The Last Word: John Malkovitch on the Adventure That Changed His Life and His Definition of Style

The veteran actor and co-star of the new Netflix thriller Bird Box, on Martin Luther King Jr., the importance of vanity, and the difference between fashion and style.

 

 

What’s the best advice you ever received?

My father used to say to me, when there was some misbehavior, “Johnny, when you pull the chain, the toilet flushes.” I think it’s really good advice—actions have consequences.

Who was your hero growing up?

Mostly Martin Luther King. He made a very profound and articulate appeal to peoples’ better natures and didn’t kill anyone to do it. It seemed to me, even as a child, like something that was so obvious. And I think he brought quite a sizable majority of the country around to that point of view in a fairly short time.

I have always been interested in fashion, but I don’t think it’s very important. The real definition of style is how you move through life.

How should a man handle getting older?

You have to accept it and sort of curb your resentment. As people get older, there is quite often a difficulty in accepting change. And forgiving change. You see these enormous cultural shifts, and you say, “I don’t get this, I don’t get the point. Blah, blah, blah.” But society moves on. It’s not yours to get or not get.

You’ve been with the same partner for almost 30 years. What’s the secret to a happy relationship?

Dumb luck. My partner is someone who listens very fairly, is super-analytical, and has a very, very good sense of humor, which to me is hugely critical. What is the one thing men should understand about women? See them not as something to conquer but as someone to partner with.

Is it ever OK for a man to lie?

I’ve been lied to a million times; one just sort of has to accept it. More important is knowing how and when to tell the truth. If I’m upset about something, I need to take a day or two, so that I can talk about it more dispassionately and in a way that might lead to a healthier result. If I just start hollering, what good does that do?

You’re a fashion designer on the side and are famous for your sense of style. How would you define style?

I have always been interested in fashion, but I don’t think it’s very important. The real definition of style is how you move through life.

What role should vanity play in that?

I think vanity is good in a lot of ways. It encourages people to make an effort, which is good, because when you stop making an effort, you start drifting away.

What advice would you give your younger self?

Why so serious? And don’t whine.

What adventure most changed your life?

Starting Steppenwolf Theater in 1976, the day after we finished university. It taught me how to work in a very collective form. And it taught me that we had to care about what we did, because other people won’t, or don’t have time to, or can’t.

How should a man deal with regret?

You hope you can forgive people’s trespasses, and you hope that they can for- give yours.

What human qualities do you most admire?

Intelligence, warmth, and humor.

And which do you most despise?

Bullying. In any form.

How do you want people to think about you when you’re no longer here?

I worked with a lot of fantastic people who have preceded me into the netherworld. I remember them incredibly fondly, even their flaws. That’s the best anybody could hope for. Although I’m not at all convinced necessarily that will happen to me.

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