Malcolm McDowell on ultraviolence, Entourage and his role in subversive Sixties drama If…
Your first film If… is getting a Blu-ray re-release. It was a pretty scathing look at the boarding school system. Did you go to boarding school?
Yes, I did. I went to a minor public school, so I knew all the references about the establishment, about the abuse of power, all the things that go on in a closed, closeted society [like these schools], which is, of course, a metaphor for society as a whole. When the film came out it caused an eruption, because nobody had ever questioned the public school system before quite like this. So, the revolution scene at the end tied with everything that was going on in Europe. It just happened to be 1968, the year of the student riots in Paris. It was amazing; we were shooting on the roof with me firing the gun at the parents, and Lindsay [Anderson, the director] had a copy of The Times and on the front page was a student on the roof of a university with an automatic machine gun. It was like a still from our film.
Were you a rebel at school?
Yeah, no acting required [laughs]. I was rebellious. The headmaster of my school said I was very mischievous, but not malicious.
Our current government is made up of plenty of ex-Eton and boarding school types. Do you think that’s a good thing, or does it seem slightly elitist?
I don’t feel dismay because Eton is a brilliant school, there’s no denying that. Going to a school such as that is an incredible privilege. But your family must be very well connected. I have nothing against these schools per se, I just think it’s a shame they don’t make them for everyone, as it’s not only at Eton and Harrow where great talent thrives. When the establishment becomes too entrenched, it becomes corrupt. Then you start feeling superior, as though you’re better than everybody else, which is b*llocks.
Your performance in If… led to Stanley Kubrick casting you as Alex in A Clockwork Orange. How did it feel to get that call from Kubrick?
I was flattered and thrilled, but I wasn’t quite sure what was going to happen. I tried to keep my feet on the ground, even though Kubrick was the hottest director on the planet. Of his previous two films, Dr Strangelove was a masterpiece, and then there was 2001: A Space Odyssey. And for him to ask me to be the lead [in his new film] was amazing.
Did he tell you what it was about your performance in If… that made him certain you were the man to play Alex?
No. I asked him early on if he could give me some ideas [about creating the character of Alex] and he just looked at me dumbfounded and said, “That’s why I hired you.” So, it was like, “I’m really on my own here! I’ve got to play a murderer and a rapist, and make it watchable.” But I didn’t feel fearful, I felt challenged. I think I did some of the best work I’ve done. Alex is such a great character.
It must have been an intense film to make…
It was brutal, but don’t forget I was a young man working with a master director on a film that promised to be one of the great films of the year, and here we are 44 years later and it’s one of the most iconic movies ever made. The adrenaline rush of shooting was fantastic. The first time I saw it, I was speechless – mind blown.
You became a dad again not too long ago. How does it feel to go through it all again in your sixties and seventies?
The overall feeling is one of great privilege that I’ve got these wonderful kids. The other feeling is “Oh my gosh!”: bike rides, football practice – it’s exhausting, but it’s great. We have this big television room down in the bowels of the house, and I get up early to watch the Liverpool games. If they’re at 3pm in England, then it’s 7am here [in LA]. My seven year old is the biggest fan. He wears his [Liverpool] shirt, and we get under a blanket and watch the games.
You’ve voiced video games. Did you do that for your kids, or are you a gamer yourself?
No, I don’t play the damn things. But I know the kids love them and I do a lot of cartoons for them as well. My 10 year old was just asking me what I was doing this morning and I said I was talking about If…. He said, “I’ve never seen it, Dad – and I’ve never seen A Clockwork Orange.” I said, “No you haven’t! You’re 10!” But he will do soon. Although, when my [older] daughter was at university, she called me and said, “Dad, there are lots of pictures of you on the walls of the studies”, but she’s never seen [A Clockwork Orange], ever.
We’ve got to ask about your role as Ari’s mentor-turned-nemesis in Entourage. Was it fun to film?
I had a great time. I had fun taking the p*ss out of [Jeremy] Piven [who plays Ari]. It was nice to shoot a little of that ego down. It’s a wonderful show, and they’re making the movie now. I’m not in the movie. But, you know what? I don’t give a f*ck, to be honest.
If… is available now on Blu-ray as part of the Masters Of Cinema Series