sort of true that reacting in cinema is a great art. Humphrey Bogart comes to mind, or Gary Cooper. No better reactors than those two.
AVC: Caligula started filming toward the end of the era when films by the likes of Alejandro Jodorowsky, Luis Buñuel, and Federico Fellini trafficked in a similarly over-the-top sensibility. But by the time Caligula was released, it was like its time had passed. Did you sense that?
MM: No, I can't see the forest for the trees. But there is something old-fashioned about Caligula, even though it's risqué. It was a strange experience, to say the least. I got into it because of Gore Vidal, who wrote the original screenplay. But then he left, took his name off of it, and still tried to manipulate the situation, whatever it was. So basically, I was left on my own, contracted to do it. I was signed. I just had to do it the best I could. I did feel a sort of betrayal by Guccione, who added all this porn footage later. That was annoying. But at the end of the day, I don't know if any of that really matters. It's best not to harbor too many grudges. That's what I feel now, and that's why I did the commentary on the DVD. I didn't tell all the stories, because I still feel there is a good comedy show on Caligula. I have so many good stories about the shooting of that movie that would make a good hour and a half onstage. It's extremely funny, a lot of it.
AVC: Walking onto a set of half-naked Penthouse Pets: fun or embarrassing?
MM: It's work! It's sort of funny. When they first arrived, I think they thought they were supposed to be in some sort of James Bond movie. There was one being shot nearby, but it was being shot in Malta. They were nice girls. They were pretty game. They were sent in because Guccione didn't think the extras we had been using were pretty enough. [Caligula director] Tinto Brass threw up his hands and said, "This is Rome, for God's sake! This is Fellini's Rome!" Rome is not full of beautiful people by any stretch of the imagination, and it still isn't.
But Guccione was very smart in a lot of ways. He headed an empire, a bit like a Roman emperor. And he lost it, just like a Roman emperor. It was really strange to be doing a movie that he was paying for. But when you're filming, that isn't what you're thinking. You're just trying to get the scenes to work. That was particularly what I was trying to do. I was just trying to work and figure out, logically, "What are we trying to say here?" I can't tell you how many times the scenes were rewritten and redone. That was endless. But we just tried to make it work. It still doesn't work, but, anyway, there's enough interest in it. My friends who know about that period, and who have read Suetonius, who is the historian of that period, think it is very authentic. And our director did a lot of research, and our art department was brilliant. It's Danilo Donati, Fellini's designer, no less, who did all the sets and the costumes.
AVC: Between films like John Cameron Mitchell's Shortbus and Ang Lee's Lust, Caution, there seems to be a resurgence of films that try to grapple with how far you can go onscreen sexually: whether you need to put on enough of a show to make it look real, or you need to actually be explicit. As an actor, how do you feel about a filmmaker saying, "In order for it to be real, it has to be real"?
MM: I think that's crap. I think that's pathetic. Go get another job. Listen: We're in the business of illusion. We are illusionists. Seriously, that is absolutely pathetic. You're telling me to do a love scene, you actually have to have penetration? That's absolutely beyond pathetic. If you can't think of any way of making that exciting, you're in the wrong job. That's what I think. I remember when they did Don't Look Now, and they thought that Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie actually made love on camera. It's laughable. They were just two extremely gifted actors who made everybody believe they did and ran with it. There was no way there was penetration on the set. No way. Because that crosses over into a porno picture, and I don't care which way you dress it up.
AVC: Throughout the '70s, you seemed to land in films—like If…, O Lucky Man!, and A Clockwork Orange, and at the end of the decade Caligula—that were controversial to say the least. Were you drawn to that kind of material, or were the casting directors just drawn to you?
MM: I really had no say in it, except O Lucky Man!, for which I wrote the original storyline and original script. I lucked out that my first film [If…] was with a master, and he was just an extraordinary person in my life. When I met him, my life did a 360 completely. It was one of those extraordinary meetings that you have occasionally in your life. And I don't mean only work; I mean in friendship and loyalty and everything else. I learned so much from him. I think it might have been something like John Wayne had with John Ford, or Lillian Gish with [director D.W.] Griffith. Just such a powerful character in your life early on, it means so much. Stanley Kubrick cast me from seeing If… He saw it five times. I didn't audition, I just went to meet him, had a cup of tea, and he gave me the book and said, "Read it and call me." And that was it. Kubrick of course was extraordinary in a very different way, but if I hadn't worked for Lindsay Anderson, I wouldn't have been ready for Stanley. He gave me the confidence and he gave me the technique, such as it was in those early days, to survive. And to prosper.
AVC: Having worked with Kubrick and Lindsay Anderson right out of the box, did you find it more difficult to work with directors who are a little less inspired?
MM: No, not at all. I'm very pragmatic in that I know there are very few greats in anything. I got lucky just to have gotten two of the real greats very early on. Better to have had them than to not have had them. And I've worked with other good directors—some of them really good. I've been really fortunate. That's the key relationship on a movie: the director and the actor. Of course, you can't compare the experiences. When you're in your early 20s, you're a very different person. It was a very exciting time, and my whole world was changing. Now I'm looking back, and hoping I can still offer something. Still do good work.
AVC: In your recent filmography, you've worked in areas that people might not have expected you to go in: animation, sitcoms, superhero stories. You really seem to be open to whatever comes along.
MM: Yeah, I've tried it all. I'd love to do radio plays. I think that one should be open to everything and shouldn't limit oneself. I particularly love theater, but with my family situation, it's much harder for me to do that now. I just love a challenge, and always have, and will do anything to make it interesting. I'll try anything, really, as long as it's a challenge and you can have some fun doing it. I think, honestly, having fun and keeping it fairly light are the key elements.