“I had always wanted to direct it,” Malkovich says by phone in his languid, edgily thoughtful style during a brief stop at his U.S. home in Cambridge, Mass. (He also lives in France.) “As Baudelaire said about it, it burns, but it burns like ice. Great character study. Great female characters. Great heart. Great cruelty. Extremely amusing.”
The show will be performed in French with English surtitles, and it features a young French cast on a largely bare stage that the actors never leave. The costumes bridge the 18th and 21st centuries, and the characters use cellphones and tablets for the tale’s racy seduction and betrayal. Nudity and adult situations are guaranteed.
“Originally, we were going to do a very big production with a very different set and known actors,” Malkovich says. “But known actors only mean movie actors, and movie actors don’t like committing to theater very much.”
Auditions were extensive as Malkovich and his staff searched for people “capable enough of totally disregarding what I ask them to do to find something better on their own.” The stripped-down staging and high-tech devices occurred to the director during the final callbacks when an actor flipped open a cellphone and pretended to read a text message, and as the performers effortlessly leapt in and out of intensely emotional scenes before slipping back into their own electro-virtual worlds.
“Valmont’s valet introduces every scene very rapidly,” Malkovich explains of the finished product. “And if characters enter in the middle of the scene, they just jump off their chairs and go. That way we never have to stop. And I think it helps immensely with the momentum of the play.”
The cast knew of Malkovich’s history with “Liaisons,” but “we hardly ever discussed it,” he says. Naturally, the young man playing Valmont — Yannik Landrein, whom Malkovich describes as “very elegant, very calm and clever to work with, very steely” — was curious.
“I said, ‘Yannik, really: You not only already do it better than I ever could have, but I only rehearsed a couple weeks,’ ” Malkovich recalls. “Then when you shoot, you only do every scene one time on one day. That’s not a wildly conducive atmosphere for character study.”
As he talks — and he spends a relaxed hour, the last quarter of which is a fascinating rumination on his idiosyncratic career choices — his quietly bristling industry remarks are like catching a juicy episode of “Inside the Actors Studio”: