John Malkovich is an intense actor. His roles are often unconventional, dark and the littlest bit creepy.
When the Chicago native enters a room he quietly unfurls and unfolds, seemingly gliding with the precision of a jungle cat, yet lumbering with the purpose of a Grizzy bear. And, though soft spoken with a voice like steel wool, sharp, ever observant eyes make you think twice about asking him the wrong question.
Sitting down with Malkovich at the Trump Tower to talk about his role as natty Lucien Laurin in Disney’s Secretariat was an overwheming, amazing, intimidating treat, and once the father of two smiled, warmly I might add, the conversation became almost comfortable.
Acting appears to be so effortless for you. Is it the way it seems?
Well, I think anything you do isn’t really done effortlessly. It’s always a struggle to do something, anything well, and you have to have a certain degree of training, and you have to take certain steps to ensure that you make it look effortless even if it isn’t.
I wouldn’t include acting among my most difficult jobs I’ve had, but it’s also a matter of your personality, too. Some people would be terrified to do that, and some people wouldn’t last for five minutes working in an office.
Was there something you particularly liked during filming?
Well, there wasn’t anything I disliked shooting I think. But I liked – I think we all liked shooting the reactions to the Belmont which was such an incredible race, and which we all knew quite well.
You watched Secretariat when you were younger.
So it must have been exciting to be a part of it again in a way.
That was such a clear memory of mine. It was something that really stuck in my mind.
You’ve mentioned having nothing in common with the real life Lucien Laurin who is no longer alive. How did you prepare for the role?
Rewatched all the races, re-read Bill Nack’s book about Secretariat, and a lot of the articles. There wasn’t tons and tons of preparation time, because sometimes the studio takes a long time to decide things and I’m not going to work on anything if I’m not sure it’s going to go anywhere.
I also spoke at length with Ellen Chenery and also spent a great deal of time with the writer who wrote about Secretariat. It was by Bill Nack who was there and covered Secretariat.
Would it have added anything to your performance to have been able to meet him?
I would say there’s no real difference unless the person you’re playing from real life or what we refer to as real life, is very known. He was not very known, nor would it particularly have helped to know him. There are certain things that you kind of have to do. So in a sense you go into an impression, but I try to avoid doing that.
What would you have liked to ask Laurin?
I would have loved to hear his opinion of why he thought the horse was so special, what he thought made it such a monumentally successful racehorse, because there isn’t all that much about that out there.
Tell me about your experience with the different horses on set. Did you feel as much of a connection to them as your character?
Well, we had 6 different horses so… it was always different. One of the Secretariat horses was a little bit skittish publicly, but most of them were probably a lot easier than most thoroughbreds are.
I always have a pretty good relationship with horses for the most part, but I think thoroughbreds can be incredibly difficult, and we did have some real racehorses, and Otto was thrown many times as a jockey. They can act out. And there’s not a thing you can do about it.
Horses are typically portrayed as soothing creatures that have a therapeutic effect for a lot of people. Did you feel that?
I don’t trust horses at all, but I like them a lot. So I’m always very happy to be around them with my eyes open.
I have a healthy respect for horses, too.
Exactly! I was riding a horse once in Poland for a movie and the character I played was in the wilderness and there were a lot of montage scenes where I ride up to a farm, gravel flying, sun setting… and Elf, my horse who was just massive, bolted one day and you can pull on his reins, pull on his hair, punch him in the face… nothing.
Finally, I was able to run into a stream and literally pull away hanging on his neck. If he’d wanted to keep on going he would have. And I had a little kid riding with me at the time, but he wasn’t hurt and I jumped right back on. Wasn’t very happy with him, but right back on him.
To me, they’re very powerful animals. You have to get careful when you get up to them. And it can be hard to know them ultimately.