Malcolm McDowell hardly needs an introduction, but here goes: The British actor, with over 100 credits to his resume, is best known for his lead role in Stanley Kubrick’s groundbreaking, genre-defying film A Clockwork Orange. His most recent project is Silent Night, a “loose remake” of 1984’s Silent Night, Deadly Night. In the new version, which just hit DVD and blu-ray last week, McDowell plays a small town sheriff who must find a Christmas killer dressed as Santa. We spoke with Malcolm about the film, about Clockwork, and about what scares him so much about Santa Claus.
How did you get involved with Silent Night?
Well, they asked me to do it! I read it and I was quite intrigued. I liked it a lot. I thought we could make a good movie. I met the director, Steven Miller, and he came up with some really great ideas. Even though we only had something like 17 days to shoot it - I think I was only in for eight days - it was fast. I love shooting fast like that, so it appealed to me. That is why I got involved. I liked the director immediately, and I think he did a wonderful job. I think he’s a very talented director.
Were you familiar with the original Silent Night, Deadly Night?
I didn’t see the original, but I heard about it when I decided I would do this. I didn’t want to see it - I felt it was pointless [McDowell’s character does not exist in Silent Night, Deadly Night.] And also, it’s not a remake; it’s just “inspired” by that movie. Of course, they had to buy the title, but I think the script is completely different, from what I’ve heard.
I’m glad they put the sheriff in. It’s quite fun, and it adds a layer to the relationship with Jamie King’s character. He is a little bit all-knowing and thinks he can keep a cap on it. But he is used to writing parking tickets and throwing drunks into jail on a Saturday night. He is totally ill-equipped [to deal with a killer] but he’ll never admit that. That’s a nice figure to poke a bit of fun at - but not too much. You don’t want to be disrespectful. I found it a fun role to do, and I don’t think I’ve ever played a sheriff before.
Did you get to improvise any of your lines or scenes?
Oh yes, a lot of those one-liners are mine. The fun bits. It lends itself to that, but you have to be careful not to go too over-the-top. You’ve got to keep it real; you’ve got to believe that he is a law enforcement officer. I think when I’m on set I just come out with whatever is going on in my brain at the time. It’s instinctive. I don’t think about it too much; I just sort of do it when I get there and see what’s going on. That’s how “Singing in the Rain” came out of my mouth all those years ago with Stanley Kubrick [for A Clockwork Orange.] It was the same sort of formula: you just let your intuition take over.
And you have generally worked with directors who have let your intuition take over, and let you go off-script?
Yeah, unless they tell me they don’t want it. But that’s my M.O. I love to improvise - if it works for the scene. I’d prefer not to improvise. If the script is great, you don’t have to. You just do the script. It’s a rare thing, but it does happen.
Did you worry at all that there would be a backlash or controversy around a movie about a killer Santa? Even though it is not a new concept, it seems that - in this country at least - many people are paranoid about this “war” on Christmas.
I never really thought about that. Honestly, it has been so long since the original one, and people got upset then that they were taking this mythical, wonderful character of Santa Claus.... Let’s face it - and this is why I like the film - the whole thing with Christmas is that it is completely commercial and being taken over by Hallmark cards. It’s just something to drive the economy. That’s basically what has happened to Christmas as we know it. Santa Claus is a beautiful, mythical figure for young kids - personally, I’ve always been rather suspicious of Santa Claus - I called him Father Christmas, back in England. I was a little afraid of him, with his great big white beard and red suit, and those big boots and his big stomach...
Plus, he is a stranger, breaking into your house.
Exactly! And he comes down a chimney, but most people don’t have a chimney, so parents are now telling kids they are leaving the door open or something. My kids are practical about it. They ask me, “Won’t he get burnt, coming down a chimney?” I try to explain that he has fireproof underwear, so he should be alright.
I’m sure, though, that the producers would love some controversy. It always helps ticket sales. When the original came out, Siskel and Ebert said, “Do not go see this film - it’s horrendous.” So of course, everyone flocked to see it. If they say it’s that bad, it must be good.
You are certainly no stranger to controversy with the roles you take, especially A Clockwork Orange. Do you think appearing in Clockwork so early in your career changed the trajectory of your career?
I’m sure it did. But who knows? If you asked me now if I would have preferred not to have done A Clockwork Orange, I would say, “Hell no!” You are dealt the cards, and I was spectacularly lucky to work with such an extraordinary director as Stanley Kubrick. It’s a very indelible character and, if I may say, performance. Coming out when it did, when nobody had seen anything like it, it was an overwhelming success. People probably couldn’t see me in anything else, they just wanted to see me play that part over and over again, which I refused to do. I’m an actor, I’m from England, I grew up on the stage, basically. I don’t want to play the same part every time.
I felt much more of a seismic change in my life after I did my first film, which was directed by Lindsay Anderson, called If... No one had ever heard of me before that. I had never done a movie before that, let alone been the lead in a movie. That was a huge shift from poverty into a normal life where you didn’t have to worry about paying the bills month to month. In terms of my life, the first one meant more to me. By the time I got to Clockwork, which was the fourth movie I did, I didn’t really have time to relish the success of Clockwork because I was thrown into another movie almost immediately. Which is good. But Clockwork is the movie I assume I will always be remembered for, and to be associated with Kubrick is not a bad thing. I am very privileged to have played that part. To be part of the Kubrick film [legacy], and one of his best films at that, is wonderful.
Are you ever asked to speak at any of the Kubrick retrospectives?
Oh yes, hundreds of them. When you get to be my age, and you’ve been doing it for as long as I have - which is going on 50 years - I think it would be fun to do a retrospective of all the worst films I’ve done. That would be a really embarrassing evening!
And what would some of those be?
That, I’m not going to say. But I know a couple right off the top of my head, but the people that worked on them are still around, and they wouldn’t want me knocking something that they worked hard on. But some just don’t work out the way they had hoped, and that’s it.
You have a fair amount of genre credits on your resume. Are you a horror fan, or is that just the byproduct of a long and successful career?
I enjoy science fiction, definitely. I think it’s amazing because we really use our imaginations for science fiction, where anything is possible. So you’ve got to love that. I love science fiction writers. I was friends with Ray Bradbury and I think he was the American version of Jules Verne, and I always loved Jules Verne. H.G. Wells, too. There are a lot of wonderful stories in science fiction. Edgar Allen Poe, too - one of the greatest writers of his period or any others. So yes, I am a fan of the genre. At its very best, it is incredibly beautiful and very imaginative.