John Malkovich is among the most respected American actors of his generation, and one of his most distinctive features is his voice. At once softly spoken, yet capable of conveying tremendous volume and menace, Malkovich doesn’t sound quite like anyone else, which sometimes leaves fans wondering just how – and where – he got his accent.
Born and raised in Illinois, Malkovich’s accent seems atypical of a lifelong American. No doubt influenced by his middle-class Mitteleuropean roots, his theatrical background and the fact that he has spent a good portion of his adult life in France, Malkovich’s voice is completely unique. Unfortunately, the man himself isn’t a fan.
Born December 9, 1953 in the small city of Christopher, Illinois, John Malkovich would grow up in nearby Benton. He would later rise to prominence as a stage actor in Chicago with the renowned Steppenwolf Theatre Company, alongside such actors as Gary Sinise, Joan Allen, and Malkovich’s future wife Glenne Headly.
Still, to most ears Malkovich’s speech does not sound typical of Chicago, the standard Chicago accent noted for the prominence of ‘da-‘ sounds over ‘th-‘ (eg ‘dat’ rather than ‘that’) and some elongation of vowel sounds (eg ‘B-ah-b’ rather than ‘Bob’). It makes sense that Malkovich would not have so working-class an accent given he came from an affluent, middle-class household: his mother was a newspaper editor, whilst his father was a journalist and environmentalist.
Malkovich’s family background also seems likely to have influenced his speech. His paternal grandparents came to America from Croatia, whilst his mother was of mixed descent with French, German, Scottish and English heritage. The actor has also remarked that he may have some familial roots in Montenegro.
The fact that Malkovich pursued theatre from his teens doubtless also impacted the development of his speaking voice. A keen baseball and football player in his youth, the actor says he had originally hoped to pursue sports but a crush on a female drama student prompted him to give acting a go. He then performed in numerous high school productions, and went on to major in theatre at Illinois State University; he never graduated, but would later take further acting training in New York.
Once his career took off with Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company, Malkovich was soon hailed as a major new talent, leading him first to Broadway, then to the big screen. His first film appearance, in 1984’s Places of the Heart, earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor (a nomination he would receive a second time for 1993’s In the Line of Fire).
From there, roles in such acclaimed films as Empire of the Sun, Dangerous Liaisons and Of Mice and Men established Malkovich as a force to be reckoned with, ideally cast as somewhat aloof, conceited and immoral characters with an aristocratic air. These are character traits more often associated with English and European actors than Americans, and Malkovich’s accent is key to this.
Actors are, of course, frequently called upon to adopt different accents, which Malkovich has done on many occasions – and not always to acclaim. Rounders, a 1998 poker drama starring Matt Damon and Edward Norton, casts Malkovich as a Russian gangster known as KGB. The film is memorable in large part thanks to Malkovich’s somewhat cartoonish Russian accent, which Damon recalls being taken aback by.
Damon told BBC Radio 1 there was a palpable excitement among the cast and crew in the run-up to Malkovich’s arrival on set. “We do the first take, and John goes [adopts high pitched Russian accent] ‘if you don’t haaaaaave my monnnney then yoooooou are miiiiine…’ And I’m sitting across the table, and I’m like, ‘I’m sorry, what? What did you just say?’ … and the crew burst into applause, saying ‘amazing, amazing.’
“And [Malkovich] sees me looking at him, and he leans across the table, and I lean in, and he looks at me and goes, ‘I’m a terrible actor.'” Damon of course went on to stress, “obviously he’s not a terrible actor; quite the opposite, he’s brilliant.” (Reviewing Rounders for Rolling Stone, critic Peter Travers remarked, “Malkovich soars so far over the top, he’s passing Pluto.”)
Malkovich also divided critics and audiences with his take on Hercule Poirot in 2019’s The ABC Murders, giving a somewhat vague approximation of the famous detective’s Belgian accent. Then there was his accent in 2007 fantasy film Beowulf, which didn’t seem to belong to any specific nation. It seems whatever accent John Malkovich adopts, he always ends up sounding like John Malkovich – and no one else sounds quite like he does.
Another likely contributor to Malkovich’s atypical accent is the fact that he has spent many years living and working in Europe. After divorcing Glenne Headly in 1988 (in the wake of his affair with Michelle Pfeiffer on the Dangerous Liaisons set), Malkovich fell in love with Nicoletta Peyran, an assistant director on 1990’s The Sheltering Sky. They have never married, but Malkovich settled down with Peyran in her native France where they had two children, Amandine and Loewy.
A fluent French speaker, Malkovich lived in France for the entirety of the 1990s, and there he worked both on stage and in French films including The Convent and The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc in between Hollywood movies (among them Con Air and Being John Malkovich). This transatlantic experience seems almost certain to have affected his accent, much as it did with Johnny Depp, who also spent a great deal of time in France whilst in a relationship with Vanessa Paradis.
2003 saw Malkovich and his family relocate to Cambridge, Massachusetts over a tax dispute with the French government. Unfortunately for the actor, his money woes have only gotten worse since, as he lost at least $2.3 million to infamous financier Bernie Madoff, who was jailed for mass fraud in 2009. Hopefully things have balanced out for Malkovich since, as he continues to work steadily on stage and screen: he made four films in 2022 alone, as well as appearing in TV’s Space Force.
Yet as renowned as Malkovich’s film work may be, the actor himself avoids watching his own work – because he dislikes hearing himself speak. Malkovich once told Conan O’Brien, “I hate it [my voice]. When I hear myself, which I try never to do, to me it sounds like someone who’s kind of laboured under heavy narcotics for years and years… I always think, ‘who is this person?'”
But, as Malkovich remarked in another interview on Today when promoting Penguins of Madagascar, “that’s not uncommon with actors. Benedict Cumberbatch, who’s in [Penguins of Madagascar] as well, can’t stand the sound of his own voice. We spent half the press day talking about who has the worse voice.” We’re certain millions of film fans around the world disagree.