One of our best screen actors turned 75 today. I was lucky enough to interview him 12 years ago at the Bradford Film Festival – a delight from start to finish!
A substantial layer of snow lies over Yorkshire in early March, a chilly welcome for one of its returning sons, Malcolm McDowell, in Bradford all the way from his lemon grove in California for a retrospective of his work at the 12th Bradford Film Festival. He’s gone AWOL, slipping out for a lunchtime curry, on the Saturday morning I hope to interview him, but is back in time to introduce what for those of us of a certain generation remains his finest film, If…. He’s witty, full of panache and soon has the audience in the palm of his hand. Now in his early sixties, full of energy, he’s surprisingly small with spiky white hair, that rather raddled face impish and still attractive in the dangerous way it always was, the blue eyes piercing and fearsomely intelligent as ever. Just after the film begins I’m granted ‘5 minutes’, with him, which effortlessly expands into more than 20 before a taxi arrives to whisk him off to a short rest before watching the Liverpool match (his team) on TV. We sit knee to knee in the comfy chairs of the bar at the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television, and I begin by asking him how it feels to be back, and whether he still looks on the north of England as home.
‘When I come here I sort of feel at home, but I’m a Californian, because I live there, my children are there… my son’s with me, he’s definitely a American, but he feels at home here too, he’s furious that I sold my house in London. It’s just a case of location, really, if my wife said let’s go and live in England I’d be quite happy. I feel comfortable, but do I feel “English”, do I have a sense of national pride? I’m sort of past all that. I come over at least once a year, if there’s something happening in British film or something, but that’s rare, there’s slim pickings!’
He tells me about a project he’s pursuing at the moment over here, a role as a Yorkshireman, in fact, in a film based on an early C S Forrester novel, Payment Deferred, about a man who is hanged for the wrong murder. I suggest it sounds like a Patricia Highsmith scenario.
‘It is! Forrester was only 23 when he wrote it, a friend of mine wrote the script, it’s a great script, and the director is going to be Eduardo Ponti , son of course of Carlo and Sophia Loren. I did another film with him and I think he’s an immense talent. But it’s all a question of whether we get the money… blah di blah di blah, all that stuff!’ He waves his hand in the air and flashes those eyes, dismissing the wheeler-dealing that has to go on in the world of films, when all he wants is to get down to the nitty gritty of acting.
We talk about his tendency to play nasties, in fact his latest role in the film Evilenko is one of his worst yet, a Russian child killer. Of all the roles he has played, he says, he found this one so unremittingly bad that he uniquely approached it ‘from the outside in’, keeping himself detached from the character. ‘I’m very proud of it, it was a very difficult part, daunting. But usually I think there’s something redeeming about the characters, even if it’s just a sense of humour or something, or a redeeming action, some human element – the things they do might be horrible, but the people themselves …’
Does he ever see himself mellowing into a gentler, elegiac role, like for example Anthony Hopkins in The World’s Fastest Indian?
‘Oh that was lovely wasn’t it – I’m so full of admiration, it’s a great performance. What’s so great about it is it’s very understated, it’s really from the inside out, you look into his eyes and there’s so much more behind them. A great actor at his peak. I love him, though it’s maybe rather sentimental…’ The eyes take on that look again, and you know for sure ‘sentimental’ will never be a criticism of anything he does.
‘You’ve worked continually haven’t you, you’ve never stopped really?’
‘One thing that can be said about me, is that I’m a survivor – a working actor, that’s me really, thank god! I don’t sit around waiting for the right script, or the right director or something like that – you’d never work!’
I ask him what is it that keeps him wanting to do more – is it the acting itself, is it the company, the life on set? He seems to do far more film acting than theatre.
‘I’ve done a fair bit and I love theatre, it’s just that it’s so difficult with a young child, I can’t, I can’t afford the time – filming is great, you go away for a month then go home, you can take your family… but to go for a minimum 6 or 9 months in New York or London… and it takes up your whole time, you start thinking about it straight after lunch and preparing so it’s actually twice the work really…it’s just circumstances, this is the life I’ve chosen – though of course if I found something that I really want to do on stage… but it would have to be something extraordinary.’
I’d earlier met his elder son, a less abrasive-looking version of his younger self, who has just trained as a director, son of McDowell’s second marriage to the actress Mary Steenburgen, with whom he remains on friendly terms. There’s now another son, Beckett, a two-year-old, from his third marriage… I was curious about the name. Was it after Samuel Beckett?
‘Actually it’s not, but it could be – Sam Beckett – I met him once at Jocelyn Herbert’s [stage and film designer and great friend of Lindsay Anderson] house in Portland Place. He was a great friend of hers and she’d done a lot of work with him – he’s quite shy. But no, my grandfather was named Beckett, and my wife said if we ever have a boy, it’s got to be Beckett.’
‘I mentioned it because it made me wonder if you’d ever thought of doing Beckett, because I thought how good you could be, I think you’ve got the sort of stillness, menace, he needs…’
McDowell looks transfixed for a moment… ‘Yeah, I’ve never thought about that – the thing is no-one’s ever asked me, and, you can only do things that you’re asked, I’m not the sort of one that goes out and pushes … people will say, Malcolm why on earth did you do this, and I’ll say – well because they offered it to me.’
One film he did push for was his first, If…, and it was during that audition that he has described his ‘Zen moment’, when at the receiving end of an unexpected slap from co-star Christine Noonan, unexpected because he hadn’t read the script through, he felt a great spiritual lucidity and knew what it was to’ live in the moment’. I tell him how much I’m enjoying watching the film, how fresh it still seems.
‘What an entrance, eh!’ he beams. His first appearance in the film, and in fact on screen ever, as a subversive sixth former at a public school, is mysteriously muffled up in scarf and hat, only those eyes showing, promising all sorts of danger. ‘You know I was stopped on the King’s Road by Anouk Aimée, who was a goddess to me – she said [French accent] “Malcurm, (she was going out with Albert Finney at the time, who was one of the producers of If, in fact they married,) she said “I ’ave nevair seen a more staggereeng entrance into a movee”…I went – Really! “- aah, with zee scarf and zee hat and you take eet off, ah, so romantic…”, and she was like going on about it, and I’d never even thought about it!’
I tell him how much the film meant at the time to people like me, first generation university students having their first encounters with public school boys, and how it helped us realise what made them the way they were. ‘You were at public school weren’t you? Not quite that kind, presumably, not quite as rigid …’
‘Not as posh, no, but actually the minor ones were worse, trying to be something they’re not. Actually the one I went to I loved– it made me – I was, er (he hunts for the appropriate word!)… mischievous, as a child, and I loved the discipline, and I had a great headmaster, a fantastic educator, and I really got on well there, after a year or two, I was rebelling all the time and getting beaten, and then I figured it out, and loved it.’
‘So at the end of the film you’re not putting your soul into gunning down the parents and everything!’
We laugh. ‘Because you look as if you are! – but I suppose that’s acting, isn’t it!’
‘The thing about that film, nowadays watching it people go oh my god, Columbine, but it’s not that at all, it’s a poetic statement by the director, he wrote a fantasy, a Bunuelish side of him.’
I agree that it is certainly that, but also very much of its time, and say how much it’s taking me back to how it was, how we thought we could change the world then.
‘Yes, it’s maybe what we were thinking – blow away all the bloody lot! Everyone was protesting about something, I couldn’t take my dog to the park without bumping into someone like Harold Pinter – “Oh come and join us!” Of course he’s still doing it!’
Probably McDowell’s most famous, or infamous film, is A Clockwork Orange. Full of shocking violence, led by the ruthless and amoral free spirit Alex played by McDowell, and with a few so called ‘copycat’ crimes in its wake, the film was withdrawn after about a year by its director Stanley Kubrick, adding, of course to its cult status. I asked him about how he felt about this, and whether he had any misgivings about how it affected people.
‘I didn’t realise it was withdrawn at the time – I was out of the country – it opened, it ran for a year – well, it had really run its course, it wasn’t till the 10th anniversary I was aware of it, wondered why they weren’t showing it – and then this whole myth that came out about it – it made it even more desireable. I had no particular feelings – it was Stanley’s decision. But after he died his wife told me how the family had had death threats, and Stanley had withdrawn it on the advice of Scotland Yard. As I see it people really do weird things, and anything could trigger it – could be a film, could be missing a bus… you don’t know.’
At this point I realise Malcolm’s entourage are hovering around, keen to be off, so I begin to wind up, asking if he’s thinking of retiring to his lemon grove soon.
‘Well, not until they carry me out! – until then I’ll keep it going. You asked what is it that makes me love acting, it’s, yes, it’s doing the part, the camaraderie of it, but the nice thing is I’ve been doing it so long there seems a wonderful freedom comes with it – I don’t take it too seriously, just enjoy what comes. It’s what I love to do. I did two plays a year at school, one musical, one Shakespeare, and really, I wasn’t trained at all, just had to do it – you were cast and told to do it, and that was it. In a weird way I suppose that was my training. The first play I did on the professional stage was a play called Woman in a Dressing Gown, by Ted Willis, very kitchen sink! I played the son, and it just happened to be a perfect part for me, and so I was very good, but the next week was something quite different where I had to stretch, and I was very bad. So I had to work out through weekly rep how to act, I hadn’t got as clue.’
Nowadays repertory theatre has all but gone, and I wonder if he thinks that’s a big loss for young actors not to have that experience.
‘That’s right, you have to go to drama school now really. I think I was lucky that I wasn’t trained, to tell you the truth, the technique that I came up with from listening to people like Lindsay you know, is as good as any training, in fact a lot better.’
Lindsay Anderson, one of the most influential British directors of the sixties and director of If… and its sequels O Lucky Man and later Britannia Hospital, became Malcolm’s mentor and great great friend. Their mutual affection is palpable and very affecting in the final sequence of O Lucky Man. Malcolm has written extensively about him and the inspiration he brought to him as an actor.
‘He really took you under his wing, didn’t he?’
‘Oh yes he did. He was a celibate homosexual. That was far too sophisticated a thing for me to understand at the time, I used to say to David Sherwin, our writing partner – did Lindsay never have a lover, and he used to say no – I think he’s neuter. I thought – wow you may be right – because we didn’t know, and it was only when we subsequently read his diaries, how lonely he was – it broke my heart. He loved the people he couldn’t have, Richard Harris and myself, and various other people through his life, he only fell in love with the ones that weren’t attainable, who were heterosexual He hated camp, hated it, you’d better not be camp around Lindsay, he hated it, so he was an amazing mixture, he was truly one of the great great English directors.
I remember just going around with him after If…, he insisted, “No, Malcolm’s coming, the star of the film.” But I wasn’t really the star, there were three of us, but he sort of picked me out. Lindsay would be erudite, funny, provocative, and I’d sit there in total awe while we were making the films, thinking – this man is describing it perfectly, he can see it, how it will be, I was amazed at that – and now I find myself in his position – I was watching then, now I’m doing the same thing, now I know what he knew…’
So was Lindsay, I ask, the greatest director he ever worked with, better than Altman, Kubrick…?
‘Oh yes – though I love Altman.’ Malcolm was recently in The Company by Altman, a film about a ballet company, that had mixed reviews. ‘It’s a lovely film – not the full orchestra, but a chamber work, I’d say. I love Bob dearly. I’ve known him since about 1970 – we partied together, yes we were mates. I told him – it’s not good to be a friend of yours if you’re an actor cos you’ll never get cast! We laughed – every major city we found ourselves in we’d call, have dinner, the laughs, the fun – I tell you he and his wife, they loved a party, they were fifties children, they thought if you go out to a good party all your troubles were over. I just love that about him.’
‘He’s in this country as well isn’t he, just been directing the new Arthur Miller play in London? Will you be getting together?’
‘Ah well, the joke is we petitioned to get him the special Oscar this year, and now the Oscars are on and I’m here and he’s gone back to receive the award…’
The entourage are here again and insistent that the cab is waiting, so that’s it. I thank him for his time, and off he goes. It’s been a delight. Later tonight he’ll hold the floor in the Q&A, slipping into anecdotes about the great names of British and US film, playing H G Wells and Gangster No 1, the comically awful experience of making Caligula, a Roman epic unexpectedly taken over by a porn director (my dear, have you ever seen so much cock!?, asked a shell-shocked Gielgud), and Lindsay, always Lindsay, overrunning by a whole hour because he’s so full of life and the audience love him. For now I go back into the screening of If… and am straightaway confronted up large on the screen by those same uncompromising blue eyes from 30 years ago…
First published May 2006