After 40 years in the business and more than 100 films under his belt, to say that Malcolm McDowell has had a long and successful career would be an understatement. The charismatic star of classic films like A Clockwork Orange and Caligula now finds himself doing voiceover work for shows like Metalocalypse and playing Daniel Linderman on the hit series Heroes.
We recently caught up with McDowell to discuss his distinguished career, his golf game and how it feels to play the role of the villain.
You are originally from Leeds, England.
I was born there. I spent all of six weeks of my life there before being carted off with my father who was in the RAF [Royal Air Force] to the east coast of Yorkshire where he was flying bombers over Germany.
Where do you call home now?
How long have you lived there?
Almost 30 years.
How exactly did you get into acting, and when did you decide this is what you wanted to do for a living?
I acted at school. I went to quite a progressive school which was an all-male boarding school – I guess you’d call it a private school; we called it a public school – and had a good education. Part of the education required you to do plays – musicals and Shakespeare. We had a musical production at Christmas time and then a Shakespeare production in the summer.
That’s how I started. I guess I played all of the great parts in Shakespeare before I left school and then I always thought, “Well, I guess I could find my way into acting somehow,” which I did.
Once you made the decision to pursue acting, was it fairly easy to break into the business? Did you ever think about giving it up and pursuing something else?
You know, the decision was made for me. I was offered a job and I leapt at it to go into weekly rep. That’s where all young actors started in those days, in repertory theatre – one play ever week. I mean, it seems crazy now because how good could that be, you know?
It was pretty awful, but it really gave me a chance to play a great spectrum of parts and to learn how to act at somebody else’s expense. That’s what it did and it was actually tremendous to get out before the public working as an actor, even if it wasn’t in very good quality stuff because at least you were doing it. And so that became my drama school, really. That’s how I started. It was really bizarre.
When did you start getting comfortable with acting?
By the time I came to do my first film, after four years of being a theatre actor and doing television. I did a series, which was a really good learning experience – you get a lot of time before a camera. Doing stuff like that. By the time I came to do my first lead in a movie, which coincided with being my first, I was very lucky, I was ready for it or as ready as you ever can be.
Also, I happened to get cast by a brilliant director, Lindsay Anderson, so working with him was eye-opening and extraordinary and we became friends for the rest of his life.
I’ve just done a film about him, called Never Apologize. It’s opened in England and it was played at the Cannes Film Festival. It showed in New York about a month ago at the Lincoln Center, it opened for a week. And it will find its way onto DVD or it may even get a few theatrical engagements, we hope.
What else can you tell us about Never Apologize?
I’m very proud of this one man show that is now a film. There is a website called NeverApologize.com. My good friend and collaborator Mike Kaplan directed the piece and did a beautiful job putting it all together. And it was something that I could give back to my dear friend who died; it was 14 years ago that he died.
It was something that I could do to make people aware of who he was and to hopefully inspire people to go find the movies. And since I did it, I have to tell you that Criterion put out a beautiful copy of If…., which is fabulous, and then Warner’s put out an incredibly beautiful copy of O Lucky Man!, which were two of the great films I did with Lindsay Anderson, so they are available. I think it only was because of me doing this show about him. So everything that I tried to accomplish with that I think panned out pretty well. In fact, as we speak, the film is playing in a theater in the West End of London. I think it’s just one performance a day, but still people are getting to see it and I’m very excited by that.
It’s something that I did really just for love of doing it. I had no idea that a) they would ever film it or b) that anyone really would ever see it outside of the Edinburgh Festival, which is where I started it. In Edinburgh they have this incredible festival every year and I said I would do it for the festival and it just sort of mushroomed out from there.
Obviously, people remember you from your iconic work as Alex in A Clockwork Orange. What did you take away from that experience and what stands out to you about the film all these years later?
Well, what tremendous staying power it has. I mean, I made a classic movie. I didn’t know it at the time that it was going to be so iconoclastic. But who knew? I knew it was a good film – that I knew – but you never know quite how good.
Was there ever a point where you started to realize, “Wow, this thing is going to be around for a while”?
No, you never feel that. That’s something that comes much later. But you do feel “this is an amazing film” and what a great director, I’m doing some good work – that’s what I felt. Of course, I didn’t think we’d be discussing it 37 years later.
Why do you think it has endured for so long?
Because I think the themes are universal and Kubrick was so brilliant that he set it in the future, so it doesn’t really date. And the theme is a universal theme – the freedom of man to choose how he decides to lead his life without government interference. That’s basically the bottom line of what it’s about. That’s still very pertinent, in fact more so today.
You were also the lead in the infamous Caligula. What made you decide to be a part of that movie and to be a part of what we would imagine was a rather unique filming experience?
It was. The reason that I got involved was because of Gore Vidal, who wrote the script. And Gore Vidal was a man of letters, one of the best novelists in America. And when Gore called me up, I was very excited because Gore Vidal’s Caligula, it could have been a lot of fun.
Now subsequent to that, we started shooting and Gore had a big row with I guess the producers, I don’t know who, I wasn’t really a party to it, I was just the actor who was trying to make it work. But he decided to withdrawal his name and that was the end of it. Honestly I don’t know quite what happened, but he withdrew. Of course, by that time, it was too late for me to do anything because I was already set and we were shooting.
So was it chaotic filming it at that point?
It was. I mean, I’d say it was chaotic. We did some good work in that film, believe it or not. There are still sequences of it that are incredible. It doesn’t really hold together brilliantly I think as a terrific film, it’s sort of very flawed. The cuts are a bit weird and I don’t know what happened with the editing. It went through many processes and many editors and Guccione had his cut and I don’t know what happened afterward. It was a bit of a mess.
But there are still pieces in it that I think are very good. And, you know, it’s sort of amazing to find these great actors – Helen Mirren, John Gielgud, Peter O’Toole – in this film of debauchery. But that’s what it was about and historians of that particular era say it’s a very accurate rendition of what was going on in Rome. It’s history.
And Gore did his research from this book by a historian called Suetonius and it sort of like William Shakespeare writing about Richard III. It’s very biased because of the reigning monarch so everything’s biased towards her family and I think in Suetonius it’s all very biased against people like Caligula because that was the other side. And so you’ve got him portrayed as a mad man and all of the rest of it, but I really don’t know whether he was mad. I mean, some of his actions were kind of ludicrous. Who knows? He may have been bipolar for all I know.
In 1994, you played Dr. Tolian Soran in Star Trek: Generations. What is it like to be the man who killed Captain Kirk? Star Trek fans are a loyal and devoted group – do Trekkies recognize you when you are out in public and have they given you a lot of grief over the years for killing Kirk?
They do and, you know what, I have to say they don’t give me any grief at all. They shake my hand and pat me on the back. I went to one of these conventions just this year in Vegas and I was kind of interested to see what reception I would get, but it was fantastic. I think everyone had sort of realized that some great things come to an end and they go on in another direction. He’s a great guy and I like to think I freed him up to get on to Boston Legal.
But, you know, he has a great sense of humor and he can laugh about it. I like him; I’m very fond of Bill and I think he’s a very charismatic actor. A lot of the success of Star Trek is down to him. Well, the two of them [William Shatner and Patrick Stewart], they were fantastic actors really and in sort of a cheesy thing that sort of had cardboard sets in the beginning. The great thing was – and I think a bit like Heroes that I’m in now, which is sort of a modern-day version of it in a way – is that they are moral tales that they tell, which is I think what makes it last.
There have been rumors of a sequel to the Rob Zombie Halloween movie without Zombie’s involvement. Has anyone approached you about playing Loomis in a Halloween sequel? And if another movie is made, would you be interested in reprising your role?
Well, of course it would depend on the script. I’m sure it would be good though because the Weinsteins are nobody’s fool and they know the business like nobody knows the business. So they know that there are certain things you have to have. They also know to get a young, interesting director and Rob certainly is more than that. He’s a terrific director and has a real style, a definite style. That was a very shrewd move on their part and they’ll have to find a director that’s waiting in the wings to make his debut on the world – somebody really interesting like Rob was. And, you know, there are people out there like that just waiting to get a chance. It’s a franchise that’s there for the taking, as it were, to be reinvented.
Have you heard any talk of a sequel? Has anyone approached you?
I heard that they’re getting down to scripting the next one, but I know nothing about it. They, of course, don’t consult me. Why should they? I may not even be in it. I don’t know.
We would hope that they would bring you back. You were so great in the first film.
I would have thought that they would, but who knows? They may just decide, “Nah, forget it. Let’s go in another direction.” But, you know, the franchise is really Dr. Loomis and a mask. That’s the bottom line. But we’ll see. It’s quite a lovely character to play because he’s a very bad doctor; he’s really not the best.
And definitely a bad ass. He doesn’t let himself get pushed around.
Oh no. That’s what makes him so much fun.
As an actor, we would imagine that that role is a lot of fun to play.
Oh great, we had such a great time. Working with Rob is so relaxed and he’s such a gentleman. And Sheri Moon, she’s great too. I don’t know how I kept a straight face any day we worked. It was always fun to go to work and that’s how you want it.
You played Ari Gold’s former boss Terrance on Entourage. What was it like squaring off with Jeremy Piven?
I loved it. It was fun and beautifully written. I think the kids are fantastic. They never get any credit; it’s all Piven. But actually, they’re terrific. All of them, the four of them. And they have some great guest stars coming in – Debi Mazar is fabulous, what a great actress. Besides Piven, there’s a lot of really hugely talented people doing it and it’s a great show. Of course, it’s a chance of a lifetime for Piven; it’s one of those parts that define your career. He’ll always be remembered for it. And he does it; he’s great.
How did I enjoy it? I loved every minute of it. I had so much fun torturing him. It was great.
Is there any chance you will be returning to that show?
You voice the character Vater Orlaag on Metalocalypse and you have done voiceover work for Justice League, Batman: The Animated Series and many other animated shows. Do you enjoy the voiceover work as much as acting in front of the camera?
Oh, I love doing it. I love radio, for starters. I’ve always loved doing radio. And I just love doing voices. It’s fun and it doesn’t take long, so it appeals to me because of that. And you can get some really cool characters.
I’ve been doing quite a few videogames lately and they’re fun. I’ve had a lot of fun with those. And I’ve done this new Disney film called Bolt, which is coming out, about this superstar dog who is the superstar of a TV series and he can’t differentiate between real life and television. That’s been a lot of fun and Disney did an enormously great job on it, as they always do with those things. It’s fun to do. I really do enjoy that part of my career. I don’t do that much of it really, but I enjoy it.
Are you normally just alone in a room recording your lines?
With the Disney one, Bolt, actually the director was sitting right by the mic with me, which was absolutely fantastic because he would give little nuanced direction. Instead of it being through a two-way microphone thing in a booth, he was right there. So that was really nice. And I think he got the best out of the actors by doing that. I think that was a really great move.
We would imagine it’s tough to be there all alone delivering your lines with a director talking to you from outside the booth and without any other actors to play off of.
You’d be surprised. You just dive in and you do something that’s approximate and it works. You just dive in and do it. And amazingly, it usually works out pretty well. I don’t think I’ve had an instance where we all went, “Ooh, that’s terrible.”
Do you ever actually play the videogames that you are in?
No, I don’t like videogames. I keep them out of my house. I don’t want my young kids getting involved in videogames. It’s just a decision. I just don’t want kids to be sitting there like automatons playing these damn games for hours on end.
Actually, it’s my wife’s decision and she’s the boss. So I go along with that. But I enjoy doing them. In one of them recently I played the President of the United States and it was a lot of fun. Speeches like, “My fellow Americans, we are in a time of crisis …” Yeah, right. Turn on the TV, bud. We’re in a real time of crisis.
You are back as Daniel Linderman on season three of Heroes. It was surprising to see you resurface on that show.
Oh Danny boy. He’s back. Yes, it was a surprise to me too. But, you know, that’s the show, isn’t it? It’s full of surprises. I mean, my God, I watched it [on Monday] – I wasn’t in it, but I thought, I wasn’t sure whether I was in it or not. I just loved it. I think it’s terrific. They’re wonderful actors. What’s going on? I have no idea. But I’m hooked on it. It’s one of those things that you can’t put down.
In the season premiere, we learned that only Nathan Petrelli can see Linderman. Did the writers sit you down and explain what is going on with Linderman ahead of time or are they really secretive?
Yeah, I wish. Nobody does any explaining. I was doing a scene with Nathan. I noticed he had a speck on his beautiful black suit. I went over to flick it off his shoulder. They went, “Cut, what are you doing? No, no, you can’t touch him; you’re dead,” which made me roll about with laughter.
I went, “Oh, well do tell me next time.”
But it doesn’t really make any difference. I’m not the kind of actor that has to know. It doesn’t worry me. I just play what’s put in front of me – the scene. What we have to do in the scene to move it forward. I don’t really care if I’m a spirit or if I’m Daniel Linderman himself. Actually, I’ve come back as a very different character this year. It’s not really the one I played in the first season. In fact, there is a line coming up where I say, “I have to get back to you. I have to talk to my boss about that.”
And she goes: “Talk to your boss? I thought you were the guy.”
And he goes: “Well, I’m not that man I once was.”
Can you tell us anything else that’s in store for season three?
No, they won’t let you because they’ll rip my tongue out and feed it to the sea lions that are down in Monterey Aquarium. So I better not say anything. All I will say is I think it’s back to its very best this year. I’ve seen three shows, they have been terrific.
It’s unbelievable, they’re making full-blown movies every week and I don’t know how – well, I do know how they do it, money and hiring the best talent available in Hollywood. That’s how they do it. The best special effects people; amazing effects for a weekly show. It’s staggering. I think it’s absolutely amazing. And it’s just great to be part of that because everybody in the world watches the thing and that’s why I said I likened it in a sense to Star Trek in that it has a hardcore base fan who is obsessed with it.
They do the downloads, they play all those damn games, downloading stuff – all that which I’ve never done, but I understand it. It gives people a sort of secretive life. It’s something to do and we can really get into it. And actually, it’s really their own imagination. You give them just the broad strokes and then they take it over. And you go, “My god.” I’ve had people ask me stuff about Linderman and I haven’t got a clue what they’re talking about.
Somebody said, “You’re one of the original 12.”
And I go, “That’s right, yeah. Am I? Yeah, yeah, I’m one of the original 12.”
It’s a fun thing and it’s great to be part of because it’s just a cool show.
We also don’t think that it’s a coincidence that fans were a bit disappointed with season two, then you’re back for season three and all of the sudden the show is off to a better start.
(Laughs.) It’s nothing to do with my reappearance, but I think that Tim Kring is an amazingly smart guy and all of the producers there are all very, very smart. They knew that they put their main character in a medieval rainforest or whatever in Japan for too many episodes; it’s like they lost their way a little bit. I don’t know. That’s what they said anyway. I’m only paraphrasing what they already said. But the scripts have been fantastic this year. I think they used the writers’ strike to retool, to rethink and they were ready when they came back.
You’ve played a lot of memorable villains in your career. A lot of actors have said that they really enjoy playing bad guys because it’s fun and very freeing as an actor. Is that the case with you?
Oh yeah, they’re fun parts. Listen, they’re great. They’re fun parts. You’ve got six scenes to make everybody hate you and you don’t have to come in every day. That’s the way I look at it now. I’m of a certain age. I don’t want to be grinding it out every day, 16, 18 hours a day. I’m at a time where I want to enjoy my life. So this kind of thing is perfect for me. It works very well.
Do any of your villain roles stand out to you as particularly fun to play?
Well I enjoyed very much a movie called Gangster No. 1, that’s about cockney gangsters from the East End of London, which is a classic movie now. It was made about eight years ago or something like that. It was the first movie that starred Paul Bettany. It’s a terrific film.
And then, I did another film, a small independent film about a serial killer in the Soviet Union called Evilenko. That’s an amazing film and I loved that.
And, of course, Linderman is a great villain.
You have had a long and diverse career, appearing in well over 100 films. Are there any roles left that you haven’t tackled that you have always wanted to play or actors or directors that you have wanted to work with?
You know, I haven’t done a musical and I have a pretty good voice. I did play a rock star in a movie that weirdly enough Allan Arkush directed called Get Crazy in the 80s. It’s a terrific film; it’s a fun film and I got to play kind of a cross between Mick Jagger and Rod Stewart. Funnily enough, that was Allan’s, I think, second film because he’d done Rock ‘n’ Roll High School and weirdly enough, all these years later he is the guy who directed the first Heroes this season. So that was a nice sort of circle for me to work with him again. He’s a terrific guy and I’m very fond of him. It was nice. I loved doing Get Crazy. I got to sing my own rock and roll songs and I loved it. So I guess I’d love to do a singing part.
I’ve done recordings. I did, they had a 25th anniversary album of Pink Floyd’s The Wall and I got to sing “The Trial” on that track and I loved it. It was fantastic and even the Floyd themselves said, “Wow, he did a pretty good job.”
That’s got to feel good to get that kind of validation.
That was great. And actually, that was more fun than almost anything I’ve done.
What do you look for when choosing roles?
Whether it’s near a golf course or not.
No, you know what? The truth is I’m not in a position where I’m getting offered 20 movies a month or a week or whatever. You know, basically, you can only pick what you’re offered. I’m usually offered pretty interesting stuff, so I’m very lucky. But if the phone doesn’t ring then there’s not much you can do about it. I’ve been out there so many years, so people know kind of what to expect. The unexpected, I hope.
So basically, it’s not a question of me going, “I want to do this and I want to do that.” Now, it’s whether they offer it to me then I can choose it. So that’s basically where we’re at.
Perhaps we are biased because we are fans of your work, but we feel like you should be in a position where you can do whatever roles you want to do.
Well, you know what? I actually agree with you, but that’s not the way it works. Because unless they can finance a movie on your name, which they can’t do with mine, then it doesn’t really matter who plays the part, basically.
So you’ve got to have a good agent, good people around you looking out for stuff and they can suggest and they’ll either go, “Oh yes” or “Nah – no, no, his eyes are too blue” or whatever it is it’s down to.
You’ve got to be fairly patient in this business and really you’ve got to have the skin of a rhinoceros. I tell young actors the same thing – you must never really mind rejection because that’s what you’re going to get. You must never take anything in this business personally because it’s like saying, “What do you prefer – an orange or a banana?” It’s a matter of taste.
And you can give the performance of a lifetime and if they are looking for someone five inches taller, you won’t get the part.
Right, exactly. Some of the best performances I’ve ever done, honestly, have never been seen. I did a Russian film called Assassin of the Tsar that’s probably the best performance I gave for 20 years. Nobody ever saw it because it was a Russian-English co-production and it opened at Cannes in Russian, so I was dubbed, and it was never shown in America. And it’s one of the finest movies I’ve made of that period – the 90s, it was the early 90s.
It’s got to be a shame to do something like that and never have it seen.
It is, but you can’t really worry about it. You can’t. It’s sad, but there you go. You figure, “Well, I guess when I’m dead, they’ll get ‘em out.”
Do you go back and watch your old movies?
Even A Clockwork Orange?
I was just in St. Paul at Lindenwood University where they opened this magnificent complex. They’ve got a $35 million state of the art theater and an amazing media center there. So I went to talk to them and I would tell them the same thing, you know. They showed Clockwork Orange there at Lindenwood and seriously I didn’t even watch a frame of it, even though they showed it on Blu-ray and apparently it was a beautiful print. On Blu-ray, my god, that’s amazing. I heard a bit of it, from the lobby actually. It’s like watching one of my kids.
My god, they appreciate it though. From the reaction of the audience, they really get it. It’s a comedy; a black comedy. It always was. When it opened, it was so far ahead of it’s time that people were outraged by the violence, which is so funny because there’s no blood in the movie. A little bit of ketchup here and there, but nothing. It’s all psychological violence.
Especially compared to movies today, which are filled with graphic violence.
Well, look at it compared to Halloween, it’s like a Disney cartoon.
Tell us something most people don’t know about you.
Well, I’m a passionate golfer and I would rather break 70 on the golf course than win an Academy Award. How about that? Any day of the week. I’m never going to break 70, although I’ve gotten fairly close. I think the best I’ve had is 73. If I could break 70, that would be the pinnacle of my career.
How often do you golf?
When I’m not working, my wife’s very generous and allows me to get out whenever I want. And I’ve got young boys, so I take them with me and they have a ball in the cart. I’ve got a young son of 20-months-old who grips hold of the putter and won’t let go of it. They’re very, very excited by the whole thing. They love going out there.
What would you be doing for a living if you never got into acting?
Oh my god! I have no idea. I think honestly I probably could pick up anything and make a go of it because I’m that kind of person. But what would I do? I really don’t know. I’m good with people, talking to people and stuff. I guess something in that area, but who knows?
What does the future hold for you?
The future is with my family. I have a young family; I’ve got young children and I’ve got to stay upright as long as I possibly can to be there for them. So I told the doctor, “You better keep me alive until they graduate.”
He goes, “Wow, you’ll be 82.”
But, you know, I’ve had a spectacular life, really. I’m very fortunate. Wonderful family, wonderful children. What more can a man ask?
And a great career. Of course, careers are all up and down, but I’ve always felt like I wanted to be an actor like John Gielgud and always be around and just be there, even when you’re not the flavor of the month. And just really concentrate on the work. It’s the work that counts; the rest of it, you don’t care about.