Move Your Head: Identifying the Shadows with John Malkovich

The iconic actor leads us out of Plato's Cave on his new LP.

On screen, John Malkovich has played everyone from famous film directors and screenwriters (Shadow of the Vampire, RKO 281), to sexy vicomtes (Dangerous Liaisons), to a version of himself (Being John Malkovich). With his newest project, Malkovich is just a guy reading philosophical treatises. Like a Puppet Show, his new musical project, finds him coolly emoting the text of Plato’s The Allegory of the Cave to the sound of composer Eric Alexandrakis’s ambient muzak, with accompanying acted-out photos by the singularly named Sandro.

The album is being released on vinyl (sorry, no CD or digital) for Record Store Day’s Black Friday event this week, and it comes complete with mixes by the likes of Ric Ocasek, Yoko Ono, Dweezil Zappa, Efterklang, and more. So we gave Malkovich and Alexandrakis a call, and they tugged a bit on Puppet’s strings for us. 

How would you compare choosing a musical project to choosing a play to direct or a film in which to act?

John Malkovich: Well, a play is usually something I have chosen, for the most part, while in my collaboration with Sandro and Eric, the elements were chosen for me. That’s something that I would do with a film, [where I might be] chosen for a role in a film about Joan of Arc, or Of Mice and Men, or how I’ve been chosen to portray a magician. That kind of collaboration is similar to this. Here, I’ve been asked to participate as a collaborator in something they started.

Is it fair to say that you embrace work that you create from whole cloth more than that which you’ve been hired for or brought into?

Malkovich: To the contrary. I wouldn’t do that. If I only embraced, or more fully embraced, the things that I created, then I think that I would be a very flawed collaborator. I think the trick is to embrace what other people imagine and bring as well. You have a good idea. You know what you’re doing. I would imagine those things are common thoughts among creative people, and they may often be correct.

If I only embraced, or more fully embraced, the things that I created, then I think that I would be a very flawed collaborator.

Do you feel the drive to inhabit a song, lyric, or musical text as you would an acting role?

Malkovich: Offhand, I would say yes. I would put a considerable amount—for a number of years—of time into [collaborating] with modern classical composers and [working] in tandem with a number of musicians. This is my eighth or ninth musical collaboration of some sort or another, and I think music is the most powerful of the art forms. And it’s one I particularly like doing. I even like the process, whereas I think it’s often quite difficult to like the process of making a movie. There’s nothing so intriguing about that. But of course, when making a movie, it’s not the process that you care about, but rather the result. The process of making music is quite rewarding in and of itself, in my opinion.

Eric, did you need John to inhabit the tracks?

Eric Alexandrakis: Yes. He’s the voice, and it’s his character—or characters—that you’re going to focus on. The music should surround and caress his voice, and not interfere with it.

How did you two get together with Sandro?

Alexandrakis: I came up with an ambient track that had something of a philosophical, scientific approach. I really wanted John to recite something equally philosophical with regards to the dialogue. Allegory of the Cave just wound up being the one that fit the music. I know Sandro, who was doing a shoot with John, and we got together. We made a short film and had John recite the Allegory. That’s the live take you’re hearing on the album. Him on set, all one take.

John, did Plato’s text resonate with you? Did you feel it?

Malkovich: Yeah, I liked it. I like Plato. Kant. The idea that the position we’re in, what position we’re going to be in or see is but a reflection, that we are [looking at] shadows. To maybe have the means to figure out how to live. Or what it means to live. Or generally be able to act upon it. So, yes I think it’s a resonant thing.

You mentioned working with other musical collaborators in the past. What turns you on about a musical partner? What turns you on about someone’s musical concept enough to say, “Yeah, let’s do that one?”

Malkovich: I mean, that sounds pretty self-aggrandizing, but I would generally say that talent [counts]. Does this composer or do these musicians have vision, and does that compel me? Does an idea compel me conceptually, musically? I was compelled by what I did with the Wiener Akademie baroque orchestra [Editor’s note: Malkovich worked with the Austrian Wiener Akademie on the chamber opera The Infernal Comedy: Confessions of a Serial Killer].

I don’t know that [punk] was particularly a huge influence on me. Rap may have been.

I was looking at the list of remixers and listening to the tracks. Chris Stein from Blondie is there. Ric Ocasek from The Cars. Yoko Ono, too. You came to New York City from Chicago in 1980, right at the cusp of New York City’s punk scene turning into a New Wave scene. What sort of musical taste did you have in Chicago and how do you think living in New York City changed your tastes?

Malkovich: Well, I was never really punk rock. I liked David Byrne and other people from that era, such as Blondie. I just happened to think that they were talented, really, not specific to one genre. That didn’t feel new, musically. Music changes constantly. Then again, it was probably a new outlook. I don’t know that that music was particularly a huge influence on me. Rap may have been. Or a songwriter such as Tom Waits, who was more of an inspiration. A lot of punk rock—that was more about a culture than a music to me, a way of life. I do think of Johnny Rotten as influential from that era, though [imitates John Lydon/Johnny Rotten’s speaking voice].

Alexandrakis: That’s a pretty good imitation, John.

Malkovich: A lot of people from that moment that I knew and admired either flamed out or crashed and burned then died. I have more admiration for people like Lucian Freud who just kept wailing away at it all until the day he died. He chose his own creative life and followed it. He had to have imagination and a kind of discipline and drive to hold and harness it. Punk rock was too much about the flame out. FL


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