The actor John Malkovich is best known for his film work, which includes parts in “Dangerous Liaisons,” “The Killing Fields” and “Red." But Malkovich doesn’t just disappear into movie roles.
In fact, he’s even more of a chameleon in a series of photographs now on display at the Fahey Klein gallery in Los Angeles. The show is called “Malkovich, Malkovich, Malkovich: Homage to Photographic Masters.”
In nearly three dozen images, Chicago-based photographer Sandro Miller has recreated some of the most famous portraits ever taken — Irving Penn’s photo of Truman Capote, Annie Leibovitz’s shot of John Lennon and Yoko Ono — and restaged them down to the smallest details. In every one, Malkovich plays a variety of famous subjects, both male and female, from Andy Warhol to Marilyn Monroe.
Miller and Malkovich first met in the 1990s while working on a job for Steppenwolf Theater and have remained friends and collaborators for more than 16 years.
Miller came by The Frame studio recently to talk about the genesis of the idea, how Malkovich became his muse and how he managed to recreate the photos.
Can you talk a bit about how you came up with the idea to work with Malkovich on this project?
John came into the studio one day, and I took a look at him and started thinking, "You look a little bit like Truman Capote." It would be interesting for me to pay homage to the great Irving Penn, and recreate the master's shot of Truman Capote. I went and got that very famous overcoat, and the exact style chair from the 1940s that Irving shot Truman on. That was the first of the series, and people absolutely loved it. You know John; I had just come out of a little bit of an illness. I had just come out of a little bit of a cancer, and it was a life and death situation.
That doesn't sound like a little bit.. that sounds like a very scary situation.
You start rethinking your life, rethinking about the things you've done, and you want to spend more time with your family. For me, I also wanted to take another great series of photographs. Photography is very important for me. I started thinking that maybe it would be a wonderful place for me to go to pay homage to the great masters that have meant so much to me. They've changed the way I thought about portraiture, the way I thought about photography, and I wanted to pay homage to these masters.
How did you go about deciding what images you wanted to recreate, and was it important that they be about single subjects, rather than group shots?
When I turn a page in a book, and I come across Alberto Korda's Che Guevera, Diane Arbus's man with curlers. These are the shots that absolutely stop me. These great photographers are my Babe Ruth and my Mickey Mantle. These are the people who I really love, and these particular shots are their most iconic shots that have moved the world.
I want to talk about one shot called "Piss Christ" by Andres Serrano. This is a controversial image by this photographer, in which Serrano uses his own urine to make the image. How far did you go in replicating the way in which Andres Serrano made his picture?
It was a very important shot in the history of photography. Serrano put a crucifix in his own urine, and of course I couldn't do that with John. But what I did to recreate that shot in my mind was...I had to take some liberties. So, we did put John on this crucifix that I had built in the studio, and we shot him crucified. I have that shot there; then I have to collect my urine for nearly three weeks because now I'm going to take an 11 by 14 print of what I shot John on the crucifix. I'm going to put it in a tank, and I've got to shoot that photograph through the tank. Of course I wanted the shot to be as real, and as close to the original as possible. Andre shot it in his urine, and I thought that it was the only right way to do this is to shoot it in my urine.
It is probably important to know right now that you didn't use photoshop, so as you were getting John Malkovich to look like Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, and Johnny Cash, you are not using digital tricks. You were trying to create this in the frame.
You know I come from the old school; a model about doing it right and doing it in camera. The way we use the computer in these shots is the way Irving Penn would use the dark room. The way "X" would use the dark room. It was very important for me to go through the pain of what it took these other photographers to create these shots.
John Malkovich is known as a stage and film actor, and yet even though you're freezing him at a moment, there is a lot of acting that is going on in these depictions beyond the hair, makeup, and all the costume you had to do. In terms of his performance, what was he doing to get ready?
For each shot, it's usually a two hour process of hair, makeup and wardrobe. What I would do is take that original shot and tape it to the mirror where he was getting his hair and makeup done. John would have 90 minutes to 2 hours to study this photograph. You could see John while he is having his makeup applied, or his hair applied... you could see John getting into character. You could see him starting to move his mouth, and to move his eyes. For Marilyn Monroe, you could see him start bringing his shoulders together. He would start becoming the character. Say that we are doing the Mick Jagger, the "Fur Coat" by David Bailey. I kind of set this scene, I'd say, "John it's 3 o'clock in the morning, Truman Capote is in the studio and Mick Jagger is there. They've probably been drinking; it's filled with celebrities, and David finally has you, Mick Jagger, on set." What happened in that moment, is John would morph himself right into Mick Jagger. He already worked on it, but now he is all set up into that same scene that David Bailey was shooting Mick Jagger. I remember the people in the studio just gasped. You thought Mick Jagger had just walked into the room.
There's a iconic picture of Salvador Dali, and his eye is about as big as your fist. I mean, the eye is so big in that image. How did you actually get John Malkovich's eye to look like Salvador Dali's eye?
We didn't give him hallucinogenics. I'm sure that Dali may have been doing them. John has wonderful eyes, but their not big, round eyes. What we would do is get them set into the exact place where I needed to shoot them. I'd have my hair and makeup stylist come over there, take his two fingers and open John's eye as wide as he could — almost forcing John's eye to open. At the count of three, he'd pull his hand out, and I would shoot and capture John's eye at the widest moment that we could. John had to go through some pain for some of these shots.
Why do you think you and John have such a fruitful collaboration? What is it that you guys see in each other, and how do you work so well together?
Well I think it's a deep mutual respect for each other's talents. I think John liked the way that we worked together. He liked my demeanor, my energy, he felt a spirit in the studio that was really kind of kinder to his. And so we have been shooting together for nearly 17 or 18 years with almost 130 portraits to our portfolio.