Written by CATHERINE DESPONT
Photographed by VINCENT PETERS
In the now-famous Siri commercial John Malkovich sits in a leather wingback chair, the cool light of a grey afternoon filtering through the curtains behind him. He wears a grey flannel suit and a liberty print tie, and stares appraisingly at his iPhone. A soprano sings in the background and the scene is somehow full of ennui, full of melancholy. The questions he asks Siri, sound more like a quiz than an inquiry. He asks for a joke and then laughs. It’s as though he — brilliant, bored mastermind — had invented Siri himself, and was now ruefully enjoying the fruit of his genius.
Malkovich’s greatest talent is perhaps in his uncanny ability to make the most ordinary things seem mysterious. Somehow, when filtered though him the strangeness of situations become amplified, the sugges-tion of a single syllable can grow sinister. In his hands the trappings of sophistication seem like tools of seduction: his fluent French is the hunter’s way of disarming his prey, his clothes (which he sometimes designs under the dubiously-named label Technobohemian) are the props of a master of disguise. He is actor, director, producer — he is Malkovich — a persona so unique he has grown more intriguing than his roles.
One senses that no one is more in on the joke than John Malkovich. There are no gags, no cheap sarcasm, no eye-roll, at yet there always seems to be some great cosmic prank where he is concerned. He makes everything seem like a game, and yet he never insults his audience — he trusts people are intelligent enough to be in on it, even if the punch line is often bewildering. It may be bewildering but not meaningless, like the perplexity of a Zen koan.
As though returning to teach a new generation the fascinating villainy for which he is famous, Malkovich brought a new production of Les Liaisons Dangereuses to the stage at the end of 2012. For many it was his role as the irresistibly calculating Vicomte de Valmont in the 1988 film that sealed his reputation as an unstoppable force. Clever, scornful, powerful and aristocratic Valmont seethed with devilish joy at his own sophistry. Though set in Rococo France it seemed to capture an image of corruption every bit as modern as Gordon Gekko in Wall Street.
Fittingly enough, in the new play, Malkovich gave his actors iPads and text messages to achieve their deceptions on stage. So perhaps the mastermind was plotting his future schemes while staring into the iPhone. After all, a true genius puts all tools to use for himself.
Maybe someday soon instead of Siri we will have Malkovich telling us jokes.