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Lucky Us: Meeting Malcolm McDowell

Scifi fans know him as mad scientist Tolian Soran, the man who killed Captain Kirk in STAR TREK GENERATIONS (1994), and horror fans know him as Dr. Sam Loomis in Rob Zombie’s 2007 remake of the horror film HALLOWEEN, but there’s no doubt that Malcolm McDowell will always be best remembered for his early career-making role playing sociopathic gang leader Alex in Stanley Kubrick’s controversial 1971 classic A CLOCKWORK ORANGE. It was that one-of-a-kind performance in bowler and eyelash that forever solidified his bad guy image, and set the stage for a lifetime of movie roles as a charismatic film villain.

Yet in a career spanning an amazing 40 years, McDowell has proved his versatility in a wide variety of roles and genres, including film, television, animation, sitcoms, musicals, radio dramas, and voice acting. Today at 68, he continues to act in major motion pictures as well as enjoy recurring roles in Disney’s animated comedy series PHINEAS and FERB and TNT’s dramedy series FRANKLIN & BASH.

McDowell recently made an appearance at the Spooky Empire Ultimate Horror Weekend, the annual convention for horror aficionados held in Orlando, FL each October, to meet with fans and share some of his memorable stories from a lengthy and very successful career.

Starting out with a knowing smile and a warning, “I’m here to answer any reasonably intelligent questions…” McDowell began his Saturday afternoon talk by immediately forgoing the traditional seating area and heading straight downstage to be closer to the fans. Taking note of the narrow platform extending out of the stage and into the auditorium, he asked, “Is this a runway, are we modeling something?” and playfully proceeded to imitate a model’s hip-swaying saunter out onto the catwalk and back, to the rollicking delight of audience members seated nearby. “I just had the urge to do that,“ was his winked excuse.

An old hand at speaking to the public, McDowell was certainly not shy about supplying rich and ribald answers to the audience’s familiar questions. He seemed to enjoy using his distinctive voice and remarkable storytelling abilities during the 40-minute audience Q&A, of which some highlights are included here:

Question: The DVD of HALLOWEEN has a lot of great outtakes that you have done, just really funny moments in scenes, like you riffing with (actor) Brad Dourif …”
McDowell: You mean “sodding about,” really? “Taking the piss?” (laughing) Oh, yes, Brad! Mr. Humor! Mr. Excitement! Brad was a very sweet guy who liked to work by the script, so of course I like to work off the script, and that was a problem with him; he looked at me as if I was from Mars or something. But it was great fun, and (director) Rob (Zombie) is a fantastic guy, he makes it possible for you to come and really enjoy the work and really do whatever you want. He’d come up to me and go, “Yeah, got that take, now say whatever you want.” Which is fun for an actor, but it’s dangerous to say that to me! Very dangerous!

Question: When you did A CLOCKWORK ORANGE did you ever think it would become such a cult phenomenon?
McDowell: I’d like to say, “Yes, of course I did,” but I would be lying. Of course, I knew it was a good movie, I mean I knew that we were doing some extraordinary things that probably hadn’t been done before, and the work that Kubrick came up with, was so extraordinary for the time.

When it was first seen, you can imagine that it blew people away. Audiences in 1971 literally sat there in total silence. The movie ended and nobody moved. I read that as they hated it! Oh my God, they hated the movie, they didn’t even laugh! You know, I thought I was making a black comedy. Well, it is a black comedy really. And the thing is, when I see it 40 years later with a young audience, they laugh all the way through it, they get it. But at the time it was just too soon, it was too early.

Of course, Kubrick was a genius in many ways; he was an extraordinary director, one of our very greatest that ever lived. What’s extraordinary about Stanley is that he took every genre and made a classic in that genre. If it wasn’t for Stanley Kubrick there’d be no STAR WARS, there’d be none of this science fiction stuff, because science fiction before Stanley was Flash Gordon and cardboard sets. Basically Kubrick moved that genre a millennium jump. Of course, he was in his element doing 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, because he didn’t rely on actors. He was very suspicious of actors. He was smart, wasn’t he? Because really, actors know how to **** it up. And they’re unpredictable bastards, aren’t they?

Question: In the movie SUCK  (2009 rock horror vampire comedy), how disappointed were you that you didn’t get to sing like the others? Did you want to have a song in that movie?
Well, it was a musical, was it not? And in a bloody musical you expect to sing! And I sing in the shower, like the rest of us. So I was a little bit miffed when they all broke into song. On the goof reel I went into some song, I don’t remember what it was. Do you remember? No, I don’t either. I don’t remember anything these days…it’s so nice being here in Georgia… (laughter)

Question: What’s the most bizarre thing that happened to you or around you on a set?
The most bizarre thing? Well, I’ve had a few of them. I would say it would have to be in that infamous production that we shot in Italy, called CALIGULA. It was very bizarre making that movie and working with a crowd that didn’t understand a word I was saying. You got absolutely nothing back.

But we did have some fun, and I was working with Peter O’Toole of whom I am a great admirer and think is one of our greatest actors. At that time Peter was going through a phase in his life where I think he was hell-bent on using every single stick of marijuana in Italy.

One night I had to go to his room to go through lines with him. It was a night shoot, so I was there from six in the evening with him until four in the morning, and the contact high in that trailer alone was amazing. We came out and I was legless, and as he’d been chain-smoking with a cigarette holder all night you can imagine what he was like!

We came out of Peter’s trailer and went to the set, which was a 3-acre site with a lot of sexual things going on. (Caligula was the first major motion picture to feature eminent actors in a film with explicit sex scenes.) And we’d not seen anything, any of this, because we’d been stuck in Peter’s motor home all night. We came out and I have never seen anything like it in my life. We came out and found there were 300 naked people there, and it was all going on. Mind-boggling. I don’t know how they got these people to do it, I have no idea!

In our scene, Peter had to take a prop knife and pretend to stab an actor under his breastplate armor, into a (SFX) rubber ball, something like a beach ball stuffed with chicken gizzards and red wine, so that (when it’s cut) it’s supposed to look like the entrails of the man pouring out. Peter goes up with his sword and real subtle (here he makes a wildly drunken and very exaggerated upward swinging motion), VROOM! Misses the special effects ball completely! But the breastplate flies up and hits the guy smack in the nose, and (instead of bursting) the beach ball goes, boom, boom, boom, and bounces away, and the 300 naked people all around are just speechless, there’s utter silence on the set.

Peter, he looks down amazed, and with those brilliant blue eyes of his looks up at me and says, “I think she’s dropped her ****ing handbag.”

So, there you are, I had some weird ones on the set.

Question: What did you think of your time on TANK GIRL?
Well, we shot it in Tucson in a copper mine, and it was about 131° degrees during the day. But I love Lori Petty, she is really talented and just perfect for that part. I can’t complain about my own role, I had fun doing it. But it’s sort of a cult movie, isn’t it? Wow, that’s basically the story of my life, isn’t it? Never in a hit, always a cult. (laughter)

Question: Most recently you used your voice for the beverage POM Wonderful…
Ah, POM Wonderful! I have a LOT of it in my refrigerator at home. (laughter) It’s brilliant! And it’s supposed to be good for you, that is, if you believe all the ads. (mischievous smile)

Question (from a child): In every movie you do you’re mostly a bad guy. Couldn’t you just be a good guy?
Well, I have played a few good guys, not very many. You should see TIME AFTER TIME (1979), ask your mom to rent that, I’m a good guy in that one. Thanks for coming up, buddy. (In an aside to the audience) Isn’t he something? You’ve got trouble with this one! Never work with small children…or dogs!

Question: Your character in Fallout 3 (action role-playing game) is supposed to be from rural Kentucky…
Did you like Fallout 3? I haven’t got a clue about it because I haven’t even played the game. Who do I play, the President of the United States, right? And I turn out to be a robot, right? Okay. (turns to audience) Have I screwed it for everybody now? Well, I just based (the character) on “W”. That’s all. (laughter) I love doing those video games.

Question: What was it like working on (the futuristic action thriller) DOOMSDAY?
I enjoyed very much working with Neil Marshall, the director, he’s a lovely guy, And I read the script…well, I read my part, anyway. I mean, if you’re not in the scene, what’s the point? (laughter) Sometimes you really don’t want to know what the movie is about. And often you can be found out terribly if you don’t read it.

I’ll give you a little example about that. Let me tell you, to read a script is a lot of work, if you’re supposed to read it and give an opinion about it, a whole day of work. I was once given a script by this young director, and I was busy or whatever, and a month went by, two months went by, and I still hadn’t read his script. And I felt really guilty because the guy was really talented. So, in the end I thought, oh my God, I’ve got to read this script. So I started to read it. I got to page 65, and it was really well written, and I thought, oh my God, how great, I’ll call him up now, I was so excited that I could call him and tell him that I loved the script, LOVED it. And I got him on the phone and told him, and the director sounded sort of puzzled and went, “Really?” So I knew right there something was wrong.

But I said, “Yes, I enjoyed it very, very much indeed! And let’s have dinner tomorrow.” Then I hung up and immediately went straight back to finish the thing, and on the very next page my character goes into the men’s room and takes his pants down and all the way up and down along his thighs are these staple marks. It turns out that he’s into S&M – and it doesn’t come out in the script until page 66. And you think the guy’s in love with the operator of this machine in the factory, but he’s in love with the machine! This thing that fills pillows! (makes stuffing motions in the air to much laughter)

So the moral of this story is: read the bloody script!

Question: Is there a project you regretted doing?
Um… Often. But I’m not going to tell you what. (grins)

On future projects: I’m starting next week to shoot the 2nd season of the TV show FRANKLIN & BASH, a show I enjoy doing enormously, wonderful cast, and the writers and producers are phenomenal. We finish that in February, but it doesn’t air until next summer.  Catch it if you can, I’m very proud of it.

Then I go to Scotland to do a movie called MONSTER BUTLER, based on the true story of a great con man who becomes a psychotic killer. This is sort of like Alex (from A CLOCKWORK ORANGE), 40 years on, but without the eyelash and the bowler. (laughter) I’ve been wanting make this movie for 20 years, so I’m really excited, and I think it’s a great script and hopefully it’s going to be a great movie.

On his fans: I really appreciate coming to see the fans. Pretty much. Except the ones who make any sudden moves… (looks askance at the audience.) But I must say it’s been a great joy for me to be an actor, I wouldn’t know what else to do, to be honest, because I’m useless around the house!

On his career: It’s been such a great ride, and I’ve done the stuff I’ve wanted to do, which is the weird, quirky, strange stuff! Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. But to be able to work through the generations – I know I’ve been very fortunate, very blessed and very lucky.

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