The Many Faces of John Malkovich

Actor John Malkovich has put on many faces for his many roles. He's played the villain, the good guy, the dimwit, and yet most people don't see the man behind the outlandish personas.

It's happened nearly everywhere he's been -- fans coming up to him, identifying with one of his characters. Or worse -- believing he really is one of his characters.

"I'm not really like any of those things," he said softly during an interview on "Popcorn With Peter Travers" on ABC News Now.

Malkovich remembered being yelled at by two homeless guys on the streets of Chicago about three years ago. They recognized him from his role in 1993's action flick "In the Line of Fire."

John MalkovichPlay

They followed him, wondering where his bodyguard was, and then, as Malkovich re-enacted with great exaggeration --realized he was the bodyguard. Actually, they were both wrong. Malkovich was the former CIA assassin who terrorizes the bodyguard, played by Clint Eastwood.

But it's that kind of connection with fans that taught Malkovich, 54, that everyone is going to perceive him differently, and there's not a thing he can do about it.

"I never worry about things I can't control, and I can't control how people perceive me," he said.

But he does have a penchant for becoming his characters. And in his latest movie, the comic-thriller "Burn After Reading," out nationwide on Friday, Malkovich morphs into Osborne Cox, a not-so-bright CIA agent who is blackmailed by two gym employees after misplacing his memoirs.

The film, directed by Oscar winners Joel and Ethan Coen, also stars such Hollywood heavyweights as Brad Pitt, George Clooney, Frances McDormand and Tilda Swinton.

Malkovich said the Coen's were a joy to work with.

"I really loved it," he said. "I've long admired Joel and Ethan Coen's movies. I loved last year's 'No Country For Old Men.'"

Getting Into Character

The two-time Oscar nominee remembered the Coens trying to rile him during a scene where he was off set, on the other end of a heated telephone conversation that was being filmed in a Brooklyn studio. The directors, and the other actors in Brooklyn, really got into it, goading Malkovich, who was on the phone from his home in Paris.

"I just started screaming," he said. "And then I realized at the end of the scene that wasn't very smart."

Luckily, none of Malkovich's neighbors complained.

Malkovich described his character, Osborne Cox, as having a "slight victimization complex" with a wife (Swinton) who wonders why anyone would want to read his memoirs.

"He believes he's bright and refined and [has] morals where others don't," Malkovich said, legs crossed, settled back in his chair. "He really believes he has something important to say."

Malkovich spoke of his reputation for really trying to understand his characters, to get inside their minds.

"When you're an actor, of course, you can gain weight or lose weight or put on a wig or lose a limb," he said, and that can be fun and interesting.

"But the main thing, I think, you have to ask yourself if how does this person view the world when he gets up?" he said.

Osborne Cox, Malkovich said, spends a lot of time drunk and has been "screwed over" by his boss and his wife, and his diminished intelligence is somewhat exaggerated with comedic flair.

Learning to Understand Directors

Malkovich said he fleshed out the character with the Coen brothers after they sent him the script.

"To work with they are delightful," he said. "They genuinely have a terrific notion of what they want."

And yet, he said, they are open to changes and surprises.

Some directors, who Malkovich imitated with great skill but declined to name, are such control freaks that there's no room for compromise, he said, likening that that level of control to "mental illness."

"I just say, 'Yes sir, yes m'am,'" he said.

Inside the Mind of John Malkovich

Malkovich, who says he really hates goodbyes, said leaving the set once filming was over was done simply and without fanfare. And that's the way he likes it.

"It's kind of painful to think I'll never see this person again," he said.

And with so many in Hollywood hopping from one project to the next, that often happens.

"I learned from experience you just can't be sad every time you have to leave a film set," he said.

But no matter what characters he plays or how moviegoers perceive him, Malkovich said he's confident that he's got a pretty good idea of who he is.

"I'm fairly childish, fairly infantile," he said.

But Malkovich said he's also naturally curious and -- he hopes -- someone "who goes his own way."

"Burn After Reading" opens Friday, Sept. 12.