During his 50-year acting career, Malcolm McDowell did everything from kill Captain Kirk in Star Trek Generations to narrate The Compleat Beatles, but cinema fans will always remember him as Alex DeLarge delivering "a bit of the old ultra-violence" in A Clockwork Orange. To put McDowell's performance in perspective, DeLarge currently ranks 12th on the American Film Institute's 100 greatest villains of all-time ahead of the shark in Jaws, Ridley Scott's alien and even the hunter who killed Bambi's mom. PRØHBTD spoke with McDowell about his iconic role in A Clockwork Orange, which made its NYC premiere 46 years ago today.
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 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 was 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.
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." Does that 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.
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.
David Jenison (email@example.com) is Editor-in-Chief at PRØHBTD.