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Politics and Personality

John Malkovich Talks About His New Film, ‘The Dancer Upstairs’

By Robin Hauck

The Dancer Upstairs

Directed by John Malkovich

Written by Nicholas Shakespeare (from his novel)

Produced by John Malkovich and Lianne Halfon

Starring Javier Bardem, Laura Morante and Juan Diego Botto

John Malkovich’s new film, The Dancer Upstairs, is a fictionalized account of the quest to capture Abimael Guzman, the leader of Sendero Luminoso (The Shining Path), a Peruvian guerilla group. Based on the novel by Nicholas Shakespeare, The Dancer Upstairs tells the story of an honest policeman assigned by very corrupt officials to find the notorious terrorist. I met with Malkovich recently and asked him about the film.

Wearing a grey suit with a candy-colored vest underneath, Malkovich seemed relaxed and eager to expand on his experience. Though this was his first feature as director/producer (he does not appear in the film), he stressed that moving from acting to directing was natural. “I started directing when I started acting,” he said. “I don’t think like an actor, I think like a filmmaker. When I consider a project, I don’t think of it strictly from an actor’s perspective.”

Malkovich explained that when he and his partners at Mr. Mudd Productions began thinking seriously about adapting the novel, they decided it would make the most sense if he directed. He downplays the notion that this film is a calculated directorial debut or that he is radically changing his career.

In fact, he has always kept his career radical. In 1976 he co-founded the independent Steppenwolf Theater Company in Chicago, which continues to thrive today. As a film actor he chooses roles that challenge the audience -- the icy Vicomte de Valmont in Dangerous Liaisons and “himself” in Being John Malkovich are two of my favorites. His production company, Mr. Mudd, produced the cult-fave Ghost World and How to Draw a Bunny, with artists Chuck Close and Roy Lichtenstein.

The Dancer Upstairs dances between political thriller, detective noir and romantic drama. It is often hard to follow -- characters are introduced and dismissed before we really know who they are, and scenes are often juxtaposed without a sense of flow or narrative progress. Many scenes take place in darkness.

Malkovich says the construction was very carefully planned. “Everything is a decision in storytelling,” he said. “Although most films don’t make those decisions thoughtfully, we did. We tried to reveal the characters as they go along. For instance, we kept in secondary characters that usually always get cut from films. They fill in the picture of the main character’s life. Lots of life is boring, washing dishes, but you don’t see that in films.”

He mentions a conscious decision not to make a film like My Dinner With Andre, which he admires. The novel has an “as told to” structure and the film could have emmulated that approach more than it did. Malkovich says he decided to tell the story in a more linear way, but without being too linear -- without the “shortcuts” he says sabotage most movies today.

Malkovich said he spent time in Latin America during Peruvian President Fujimori’s crackdown on terrorism, and felt Shakespeare’s novel captured the chaotic and fearful atmosphere he experienced while there. One of the strengths of the film is its depiction of the gradual realizations the policeman Rejas (Javier Bardem) comes to while he is pursuing the terrorist -- known as President Ezequiel. He sees a photograph of Ezequiel and realizes he took it. He goes to the village where he grew up and finds that the villagers he knew as a child have been indoctrinated by the revolutionary’s teachings.

Violence erupts in the city. Dead dogs hang from lampposts dangling notes written in blood. Chickens walk into crowded squares with sticks of dynamite around their necks. A theater troupe murders political officials sitting in the audience.

But this is not politics, Malkovich says, but a narrative in political context. Rejas falls in love with his daughter’s ballet teacher, and the relationship evolves parallel to the hunt for Ezequiel.

“Films don’t do political science.” Malkovich explains. “This story is personal. Politics is mostly personal. There’s worldwide confusion as to what is political and what is personal. How can you separate your politics from your personal beliefs?”

At this I called him a feminist -- “the personal is political!”-- and he chuckled. “I’ve read more Simone de Beauvoir than most feminists.”

I like John Malkovich, I really do.

Much has been made of the fact that this film was made before September 11 and that a story about terrorism could be risky with American audiences -- either drawing them in as Fox Searchlight is hoping, or scaring them off. Malkovich shrugs off the concern, again focusing on the personal story. “What was the cult of personality that surrounded Guzman?” he asks. He’s betting that people will be more interested in that story and in the strong performances of his cast.

I hope he’s right.