Life Advice from John Malkovich

Credit: Daniel Hambury / Evening Standard / Redux

What's the best advice you ever got?

My father, who was the son of Croatian immigrants, always used to make this statement about the nature of life: He would say, "Johnny, when you pull the chain, the toilet flushes." I took it to mean that if I kept doing what I was doing, then the repercussions were irreversible, and immediate. My dad always made it clear that I had to make my own life, my own choices.

You were a client of Bernie Madoff's. What did that teach you?

That if it seems too good to be true, you should probably leave it. But to tell you the truth, I think it turned out to be a good experience. Granted, I was luckier than a lot of people who dealt with Madoff, but it was a reminder that there are things that are more important than money. I still don't think money will make someone happier — more generous and less neurotic, maybe, but it creates a lot of other problems, too.

How should a person handle failure?

I've had a long-standing and personable relationship with failure. Look, you're going to fail, and you know it. The greatest artists, politicians, painters, and smugglers have all failed. Everybody fails, so you've got to be self-critical and accepting of failure.

How did you learn to think that way?

I was raised to be self-critical. I was never told that I did a good job at anything. If I played really well in a football game, my dad might buy doughnuts for the team. My family owned the newspaper in a town of only 7,000, and the chances of me making it in the New York Times were a thousand times better than in our own paper. But I never took it as my parents not loving me.

Is there a book that has continued to inspire you over the years?

The book I've probably come back to the most in my life is Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury. It's an incredible mix of racism, hatred, loss, grief, decay, and corruption. One of the many great passages comes when the father says to his son: "No battle is ever won. They are not even fought. The field only reveals to man his own folly and despair, and victory is an illusion of philosophers and fools." I think that's quite true, and to me, it goes into the issue of family, how even with a strong sense of history, family can ruin each other in a way, as families have been known to do on more than one occasion.

Does religion play a role in your life?

I was religious when I was young, but I've been an atheist for the past 45 years. Still, I'm not someone who is going to talk trash about religion — I see how for some people it plays a valuable role, but it just doesn't interest me. If the purpose of religion is to encourage people to think about the soul, the relationship between the physical and the spiritual world, then I think that's great. But to me, the Bible is just another ideology.

And vanity? Does that play a role?

You need a lot of vanity. I always say that style is the only constant in life — and not style in the sense of rich or poor, or how you're dressed, but how you move through the world. In some ways it's not possible to separate vanity from pride. That's why I don't like when people accuse someone of having a big ego. I don't understand it. Does that mean that person has a healthy ego, or that they want to be idolized too much? We have to have an ego to attempt to make the best of ourselves with the gifts we were given, or to overcome the fact that we didn't get any.

You've been with the same woman for 27 years. How do you make it work?

Compromise. If you always have to be right, your chances of making it are pretty low.