“I don’t think about how I’m perceived,” Malkovich said. “It’s not my business. You like Jackson Pollock? I’m good with ‘The Night Watch.’ We all have preferences.”
The series’ creator, Paolo Sorrentino (“The Great Beauty”), on the other hand, was unequivocal in his enthusiasm for Malkovich as Sir John Brannox, an English aristocrat and former punk musician who reluctantly takes over for Jude Law’s Pope Pius XIII on Jan. 13, when the show returns after a three-year hiatus.
“The pope is an iconic figure, and John Malkovich is one of the few iconic actors,” Sorrentino said in an email. “How many actors can boast of their name being used in the title of a film?”
Sorrentino was referring to the 1999 movie “Being John Malkovich,” written by Charlie Kaufman and directed by Spike Jonze, which loosely capitalized on the mystique Malkovich had by then cultivated, mostly by way of memorable villains in films like “Dangerous Liaisons” (1988), “Con Air” (1997) and “In the Line of Fire” (1993), for which he earned his second Oscar nomination.
When it came to imagining his series’ next pope, Sorrentino was similarly inspired by Malkovich, borrowing the actor’s slow, meditative diction and unnerving inscrutability as he shaped the character. A troubled soul and fair-weather friend to Meghan Markle, Brannox, who takes the name Pope John Paul III, leads the church warily when compared with Law’s glowering, imperious Pius, who had a heart attack and slipped into a coma at the end of the first season, “The Young Pope.”
“John is elegant, suave and ironic, at once light and profound,” Sorrentino said of Malkovich. “He gives importance to things. But if those things didn’t exist, he could easily do without them.”
“All these features seemed perfect for the character,” he added, “so I stole them.”
As if in service to Sorrentino’s impression, Malkovich, 66, roamed a suite at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills on an uncommonly chilly December evening to fuss with the thermostat before giving up and rubbing his hands together for warmth. But unlike his pope, who mourns “the inexhaustible imperfection of the world,” Malkovich was unsentimental about his own life’s work.
“You don’t really learn anything,” said Malkovich, who has appeared in more than 100 screen and theatrical productions; was a founding member of the Steppenwolf Theater Company, in Chicago; and is also a vintner and a men’s fashion designer. “You’re comprised of your experiences. And that’s what makes you, or in fact breaks us all in the end.”
His trademark gaptoothed smile spread slowly across his face: “We die and then we’re gone. That’s OK.”
These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
What did you and Paolo discuss in terms of how your character might be a different type of leader than Jude Law’s?
When we discussed it, mine was going to be a German who had spent a lot of time in England. Then he became an English aristocrat. The punk rock back story came when the decision was made to make him English. And then we communicated about what I thought was important or we could use more of or less of, et cetera. But it wasn’t so much the discussion; the role kind of revealed itself in the writing and rewriting.
Of course with Paolo, most things are revealed when you see what the camera does. His way of putting people in a geography — in a room or outdoors, at a time of day — pretty much tells you what to do. The rituals, the secrets, the symbolism of the church: That’s a very hard kind of nut to crack with words.
Did putting on the papal vestments prompt something more in terms of connecting to that character?
Yeah, sure. Because the church just fits into all those S’s: symbolism, spirituality, sacredness, secrets. It satisfies a longing that I think naturally exists in people. How do we live? Why are we here? Was I even here? We kind of forget to ask those questions. That’s what I think the church is for. You know, I’m an atheist, but I get the point. And that’s something I think Paolo, being Italian and being Catholic, just understands on the most profound levels.
We are rich in pontiff-related art right now, between “The New Pope” and the new Netflix film “The Two Popes.” Why do you think this subject compels us?
Well, I haven’t seen the one with Jonathan Pryce and Anthony Hopkins (“The Two Popes”), but I think it probably came about due to the fact that there are actually two living popes — that’s a pretty unique thing happening in a religion with a billion-and-change adherents. And the attention isn’t that surprising at a time when people maybe are searching for something, some spiritual element, to their existence. Even though the world is wildly more secular than it was 20 years ago, let alone 50 or 100 years ago, the pope is a kind of father and mother that a huge number of people look to for guidance.
Were you raised in a religious household, and was there a moment when you broke with faith?
No. My parents were sort of evangelical atheists. I was religious when I was young, quite possibly in reaction. Just over time, I didn’t believe. I don’t make snarky remarks about it. I’m happy to be in a church or a temple or a mosque. I just don’t see that there’s some plan. But who am I? I’m nothing. That’s just my own feeling.
It was reported that when you were filming in Rome, bystanders handed you their babies to be blessed. Why do you think they did this?
I don’t know. There exists this notion that we can be blessed into a state of grace. Maybe somebody can do that. Not me, certainly. I mean, if you give me a baby, I’ll keep it unless you want it back. I love babies. I’m always detached from, but amused by, the confusion people have between one’s characters and oneself.
Like “Being John Malkovich,” “The New Pope” breaks the fourth wall when a character remarks on your character’s resemblance to the actor John Malkovich. What do you think it is about you that invites this playfulness with your persona?
It sort of seems like my life’s goal is to promote references to myself. But it’s actually not. I think it’s not related to me. People sometimes ask me these wild questions about “my legacy.” What are you talking about? I’m an actor. My legacy is I’m a jerk-off.
Still, “Being John Malkovich” must have a certain pride of place for you, either on your résumé or in your heart.
Having a film called “Being John Malkovich” doesn’t really mean much to me. Having had a half-percent part at the inception of Spike Jonze’s and Charlie Kaufman’s careers means much more. I’m happy about that because they made something that was well out of the norm, broke many rules, and introduced two very big talents. People forget I’m just an actor in it. I had nothing to do with the conception. I didn’t write a word. When I first read it, I wanted to direct it. I wanted the focus to be, say, William Hurt or Tom Cruise or William Shatner or whoever. But Charlie had no interest in that.
(BEGIN OPTIONAL TRIM.)
You share a scene in “Pope” with Marilyn Manson. Was he what you expected?
He’s quite church-like. His show — there’s a lot of pageantry. And a lot of play with the sacred, or not-so-sacred. I don’t know his work that much, but I loved doing the scene with him. I think he’s very clever, very funny, very easy to talk to.
You’re a winemaker and he makes absinthe. Did you exchange bottles?
I don’t think he talked about that. I’ll have to ask: I think my daughter likes absinthe.
(END OPTIONAL TRIM.)
Did you have any hesitation about stepping into the role of a hallowed figure, or sense any resistance from believers to the scandalizing aspects of the series?
I don’t know how the believers regard it, although I’d be interested to hear. I didn’t really talk to any Vatican figures, but I mean … Jude Law playing the pope? I think it’s safe to assume that viewership at the Vatican was pretty high. A lot of people like to watch things about their world and what they do.
Has playing the pope and also a Harvey Weinstein-type figure in David Mamet’s recent play “Bitter Wheat” led you to any new insights about men in power?
A few years ago, I was touring in an opera-hybrid theater thingy in Europe, “Just Call Me God.” I played a Saddam Hussein-like figure, but a line I wrote in that was “the one thing I know about power is the good never seek it.” And that’s not wholly inaccurate.
You wrote and starred in a film directed by Robert Rodriguez called “100 Years,” which won’t be released until 2115. What drew you to that idea?
It’s a commercial thing for the Remy Martin company. They explained to me that their premium cognac, Louis XIII, takes 100 years to make. So the steward of it never sees it, and neither does the one after that. And I thought it was kind of a fascinating thing. Perhaps my children, if they have children, those children could be alive when the film is released. Probably more likely their grandchildren. In a way, what Robert and I did was a letter from the dead. That’s quite satisfying.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times .