Running like Clockwork
Malcolm McDowell, the prolific film and television star most recognisable for his role in A Clockwork Orange, tells DQ about the lessons he has learned during his career on screen.
Although Malcolm McDowell is best known for the role that also gave him his big break, the actor had been on screen for almost a decade before starring as Alex DeLarge in Stanley Kubrick’s iconic and controversial dystopian film A Clockwork Orange.
In fact, he started out on television with roles in shows such as Z Cars, Sat’day While Sunday and The Newcomers. But it was in 1971’s A Clockwork Orange that he would win international and awards recognition, leading to dozens of film roles over his near 60-year career. He went on to star in the 1976 film Voyage of The Damned and played the eponymous lead in 1979’s Caligula.
More recently, McDowell has played a variety of roles in TV series including Heroes and Community (both NBC) and HBO’s Entourage, as well as starring in Amazon Prime Video series Mozart In The Jungle (2014-18) and Truth Seekers (2020).
He has also become a highly sought-after voice actor during his career, appearing in everything from Tom and Jerry movies to the video game franchise Call of Duty.
His most recent project is a film called Blood on the Crown, in which he stars opposite Harvey Keitel (Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction). Produced and distributed by Electric Entertainment, the film recalls the real events around how Maltese citizens fought for their independence against Britain in 1919, immediately after the First World War.
McDowell speaks to DQ about some of the lessons he has learned during his eventful career.
While historical drama needs to be well researched, McDowell believes actors have more creative licence when playing historical figures.
The difference is you get a lot more research if you’re playing a historical figure. But as an actor you hope the writer’s done that. That’s their job if they’re doing a historical film – the research has to be correct. If I’m playing a historical character, however, it all depends on the film. I played HG Wells in a movie called Time After Time. And that certainly had nothing to do with the real HG Wells, because it wouldn’t serve the script. I thought I’d better do a little research and I listened to his real voice. It was really high pitched with a horrible south-east London twang, and I thought, ‘I don’t think so, I’ll just make up my own HG Wells.’ Historically, it wasn’t that important, it just had to be what Wells was to people.
McDowell uses a variety of techniques to get himself into character.
I think of myself as quite expressionist; I could never do what [Laurence] Olivier did with the fake nose or anything. But sometimes there are roles where you have to bring your feelings from inside outside. When I played Russian serial killer Andrei Chikatilo in 2004’s Evilenko, I was playing a man who butchered people and was a cannibal and paedophile. I didn’t really want to take all that baggage home with me every night, so I found a physical object to project the character on to. I could just discard it and go home, without any emotional trauma.
For Blood On The Crown, where I play a military man, Colonel Saville, there wasn’t much room for manoeuvre as they’re very regimented. But I wanted to make him a little bit vulnerable, as he’s a man who has lost both his sons to warfare, despite fully subscribing to the military point of view. In the scene where he talks about it, I get very emotional and that surprised even me! It was something so spontaneous that came out of the character. The director was fully on board because ultimately this man is a human who has suffered.
Despite every actor having highs and lows in their career, they should always take chances.
You look for diversity, you don’t want to be stuck playing the same part all the time. It just keeps you interested. I’ve found you often go from one extreme to the other. In about 1979, the New York Times published its 10 best and 10 worst films of the year list – and I was on both lists. That’s how it should be. Everyone should take risks and go out on a limb. I really don’t care whether it’s a hit or not, that doesn’t come into the equation. You just do it if you want to do it. It’s a personal process for you deciding whether you’re going to undertake a role.
Reflecting on his career spanning more than five decades, McDowell has seen huge change in the entertainment industry.
It’s changed immensely. This year is the 50th anniversary of A Clockwork Orange and you’d never know I was the same person as Alex. The work in itself hasn’t changed much but it’s so much harder to be an actor now. So many people want to be one, and there are so many film schools but only so many jobs. In truth, TV has taken up the slack from the drop-off in independent filmmaking and now Netflix and Amazon are making all the award contenders between them. That’s the main difference – all the best scripts are on TV now. From the actor’s point of view that doesn’t matter. I like working fast and if they say I have to do eight pages a day I say bring it on.
While the actor’s side has remained essentially unchanged, the delivery of entertainment is completely different.
When I think about the trouble Kubrick went to to show his films, the idea of someone watching A Clockwork Orange on an iPhone is mind-boggling. The filming technology is obviously better as well; you can shoot at night time now and have it look like day. When we were making A Clockwork Orange, Kubrick was pioneering that technology and I remember having to do a close-up at the very end of the day, when it was dark outside. I asked him about this and he said, ‘The only thing is, you can’t move or it’ll ruin the exposure.’ And sure enough, when I saw it, that shot looked like daytime when it was actually pitch black. Kubrick would love all the technological advances. He was a genius at that.
McDowell credits former colleagues with helping him to realise his potential.
I was very fortunate to work with a great director, Lindsay Anderson, who directed my first movie, If…, which was eventually made into a trilogy. He always encouraged you to be who you are, and that was very important. When you’re very young you’re never quite certain who you are, or what your real identity is. So there has to be a certain amount of confidence about you doing things and, hopefully, they’re the right things. I had no idea that my first movie would be a hit, or that people would realise that I had any talent at all. When you’re that young all you’re remembering is the emotional journey of the character. You don’t take into account what your presence means at all.
Even after 50 years in the business, it’s vital to approach every role afresh.
Now I have all this experience, I know what works and what doesn’t. But having said that, I really do make a concerted effort to leave technique behind and to try to take a new situation and take it as if I’ve never done it before. It’s hard, but I do try to make it spontaneous. But I’m not really interested in playing naturalistic roles, I leave that for the documentarians. I like to find a certain style of acting. It’s not something I can really define because it changes, but I remember Lindsay Anderson saying to me that I was a very Brechtian actor. I asked him what he meant and he said I tell the audience that I’m acting, and then I make them believe it anyway.