John Malkovich has been a presence in New York theater lately, but you're forgiven for not having noticed.
This is not the Malkovich who, along with Steppenwolf Theatre co-founder Gary Sinise, slammed into town from Chicago in 1982 with a production of Sam Shepard's "True West" so raucous that it got the company saddled with the mislabel "rock and roll theater" for years.
Nor is this the Malkovich who catapulted into a true indie-film icon in 1999 with "Being John Malkovich," the lovably original Spike Jonze movie in which ordinary people paid $200 to travel through a portal in the actor's head for 15 minutes so they could be "all that someone else can be."
In other words, being John Malkovich, at 59, means something very different -- something more European, even esoteric -- than it did when he was adored and pigeonholed as the explosive young American star of the smash-a-beer-can-on-your-forehead school of acting.
In October, he was the unseen director of an exquisite little solo celebration of Harold Pinter's poetry that starred British actor Julian Sands in a 60-seat cellar of an Off-Broadway theater.
And for four strange performances earlier this month at City Center, he was done up in frills and knickers to play the aging Casanova -- and to sort of sing Mozart -- in "The Giacomo Variations," a self-serious Austrian chamber play with three opera singers and an orchestra from Vienna.
Far more enticing, no doubt, will be Malkovich's celebrated French-language (with English supertitles) staging of "Les Liaisons Dangereuses," which has its New York premiere July 9-14 as a centerpiece of this summer's Lincoln Center Festival.
Malkovich, who famously played Valmont, the slinky sexual predator in the 1988 film "Dangerous Liaisons," has directed the young Parisian company Theatre de l'Atelier in a radical version of Pierre Choderlos de Laclos' sexually cruel and voracious 18th century novel and Christopher Hampton's 1985 play. The performance takes place in what is meant to be a rehearsal room. Actors wear both period costumes and modern clothes, and use smartphones. He wrote the adaptation, with the approval of Hampton, and assisted with the translation.
We spoke by phone recently while he was in Toronto finishing an international tour of "The Giacomo Variations." He was friendly and soft-
spoken, with none of the swank mystery and eccentric menace that clings to his image like the hip Yohji Yamamoto clothes he began modeling in the late '90s.
"Yah," he said, responding to my curiosity about whether the rock and roll hype in New York was as annoying to him as it was to some of us who spent the '70s reviewing the vast variety at Steppenwolf and other Chicago theaters.
"The term suggested we were punks who should never touch Shaw or do anything but high-energy, white-trash things," he said. "We always loved doing those and were amused by them, but we really weren't like that. We were bright people with catholic interests."
As his Chicago observers know, he always has been a complex soul with a staggering range and the gentle, droll gift for light comedy that rarely gets showcased in his 70-odd movies.
But don't expect to see him back on the New York stage in a traditional run again.
"I had so many years of it, eight shows a week," said the former theater regular who hasn't been on Broadway since he co-starred with Steppenwolf colleague Joan Allen in Lanford Wilson's 1987 play, "Burn This." "It would be really hard to get me back onstage like that. I haven't read a play, as yet, that I would be tempted by. Maybe something at Steppenwolf," the company he and pals from the heretofore theatrically invisible Illinois State University in Normal, Ill., began in Chicago in 1976. "But, honestly, I prefer to direct in the theater."
He is particularly pleased with his "Liaison Dangereuses," which earned glowing reviews in Washington in December. So is Nigel Redden, director of the Lincoln Center Festival, who said in a written statement: "It is fascinating to see how a great actor-director looks at a play with which he has been so closely identified, to see what he wants other actors to bring out in a role that he has played so well." He added that the young actors "who are in most cases near in age to the characters they portray, gives the story an added edge of cruelty."
Obviously, Malkovich is a long way from the tiny town of Benton, in the middle of just about nowhere in Illinois. In a 1987 interview, in the heat of his huge young career, he revealed to me the unglamorous fact that, when he was born, the doctor exclaimed to his mother, "Well, it's another goddamn buckethead." He was a fat child who once lost 60 pounds in three months by eating mostly Jell-O. He has great and loving stories about his "eccentric family," which used to own the town newspaper. His grandmother and his brother both worked there. His father, who died before his son's international career, was an environmental activist.
For years, he lived in France with his partner, Nicoletta Peyran, whom he met on the set when she was second director of "The Sheltering Sky" in 1999. They have two daughters in their 20s. "We had a big tax issue with the French authorities for 10 years, but that ended last year," he offered without prodding. They also lost money to Bernard Madoff's Ponzi scheme.
Around 2003, they moved to Cambridge, Mass., where they still have a home. They also have a farmhouse in Provence, where, he mentions casually, "we make wine." In recent years, he directed plays in Paris, Spain and Mexico, and, in addition to "Giacomo Variations," he did another of what he calls "operas" with the same group -- this one about a serial killer. "I don't spend much time at home," he jokes, "even if I could say where that home is."
His longtime film company has produced such mainstream movies as "Juno" and Jason Reitman's upcoming "Labor Day." Oh, and he has his own men's fashion line, based in a town outside Florence. "Our 10th collection will be done in the next couple of weeks," he says proudly.
At Steppenwolf, he directed or acted in more than 100 productions in the years before he became Manhattan's overnight sensation in 1982. Since his 1984 movie debut in "Places in the Heart," he has done 70 films -- including such action blockbusters as the 2011 "Transformers: Dark of the Moon" and the sequel "RED 2," which comes out next month.
But soon he begins what he calls a "little American independent film about the coldest town in Montana." His ex-wife and Steppenwolf alum Glenne Headly once said, "His gift is that he makes odd choices." That still sounds right.