I was on the phone, listening to the actor and director John Malkovich talk about his latest projects, and trying to come up with a description that does his purring voice justice. He speaks lightly, quietly. He metes out his syllables slowly, but also slides them into one another, from word to word and from sentence to sentence. He sounds partly bored and partly amused, like he's whispering to you, toying with you, and tired of you, all at the same time. I was mentally comparing it to the sound a snake with a full belly might make moving through rustling grass, when he said this: "I sound like a kind of girl version of Tom Waits." That works, too.
We were talking about Malkovich's voice because, though audiences are familiar with its eclectic rhythms from his many films – from 1984's The Killing Fields, through 1988's Dangerous Liaisons, which made him a star, and 1999's Being John Malkovich, which took his eccentric persona to loony heights – lately he's been using it in a way most of us haven't heard: He's singing opera. Well, a kind of theatre/opera hybrid. The first piece he did, The Infernal Comedy, has been touring the world for the past four years. Now he's bringing his second, The Giacomo Variations, to Montreal's Place des Arts on June 4 and 5, followed by Toronto's Elgin Theatre on June 7, 8 and 9.
This phase of his career began when a mutual friend introduced Malkovich, now 59, to Martin Haselbock, the Austrian-born conductor, organist and composer. Haselbock asked Malkovich if he'd consider doing a piece with his orchestra, the Vienna Akademie Ensemble, and eventually they agreed on a doozy: the true story of Jack Unterweger, an Austrian novelist, playwright, theatre director, poet and journalist, who was also a serial killer. After he was sentenced to life for murder in 1974, Unterweger's writings from prison were so popular that 700 intellectuals petitioned for his release. When they succeeded, he travelled the world as a journalist and lecturer, while continuing to commit murders in Graz, Prague and Los Angeles. Imprisoned again in 1994, he committed suicide in his cell.
"It's a famous story in Austria, and it resonates in Los Angeles because Unterweger went there to write a piece about the sex trade for an Austrian magazine, and murdered three of the prostitutes he interviewed," Malkovich says. Haselbock's frequent collaborator, Michael Sturminger, wrote the piece, titled The Infernal Comedy, as Unterweger's confession from beyond the grave, accompanied by two sopranos and a full baroque orchestra. Together Malkovich (as Unterweger), Haselbock (conducting) and Sturminger (directing) have performed it about 100 times in 70 cities; when we spoke, Malkovich was about to go on stage with it in Tel Aviv. "I don't actually sing, maybe mercifully for the public, in The Infernal Comedy," he says, "but I love working with Michael and Martin and the singers so much that we decided to do another piece."
That second collaboration, The Giacomo Variations, had its world premiere in Vienna in January, 2011. Based on the memoir of Giacomo Casanova, the legendary Italian writer and womanizer, it stars Malkovich, along with three other actor/singers (different people, depending upon the city) and a 45-piece period orchestra, rechannelling arias from Mozart's Don Giovanni, Cosi fan tutte and The Marriage of Figaro.
"Casanova was a terrifically interesting thinker and writer, who expressed himself beautifully, for a huge amount of his century," Malkovich says. "Though he was obsessed with women, he was constantly in love, and often being left. He's not what we think he was when we hurl his name around. He was quite a deep thinker, and quite a deep feeler. It's a romantic piece."
And this time Malkovich sings. "A few hundred thousand cigarettes ago, I was a tenor," he says. "Now I sing some tenor, some baritone. I don't have much top range left. I'm actually a boy soprano." In fact, one night in Hamburg, he was singing with the German soprano Sophie Klussmann, "and she whispered to me very quietly, 'You're singing my lines,'" Malkovich says, clearly tickled by the memory.
Much of Malkovich's career has been on stage – he co-founded Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company in 1976; won an Emmy for a television adaptation of his 1984 Broadway debut as Biff in Death of a Salesman; and continues to do plays regularly. "I like theatre because it's a living organism, it's ephemeral," he says. "But nothing in theatre quite compares to the power of this music" in Giacomo. "And you don't have to do eight shows a week, or commit to six or 12 months at a time. I've done that for the vast majority of my life, but it no longer holds the appeal it once did."
He prefers the Malkovich variations, a rich mix of acting, directing, and general renaissance-man living, in the U.S. and abroad. Here's a small slice of his life of late: On a recent trip to L.A., he looped scenes for Red 2, the sequel to 2010's hit about ex-CIA agents who reunite for black-ops work, co-starring Helen Mirren and Bruce Willis; it's due in August. He also did some voice work for a top-secret, upcoming Dreamworks animated film – "I'm actually not supposed to be talking about it," he says – and he's playing the pirate Blackbeard in Crossbones, an upcoming NBC series.
Malkovich arrives in Montreal fresh from performing The Giacomo Variations in Prague. His production company, Mr. Mudd, will release two films this year, Jason Reitman's Labor Day, and Diego Luna's biopic about Cesar Chavez. He directed a French production of a new translation of Christopher Hampton's play Les Liaisons Dangereuses, which is coming to New York in July. He hopes to put The Giacomo Variations on film this summer in Lisbon, and to spend time with his family – his long-term partner Nicoletta Payran, whom he met when she was the second assistant director on his 1989 film The Sheltering Sky, and their children Amandine and Loewy – at their homes in southern France and Cambridge, Mass.
"I don't think I've figured out a magic formula; I think I've just been lucky," Malkovich says. "I don't want to do big Hollywood movies as a steady diet, but I have great fun doing them, and it seems to me that every once in a while you have to do a movie that people want to see. You'd be shocked to hear I even have friends in Hollywood."
I can hear a small smile in his voice on that line. Then he continues, "I've done a lot of art films – and maybe they weren't good, it's not for me to say – but people often have precious little interest in things like that, or they don't get well distributed or well marketed, who knows. I don't really think about it that much.
"But I never feel bored, or feel there isn't something I should work on or try to do better, or find a solution to in performance or writing or editing," he concludes. "If I didn't like something, I simply wouldn't do it any more."