Being John Malkovich means playing many roles these days—theater and film actor, director, and producer; fashion designer; sometimes even an opera singer—and he admits that his distinctive head is spinning a bit. DC audiences have a chance to experience one of his latest projects firsthand when the Shakespeare Theatre presents Malkovich’s version of Les Liaisons Dangereuses December 6–9, in French with English surtitles.
The story takes place in the sumptuous drawing rooms and bedrooms of French aristocrats, who scheme for the upper hand in power, desire, and occasionally, love. This version is an adaptation of the play by Christopher Hampton, based on an 18th-century French novel. A 1988 film based on the play made Malkovich a star as the charismatic debaucher Vicomte Sébastien de Valmont. It was nominated for seven Academy Awards. Long before Malkovich was cast in the film (which he calls, with some understatement, a very nice version of a terrific story), he wanted to direct this play for the theater.
During a quick stop at his US base in Massachusetts, Malkovich talked by phone about the production, which arrives at DC’s Shakespeare Theatre Company following a six-month run at Paris’s Théâtre de l’Atelier.
Malkovich says the quasi-rehearsal atmosphere for the production was inspired by the auditions of about 80 young French actors, either still studying at conservatories or just graduated. As they performed—with no sets or costumes, remaining onstage while others auditioned—they avidly observed and reacted to the action on the stage.
“They taught me how little you need to do evocative theater… to touch people very profoundly. My friends who saw the show were shocked by how compelling, poised, tough, and gifted these young actors are. I realize it was regarded as a radical rereading, but to me it was quite correct,” Malkovich, 58, says, with his signature vocal inflections and pauses. What comes across most strongly as he talks is how much he cares about and admires his young protégés.
Laura Pels, artistic director of the French theater where Malkovich’s production premiered, calls him an extraordinary talent, but also humble. He is fluent in French, and this is the third play he has directed in France.
“A lot of actors and directors want to come to my theater. He came with this great reputation, and although he is American, he was able to direct French actors, which is no small feat.” The nine actors never leave the stage, so they never lose contact with each other. According to Malkovich, sometimes they are acting and sometimes they are observing the action. And sometimes they are completely nude.
“The play is episodic with many scene changes. I find stagehands in black clothes and ponytails moving pieces of furniture not very theatrical,” he adds, dryly. “I wanted a play that would never stop.”
Malkovich has also given the actors plenty of license to act in the moment. He compares his approach to a game of soccer, where the athletes must know the game but are not told every move to make.
“The way I was trained, I see everything as a rehearsal; I don’t see anything that has to be fixed in stone. I take a lot of liberties as an actor, and hope I give as many as a director,” he explains.
Shakespeare Theatre Company Artistic Director Michael Kahn, who saw the production on a visit to Paris, says, “I was blown away by such an original, fresh version. “I was also fascinated that someone so intimately involved in an earlier version could actually envision it differently. It has a directness and vitality different from [a] costume drama. I have loved other productions, but to see it stripped down and investigated moment by moment is a revelation.”
Kahn, who has yet to meet Malkovich and only speaks a little French, chose Les Liaisons Dangereuses as the theater’s first foreign language production. He knows he is taking a chance.
But according to Malkovich, who is off to film a sequel to the Hollywood action film Red, “Many will know the story, and the clarity of intention and purpose is so strong [that] language as a barrier disappears a bit. I like that it’s brought home to its real roots.” Les Liaisons Dangereuses will appear on the Lansburgh Theatre stage, December 6–9, 450 Seventh St. NW, 202-547-1122.