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'Mary Reilly' star defies easy expectations

Julia Roberts and John Malkovich in "Mary Reilly."

John Malkovich for Mr. Hyde, yes. But Gary Sinese, surely, for Dr. Jekyll? That's sort of the way the two actors positioned themselves a week or so ago, at a benefit for Steppenwolf Theater. Actors don't often like to talk publicly about their techniques; their typical answer is that they have no idea what they did in a performance, and not a clue about how they did it.

But in this case they'd put themselves on the spot: They were raising money for their theater, the audience had paid up to $1,000 a ticket, and so they delivered, with the sorts of revelations actors usually prefer to keep to themselves. Responding to questions from Gene Siskel and myself, seven Steppenwolf actors (Joan Allen, John Mahoney, Malkovich, Laurie Metcalf, Austin Pendleton, Sinese and Lois Smith) looked at clips of themselves in the movies and talked about what went on in a performance.

The timing was good, because I had just seen Malkovich in "Mary Reilly," the new Stephen Frears film in which the story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is seen entirely through the eyes of a quiet, frightened housemaid, played by Julia Roberts. Malkovich has always been an unconventional screen actor, with no interest in being ingratiating; his best roles have him as a cerebral, rather chilly person who uses words as a weapon. And that's the case in "Mary Reilly," where as both Jekyll and Hyde he exists primarily to bewilder and frighten poor Mary, before finally finding that he needs her to save himself.

At the Steppenwolf evening, Sinise had just seen a clip of himself opposite Tom Hanks in "Forrest Gump," and was asked if it was hard to play against a character of "limited emotional range." Not really, he said: "After all, I've had a lot of experience working with John Malkovich." That got a big laugh, but when Malkovich himself came to the stage, and was asked how he liked playing so many screen villains (like the would-be assassin in "In the Line of Fire"), he smiled and said the characters were interesting because they were secretive, complex, and maybe a little intimidating: "Sort of like myself."

With wicked relish, describing some of his encounters with other actors, he described techniques for marking his territory. Glenn Close, who had been working on "Dangerous Liaisons" for weeks when Malkovich arrived on the set, grew impatient after three takes of a scene, and made a suggestion to John: "Have you ever considered that?" "Yes," he told her. "In the third grade, I think."

During rehearsals for the stage production of "Death of a Salesman," when Dustin Hoffman, playing Willy Loman, dared suggest that Biff, played by Malkovich, would cross the kitchen in one scene, Malkovich remembered asking him: "What makes you think I'd take a note from an actor who lost the Academy Award to John Wayne as Rooster Cogburn?"

Eventually both relationships survived their rocky starts. But Malkovich is still punching. During the Steppenwolf evening he trashed both the Method and some technical aspects of British acting, and said that although an actor may try to dredge up "sense memories" at times "when he needs to get out of a tight spot," it was basically an admission of incompetence: "If the role has been written well, if the lines are there, then a good actor should be able to get the effect simply by performing them."

So, okay, how did this gifted, complicated, intimidating actor get along with Julia Roberts, the star of "Mary Reilly," whose acting career has been accompanied by a firestorm of personal publicity and scandal about her real and imagined romances?

"She has a real quality," he told me, the afternoon before the Steppenwolf event. "She may be as good as anyone I've ever acted with. There were times when I'm afraid I might have actually dragged her down a little. I need to work a lot on a scene. I work my way into it. With Julia, her emotions seem to be easily accessible to her. She asks for it, and it comes. There were times when I needed a lot of takes, and I'm afraid I may have slowed her down..."

"Malkovich?" Roberts told me later. "Dragging me down? That'll be the day!"

It's essentially a two-character movie, although there are a few edgy supporting roles, including one for Glenn Close as a madam who knows altogether too much about Jekyll's habits. In most of the key scenes, only Roberts and Malkovich are on screen. I asked Stephen Frears, the filmmaker, who also worked with Malkovich on "Dangerous Liaisons," about the two acting styles.

"It's probably true," he said, "that Julia has a very natural and quick access to her emotions. John is a complicated man and it takes him a long time to work it out. He gets frightened by what he's trying to do and has to be encouraged. Then he finds it, and it's remarkable."

The film takes place in a dour, foggy Edinburgh, where the once-respectable Dr. Jekyll has abandoned his practice and locked himself up in the laboratory behind his house for long days and nights of research. Mary Reilly, a simple Irish girl, is bottom in the pecking-order in the household, where the servants are rigidly stratified, and the butler is a little god. But Jekyll finds himself touched by Mary, especially after he hears her story about being beaten by her father. Even after that maltreatment, she says, she cannot bring herself to hate the man. At this, hope stirs in Jekyll's face, because he finds himself a tortured and misunderstood man, whose Hyde personality seems completely evil. He hopes to find acceptance or understanding from Mary.

"I think Dr. Jekyll is initially fascinated with her because she appears to be such a simple girl," Roberts told me. "He thinks he can just sort of look at her and know everything--but in fact that's completely wrong and once they sort of strike up a relationship, he's intrigued by her resolve, her capacity for understanding a situation and moving on from it; being very much in the present as opposed to lingering in the bizarre world of the past events."

Jekyll and Hyde are both articulate, I said. Mary Reilly is subdued, afraid to speak or to say exactly what she's thinking. You're on the screen a lot without talking; there's a kind of acting that must come from the inside, isn't there?

"It's like not having a net," she said. "Fortunately for me as a person, and as a performer, I actually oftentimes prefer to say nothing; I can relay something in a more interesting way without just saying it. This character certainly put that to the test for me. I really appreciated Stephen's confidence in me, in allowing my responses to be so terribly subtle oftentimes--just do such a tiny little thing and let that be enough. I thought that was great of him to allow the movie to be so almost minimalist but just full of stuff."

The fact is, many of the things Mary Reilly must be thinking can hardly be said. To begin with, as a housemaid, she must not acknowledge the possibility that her employer is attracted to her. Or the possibility that he may be going mad. Or the possibility that he and his "assistant," Mr. Hyde, may be the same person. ("You have to admit we look a lot alike," Jekyll taunts her.)

"She makes people react to her in a very powerful way," Frears said. "Her presence on screen is phenomenal. She has this extraordinary expressive face, and if you're going to watch someone for 90 minutes, in a largely interior film, you have to have someone whose face can withstand that kind of attention."

As for Malkovich, the dual role provides an interesting challenge. He could exaggerate the difference between Jekyll and Hyde, with makeup and mannerisms, allowing Hyde to drift in the general direction of the Wolf Man, as Fredric March did in the 1932 version. Malkovich is more in the tradition of Spencer Tracy in the 1941 version of the story, where interior states are more important than makeup. Instead of exaggerating the differences between Jekyll and Hyde, he makes them eerily similar--almost two aspects of the same personality.

Thinking of his performance, I see what he meant when he talked about a good actor being able to trust the material. In the contrasts between Jekyll and Hyde, in the melodramatic nature of the story, in the Gothic gloom of old Edinburgh, he could easily find excuses for any excess. But by doing as little as necessary, by letting the situation work for itself, he creates a stronger effect. "Mary Reilly" is not the story of Jekyll and Hyde, but the story of the housemaid, and it takes place entirely in her imagination, and her fears. A more obvious, over the top performance by Malkovich would make it all too easy for Mary; restraint makes the evil possibilities more sinister. Something that Malkovich has quite possibly known ever since--shall we say the third grade?

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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