By Jess Cagle
August 06, 1993 at 04:00 AM EDT
In The Line Of Fire - 1993
Credit: Columbia Tri Star/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

Once again John Malkovich found himself peering over the edge. It was the last day of shooting on the Clint Eastwood thriller In the Line of Fire — a brisk, bright January afternoon in Los Angeles. Director Wolfgang Petersen was completing a harrowing rooftop chase scene, most of which he had shot four months earlier in Washington, D.C.

The rooftop had been reconstructed on an empty lot for the scene’s climax, in which Malkovich, a would-be assassin, snatches Secret Service agent Eastwood by the wrist, saving him from a seven-story fall and bringing hunter and hunted face-to-face for the first time. Under the glaring California sun, Eastwood dangled by one hand, cocking his gun with the other. The camera rolled as Malkovich stared down the barrel of Eastwood’s gun. Then, much to his colleague’s surprise, Malkovich veered from the script, leaned forward, and took the gun barrel in his mouth.

It may be the film’s creepiest moment: Malkovich — willfully, defiantly violated by his adversary’s weapon — stares the old man down. ”I liked it because it was kind of mocking and sort of sexual,” says Malkovich in the same quiet, even voice that tortures Eastwood in the film. ”It’s so kind of Jeffrey Dahmeresque in a way.”

As for Eastwood, he was used to Malkovich’s kinky work habits by this point. What the audience doesn’t see as Malkovich fellates the gun is Eastwood’s face cracking into a laugh, like a nice piece of distressed leather.

”It’s so sick, it’s so weird,” says director Petersen. ”Only John can come up with something like that.”

Since it opened July 9, In the Line of Fire has put $54 million into the coffers of Columbia Pictures, giving the studio a healthy summer tan following the pallid returns of Last Action Hero. It offers the steely appeal of Clint, a whiff of pathos from Dylan McDermott as one of the assassin’s victims, and a tingling of romance generated by Eastwood’s love interest, Rene Russo.

But the movie belongs to Malkovich as the angry and wily assassin Mitch Leary — the scariest, sleekest badass since Hannibal Lecter. His smile twirls at the tips, like Dali’s mustache. His eyes lunge at each other while his hairline retreats. Taunting Eastwood through a series of nightmarish phone calls, he drips sarcasm and arrogance into the line, and somehow lets the audience in on his jokes.

Behind this bad guy is an arch-chameleon who has graced his film roles with both insidious comic timing and seething, volcanic rage ever since his 1984 big-screen appearance as a photojournalist in The Killing Fields. He has also stepped into the guises of a blind boarder (Places in the Heart, 1984), a pretty-boy robot and its creator (Making Mr. Right, 1987), a shady POW (Empire of the Sun, 1987), a lascivious French aristocrat (Dangerous Liaisons, 1988), a clown (Shadows and Fog, 1992), and an erstwhile cannibal (Alive, 1993). Next up: Kurtz in TNT’s Heart of Darkness, coming in January. And there are unconfirmed reports that he’s neck-and-neck with Robin Williams for the role of the Riddler in Batman III.

Yet In the Line of Fire was an unlikely choice for Malkovich. Despite an Oscar nomination for Places and more mass acclaim in Liaisons, he has usually walked away from big studio films. He rejected a chance to play the Sheriff of Nottingham role ultimately taken by Alan Rickman in 1991’s Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, and turned down the opportunity to work with Eastwood in the 1983 Dirty Harry sequel, Sudden Impact. He would have passed on Fire if two other films — one about a homosexual murderer, the other about 19th-century French poets Verlaine and Rimbaud — hadn’t fallen through.

”I first read [Line of Fire] and I thought, ‘Oh, I don’t know if I can do this,”’ he says. ”It struck me as so…popular. You know, a kind of popular divertissement, which, don’t get me wrong…I mean, that’s what I go see. Dirty Harry. But everything I have ever done had the stench of art to it, one way or another.”

Malkovich, who will turn 40 in December, is draped in white linen, a little reticent but unerringly polite, holding forth from a small spindly table in the guest house just beyond the pool of his home in Los Angeles’ elegantly old-guard Hancock Park. For two years he has lived here with Nicoletta Peyran, an Italian scholar of Asian culture and mother of their 3-year-old daughter, Armadine, and year-old son, Loewy. For the moment, he has surrendered the main house to Loewy (or ”poo-poo man,” as Malkovich calls him), who is inside napping under the housekeeper’s supervision.

”See,” he says, browsing for the right words and picking at a loose thread at his shirt’s cuff, ”so often in popular entertainment, you’re sort of dealing with…icons and archetypes, and prototypes, and et cetera, et cetera. And see, I don’t really know how to do that per se, because I can only play a normal person, you know? So that was odd for me…to have a gun and, you know, run.”

This time, though, there were mitigating factors. The idea of playing an assassin intrigued Malkovich; he has long been interested in dramatizing Don DeLillo’s 1988 Libra, a fictional biography of Lee Harvey Oswald. Plus, he says, ”I really, you know, have always been a fan of Clint’s and I thought that would be a hoot.”

It was a hoot, which surprised Petersen. ”I thought [John] was more this brooding, intellectual type,” he says, ”but it turned out he was the funniest guy on earth. He preferred just to talk about baseball.” On the set Malkovich easily sheds his character between takes. ”I treat it as a profession,” he says.

While Fire was in production last winter, Malkovich made it known to his costars that he coveted the role of Elly May in the upcoming movie version of The Beverly Hillbillies. ”Why not?” he says. ”Women pretend to be men all the time. I could do The Beverly Hillbillies perfectly well. And I was actually a huge Jethro fan. He [Max Baer Jr.] was kind of a splendid actor. Not as good as Eddie Haskell, but really an excellent actor.” (For better or worse, the role of Elly May eventually went to Erika Eleniak of Baywatch and Under Siege.)

Petersen encouraged Malkovich to flex the well-toned improvisational muscles he developed during his days at Chicago’s legendary Steppenwolf Theatre Company. Malkovich complied. In one particularly grisly ad-lib, he fired a second shot into the body of a man he had just killed. ”One man’s gratuitous is another man’s necessary,” says the actor of his motivation. ”I’ve always said that.” Says Petersen: ”Boy, it gave you the chills.”

Eastwood knew these chills well. ”Wolfgang would just say, ‘Mess with [Clint],”’ says Malkovich. ”’Befuddle him.”’ Although only one actor at a time is on screen during Line of Fire‘s eerie phone calls, Petersen had the actors speaking to each other on the line during filming. While shooting Eastwood’s side of the call, in which Malkovich warns him to ”Show me some goddamned respect!,” Malkovich caught Eastwood off guard by exploding at the end of the call. Eastwood, on camera, broke into a sweat. ”After all, it is Clint,” says Malkovich, sneaking a smile, ”and this notion of dissing him, you know, seemed to come up a lot.”

”John has a very dark sense of humor,” says Petersen. ”Very dark.” So dark that he took perverse pleasure in filming the movie’s most horrifying scene, in which he murders two women but spares the canine witness. ”I think it was Steven Wright who said, ‘Women: Can’t live with ’em, can’t shoot ’em,”’ says Malkovich, moving slowly toward a joke. ”I think that scene goes a long way to disproving that notion.” When he finished the scene, he whispered suggestively to the director, ”You know, they do have a dog…”

Back home in Benton, Ill., it never occurred to Joe Anne Malkovich that her little boy would become an actor. ”But I knew he could put on a pretty good act,” she says.

Malkovich lived in the kind of rowdy, upper-middle-class household that other kids love to visit: Five kids (two boys, three girls) and a mother who preferred reading to discipline while Dad was at work. Malkovich often longed for solitude. ”I played with other kids,” he says, ”then I’d go off for 18 hours by myself and dig in the f—ing dirt.” His mother owned a newspaper, his father a magazine. Big brother Danny still edits the Benton Evening News, and Mom writes the society page, even though they sold the paper five years ago. His father, Dan, was a conservationist.

John played punching bag to Danny’s raging bull, and suffered these indignities quietly until he could no longer contain his temper. Danny admits to knocking at least one of John’s teeth out. Malkovich countered on another occasion by pushing him through a window. ”When I see [John] throw fits in movies,” says his mother, ”that was sort of the way he did to fight back.” ”It didn’t take much,” recalls Danny. ”You’d talk about his weight or his ugly girlfriends and he’d just go bananas…[Then] you’d just sit back and watch him go.” It has been reported that during such fits, his siblings would lock him out of the house and scream ”Mad dog!” at him until he calmed down. Mrs. Malkovich is surprised to hear that John was nervous about handling firearms in Line of Fire: ”I figured he’d be delighted.”

Malkovich got the darker side of his disposition from his father, who died in 1980. ”He was 82nd Airborne and had a major temper, major,” he says, ”but I’m not one of those kooks saying I was abused.” John likes to tell a story about the time he didn’t win his first-grade Easter egg contest. He called the teacher a ”motherf—er” (”or c—sucker, I can’t remember which”) and walked out of school. ”My father beat my ass for about six hours,” he recalls. Malkovich’s temper has found various outlets over the years. In high school, it was football. He grew to 6’1” early, beefed up to 230 pounds, and played defensive tackle. (At 16, tired of being called Fatso, he dropped 60 pounds by consuming nothing but Jell-O for two months. ”My Jell-O diet,” he says. ”I’m afraid Victoria Principal is going to rip it off or something, and here I am, f—ed again.”)

When he took up acting at Eastern Illinois University, his anger electrified his performances. Then, as now, his characters fairly hummed with energy. ”I realized then that it was fun,” he says. ”And see, I always had too much attention and too much imagination as a child. Always. So for me it was just a kind of logical extension of all that.” He later transferred to Illinois State.

In 1976 he left without a degree and joined Steppenwolf co-founder Gary Sinise (his costar and director in last year’s Of Mice and Men) and eight other Chicago-area actors. In Chicago he directed or starred in about 50 Steppenwolf productions. He made his New York debut in 1982 as a brutish, nose-picking nut in Sam Shepard’s Cain-and-Abel play True West. The performance, he says, was ”basically patterned on my brother.”

Thus Malkovich exorcises the family demons. During the filming of Fire, he entertained Rene Russo in the makeup trailer, cracking her up with his creaky Midwestern imitation of his mother. ”One day I had to leave the trailer,” she says, still laughing. ”I was peeing in my pants.” Malkovich and his mother, who doesn’t seem at all flattered by the imitation, stay in contact but rarely see each other; she has yet to meet her grandson. ”I know John says he’s really sweet,” she says.

Malkovich has moonlighted as an executive producer (on The Accidental Tourist in 1988) and as a fashion model (Andrew Fezza, Antonio Miro, and Comme des Garçons have all employed him for print ads and runways). But his most unlikely role was that of tabloid fodder, when his marriage to actress Glenne Headly (Dick Tracy) began to come apart in 1988. His marital problems might have gone unnoticed if not for his ill-fated affair with Liaisons costar Michelle Pfeiffer.

”He came home with Michelle,” recalls Danny. ”I think that’s the happiest I’ve ever seen him.” However, he waffled between the relationships, and finally both fell apart. Malkovich moved to London to ”put himself back together,” says Danny. He met Peyran on the set of 1990’s The Sheltering Sky, where she was director Bernardo Bertolucci’s assistant. They’ve been together since, dividing their time between Rome (though they recently sold their house there) and L.A. They’re now planning to set up housekeeping in France as well. ”I laugh at a lot of stuff,” he says. ”I laugh hardest with my children probably. Like they go around in a circle singing ‘Pop Goes the Weasel.’ You know, after you do it a minute, it’s really fun.”

He’s in favor of spanking. ”I’m not totally mod in my beliefs,” he says. And he worries about the violence his children are exposed to in movies and TV. ”That, you see, I think can lead to this whole sort of brain-dead, numb bunch of nihilistic morons, you know?” He says this is ”the real reason that I never did a lot of films like [Line of Fire].” Yet he sees nothing ironic in taking them to see Menace II Society recently. ”Of course, my little boy did say the other day, when I made him get off the dining room table, ‘F— you, Dada.’ Very clearly.”

Like its owner, his white stucco hacienda is full of contradictions — bright modern furniture scooted here and yon, butting up against an ornate four-poster bed in the living room (”Can’t really decorate with two 2-year-olds,” he says). Malkovich takes a passionately reactionary stance on anything that might invade his space. ”What’s cool about a society where people can violate you in any way from mentally to sexually and you have no recourse?” he says. He advocates capital punishment: ”Why give someone a second chance…when we can’t give [so many] people a first chance?” Yet he has little patience for the homeless: ”They’ve achieved nothing because they’ve attempted nothing,” he told a reporter last year. Such sentiments make him an anomaly in liberal Hollywood, but he says, ”They’ll figure it out.”

”He grew up with ruckus constantly so I imagine he does kind of treasure quietness,” says his mother. This afternoon in his sparsely furnished guest house, the only sound to interrupt his thoughts is the rustle of leaves outside. ”One time I had this sort of psychotic episode,” he says, smiling again, occasionally glancing out the window. He doesn’t remember how old he was. ”My best friend said it happened in college….I insisted that people call me Tony, you know…and it involved pitching grapes at this window, where, in the reflection, I could see myself. But in the reflection, of course, I was left-handed and kind of stylish and all these things which I of course wasn’t. And somehow thinner. And, you know, my name was Tony.”