‘The ABC Murders’: John Malkovich on Playing a Unique Version of Agatha Christie’s Detective
It’s a mystery inside the mystery: He’s not short with an egg-shaped head, raven-haired or sporting a waxed mustache. Nor does he use a Belgian accent. Or keep the detective’s ego.
In fact, John Malkovich isn’t much like the way Agatha Christie described Hercule Poirot in 33 books and 50 short stories. And he’s nothing like any actor who played the man before. Yet Malkovich is sublime in this three-part adaptation of Christie’s 1936 novel The ABC Murders, in which the detective is taunted by a serial killer who leaves copies of the British ABC Railway Guide near his victims.
Skeptical? So was the British press, who speculated (negatively) on the out-of-the-box casting. Then, when the miniseries premiered in the U.K. last month, they went gaga for him. As for Malkovich, he seems nonplussed. The two-time Oscar nominee talks about the experience:
Was there ever a point when you were going to play a more traditional Poirot?
John Malkovich: Yes, the writer, Sarah Phelps, indicated a certain look for him in the scripts. But it also meant that we would’ve needed to work on various wigs and make everything in short order to be ready to shoot last summer. The director, Alex Gabassi, said no to this. He’d seen a photo of me on the web a couple days before, and he wanted me just to use the look that I had already.
Did you know a lot about Poirot? Were you a fan?
I saw the Albert Finney film [1974’s Murder on the Orient Express] when I was young. And I may have seen one of the Peter Ustinov adaptations [from the 1970s and ’80s] and a tiny bit of the David Suchet version [on TV from 1989 to 2013]. I took my cues from Sarah’s script. That he’d lived in England for 20 years, which he takes seriously. One of his few friends, Inspector Japp, passes away in the first episode. Poirot is old, out of touch and no longer someone who is exalted or even known for the cases he had cracked before.
Is he broken?
I don’t know if he’s broken. Poirot is a man trying to accept that time has passed him by. Or one could say he’s trying to make sure that time hasn’t passed him by, but it has. It’s natural. It’s normal.
Is that the significance of the scene in which he washes the black dye out of his beard?
It’s like everyone who does things to look young, whether it’s plastic surgery or dying your hair. It’s fine by me, but time moves on and those attempts are usually ridiculous. You can’t be younger. You’re your age and you should be it. That’s my advice. I think he realized his ridiculousness trying to pass for something he wasn’t anymore.
It’s hard to see Inspector Chrome (Grint) dismiss Poirot and keep him out of the investigation, because it’s not what Christie fans are used to. Sometimes it even seems like Grint towers over you, when he must be shorter.
I am a taller person than him [Malkovich is 6 feet tall; Grint stands 5-foot-8]. But he was terrific in that way. He played it with this cruel lethargy.
That makes Poirot’s position even sadder! This is Phelps’s fourth big Christie adaptation (see above). What makes them special?
I decided to do this partly because of her previous work. They sent me them. She makes the books lifelike.
You’ve been quoted as saying that Christie purists may be irked by the changes to the story and Poirot. Do you think that’ll happen in the States?
I don’t know if they’d be upset. This is obviously a character that’s been done many, many times. He’s had many versions for people to respond to. I can’t say how they’ll respond to this version.
Do you think you were an odd choice to play Poirot?
I’m an odd choice for anything, but I’m used to that.
Would you play him again?
I really don’t like committing to things. I always feel a little bit trapped. If there were a script I was asked to do that I liked, sure. I like the character, but maybe that will be just for these three hours.
The ABC Murders, Series Premiere, Friday, Feb. 1, Amazon Prime Video
More Agatha Christie Classics Available to Stream on Amazon Prime Video:
Ordeal by Innocence
Aristocrat Leo Argyll (Bill Nighy) and his surviving kids are ready to move on from the murder of matriarch Rachel (Anna Chancellor) by son Jack (Anthony Boyle), who died in prison. Then a young scientist (Luke Treadaway) appears at their door, claiming to be Jack’s alibi.
The Witness For the Prosecution
Kim Cattrall (below) is a rich lady in 1920s London who takes a young man home for the night, wills him her fortune and ends up a dead, bloody mess soon after. Available on Acorn TV or Prime Video’s Acorn TV Channel ($4.99 per month)
And Then There Were None
Ten strangers (like a mercenary played by Poldark’s Aidan Turner, below) are invited to an island and killed one by one. It’s the first screen version to use Christie’s ending. Available on Acorn TV or Prime Video’s Acorn TV Channel ($4.99 per month)