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Exclusive Q&A: Malcolm McDowell Revisits 'A Clockwork Orange'

Malcolm McDowell
Getty Images

Forty years ago, Stanley Kubrick's adaptation of Anthony Burgess' novel "A Clockwork Orange" became a cultural phenomenon, shocking moviegoers with its vicious droogs sipping spiked milk, going on binges of rape and violent behavior and, in the case of immortal villain Alex DeLarge, blasting Beethoven at home.

It's still a powerful and unsettling experience. Warner Bros. is celebrating the anniversary of this milestone movie with a sleek new Blu-ray edition, so star/main droog Malcolm McDowell sat down to discuss breathing underwater, working with Darth Vader and how he'd play Alex in a "Clockwork Orange" sequel.

You sustained a lot of physical abuse while making "A Clockwork Orange." Were you worried about passing out during the beating scene, where your head is underwater for what seems like an eternity?
No, it's a trick. Do you think I'm Superman? Some people asked me about it, and I just didn't say anything. Then I felt guilty that I didn't tell everybody what it was.

A Clockwork Orange
Warner Bros.

It was an oxygen tank, and they colored the damn thing. First off, they couldn't use warm water because it was so cold out it would steam. If you dunk your head in cold water, you can't stay under for more than five seconds. I mean, that's it. So we had a tank with a mouthpiece that I had to try to find, and every time I went down it would move, so it was just luck that I happened to glom onto it. I was able to breathe for two minutes or whatever the length of the take was. But it's a brilliant trick.

The only thing I will say about that is that it does take the audience a little bit out of the film. There were two things that I am not keen on, actually. You could say that was one of them because people are going, "How did he do that?" instead of, "Oh my God, this poor guy." The other one I don't like is me waking up in the hospital. [Imitates moaning of nearby nurse having sex.] It's funny, but it is the one gratuitous part of the movie to me.

Getting back to those difficult moments to film, how long did they haunt your memory?
I think worse than that was the exhaustion because you're working at such a rate of energy pretty much all the time that eventually you tend to keel over. So as soon as it was finished, I jumped into my car and headed for Cornwall, which is at the end of the boot of England, right at the very end. I just hung out on a beach. It was actually winter, but it was kind of desolate and it was just cool. I was being chased down there by another director who wanted me to do this film, which I did not want to do, to play young Winston Churchill. Please, after coming off "Clockwork Orange," how the hell could I play young Winston Churchill? I went, "I'm not interested. Get somebody who will do it justice, I can't do it." They wouldn't take no for an answer, so everywhere I would go, they would find out where the hell I was.

Both Lindsay Anderson [director of McDowell's Mick Travis films] and Stanley Kubrick were taskmasters. It seems you enjoy the challenge of working under those conditions. Why?
You've always got to work with the best if you can, and of course the best are the best because they're different. They expect certain standards, and they're usually very difficult people to work with. I had more fun working with Lindsay and Stanley than practically anyone... Well, Bob Altman and Blake Edwards... I've worked with some great directors, like Dick Lester. My favorite was Lindsay because he was a one-off, a great artist. [Yet] he'd come off as a total bastard. If you weren't intimidated, that was the key.

There are a lot of younger actors today who probably wouldn't tolerate that kind of behavior.
That's why they're not very talented. That's why they'll be gone, forgotten. They can pick up their $5 million bucks now, but hey, it's only worth something if the movies are remembered, and most of the movies are instantly forgettable. I hate to say but it's true.

What was it like to work with David Prowse in "A Clockwork Orange," a few years prior to his playing Darth Vader?
He got Darth Vader because of working with Kubrick. He told me that. He got in the door. "Oh, you worked with Kubrick? Come in." Dave's a very nice man. He was very young then. Weren't we all? He didn't have a lot to do with "Clockwork," but Stanley wanted this huge guy. The thing that made me laugh is that his voice didn't match the body. His body's huge, but his voice [raises pitch] is like that. He's from the west country, so it's a bit like that. It was like, "Oh my God, that's so weird." It made me laugh. I wasn't laughing at him, but to see this huge guy and this little voice that didn't match... I guess he was a little bummed out that they didn't use his voice for Darth Vader.

A Clockwork Orange
Warner Bros.

You have talked about "A Clockwork Orange" being a black comedy. Often it feels like people laugh at the wrong things. Have you ever encountered weird reactions to the film?
I'm just grateful for any laugh. That's the difference between you and me. If they're laughing, I don't give a f**k whether it's funny or not. But if they're laughing, I'm happy.

As long as they get the point.
You know, you can't force-feed the point. But if they're laughing, they're engaged, even if it's a nervous laugh. Listen, of course we didn't make an out-and-out comedy. It's a difficult one. There were serious issues [being explored]. There are certain things which I think are very funny, and when it first came out, not a laugh at all.

Disregarding the tacked-on last chapter of the American version of "A Clockwork Orange" that the publisher demanded, what do you think happened to Alex after the end of the story?
The thing about this is it is fiction, and I don't really care what happened to him because it doesn't involve me, unless they want me to come back and play Alex as a 70-year-old in a couple of years, which I'd be happy to do. I could wear a codpiece and kick a few buggers along the way. That may be fun. That's worth thinking about. I could wear a nice tattoo on my butt or something.

What do you think is your most underrated performance and why?
I think Alex.

Really?
Honestly, when it came out, they thought it was Kubrick that had manipulated the performance. It's taken 40 f**king years for people to go, "Oh my God, it's really nothing to do with him." All I say is, look at the performances in other Kubrick movies.

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