Acclaimed actor John Malkovich, who stars in the new Apple TV+ historical drama The New Look, jokes that he’s got a secret for creating memorable characters on-screen. “I’m not very clever. And that’s always a huge help, you know?” he quips to Closer. “I know there are people — even in my family — who have deep thoughts, but that seems so dangerous to me. I think that’s a major part of my resilience.”

In The New Look, which is based on the true experiences of fashion icons Christian Dior and Coco Chanel during the grim years of Nazi-occupied France in World War II, John, 70, plays Dior’s soft-spoken mentor and boss, Lucien Lelong, whose own resilience is put to the test. “While I knew about the Nazi occupation of France, I didn’t know much about Lucien,” says John. “[This story is] about the accommodations one makes in life to keep one thing alive against the things you really don’t wish to be involved in.”

What drew you to The New Look and the role of Lucien Lelong?

“I didn’t know a great deal about those dark years of the French fashion industry, although I knew the work of the various designers quite well, just as a layperson. So I learned a lot while doing the series.”

Lucien is an interesting character.

“Probably what made him noteworthy was his ability to recognize talent. So many gifted designers came through the house of Lelong — Dior being a principal one, obviously, but many others as well: Balmain, Balenciaga, Givenchy, Pierre Cardin. Most of those houses are still around. [Fashion] is not an easy world, and it often attracts quite sensitive, dreamy people. Lucien was a sincere nurturer of talent, and he especially thought Dior had a great talent. He did what he felt he had to do to survive, and that’s understandable.”

Why do you think it is important to tell stories about difficult subjects, like the Nazi occupation of France?

“You know, I spent last summer directing Leopoldstadt in Riga, Latvia. It’s Tom Stoppard’s fascinating, very difficult play about the fate of several generations of Viennese Jews, which takes place from 1899 to 1955. There was just unimaginable barbarism. There is a part of humanity that’s inexplicable — we have barbarians in us. Each of us should give that a look every once in a while. The world would be better off.”

A lot of people who know your acting might not know that you also created your own menswear label some years ago.

“Yes, I worked for many years as a fashion designer, creating 24 to 26 menswear collections. I love any form of human expression. Not being allowed to do that or having it taken away would be a very unpleasant experience. [To me] no expression is unpleasant, even if it’s painful to watch or even participate in.”

You began your career as a pioneering member of the Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago and have done several stints on Broadway. Would you ever consider doing Broadway again?

“I don’t know. I don’t have a burning desire to do it again. I might, I could. But I can’t say I miss doing eight shows a week particularly.”

John Malkovich at the premiere for 'The New Look'
Dominik Bindl/WireImage

You don’t miss the buzz of a live audience?

“I do a lot of classical music collaborations, a cross between theater and opera. So I still perform live a lot. And I’ve always directed and still direct a lot. But I’m not a New Yorker, and we have a little granddaughter now. I don’t relish the idea of having to be in a city where she isn’t for six months. So it’s unlikely.”

Growing up, who were some of your acting role models?

“I grew up watching everyone from Charles Laughton to Gary Cooper to Jimmy Stewart to Cary Grant — all the old American stars.”

You played a fictionalized version of yourself in Being John Malkovich. Was that one of your favorite roles?

Being John Malkovich is very interesting because [writer] Charlie Kaufman is an extremely gifted, singular talent, as is [director] Spike Jonze. I think that’s what is special about Being John Malkovich — it introduced those two singular talents into the cinema world. They had great performances from John Cusack, Cameron Diaz, Catherine Keener and Charlie Sheen. I’m not the lead character in that movie. It’s weird to say a film with that title has nothing to do with me, but it has nothing to do with me! Except that I am in it!”


Was it bizarre to play “John Malkovich”?

“It was funny when Spike Jonze would say things to me like, ‘You know, that’s not how John Malkovich would do it.’ And I’d kind of go, ‘Oh, oh, an expert! How would John Malkovich do it? Tell me!’ Because that’s true, I wouldn’t know how I would do it. I may as well have someone else tell me. That’s why I have directors!”

Do you still sing?

“I was privileged to do three songs with the great Nile Rodgers, which was an experience of a lifetime. We recorded them for a film I just completed in December called Opus. I hadn’t sung in 40 years. I used to have a nice voice, but that was 4 billion cigarettes and 10 million bottles of red wine ago.”

What’s the best thing about being the age you are today?

“I wish I was younger, only because we have a granddaughter, who’s not quite 2 years old. I wish I would have had more time with her, but such is life. Everything else is great. I couldn’t have ever dreamed of the life I’ve had.”

How would you like to be remembered?

“I don’t want to be! I want to be remembered by my family and friends as somebody who loved them and not some kind of gloomy, existential lonely figure. I like to laugh in life. I’ve had a beautiful life. I’ve met wonderful people. You are remembered by the people who care about you, as I remember the people I care about.”