The title of this piece should be “Driving John Malkovich,” because yours truly did just that. It was surreal, to say the least, because it happened while I was driving for Lyft.
I’m not easily impressed with celebrity—especially these days, when anyone with a phone has the potential (under the right or wrong circumstances) to be a celeb du jour.
But I was in the presence of a man with a body of work. Mr. Malkovich’s career not only entertained me, but it also enlightened me. His lifetime has been spent devoted to his craft, developing a signature style of acting that is one of a kind. He is the real deal. The genuine article. I knew I had to tread lightly if I was to engage the man one on one—mano a mano.
Being an old-timer and an aging poker player, I felt as though I had won a huge all-in pot when the man who played Teddy KGB in Rounders sat in my car’s front passenger seat. “Pay that man his money” kept ringing in my ears. But there was no way I was going to tell Mr. Malkovich. That would be too straightforward—too off-putting.
As fate would have it, Mr. Malkovich found himself in my car for three reasons:
(1) He was in Seattle on October 17, 2023, for a one-night stand, starring in The Music Critic.
(2) I volunteer to drive senior citizens to and from their medical appointments and occasionally drive rideshare.
(3) While passengers are at their appointments, if time permits, I log in to Lyft’s and Uber’s apps to try to offset the cost of gas (no easy task these days).
After dropping off a man I regularly drive from Bitter Lake in north Seattle to his twice-weekly appointment at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center near Lake Union, I logged in to the rideshare apps. It was not busy, so I decided to drive around my beloved city. I eventually ended up cruising through Pike Place Market. And that was when my phone chimed, alerting me to a rideshare request.
I accepted it and headed toward the pickup location at the northern end of the market, on Western Avenue and Virginia Street, near Victor Steinbrueck Park. As a party of four walked toward my car, I thought, That man looks familiar. As he approached the front passenger door, I was damn sure I knew who it was. After he got in and spoke, his unique voice told the tale. John Malkovich was in my car.
“How are you doing?” he asked me.
“I’m doing really good now!” I replied, and instantly feared I had crossed the line. It might have been my imagination, but it felt as though he were bracing himself for an onslaught from a fan.
I did not say another word until Mr. Malkovich broke the silence.
On the way from the market to the Seattle Center, he spied the name of some chic neo-hipster establishment and asked, “Does anybody know what that means?”
After a beat or two, during which no one in his party piped up, I said, “I haven’t a clue, but from the sound of it, it doesn’t seem like it would be our kind of place.”
Everyone laughed. The ice had been broken. I followed that up by telling Mr. Malkovich that I had recently rewatched Rounders and afterward had viewed a YouTube video in which his costar, Matt Damon, related a story in which John Malkovich had told him that he—John Malkovich—was a terrible actor.
“Did you really say that you’re a terrible actor to Matt?” I asked.
“Probably,” Mr. Malkovich replied.
“Well, that’s the most absurd thing I have ever heard,” I said.
More laughter engulfed the car, and small talk continued for the remainder of the short ride to the base of the Space Needle. As I pulled into the loop driveway, I said, “I first became aware of you through The Killing Fields.”
From the moment I realized that Mr. Malkovich would be riding in my car, sitting right next to me, I began thinking about his role as photojournalist Al Rockoff in Roland Joffé’s Academy Award–winning film The Killing Fields. This led to thoughts of the dearly departed Spalding Gray, because it was through him that I first discovered Mr. Malkovich.
Spalding had a minor role in The Killing Fields, a film about Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge’s genocide. Mr. Gray also created an Obie Award–winning, off-Broadway monologue titled Swimming to Cambodia (itself a critically acclaimed Jonathan Demme film of the same name) in which Spalding recounted his experiences during the filming of The Killing Fields.
He, like too many others, had been unaware of the events and environment that led to the Cambodian genocide, in which two million people were systematically slaughtered by their own government. Spalding said that, unlike the perpetrators and victims of the “other Holocaust,” whose languages are well documented and shared across cultures, Cambodia—at that time—was an isolated people and culture. Not a lot of people speak Khmer, and therefore that genocide went largely undocumented. Swimming to Cambodia led me to The Killing Fields, which led me to John Malkovich and the Cambodian genocide—the Asian Holocaust—that most likely would not have occurred if not for the Vietnam War.
To say that was a pivotal moment in my understanding of the ramifications and fallout from the Vietnam War would be an understatement.
“That was forty years ago,” Mr. Malkovich said with a tinge of self-senescence, bringing me back into the moment.
“Please don’t remind us of that,” I replied. Everyone else in the car, all younger, let out another huge laugh. Mr. Malkovich and I laughed as well, but our mirth had a faint sense of bittersweetness that comes only from the passage of time.
After I put my car in park, Mr. Malkovich said, “Thank you very much for the ride.”
“Thank you for your body of work, sir. It’s been very meaningful and enjoyable.”
We shook hands before he exited my car. As I drove away, I wished that I was the kind of person who could ask for a selfie or an autograph—but I am not. Then I remembered my dashcam had recorded everything. After picking up my medical passenger and taking him back to his house, I rushed home, disconnected the camera, and raced into my apartment to watch and listen to the video.
Alas, while the video is perfectly clear, the microphone was on mute. It took a moment or two before I realized that that was the way it ought to be. A private conversation that will forever remain private. After all, you can’t have everything, right? Where would you put it?