alcolm McDowell is a legend and a pretty good sport. His performances in films like A Clockwork Orange (1971), If. . .(1968), Caligula (1979), and, um, Mr. Magoo (1997) have left no dark corner of the modern psyche unexplored. After a bit of a hiatus, the 59-year-old McDowell is back in crackling form, playing an aging member of the British underworld in Gangster No. 1. His portrayal of the aging Gangster (Paul Bettany plays the character as a young man) is fierce and uncompromising and freakin' scary — everything we've come to expect from McDowell. He recently sat down to discuss the ethics of cracking heads, Caligula's creative editing and the merits of a certain c-wor
Why are you in this film?
Well, it's well-written, and I like the director (Paul McGuigan, director of Acid House) very much. The script sort of read like a Greek tragedy really, or Shakespearean: you know, friendship, loyalty, and then betrayal.
Are you tired of playing villains?
No, I don't look at him like that. To me, he is a villain, but in this film there are no goodies or baddies. They're all sort of three-dimensional. We're talking about putting a microscope under a certain segment of society, and it's the criminal element. there's no real goodies in this stories. He's a psychotic, no doubt about it. He's a total psycho.
Why are you good at playing psychotics?
I don't know. I really don't know. I tend to dive into these parts, give them full commitment. So maybe that has something to do with it. It's certainly very far from where I am. I would not like to meet this man in a dark alley.
When you have to freak out — as Freddie does in the last scene, when he's throwing his clothes into the pool — what do you think about?
I'm not thinking anything. I'm just getting to an intense accelerated energy. I've worked it out exactly: I basically have a roadmap of where I'm going to go, and eighty percent I know what I'm doing, and the last twenty percent I leave for spontaneity. And I hope that twenty percent will take me somewhere else.
Did you think the film's hat-tip to A Clockwork Orange was appropriate or derivative?
Look, every film comes from something else. Stanley Kubrick is one of the most imitated directors on the planet. And I think young filmmakers are very influenced by what Stanley did. Of course, it's influenced by it but not unduly so.
How did you feel about the violence in the film — did it attract or repel you, or was it just there?
It's repellent. It makes you really cringe. It's the real deal, this is what happens in the world. But personally, I find it really hard to take.
So let's talk about the word "cunt."
This film seems to set a record for uses thereof.
Maybe. I don't know.
What's your philosophy on that?
Americans are really uptight about cunt. In England, you can say 'Oh, what a silly cunt.' It's a friendly term.
So you're telling me that the English are more comfortable than Americans with something sexual?
Well, it doesn't have anywhere near the same connotation. To me, it's like a meter of Shakespeare; it sort of . . . it rolls off the tongue.
Is that your epithet of choice?
Hard to say. I just love 'You facking cunt . . .' The whole Cockney vernacular, really. It's like speaking a foreign language. I think it's really great.
Have you ever wanted to watch a person's throat being slit?
Not a violent person?
No, doesn't interest me. I've never really been in fights. Except in school. But I have uh, attacked a mugger in Paris, and when I had to do violent scenes in the film, I was thinking back to that. You just do what you have to do without too much fuss. I once saw somebody get knifed in a pub. The guy came in, it was very simple. Almost nothing happened. Blink and you missed it. It wasn't a violent act. The consequences were, but the act itself was very contained.
So violent sex is out?
Violent sex? No, no violent sex. Verbally, I like to have a go, but physically, no.
Has a woman ever asked you to role-play one of your characters in bed?
No, but I'd love to try.
No requests to wear a bowler hat, or maybe that donkey's head from Britannia Hospital?
Nope. But I remember once with an ex-wife, she had never watched A Clockwork Orange, so we did. Then it was late at night, so we went to bed. We turned the lights off to go to sleep, and a few beats went by and I just said, "Well, well, well, then . . . " She screamed, jumped out of bed, had the lights on. Scared the crap out of her.
How much do you regret Caligula?
I don't regret anything. Life's too short. Do I like it? Not much. Did I participate in it when came out? No. I have better things to do, it's in my past. It's a pity, because there's a good film in there screaming to get out. There are some wonderful things in it. Colin Firth, whom I've just worked with, thinks it's the best Roman epic ever made. He said it's the closest to what really happened to Ancient Rome. He's read all these diaries, which I haven't, and he thinks it's very authentic.
The filmmakers went in, during post-production . . .
. . . and they added porn in. You can tell! In those scenes, the lighting is so different, and there are these stupid Penthouse Pets, er, doin' the business. And then they come back to a close-up of me. During shooting, I was really looking at a pet hawk, but in the film, it looks like I've been watching two lesbians going at it.
How pissed were you?
There's something in me that kind of enjoyed it. It just showed me never to get too precious about the work. 'Cause they'll just come in and slice two lesbians going at it for twenty minutes.
Do you think any of your other films would have benefited from that kind of creative editing?
That's a great possibility. I could name one or two, but I won't. There's a couple of real doozies in there.
I was going to suggest Mr. Magoo.
Oh, yeah, that'd be so much better, wouldn't it? [Laughs] You know, I didn't even see that film, so I have no idea.
To read an interview with Gangster No. 1's Paul Bettany, click here.