Malcolm McDowell: Ultraviolent Past, Satanic Future
June 3, 2011 , 11:45 am | By Bryan Reesman
One of the greatest and most controversial films of all time is Stanley Kubrick’s cinematic adaptation of Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange. The disturbing tale of nihilistic ultraviolence and twisted criminal “rehabilitation,” centered around a nasty misfit “droog” named Alexander De Large, has been a massive influence on popular culture since it emerged in 1971, and it remains a powerful viewing experience to this day. Its meditation on the nature of free will does not go down easy, but that’s part of its point. It made a star out of Malcolm McDowell and assured Stanley Kubrick a place in the pantheon of genius directors.
Just prior to the release of the new 40th anniversary Blu-ray edition of A Clockwork Orange, I chatted with star and head droog Malcolm McDowell for NextMovie, but I got more than enough bonus material for A.D.D. about the film, its influence, his love for South Park, his fondness for director Lindsay Anderson and what he has coming up next. Indeed there is so much more to McDowell’s career, and this Q&A focuses on that.
You were in one of my favorite cult movies, Class Of 1999.
[Surprised when he sees the DVD cover] Oh my God. I get billing. I don’t know why, I was only there for a week.
This movie, the loose sequel to Class Of 1984, is one of my guilty pleasures. You and Stacy Keach delivered one of my favorite movie exchanges of all time: “You’ve been waging war with my students.” “Isn’t that what all teachers do?” I guess you could consider this the end of your “educational reform” trilogy which also includes If… and A Clockwork Orange. I’m curious how you got involved with Class Of 1999.
It was shot in Seattle, and it literally rained every day I was there, of course. I’m an admirer of Stacy Keach. I love Stacy Keach. He’s a terrific actor and a nice guy, and I enjoyed working with him. I was offered it just before went off to Africa to do another movie, so I had to squeeze it in over just a week. I was there and gone. The director, Mark [L. Lester], is now a distributor and is foreign selling this little movie I did called Pound Of Flesh, which is going on Showtime in October. It’s a really cool movie based on a real, factual story about a Professor of English at an eastern university, where he’s set up an escort agency amongst the students to help them pay for their education. So he’s a very socially conscious guy. Well hey, it’s taken the burden off the state. They don’t have to lend him them the money. I mean, he’s an educator.
Yeah, many of your characters are “socially conscious” in different ways.
I come out it in a roundabout way.
Did you ever see Class Of 1999?
I never saw it. I just wasn’t around long enough, and I travel a lot. I guess I was abroad.
Do you think the story was interesting?
Yeah, absolutely, and Mark is a very nice guy. He’s a very good director, and I’m sure he did a very good job.
I also love the fact that you do the voice of Vater Orlaag on Metalocalypse.
Oh yeah, that’s fun. It’s very irreverent, and I love that kind of stuff.
“What I got death threats for was killing Kirk in ‘Star Trek: Generations’. I mean, that was an important one.”
You love South Park, too.
That’s fantastic. That’s as good as it gets in that genre. Nobody does that better than them.
You’re the only person to appear as himself on the show…
But not as a cartoon.
So it was your image and your face?
Yeah. It was me as me around a cartoon. I was A Very British Person reading this Masterpiece Theater thing, taking off on that kind of thing, the sort of thing that Alastair Cooke used to do.
I was watching Never Apologize, your one-man show that is an homage to the late director Lindsay Anderson, and you were saying how he thought that art was sometimes a happy accident. Could you apply that statement to your career?
Totally. If you think that in any way I plotted a career, I certainly didn’t. People really think you are more in control of it than you really are. You can only do what you’re offered. I can’t make them hire me, and sometimes the cupboard is pretty bare. I remember when all the Arabs put up the price of oil in ’73, and every American producer left London. The only script being made there at the time was The Passage with Anthony Quinn and James Mason. My agent says, “Hey, this is it.” I went, “There must be something else, this such a bad script.” He said, “Malcolm, that’s it.” I went, “Okay, I guess I’m doing The Passage.” Which I did. I had a lot of fun with James Mason, of course. I fondly called it The Back Passage. But actually it’s a fun movie. It’s a wartime escape movie with Quinn as a Basque guy taking the physicist [and his family] over the Pyrenees, and I am this dastardly Nazi SS officer who is determined to stop them. It was quite fun because I decided to play the whole of the Nazi regime in one character. I thought, “What the hell, I’m going to be here doing it, I may as well really do it.”
Have you stayed in touch with any of your former droogies from A Clockwork Orange?
I met Mike Tarn recently, about a year ago. He’s a sweet guy. Warren [Clarke] is a terrific guy and a big actor in England [on TV]. He’s very well known there, and I cast him in the movie because I knew of him and I kept telling Stanley about him. Unbeknownest to me he brought Warren in to a casting director, this guy called Jimmy Liggat, and put Warren on tape. They never cast like that [back then]. It was always that the director met the actor in person, so Warren went in, and he was really put off by this, because he was playing a really fantastic part in a play called Home that starred John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson. I saw him in this, and Warren was a great actor. I kept saying, “Stanley, why are we doing auditions? This is the guy, I’ve told you.” He’d go, “Naw, he’s not quite right.” We had this long argument about this in a friendly way, but I didn’t quite understand. I did know that he been put on tape. Warren was really put out by this. He expected to meet the director. It’s a major role in a major movie.
Anyway, two or three months go by, and I was over at Stanley’s house. The intercom came on, and the secretary said, “Stanley, Warren Clarke’s here.” So I thought, “Finally.” He looked at me and said, “Malcolm, Warren Clarke’s here. You want to say hi?” I went, “Why not?” I walked in the other room, said hi and said we should read the scene. We read the scene together, and Stanley was leaping up and down. He took me outside to the other office and said, “This guy is great.” I went, “No, really? You think so? Go in and hire him.” So we went back in and can Stanley just said, “Hey Warren, I do know what you’re doing, but I’d like you do this part.” That was great because it was a great part for Warren. It was his first real great movie with a great director, but with all the hemming and hawing it and the fact that he didn’t hire him earlier, now the production of Home had been invited to go to Broadway. And Lindsay Anderson my friend has directed him. So I got a call that night going, “That fucking asshole Kubrick has now ruined everything. He’s going to take Warren, and now I’ve got to rehearse tonight.” I told Lindsay I couldn’t do anymore. [He said] “This has been going on for six months! This man is absolutely ridiculous!” He was furious because they had to rehearse John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson all over again with a new actor. Anyway, it only lasted a couple of days, the heated venom that come out.
“The last thing I would take on a desert island is any performance of mine. Because it’s done and dusted. Onto the next.”
Did the two of them ever meet?
I think I had them meet once.
How did they get along?
Put it this way, they were cordial. But Lindsay was furious he kept injuring me. He just couldn’t understand where Stanley was coming from as a director. But they were so different, and it was such a different trip that they were both on — and both just as valid. The more I think about Lindsay and his films…of course, Kubrick is already considered one of the finest directors that ever worked. And who am I argue with that?
And judging from your story in Never Apologize, I assume Spielberg still hasn’t called?
I forgot I told that story! It’s true. I can’t make that up. I don’t think he’ll invite me. Of course I would work with them.
So do you think he was put off by the fact you chastised an audience member who’d been snoring at your show he attended?
I think he thought it was an affront that an actor broke the fourth wall. Who knows? But I think I’ll survive without him.
A Clockwork Orange was pulled out of circulation in England for nearly three decades. Why was that?
There were death threats, apparently. [His wife] Christiane told me it was true, and I believe her. She said there were death threats made against Stanley and the family, so Scotland Yard advised him to pull the film. Not forever, but just pull the film. Stanley decided it would never be shown in England again, and it wasn’t until after his death [in 1999].
No, I never got them personally. I guess if it was Internet time…it’s easy and anonymous to do it on the Internet. Although what I got death threats for was killing Kirk in Star Trek: Generations. I mean, that was an important one. [chuckles]
It’s hilarious that you’ve been involved with cinematic transgressions in movies like If…, Clockwork Orange and Caligula, but you get death threats for Star Trek: Generations. For how long did you take that seriously?
I didn’t take it seriously. The studio took it seriously. I suppose they had to because they didn’t want a lawsuit. They assigned two detectives to come with me to New York to do the press. It was a complete waste of time and quite funny. I kept telling the guys to go home, and they were going to stay outside my room the whole night at the Carlyle Hotel. I went for a walk, and they came with me. I literally came out of the Carlyle at ten o’clock at night. I looked this way and that way, and there wasn’t one person on the street. Not one. I went, “Wow, this is some death threat.” I said, “I feel embarrassed that nobody’s tried to kill me, for Christ’s sake! I feel like I’m letting the detectives down.”
Speaking of comedy, I thought it was hilarious during Clockwork when Alex’s truant officer came to visit him at the police station, and the guard outside the holding room was sipping tea and had this large tray of deserts on his desk. That was brilliant.
Oh yeah, so typically English. When he [Chief Guard Barnes] turns Alex over to the doctors, the guy takes five minutes to sign and fill out the forms, a little bit there, sign over here. It was like endless, and I love Kubrick for that because that’s bureaucracy, isn’t it?
You have a lot of fondness for him.
I had a lot of fondness for him, but it wasn’t that he was a father figure. I loved a brilliant mind. He said to me once: “We both suffer from the same complex: The weak father syndrome.” I went, “Speak for yourself.”
You’ve played some rather unlikable characters over the years. If you were stranded on a desert island, which one would you least like to be stuck with?
The last thing I would take on a desert island is any performance of mine. Because it’s done and dusted. Onto the next. I’d rather take a performance of James Cagney or somebody I really admire. I don’t want to take my own stuff.
What if that person were real?
If they were real? The thing about my characters is they’re never real. They’re all made up in this weird head of mine that some writer has give me the skeleton or the bones to attach some flesh and muscle. I think that I would have a great time with Alex actually because he is intelligent, has an intellect and loves music. If you love Beethoven, you’ve got to love all kinds of music. Take away the power of the gang, the lords of the night, they’re sort of pathetic creatures, aren’t they?
You’re going to be playing the Devil in Suing The Devil, correct?
Of course. I love playing that part. It’s a great part. I don’t know whether you’ll ever see it [released].