EXCLUSIVE: Acting legend Malcolm McDowell's advice to actors and thoughts on Mozart in the Jungle
Malcolm McDowell rocketed to fame playing lead droog Alex DeLarge in Stanley Kubrick's 1971 dystopian masterpiece A Clockwork Orange and subsequently as Mick Travis in Lindsay Anderson's if...Since then, spanning a 50-year acting career, Malcolm has worked with Oscar-winning director Robert Altman as well as acting alongside screen greats Laurence Olivier, Tim Robbins, William Shatner, former wife, Mary Steenburgen and Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger.
The iconic actor, from West Riding of Yorkshire, UK, now appears in the fourth season of two-time Golden Globe-winning Amazon Prime series, Mozart in the Jungle and here discusses his work with Mandy News, as well as offering advice to actors and praising his friend Gary Oldman's BAFTA-winning performance in Joe Wright's Winston Churchill film Darkest Hour.
You play the person who, in some ways has lost, yet you get some great lines and storylines, how is that?
Well, you may say that, as far as my character is concerned, he may have been kicked upstairs … but you are right. Thomas does feel it like sort of a humiliation. In real life, most conductors go on until they drop. On the podium, they’re in their eighties and still going strong.
What Thomas found out was that Rodrigo was the real deal and they became mano a mano. I think Thomas is a bit of a fish out of water and so when he gets a chance to do something a bit avant garde and take on the Queen’s ‘Phil’ (harmonic), he’s excited and thrilled to do it.
What were your thoughts when you got offered this role?
I’d known Paul Weitz (the director). He’s a friend and I’d worked with him a couple of times and I am a great fan of Paul Reiser’s work. When he called me, I said, "I don’t think I can do it because I’m doing another series and I think the contract forbid me from taking another."
Anyway, he wanted me to play this part so badly, he said, "you can come on and do six shows or five. We’ll make it work," and that’s what I did in the first season. Then the other show got cancelled. It freed me up.
As an actor, you’ve been privileged to play many roles. What are some of your challenges in playing this one?
It’s all a challenge. It all has to be carefully thought and worked out but for me it’s so much fun to do comedy that’s based in truth. Real based comedy is based in a truth and this is — it’s not slapstick. It’s fairly simple but has to be kind, of course, and I alway look in a scene for the comedic possibilities, even the ad-libbed lines. One ad-lib I saw last night I asked, "What is Japanese for asshole?" Doing that changed the sceneand it became a melee, which is exactly what we wanted.
Your character has a romance with Bernadette Peters. What did you know of her before this show?
I knew what everybody knew. I knew all about her love life and everything else. No, I had always been a fan of Bernadette Peters. She’s an adorable woman and what you see is what you get. She’s a very principled person and a just a rare thing; a very nice person. I adore working with her and we have this incredible relationship on screen.
I remember us in a scene tussling over a basket of fruit. I’m pulling, she’s pulling and it’s hilarious when grown up people behave like that. You know, Thomas really is a child, which is why I love him and why he’s so irritating. He’s had a stunted growth, emotionally. That comes with being an alcoholic and once in Season 2, he famously fell off the wagon and Hailey helped him by sticking him in a bathtub of cold water.
Anyway, working with Bernadette is a treat and we just smile from ear to ear. It’s hard to keep a straight face.
What advice can you give to actors?
Oh good God! I don’t know enough about acting to advise [laughs]. The only thing I would advise is don’t do it. I say that in a glib way because 90 percent of people who want to be actors will be out of work and won’t earn a living wage. That’s just what the figures tell us but, on the other hand, if someone had given me that advice, I would have said, "Thank you very much" and completely ignored it, which is what I would expect any real actor to do. Anyone that really wants it can’t live, breathe or be in any other world except the actor’s life.
Even if you are waiting tables, you’re working it. You’re in class, you’re waiting for that one call. Whatever it is that you need to do to really get yourself ready when the time comes, when you get that call, when they they tell you, "you’ve got the part". When that time comes, that’s when the s*** hits the fan. You’ve got to deliver.
I remember when I got a call from Kubrick. That would have been my fourth movie, so I’d been in front of the camera quite a lot. When Kubrick came calling, I was ready and waiting to deliver for him.
Would you advise actors to study even after they are known?
I think every single actor is a different being. Some will study. Some are more self-sufficient and some do the study by walking down the street or sitting at a cafe table and watching the world go by. There are different ways to get there. No particular way is the right way.
I did not go to drama school. I had to learn it on the fly and I am really grateful that I had to do it that way because it really made me think on my feet.
Your friend, Gary Oldman is up for an Oscar this year for Darkest Hour, have you had a chance to talk with him since the nomination?
I’m very proud of Gary Oldman. He gives one of the great performances this year or any year and I think his moment in the sun has arrived. He’s always been a great actor and I have admired him tremendously. I am so proud of him that he’s given this great performance. Look, forget about the awards, I’m just so proud of him. He did a great job.