Interview: John Malkovich From ‘Secretariat’

John Malkovich talks about his work on the Secretariat, whether he prefers cinema over theater, and what’s his criteria for taking a film. Check out the interview below!

What was it that attracted you to the role and the film?

John Malkovich: I don’t know if it was so much the role that appealed to me, it was more about the story of Secretariat. Within my own early adulthood, it was probably one of the massive and significant sporting events in America. Secretariat was such a magnificent animal, unbelievably beautiful and powerful. It’s always nice to see something that close to perfection, a reason to celebrate. I remember all the races very well. He was a spectacular horse and was adored then and is still adored now. So I was fascinated by the story. Also I already knew Randall Wallace the director of the film and I’m very fond of Randall. He is a very good filmmaker. I know Diane too, because I’m a good friend of her husband Josh Brolin and we know each other socially, I like her very much, she is a very good actress. She was a delight to work with. I didn’t see that there was much not to like about the film. I liked the part too, it was interesting.

What kind of man is Lucien Laurin?

John Malkovich: He was a French Canadian man who had been in racing all his life and was semi-retired really. Then Penny Chenery (Diane Lane) convinced him to come back to work and train with her stable. In fact (although we don’t go into this story at all in the film) they actually had a great horse the year before Secretariat, called Riva Ridge (winner of the 1972 Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes). In our story we don’t really talk about that, but Laurin is somebody who comes back and is there at Secretariat’s birth and then trains him throughout his racing career. He is an interesting man.

What was it like working with Randall Wallace?

John Malkovich: Randy and I have a terrific relationship and I’ve always been very fond of him. I worked with him on his first film (THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK) and I liked him very much then and he’s kept working and I’m sure learned a lot, as I have over the years. We have a very good relationship.

How did you prepare for this role? Did you have any prior knowledge about horses and racing?
John Malkovich: I did have a little bit of knowledge. And oddly enough, apropos of nothing, I was shooting a film a couple of years ago with Josh Brolin, Diane Lane’s husband in Louisiana and it happened to be the weekend of the race and then I realized that I hadn’t looked up Secretariat racing on You Tube. I started watching the races even before I had heard about this film. I spent an entire day watching in fact, because I loved that horse and loved to watch him. I wanted to find out more. I always followed Secretariat as a kid so it was great to do the research.

How challenging was the part for you and how did you approach the role?

John Malkovich: I did not do an imitation of Laurin with his specific voice or anything, but I did a lot of research, which involved reading. He was an ex jockey, which of course I could never be, I’m much too big. Many trainers of course are not ex jockeys, so we didn’t follow that particular angle at all. I listened to him talk a lot, but I am not sure how much that ever does for you when you’re making a film, unless you’re doing a kind of impersonation, which I am not doing. Also Bill Nack was a big help and was there on the set. He wrote for Sports Illustrated magazine and I’ve always liked him enormously, he wrote a lot about Secretariat, he was the author of SECRETARIAT: THE MAKING OF A CHAMPION and all the great Secretariat pieces which were fantastically touching.

Laurin was quite flamboyant wasn’t he?

John Malkovich: When you study photographs or video of that time, it was certainly an exceptionally flashy period for clothing and for looks. I think 1973 was the nadir of fashion. When you watch the coverage from that era, you’re struck by the astonishing ugliness of the clothes. It wasn’t really flamboyant, given the period. Maybe he’s a little more flamboyant in our film than he was in real life.

Can you discuss Penny Chenery’s story? (Diane Lane of course plays her in the film)

John Malkovich: Oddly enough, Penny Chenery unintentionally struck quite a blow for feminism, because she really took on the ‘Old Boys’ network and she beat them pretty roundly, although to a certain extent I am sure she wouldn’t accept that role. But she was effectively an outsider and she was a very well spoken, very composed, attractive woman. At first they all thought of her as just a housewife —as if there’s anything wrong with that, but she was quite skilled and quite steely. The real thrust of this story is her journey, of which my character is merely a part. There is also Penny’s relationship with James Cromwell’s character, Ogden Phipps, which is interesting. Also her relationship with her husband and her children figure prominently in the film. The movie focuses, and rightfully so, mostly on Penny Chenery’s journey.

What would you say is the international appeal and significance of the story?

John Malkovich: I was talking with Bill Nack about that and he said that a very articulate sports commentator called Heywood Hale Broun had been watching The Belmont Stakes (1973) and that later, Jack Nicklaus, one of the greatest American golfers of all time, called him over and they had a discussion about the race and Nicklaus said he had watched it by himself and said he had been speechless, screaming for Secretariat to win. And Broun said, ‘you know why? Because all your life you chase perfection and on that day you saw the horse’s extraordinary physical gifts, combined with the fact that he actually ran his own races. In other words, he did what he wanted to do.’ To me it really was a unique story in the annals of sports and probably the most telling thing is that when ESPN (sports network) chose the 100 great athletes worldwide of the 20th Century, Secretariat came 35th. He was incredible in his strategies. His races were so shocking in their power, for example at The Preakness. He ran from last to first in a matter of seconds and he looked like he was on the back of a truck, he passed them all by so quickly. He was one of the greatest racehorses ever in the world.

You must get so many wonderful roles at this point in your career? What is your criteria for taking a film?

John Malkovich: I’m not sure I have any specific criteria because it really depends on different things, but this time it was because the story is great. Occasionally, but exceedingly rarely, it is because I think it’s a really interesting role, although maybe not a fully developed script, but that’s only happened a couple of times maybe. Also (and that is true in this case), it is a chance to work with a director that I like. I don’t do a particular type of film, I do all kinds of films, little ones, big ones, in between ones and I’ve been satisfied with my work and I consider myself to be unbelievably fortunate.

Is your work as fulfilling as it always has been? Do you get the same excitement or thrill from acting on a movie like this as you did when you started out?

John Malkovich: You know, sometimes I get more fulfillment than others, this one is good, but sometimes the experience is much more involving and enriching or even all consuming and at other times not so much. It really depends on the experience, but as far as liking what I get to do, getting to come to work every day with people that I think are good or find interesting is fantastic: what’s not to like? It’s a pretty great job.

Do you prefer cinema or theatre?

John Malkovich: They are completely different. It’s like they’re actually not related. For example you could compare it to being a musician, if you trained to be a pianist and then you got known for playing the saxophone. There’s nothing wrong with that but it may not be your real home. You just live there. I like very much to do movies. Not all of them. But then again, nothing is worse than being in a bad play.

You have spent a lot of time in Europe rather than Los Angeles; do you think that gives you some detachment from the film industry?

John Malkovich: I think I already had detachment anyway and my work is so varied. I’ve done quite a few big American films. I approach them in the same way that I approach a Portuguese art film. It is all work. I like doing it all. It’s fun. The thing about it is that you can’t just do independent films or you would never get offered a different kind of film. You have to do films occasionally that the public wants to see; although I would be perfectly happy to do films that I know probably not many people are going to want to see. That’s okay with me, but you can’t do that all the time. In the end it’s a business, there are debits and credits and there is profit and loss. I can’t pretend that I have ever been obsessed by all that; but I understand how it works. I produce a lot of movies. I know very well what that means.

Is there anything else at this point that you want to achieve?

John Malkovich: No, I hope to continue to do things that interest me really. That’s all, nobody’s been luckier than I have and if my luck holds up that will be great and if it doesn’t, well I had an awful lot of it. I don’t feel satisfaction. I feel: ‘next’.

SECRETARIAT is Available on Blu-ray, DVD, and Movie Download Formats January 25th!

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