The Talented Mr Malkovich; John Malkovich's Forte for Playing Cold-Hearted Psychopaths Resurfaces in Ripley's Game. but, as Ryan Gilbey Finds out, He's an Altogether More Serene Man as He Approaches His 50th Birthday

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Byline: RYAN GILBEY

No one could accuse John Malkovich of not being game. But even those admirers who were surprised when he lent his high-fibre integrity to the lowrent thrills of the action blockbuster Con Air must have been shell-shocked to see him enter the weird world of Being John Malkovich.

For this screwball fantasia, in which characters paid handsomely for 15 minutes inside Malkovich's head, the actor played himself as a pompous creep given to sniffing underwear and putting sleazy moves on unwilling lovers.

It could have destroyed him.

'I did have concerns or preoccupations before committing to that film,' he reflects now, lounging on a hotel sofa in a spotless cream suit and striped shirt, a chic white crocodile-skin case resting beside him. 'I am generally left alone when I'm not working, and I wondered: does this movie cross that line? Will it make things harder for me? Then I realised that whatever opinions about me were in the script, there were five million others out there, none of which I could control.' Yes, but those opinions haven't been committed to film for all eternity. 'Sure,' he sighs. 'But so what?' That 'so what?' says so much about John Malkovich. There is a commonly held misconception that he is as cold as the roles that made his name - Valmont in Dangerous Liaisons, flaring his nostrils as he crushes a woman's heart in less time than it takes him to swish his coattails, or the rancidly intellectual sniper who mercilessly taunts an over-the-hill Clint Eastwood throughout In The Line Of Fire.

But in person he is charm personified. He talks in a light, lilting voice, and gives the most casual inquiry a degree of contemplation which suggests he has just been asked, 'What is the meaning of meaning?' as opposed to simply, 'How are you?' None of this is unexpected - even his most dastardly roles have hinged on his charisma.

But it's that 'so what?' that surprises you.

Malkovich is sanguine about every proposition that presents itself before him. It might be the behind-the-scenes footage of him having a hissy fit on the set of Being John Malkovich that features in Adaptation ('Sure, that's me,' he shrugs. 'It was just another day.') Or it could be weightier topics, like the plausibility of evil.

Whatever it is, nothing fazes him, which seems a far cry from those times in his life when he has lost control of his spectacular temper - punching out the window of a bus that wouldn't stop for him, or whipping out a knife to intimidate an abusive stranger.

Perhaps it is his recent directorial success with the political thriller The Dancer Upstairs that has left him becalmed, or the prospect of hitting 50 this year. After years of stormy relationships, including his 1988 divorce from the actress Glenne Headly, who christened him 'the root of all evil', and a tempestuous romance with his Dangerous Liaisons co-star Michelle Pfeiffer, he is now settled with his partner Nicoletta Peyran and their two offspring. …