During his 50-year acting career, Malcolm McDowell did everything from kill Captain Kirk in Star Trek Generations to narrate The Compleat Beatles, but cinephiles know him best as Alex DeLarge delivering lines like "a bit of the old ultra-violence" in 1971's A Clockwork Orange. To put McDowell's performance in perspective, DeLarge currently ranks 12th on the American Film Institute's 100 greatest villains ahead of the shark in Jaws, Ridley Scott's alien and even the dastardly hunter who killed Bambi's mom.
The hard-working Brit, who claims a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, delivers another memorable performance as Dr. Doobie in Grow House. In his brief yet hilarious film appearance, McDowell plays an expert grower who helps the lead characters (played by DeRay Davis and Lil Duval) start a cannabis grow inside a Bel-Air mansion. PRØHBTD spoke with McDowell about Grow House, but the conversation quickly turned to strains, hallucinogens, Alex DeLarge and... this is true... the time the Shakespearean actor voiced a puppet named Kurt Cannabis.
What are your thoughts on playing a master cannabis grower in Grow House?
I can't really say, in all honesty, except that I had fun. It was all improv, and [Davis and Duval] were good sports. They came into my establishment looking for medical marijuana, and they had loads of excuses when I asked why they needed it. There were takes where I thought they were a gay couple perhaps, and they said, "Say what?" There were assumptions made and fun to be had. I had to rush off to some Shakespeare thing—I was playing Prospero [in The Tempest] that evening—so I only had four or five hours to do the scene.
Is it more fun to improv than stick to a script?
Yes, I much prefer improv. Of course, it has to be controlled and well edited, or it goes on and on and on, and you want to scream. I've used it many times on the fly. The "Singin' in the Rain" scene [in A Clockwork Orange] was all improvised, and it sort of sets up the movie.
I'm doing a show called Mozart in the Jungle with Gael García Bernal, who's a brilliant actor. His character comes with some hallucinogenic drug from South America—it's like a sticky goo—and I ask, "What do you do, smoke it?" as I'm putting it in my mouth. I play a character who is up for anything. That's why I love this character. When we're completely stoned, we have this improv, and we thought it would be way-out hallucinogenic, but it turned into something completely different. I said things like, "My mother didn't like me. She may have loved me, but she never liked me." People expected us to say, "Oh, I'm seeing these colors," and it was nothing like that. [Improv] is best if you don't have preconceived ideas and just go with the flow in the moment.
You play Dr. Doobie in Grow House. How was your character described to you?
It's quite straightforward: I'm selling pot. I thought it would be fun to make him a bit of a character. He doesn't take any shit, and I think he takes his part quite seriously. Other than that, it was just a scenery-eating part, as they say.
[In the DVD bonus material for the What If Cannabis Cured Cancer documentary,] you voiced a puppet named Kurt Cannabis opposite Roseanne Barr...
Oh, my god! You're so right. Yes, I forgot about that. She's still angry with me.
Why is she angry?
We did it as a freebie. When she and I did the voices, I said, "What are you going to do with your $50,000?" It was a joke. The director called me that night saying, "What the hell did you say to her? She thinks you were paid $50,000." I said, "Come on, it was a joke. Surely she didn't take that seriously." I never saw her again so I didn't have the chance to apologize and explain it was my warped sense of British humor.
That is actually really funny.
Yeah, especially when it's Roseanne. As I remember, I was playing Cannabis, and she was playing…
Really? That's a weird one.
What made it weird? Because you were puppets?
Roseanne Barr as cancer. It was an amazing piece because we did it before [most] people knew cannabis could really relieve a lot of suffering, so it was a good thing to do. I'm speaking to you, but I've been clean of alcohol and drugs for 35 years, so I'm not an expert anymore on anything, really.
You once said, "The best thing I did was abuse myself when younger. I dabbled in everything ... cocaine, booze, women... because now I don't have to do it anymore." What parts of this experience were positive, what parts were negative?
The wonderful thing was the first high, and the worst things were the second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, ad infinitum, chasing that dragon, chasing that high, which you never get to again. If you could control it and do a little, which I couldn't, it would probably be very positive. Look, the Incas built Machu Picchu chewing coca leaves, didn't they? It gave them great energy, and it went into the bloodstream a little at a time, not the way I was doing it [with cocaine]. With the help of friends, I managed to get clean and sober. That's a long time ago now, but thankfully I did it early in my career and not late.
Do you see cannabis as being different than other substances?
Yes. I'm always a little suspicious because cannabis is so much stronger than it was in my day when you could smoke three joints and barely get a buzz, but if you're saying is it any worse than alcohol, of course not. Alcohol is a very destructive drug if you get hooked. It destroys the fabric of a family. I know because my father was an alcoholic. It led to a really unhappy childhood in that I was very angry with my father and didn't understand it was a disease. I just knew he was never there. I understand it now.
Did you know there is a cannabis strain called Clockwork Orange?
No, but thank you for telling me.
A reviewer called it a "holy grail plant" for which users "reported an extremely powerful yet numbing body high. For this reason, Clockwork Orange is not recommended for anyone with a heart condition." Sound about right?
Wow. I would say that's a good description of the movie, too. Where is it grown? Is it from the Hawaiian Islands or are we talking northern California?
I believe it's from California.
It's huge, huge business, isn't it? The biggest cash crop in America, I believe. I'm glad they nobly called it after a very good movie, but they wouldn't be naming it after that movie if I'd been smoking when I made it. The film would have disappeared by now.
You don't think you would have delivered the same performance if you were high?
No. You can't work when you're high, at least not effectively. It's not like a singer where you sang that hit so many damn times that you can be out of it and you're kind of on autopilot. An actor has to be in total control of everything, and if you're not razor sharp, the performance will be muddied and unfocused.
Was there a process you did each day before playing Alex that made him so powerful?
No, I would take every scene as it came and try to find a way to make it magical. Of course, I had an incredible director [in Stanley Kubrick] who wouldn't turn the camera on if the rehearsal wasn't magical. He was such a stickler for getting that old magic. I'd do a rehearsal, and he'd say, "Well, I can't shoot that." I'd ask, "What's wrong with it?" He'd go, "It's boring," and I'd say, "Oh dear. I wonder why you cast me if I'm so boring." I used to tease him a lot, and he'd laugh. We'd have to find a way through to make something happen, and we usually did.
It was one of those lightning-in-a-bottle situations that, if you're very fortunate, you'll experience in your career. At the time, I thought, "Oh, this is what it's going to be like," but of course, there's only one Stanley Kubrick. He was a force to be reckoned with in that he was extremely smart. I'm talking beyond intelligent, sort of unworldly. He told me he actually put A Clockwork Orange aside because he couldn't cast it. Christiane Kubrick, his widow, told me a few years ago that he watched this movie if…. that I made with [director] Lindsay Anderson, and after watching my entrance scene three or four times, he turned to her and said, "I think we've found our Alex." Lucky for me.
Lucky for everyone, actually.
Well, thank you. It was an extraordinary experience for a young actor, but in a weird way, I was kind of ready for it. Looking back, I can be very strong. Stanley broke a lot of actors—he was tough—but I liked that about him. We had our odd moments butting heads, but if you've seen the film, you know I loved and respected him more than anything else. You couldn't go on that journey without trusting someone with your life. That's really what it was. I don't think I've ever given myself quite so much to a part as I gave to that one.
Speaking of iconic roles you played, what was it like to kill Captain Kirk?
Oh, so much fun. Jesus, it was time to get rid of that old bloated idiot. Actually, I became friends with William [Shatner], and I'm very fond of him. He's a very funny guy, and he can laugh at himself. Patrick [Stewart] I knew from the Royal Shakespeare Company in '65, so we go back quite a long way. He was in his 20s [back then], but he looked the same, and he was playing old men even then. It was fun to catch up on something in another country, in another life, in another world. I had fun with William and Patrick.
The rumor is that you only agreed to do the movie because you got to kill Kirk.
I wasn't interested in doing the movie, per se, because I was never a fan. I didn't dislike it, I just didn't know it. I found it rather bemusing that there were Trekkies who took it seriously because, after all, they were cardboard sets, weren't they? Pretty hokey. I couldn't even watch the show, but I understand. [Star Trek creator] Gene Roddenberry was very clever in that the stories were moral tales, so it wasn't just science fiction like Flash Gordon. I think that's why it had longevity. Plus, they were great characters.
After you killed Kirk, is it true you received death threats?
My nephew said, "Uncle Malcolm, you know you're getting death threats on the internet?" I said, "What's the internet?" My nephew is Alexander Siddig, who played the amorous Dr. Julian Bashir in Deep Space Nine, and he was very good. I told him, "Really? Can't they take a joke? These people take this nonsense seriously enough to kill me?" Get over it. He's gone. I'm only the messenger. If you want to kill somebody, kill the damn producers! Then I said, "If you want me to do Picard, I'd be happy to do that in the next movie."
That would be amazing, actually.
They missed an opportunity there.
Were there any issues?
We were off to promote the movie, and Paramount supplied two detectives to accompany me, which was absolutely the most mortifyingly embarrassing thing that ever happened to me. It was ridiculous. They were stationed outside my hotel room so I'd open the door and say, "Guys, just go to sleep, please." They'd say, "Nope, we can't do that." I left the hotel to go to dinner, and the street was deserted, so I said, "I don't see any lone gunmen. Why don't you go to dinner, and I'll meet you afterwards?" "No, no."
Of course, it was just the Trekkies venting. Now they've forgiven me. I go to conventions and say, "Am I the most hated man here? Too bad!" Sometimes I'll go with Shatner and say, "Bill, no lip from you, or I'm going to have to do it again."
My last question goes way back to O Lucky Man!, a semi-autobiographical film that references your days as a salesman. What were the primary themes and do they still resonate with you today?
I still think O Lucky Man! is an incredible movie. You might think I would say that anyway, but if you know me, you know I wouldn't necessarily say that because I don't like much of the stuff I do. The work I did with Lindsay Anderson, however, was special. He was such an amazing influence on my life, not only as an actor, but as a person. I only came up with the idea because I wanted to work with him again. I had to find something he would commit to because he's very much an auteur.
It's not my film, it's Lindsay's, and it's an extraordinary film in many ways. It's very subversive. It's about a young naïve man with everything to live for, and he is slowly but surely beaten down by the establishment. It's quite optimistic at the end, actually, but getting there is quite a journey. It's full of great music from Alan Price, and God knows why he didn't win an Academy Award for that. It has a great cast with the best English character actors: Ralph Richardson, Arthur Lowe, Helen Mirren. It's one of my favorite movies I ever did, and it came right after Clockwork.