Now 40 years old, Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Anthony Burgess’ 1962 novel A Clockwork Orange remains a violent, disturbing piece of dystopian sci-fi. As charismatic gang leader Alex, Malcolm McDowell seared through the screen with his sneering, menacing delivery of Burgess’ gutteral lingo, Nadsat.
McDowell’s performance is disturbing and unforgettable, and though the film’s once futuristic look has aged somewhat, it’s nevertheless a powerful exploration of violence and morality, and is, as McDowell says himself, blackly comic.
With the film out now as part of the Stanley Kubrick: Visionary Filmmaker Collection, we spoke to McDowell about his part in the film, as well as his other work past and present, including his part in the death of Captain Kirk, and his forthcoming role as a homicidal butler.
A Clockwork Orange is 40 years old this year, of course. How do you think it’s held up over the years?
Well, apparently it’s held up very well, considering it’s still very popular, you know, with the cinema-going public. They love this film – they can’t get enough of it. It’s young kids who go to college who find the movie and start a whole new generation of Clockwork Orange enthusiasts. So I’m delighted to say that they do find it and they love it. They love it for different reasons, perhaps, now.
When we opened film, the audiences tended to sit in their seats at the end in a sort of stunned silence. Now, audiences just laugh all the way through. I always thought we were making a black comedy. It is fairly black, but it is a comedy nevertheless, and when nobody laughed, I presumed that they hated the movie, but of course, it was just that they were so stunned by the whole experience of it. The look and everything else – the language, whatever.
Now, as I say, it’s very different. Audiences have caught up with it, because Clockwork Orange did change a lot of things. It was very influential with young film directors and writers, and especially musicians. It sort of spawned the whole punk movement, I think – it sort of came out of that. Socially, it was responsible for quite a lot more than just being a movie. It’s really a kind of social document, as well, in a way.
It’s interesting that a lot of the places where it was shot, which looked so futuristic at the time, have now changed so much.
I know, I know. Luckily, there’s nothing quite like the Korova Milk Bar, which was the only set that was actually built. The rest of it, we found locations around London. You know, underneath the Wansdworth roundabout where we beat up the old tramp, and there’s a shot by the river, which I think was Battersea Bridge. The futuristic home was actually in Oxfordshire – it was a prize-winning architect-designed home. The interiors could be anywhere, really.
The Thamesmead, I think, is looking decidedly rough now. We shot this thing 40 years ago, and I’m sure it’s a slum now, but it looked futuristic then. At the marina, by the way, I was waiting for a shot there, and I saw a huge rat that ran right towards me, and I kicked it with these great big boots that I had. I kicked it, and it went straight into the marina. [Laughs] It was in South London somewhere. I think it was Crystal Palace or somewhere like that – I’m not sure.
And then we shot the interior at a new library, which was a nice building. It’s now contemporary of course – back then it was very futuristic.
What’s your enduring memory of making the film, and working with Kubrick?
Well, he was very pleasant to be around, to be honest. He was a very intelligent man, who knew something about pretty much everything. I used to tease him, because I couldn’t get into this whole reverence thing – you know, working with a god or something like that. So I used to pull his leg a lot, and we’d play ping-pong a lot.
Ping-pong is one game I’m really good at, and I used to thrash him a lot. But I did decline to play chess with him, because I knew that he was a grand master. He was my director, and that’s enough of the power going to him – if I beat him at ping-pong, then I get a little bit of it back. [Laughs]
You made something like 14 appearances in TV, films and games last year. How do you keep up the pace?
I’ve got three young children, and they’ve all got to be educated. [Laughs] To be honest with you, I enjoy working. That’s the bottom line. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t do so much stuff. I think I’ve got eight movies to come out that are still in editing or whatever.
But I just enjoy it. I’m doing a series at the moment, and a film called the Monster Butler, which is based on this true character, Roy Fontaine, who was dubbed the Monster Butler by the low-end newspapers. They called him that because he was a butler, and he did kill five people in as many months. So he was a serial killer as well. They asked him why he did it, and he said, “Because it’s so easy.” It’s fascinating character film, and it definitely has a line back to Alex in A Clockwork Orange.
So what attracts you to those kinds of characters?
They’re so different from anything I come in contact with, and they’re just incredible parts. They’re charismatic, charming, interesting people who’ve just taken the wrong turn. I always find these flaws extremely interesting to play, because they’re very, very multi-layered characters. You can peel away and peel away – it’s like an onion. You’ll never get to the core of it. And they’re fun to play, they really are. Great fun.
One of the most famous villainous characters you’ve played was Soran in Star Trek: Generations…
The Trekkies hate and love me for that!
That was going to be my question – you infamously killed Captain Kirk. Do you get a lot of fan abuse for that?
I did at the time. I got death threats on the Internet, which was in its infancy at the time. It was my nephew that informed me of this because I didn’t read the damn thing. But when he [William Shatner] asked me himself – of course, it was being recorded for his book – but he asked me, “How does it feel to kill an American icon?”
I said, “Well Bill, half the audience is going to hate me, and the other half are going to cheer.” He asked, “Well, who’s going to cheer?” I said, “Well, the poor people who’ve had you up to here for 35 years!” [Laughs]. He burst out laughing at that.
Does it matter that you play villains so often? Do you worry about becoming typecast?
Not at all, because they’re usually the best parts. A movie is only as good as its villain, isn’t it? I’ve played both. I’m playing a very loveable character on television, and it’s a real change, so I love it because of that. I’m an actor, and I’m supposed to be able to play everything, so it’s a nice change of pace. But the great parts are usually the villainous ones.
Is it a villainous character that you play in Silent Hill: Revelation?
I wouldn’t call him villainous, no. The poor man has been imprisoned all his life, and he’s blind. Of course, he’s a little bit weird. He’s a little bit like [Treasure Island’s] Blind Pew, you remember? That character was as scary as hell. This one’s the same. He’s got chains all over him, and he’s never been out.
He looks like an albino – he’s never seen the light of day. It’s actually quite a nice part, but I wouldn’t call him particularly villainous. But of course, when I see the film, I’ll probably go, “Oh that’s what it’s all about!”
Malcolm McDowell, thank you very much.
A Clockwork Orange is out now on Blu-ray as part of the Stanley Kubrick: Visionary Filmmaker Collection, and is available from the Den Of Geek Store.