John Malkovich has been a top-shelf slinky villain at least since playing the viper Valmont in the 1988 film “Dangerous Liaisons.” He returns to the scene of the crime with his French-language “Les Liaisons Dangereuses,” a production Malkovich directed for the Parisian troupe Theatre de l’Atelier; the show alights at the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lansburgh Theatre for four days, Dec. 6-9.
Malkovich has long been infatuated with the sexy backstabbing of the 1782 novel by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos and the Christopher Hampton play that became the Glenn Close-Michelle Pfeiffer-Malkovich film. (Rival film adaptations include the 1989 “Valmont” starring Colin Firth and Annette Bening, the teen-populated “Cruel Intentions” from 1999 and a 1959 Jeanne Moreau picture by Roger Vadim.)
“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”:
-“At Steppenwolf [the famed Chicago troupe that Malkovich joined in 1975], actors don’t talk to other actors about what they’re doing, or what they’re not doing, or what they should do, or what they might do, or what they could do, or what they would do if they were as brilliant as the person they were talking to. We just don’t do it. That’s what a director’s for.”
- “When you’re an actor, you’re a figure in someone else’s dream. If the author of that dream would like you to talk back with them in the dream, then I’m happy to do that. But if somebody says, ‘Shut up, here’s your lines,’ that’s fine by me. It’s much less work for me, and I’m busy.”
- “A lot of directors can be absolutely wild control freaks, really to the point of massive sickness, where a really extensive, five days a week, seven years of analysis wouldn’t begin to help them. It’s, like, straight to neurosurgery.”
He’s a moving target, rarely at either of his homes. Lately, Malkovich, 58, has been touring internationally, making sinister and roguish appearances with orchestras and classical singers in “The Infernal Comedy: Confessions of a Serial Killer” and in “The Giacomo Variations,” due at New York’s City Center in the spring. Just extended to Nov. 30 at New York’s Irish Rep is the solo show “A Celebration of Harold Pinter,” starring Julian Sands and directed by Malkovich. Movies in the can for 2013 include “Red 2” — a follow-up to the 2010 comic caper involving retired CIA figures, again with Bruce Willis and Helen Mirren — and the zombie picture “Warm Bodies.”
Malkovich also has his own clothing line, Technobohemian. “I’m drawing as we speak,” he says.
Directing in French is “not a problem,” Malkovich says. Paying French taxes is another matter.
“And it’s not just because I finished a 10-year tax battle with the French authorities this spring, which they lost without the possibility of appeal; enough said,” he says.
In 2007, he directed the Zach Helm play “Good Canary” in Paris. He says he earned 25,000 euros for the job. Punch line: “My tax bill was 29,000 euros.”
But Malkovich figures that that’s all part of being . . . you know, him.
“It will all come out in the wash,” Malkovich says. “I, more than anyone I know or have met, have gotten to do what I wanted. And very few people were unkind to me about it, and very few people tried to put me on another path. When I run into friends, actors or producers, they always say to me, pretty much, ‘You’ve been a lucky little b------.’ And I say, ‘Yeah.’ ”
Les Liaisons Dangereuses: based on the novel by Choderlos de Laclos, adapted for the stage by Christopher Hampton. In French, with English surtitles. Directed by John Malkovich. Dec. 6-9 at the Lansburgh Theatre, 450 Seventh St. NW. Call 202-547-1122 or visit www.shakespearetheatre.org.
Pressley is a freelance writer.