Combustible Celluloid

Interview with Malcolm McDowell

'Gangster' Rapping

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Buy Gangster No. 1 on DVD.

The statement that Malcolm McDowell is proud of his film Gangster No. 1 should not be taken lightly. McDowell enjoys being an actor who works a lot, who brings a sense of fun to a role, and who doesn't much mind if the material isn't terribly good.

On playing the title character in the new film, he breathlessly says that not many of his characters are as good as this.

As a kind of barometer, he's made something like a dozen films since Gangster No. 1, and half of those since he visited the Bay Area last October to accept a lifetime achievement award at the Mill Valley Film Festival.

Far from the sinister scenery chewer he's come to be known for in films like Star Trek: Generations and Tank Girl, McDowell comes across as laid back and fairly self-effacing. We even begin our conversation on sports. "Most Americans play football (soccer) as children, so why aren't there more great adult players?" he wants to know.

McDowell himself played rugby. "The brutal game," he says.

Eventually we move on to Gangster No. 1. McDowell mentions that his son approves of the film, which does not happen very often. "At the end he said, 'Dad, this rocks!' I'll take that as a compliment," McDowell says.

In the film, McDowell plays Gangster, the older version of an angry, jealous mobster who longs to wrest control from top crime man David Thewliss. Paul Bettany plays the younger version during the middle section of the film while McDowell narrates.

"You can't get an actor my age to play a character in his 20s," McDowell explains. "You'd have to get an actor in his 30s to play younger and then do that makeup thing which is not good. And the amazing thing is that Paul Bettany is 6 foot 4. He did a good job because he looked at A Clockwork Orange and a few other films from when I was his age. He really got the look and all that. I don't think you question the fact that we're different people. Sure, the gangster is very different when he's a young man. Aren't we all though?"

Because of McDowell's busy schedule, Bettany didn't get to spend much time with the veteran actor.

"He was invited onto the set and I did that big final scene with David Thewliss in the apartment," McDowell says. "I shot that, and he was around for all that. And after that, I had to leave; I was doing another film. And I said, 'Paul, it's up to you now. Don't f--- it up.' And I left."

McDowell savors his villainy for a moment, but follows it up with an earnest compliment directed at Mr. Bettany (A Knight's Tale and A Beautiful Mind). "He's smart and he's a good actor and I think he's awfully good in it. He'll have a good career, I'm sure."

This from a man who has cranked out over 100 films and TV shows in less than five decades and who got his feet wet in such films as Lindsay Anderson's If... and Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange.

Even after 30 years, McDowell still loves to tell stories about Kubrick and Clockwork. The actor recently appeared in Jan Harlan's documentary tribute to Kubrick, Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures and had a chance to think about his relationship with the great director. McDowell improvises a typical conversation from the set of A Clockwork Orange.

Stanley: 'Do it again.'
Malcolm: 'Why?'
Stanley: 'Do it again.'
Malcolm: 'Any reason?'
Stanley: 'Do it again.'
Malcolm: 'Do it the same? Do it different? What do you want me to do?'
Stanley: 'Do it again.'

"Because he didn't know," McDowell says. He describes how he's used to working quickly, using the freshness of the moment. But Kubrick would make him repeat a shot over and over until he got bored and began to do different and more spontaneous things.

"I used to say to him, 'this is one hell of a way to write a script, is to wait for inspiration from the lead actor.' In the great scheme of things, it was an amazing experience. It was fantastic, 99.9% of the time. I had a lot of fun with him. Probably I got to know him too well. And I think it scared him," he decides.

Things have changed for the busy McDowell -- much quicker shooting schedules and more time off. "I like that. I get home, spend a month and go do another project. If I have to hang around, forget it. I can't be bothered. If they say, 'we need you for sixteen days but it's over 12 weeks.' I'll say 'I'm sorry, but I'm used to working in America where they're efficient.'"

Though sometimes the pace of McDowell's work life can be confusing. "I was rushing back and forth from Gangster No. 1 to Just Visiting, running from one set to the other. One day I'm beating the crap out of Thewliss. The next morning, the car would come and I would be driven to Shepperton to do this medieval thing. And I suddenly saw the same stand-in that I had for Gangster in. And I'm like, 'What the f--- are you doing here?'"

Again, McDowell rights himself and gets serious, a proud papa telling stories about his kids. He'll be off shortly to act in his daughter's student film, a 25-minute film shot on 16mm.

"I'm getting all sorts of directions right now. She's irritating me beyond belief. Like, 'don't shave.' 'Whaddya mean, don't shave? I'm doing a movie with Eddie Murphy right now [called I Spy]. They're paying me; you're not.'"

Fans most likely won't get a glimpse at McDowell's daughter's film, but hopefully they'll be happy with McDowell's latest offering, Gangster No. 1.

"It's a great film. It's a wonderful example of that genre. It's beautifully directed, well acted, looks great. What more do you want?"

(July 22, 2002.)

Buy Malcolm McDowell DVDs:

  • Britannia Hospital
  • Caligula
  • Cat People
  • A Clockwork Orange
  • The Company
  • Gangster No. 1
  • I Spy
  • My Life So Far
  • Star Trek: Generations
  • Tank Girl
  • Time After Time

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