Few actors can boast a career quite like Malcolm McDowell, and he’s still working, prolifically, in the present day. His latest is the Anglo-American gangster flick The Big Ugly, written and director by Scott Wiper. We had the immense pleasure of speaking to them both, on seperate occasions, to discuss this collaboration (and naturally, we asked a few questions about McDowell’s back catalogue, too).
“I’m only involved because of Vinnie,” McDowell said of co-star Vinnie Jones, when as asked what attracted him to this project. “I love Vinnie. He’s a great guy. I knew him a bit because of golf, and he came up to play in my tournament, and he’s such a fun character and I’ve always liked his work and I know that he’s the cockney heavy, the gangster, but when he explained to me that this was his chance to do something more interesting and not just be the heavy, I brought into that and went along that journey with him. I was really happy for him that he got to do this, because he is a terrific actor and it would be nice to see him given parts with a bit more variety. He’s the nicest guy.
“Look at the way he played football, grabbing hold of the bollocks of Gascoigne, remember that? That’s what he is like in life, that is exactly what he’s like, he takes it by the balls.”
Wiper was also quick to commend his leading star, as it seems Vinnie was a rather popular man on set.
“My friendship with Vinnie and our partnership is the best thing to have happened to me in Hollywood. Teaming up with someone who has that same aggressive nature to just get it done. We’re gonna go hard, we’ve even formed a company called 4G Vision. What we want to do is make genre films that are character-drive that appeal to actors, that go back to that era. We wanna smash Michael Caine from Get Carter with Steve McQueen in The Getaway,” Wiper said.
It was this inclination to smash together British and American cultures which inspired Wiper to tell this particular story.
“I’ve always loved the old-school British gangster films, but I wanted to smash it with some Sam Peckinpah, with some Wild Bunch, and Steve McQueen. One of the things we pitched this as, was a film that isn’t really made anymore. A film straight out of the late 60s to 1975. I miss films like this, character-driven genre films with heart and soul, with samurai themes, western themes, redemption, salvation, themes of honour, friendship versus finances. In genre films, you’re themes are always a metaphor for things that happen in real life, you’re just elevating stakes with violence and murder.”
Going back to films from the aforementioned period, McDowell has a rather big part to play, as the star of films such as If… and of course, Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. Now while these are projects the actor has undoubtedly spoken of time and time again, we couldn’t help but revisit them ourselves, and were thrilled that he was so happy to oblige.
“I know they are wonderful films, of course. They’re classic movies,” McDowell said. “If…., I think, is one of the best British movies that was made, certainly in that period and it’s a very beautiful film because Lindsay [Anderson] was such a genius. You follow this young boy, and you think, oh this is going to be Tom Brown’s School Days, and you’re going to see through the eyes of this kid. Then quite bravely, you never see him again. He’s the star of the first two reels of the movie.
“There is a certain poetic thing that Lindsay had, he has this fantastical side, the Bunuel side of Lindsay. He was such a master, such a privilege to have known him and worked with him,” he continued.
“I said to him once ‘you’re going to ruin this thing in you have this guy coming out of a drawer, that’s ridiculous’. How can you buy into that? What is the significance, am I missing something? He said to me, ‘Look, Malcolm. When the pumpkin turns to a coach and then at midnight turns back to a pumpkin – do you believe it?’ I said, ‘well, I suppose so, yes’. And he said, ‘well there you are’. And that was it!”
Lindsay Anderson wasn’t the only master that McDowell collaborated with, of course. “I remember standing with Stanley [Kubrick] outside, I’d just had take-out Chinese with him at his house, and we were walking to the front door and I was about to get in my car to drive back to London as he lived out by Boreham Wood at the time, and he said to me ‘what do you think you’d wear?’ and I said, ‘wow, well, I don’t know. It’s futuristic’. He asked me, ‘do you have anything?’ and I was like, ‘what? No, why would I have anything? Not really, I have my cricket gear in the car.’ And he asked to see it, so I got it out, I put it on and he said, ‘what’s this?’. I said, ‘That’s a protector’. He asked me to wear it on the outside. And that is how the look of the Droogs came to be – because my cricket gear was in the car! It all came from that. Amazing.”
We asked also if McDowell ever gets round to watching these things back, but he admits he’s not a particularly nostalgic person.
“I don’t watch them that often. The last time I saw If…., which was only ten minutes of it, was in Paris they had a retrospective of my movies a couple of years ago. Of course I remember every second of doing these films, it’s all the ones in between that I’ve forgotten. But these great films, these mean an awful lot. But I don’t sit around thinking about them ever, I’ve got relatively young kids, an 11 year old and a 13 year old who are in constant motion, plus a 16 year old who has just made an album, and they couldn’t care less about dad and his old movies. I mean, they’ve seen things on YouTube and they want Clockwork Orange t-shirts, but that’s about it.”
These anecdotes put a beaming smile on our face as we listened on intently, and so when chatting to Wiper a couple of days later, we asked if he too was privy to McDowell’s tales and charisma.
“With Malcolm and even with Ron [Perlman] , they are just wonderful actors. We really couldn’t believe it. We always thought it was all going to fall apart, but we had the Dunkirk spirit to keep going and none of it would have happened had Vinnie and I not formed this partnership. Vinnie found the connection to both guys, his cell phone has a lot of magic numbers in it, and if the material is good, that helps. It’s humbling.
“That scene when Malcolm and Ron sit down together at the table was probably one of the best filmmaking experiences. If I’m focusing with the DP or another department head, you’d just hear laughter and it’s Vinnie and Malcolm just making people laugh, so there’s a levity. Making movies should be fun, and sometimes in Hollywood people forget that. Malcolm was fascinating. We talked, we talked for probably three or four hours when he first arrived. I remember my back was sore so I lay down on the floor and he was sat on the chair, and we just told stories. My fondness for Malcolm is incredibly deep, and it will be as long as I’m on this Earth making movies.”
We ended our chat by asking Wiper what he learnt from directing such legends of screen. “You’re a better writer and director when you observe,” he finished. “Even the questions they ask. A veteran actor, a great actor like Malcolm, they don’t ask loads of questions, just for specific reasons. It might hit you 30 seconds later, or two days later, but they’re professionals of breaking down material.”
The Big Ugly is released on Friday July 24th. Watch an exclusive clip of the movie right here: