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Malkovich: Being on stage makes me feel alive

By Teo Kermeliotis, for CNN
  • John Malkovich's latest play sees him portraying notorious Austrian killer Jack Unterweger
  • The actor started his stage career with the legendary Steppenwolf Theater company
  • He often returns to his beloved theater to act, direct or to do both
  • 'Theater lives in the moment, off the moment and for the moment,' he says

London, England (CNN) -- John Malkovich sits on stage, adrenalin rushing through him, as he prepares to claim another victim in his illustrious acting career -- this time, an Austrian serial killer.

The maverick actor's latest stage work -- "The Infernal Comedy" -- tells the true story of Jack Unterweger -- the notorious criminal who succeeded in combining a life of crime and murder with glamour and celebrity, killing a total of nine victims.

All of them prostitutes, strangled with their own bras.

Asked what he found interesting about this character, Malkovich says that being a serial killer doesn't have much to do with it.

"Any part that's really well written, rounded and dense is really fun to do. I would be just as happy playing Helen Mirren's part in 'The Queen' (2006)," he tells CNN from Vienna.

"What I particularly like is the way Michael Sturminger wrote it. It's funny, odd and archaic, it has a certain bleak and, at times, absurd charm to Unterweger -- of course he has his own tragedies but he is not someone I would be moved by."

I find it enraging when you watch a performance and you know that the actor is doing the same thing every night
--John Malkovich

On stage, Malkovich adds slight details of a very soft Austrian accent while arias by Vivaldi, Mozart, Haydn and Webber give voice to Unterweger's victims. His monologue is written in a way that requires him to improvise, a condition that he finds necessary for a good performance.

"Theater is a living thing, exceptionally ephemeral," he says. "I find it enraging when you watch a performance and you know that the actor is doing the same thing every night. The good thing about theater is that it reminds you of life, because you had to be there and because it is ephemeral.

"So if it isn't any of those things then I don't really understand what it is. Maybe I don't understand it and I just did 30 years because I haven't been arrested and no one has stopped me."

Far from getting arrested, Malkovich's run as a thespian has been met with both critical and popular acclaim.

It all started in 1976 when he joined Gary Sinise in the newly-founded Steppenwolf Theater company. The now-legendary group went on to become one of the most groundbreaking theater teams in the U.S. and paved the way for Malkovich's successful transition to the big screen in the mid-1980s.

In 1983, Malkovich won his first Obie (an annual award for theater actors working in off-Broadway productions) for his portrayal of the corrupting older brother in Sam Shepherd's "True West." One year later he made his Broadway debut, playing alongside Dustin Hoffman in Arthur Miller's "The Death of a Salesman," a collaboration that Malkovich cherishes to this day.

"He made me a much harder worker and much more concentrated," he tells of Hoffman. "I was such an instinctive sort of performer and he forced me to be more articulate about what I was doing and the choices I made."

From then on, Malkovich went on to become one of the most recognized movie actors globally, starring in both blockbusters and independent movies.

But his cinema career has been interspersed with theater breaks as Malkovich often returns to his beloved stage to either perform, direct or to do both.

For the skillful actor, cinema and theater cannot really be compared. "I see them as very distant cousins, sort of several times removed," he says.

"Theater lives in the moment, off the moment and for the moment. Movies aren't like that, they are much more heavily manipulated. And that can be fantastic too.

"But I like theater, if I see a fantastic play, I am more affected than if I see a fantastic movie because a play is alive."

Back in Vienna, the experienced actor is gearing up for another performance in his long career. He's not nervous but admits he doesn't particularly like opening nights because crowds are "normally there to watch each other."

Asked what goes through his head while being on stage, Malkovich says he tries to be open to his impulses and instincts and trust them, even if they are wrong.

"I try to empty my head out, try not to think, 'go on, have fun, see what happens, be free, be open.' If you try to repeat things too much then your instincts are blocked, and if your instincts are blocked, it'll never really be that good."

CNN's Rosie Tomkins contributed to this report