NEW YORK -- Quick, name four movies John Malkovich has been in. Stumped?
Now picture his receding hair and cold brown eyes. The light bulb goes on, but it flickers, right?
That's because Malkovich occupies the purgatory of middle-celebrity. He treads in a murky realm that generates questions like, "Say, didn't you play so-and-so in that, you know, uh, movie?" He escapes the pages of People magazine yet has a public reputation for being aloof.
John Malkovich is the union of anonymity and visibility. And that makes him a perfect study for "Being John Malkovich," a wild poke at our obsession with the famous and the near-famous that opens this Friday in Baltimore.
"I'm known in certain ways without being known at all," Malkovich says, fielding questions in a Park Avenue hotel. "That's something that's hard to do and hard to find with celebrity."
In "Being John Malkovich," a puppeteer (John Cusack) working as an office grunt discovers a portal into John Malkovich's body. After a slide down a long tunnel followed by a flash of light, the puppeteer has a 15-minute experience of being Malkovich (played by Malkovich). Soon, the puppeteer begins charging admission to let others pass through the portal, too.
Through Malkovich's eyes, tourists see Malkovich eating toast, Malkovich icing an admirer in a restaurant, even Malkovich making love. The experience ends when the voyagers are catapulted through a warp onto the New Jersey Turnpike.
Not exactly "Die Hard 8," is it?
"It seems inexplicable that it actually got made," says Malkovich, who was the subject of the feature film before he even knew it. The director, Spike Jonze, got Charlie Kaufman's script into Malkovich's hands and later met with him at his home in France. Malkovich liked the story's originality and was aboard immediately.
Asked why he chose Malkovich as his center, Kaufman says he has no intellectual response. "I haven't been able to think of anybody else it could have been."
Kaufman, intentionally or not, speaks volumes about our star-struck world in "Being John Malkovich": No matter how sketchy the notoriety, or how mundane the life of a public figure, someone will always want to be that person. Someone will even fork over admission.
"People think it's more interesting, only because it's a celebrity," Malkovich says. "With normal people, they know there isn't a difference."
As he talks, Malkovich, wearing a dark, three-buttoned suit, sits with his arms folded, as if forming a protective barrier. He has been known to be difficult with reporters, but despite the body language, on this occasion he is polite and answers questions thoughtfully.
A necessary film
He is unabashed in his love of the movie, calling it one of the four or five scripts in his career "that needed to be made." (He lists "Dangerous Liaisons" and "The Killing Fields" among the others.)
And he is amused by fame -- even the blurred degree of it he has achieved. To explore the black holes in the celebrity galaxy, Malkovich subjected himself to heaps of self-parody in the film. Fans repeatedly tell him they loved him "in that jewel-thief movie." (He's never been in a jewel thief movie.) Or how he was so good as "that retard," referring to his portrayal of the slow farmhand Lenny in 1992's "Of Mice and Men."
In a scene that was omitted from the final cut but Malkovich relished, another sycophant gushes to him that he has the director's cut of "Making Mr. Right," one of Malkovich's iffier commercial ventures, on laser disc.
John Cusack says Malkovich was an inspired choice for the subject of "Being."
"It would be a really easy target to do Bruce Willis," says Cusack, who previously worked with Malkovich on "Con Air." "John actually sticks to himself, does a lot of theater, and has some integrity. It's just meaner to attack him, and I think it made him happy."
Says Malkovich: "It wasn't meant to flatter me, but, see, I think that's part of what [Kaufman] is writing about, and I take the point. Flattery is nothing.
"I'm aware of myself and why I can be so incredibly irritating. I could also really mock a lot of people who deserve it a lot more than me."
As an actor, Malkovich carries a clout that cannot be measured in grosses or magazine covers. He earned Academy Award nominations as a blind man in "Places in the Heart" (1984) and as an assassin in "In the Line of Fire" (1993). He co-founded the Steppenwolf Theatre Company with pal Gary Sinise. He won an Emmy for a television version of "Death of a Salesman."
Most of his cachet, though, remains in the film industry. "He definitely has a mystique," says Catherine Keener, who plays the office ice queen in "Being John Malkovich."
The world outside, however, can be both annoying and humbling for a mid-level celebrity. When Malkovich owned a home in Los Angeles -- he now lives full-time in France with his second wife -- he was walking to the hardware store with his two children when he was followed by a man who yelled at him to stop.
"He pitched me a script about Vlad the Impaler," Malkovich says. "The lead part was already taken by Ralph Fiennes, but there were some good secondary roles."
On the personal front, Malkovich generally has avoided unwanted publicity -- except once. Don't you recall? The reported dalliance he had with Michelle Pfeiffer on the set of "Dangerous Liaisons" while his first wife, Glenne Headly, was working on the set of "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels?"
Of course you don't. And that's fine with old what's-his-name.