I’ve Never Seen Anything More Insane Than John Malkovich on Billions
John Malkovich’s career began, as with many great TV and film actors, in the theater. During his early tenure with the Steppenwolf Theater Company, he starred in a murderer’s row of 20th century classics of the American theater, including Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, and Sam Shepard’s True West. He made his name at the turn of the ‘90s working with prestige directors like Robert Altman, Steven Spielberg, Bernardo Bertolucci, and Woody Allen. Perhaps the apotheosis of his farcical smarm was 1988’s Dangerous Liasons, the wig-heavy, playfully anachronistic murderous sex comedy that inspired Cruel Intentions. As the century drew to a close, Malkovich worked with Charlie Kaufman, becoming a meme-before-memes as the subject of the writer and director’s Being John Malkovich. From there, the Illinois-born actor’s career seemed to sprout off in every different direction more than ever before, starring in everything from Gustav Klimt biopics and Coen Brothers movies to Johnny English and the Red franchise. Like so many veteran actors who work too much, he became half-revered and half an egregious parody of himself.
Last year, something revolutionary happened on television, and those of us who were both Billions and Malkovich fans were forced to recalibrate our understanding of him. Halfway through the third season of Showtime’s hyperbolic romp of a 1-percenter finance thriller, Billions, Malkovich appeared, for an apparent cameo role (news bulletins said “guest arc”) as a murderous Russian oil oligarch named Grigor Andalov. He first showed up in the season’s ninth episode, playing hockey with an American professional team. When Andalov pulled off his helmet, revealing himself to be Malkovich, it was clearly a move designed to make the audience to cry out in surprise and glee. It was impossible to decide which was more absurd: the concept of an oligarch playing hockey with a pro team to decide if he wanted to purchase it or this dramatic, Gilda-like entrance. “Survival, in this world, is all,” he sneered, before discussing how he and Bobby “Axe” Axelrod, the show’s hedge funder co-protagonist (Damian Lewis), could make themselves “richer, strong, thick with power, like Vasily Alekseyev himself.” (That’s the name of a Soviet wrestler.) There’s a lot of empty chatter in this episode, but ultimately, in a final scene set to Bob Dylan’s “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” Andalov spells out his M.O. pretty simply: “No, you can’t lose my money. If you do, we have problem, understood?” And we were in, folks.
All this turned out to be less than the tip of the iceberg. By the end of that season, both Axe and his protege-turned-nemesis Taylor Mason (Asia Kate Dillon) were courting Andalov for investments. Malk was showing up everywhere, because Andalov magically knew where everyone was all of the time. He told a couple of ominous, cryptic fables, including a story about a “greedy, drunken” son of a prostitute at a Moscow street market that I still don’t understand the dramatic import of. In the season finale, shortly before slapping Axe’s fixer Hall in the face with a zealous cry of “Shut da fuck up,” Andalov described Axe’s current professional situation with candor: “If were standing, like you, as naked as Paris Hilton and twice as fucked, I would not hesitate.” Okay, go off king!
Presumably, Malkovich’s inclusion here is an homage to Billions creators David Levien and Brian Koppelman’s first collaboration with the actor: 1998’s Rounders, in which Malkovich plays the track-suit-wearing Russian gangster and card shark Teddy KGB. If Teddy is a recognizable variety of farcical hard-ass—something out of Scorsese or Tarantino—the more aged Malkovich’s suave Andalov is something much weirder. The combination of the Billions-core stunt casting, and the bromide of Malkovich’s anti-accent and over-the-top one-liners, creates a singular and indescribable effect. Rushing through sentences entirely against emphasis, the demented characterization makes Teddy KGB look as normal as Tom Hanks in a romantic comedy.
Everything about Malk’s first appearance in Season 3 signaled that his part would be a winking diversion that would last two episodes and then disappear, along with its attendant plot lines. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Billions returned last Sunday, with all the expected and welcome trappings: The premiere opened with Wags (David Costabile) draped with escorts and doing key bumps. Charles Rhoades Sr. whipped his son Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti) to shape, reminding viewers of the possible origin for his BDSM proclivities. Axe made crucial deals while being stretched by expensive personal trainers. Koppelman and Levien’s big trick, though, was that the central action in the episode—what we assumed to be a side plot about Wags partying too hard at an unspecified Middle Eastern country’s embassy—was just another winding road back to Malkovich, now effectively Billions’ final boss. After working his way through an extended Rollerball metaphor, Malk arrived at the scene’s punchline, flashing a gaptooth smile: “No sweat, Fonzie.”
The fact that Andalov’s mien is supposed to frighten the hell out of the show’s other characters is a totally implausible concept Billions just commits to and runs with. It’s similar to the conceit that Wendy Rhoades (Maggie Siff) is supposed to be the best and most indispensable psychiatry professional in the tri-state area, despite limited evidence: Every character just repeatedly acts like it is that way, and so the audience has no choice but to take their word for it. It’s just part of the fun of watching the show. Andalov is meant to be a bloodthirsty criminal who is as rich as God, and likes to tell cryptic little anecdotes to illustrate how ruthless he is, in the vein of Gerald McRaney’s characters in both House of Cards and Deadwood. The only problem is the fact that his accent is so funny that it’s often necessary to rewind the episode to actually focus on what he’s saying instead of on cracking up. He says “sheik” “Shiiiike” and “tai chi” “tai gee.” They literally put this man in the Russian Vodka Room, forcing Taylor to do shots of horseradish and dill while he quotes Kid Rock lyrics. “Only God knows why,” he says, stone-faced, raising his glass.
The platonic ideal of stunt casting, Malkovich functions kind of like a found object on Billions. His stilted, arhythmic delivery resembles someone trying to read off of a teleprompter that keeps being moved around as opposed to an actual Russian person. I can’t think of a snappy term for whatever his approach is here, but maybe “post-acting” fits the bill. I love it. Billions remains one of the true joys of contemporary serial television dramas, and (I won’t say “but”) John Malkovich as Grigor Andalov is one of the most patently insane performances by a major film or TV actor that I have ever seen. By now, Billions knows what we come to it for. Is John Malkovich the beginning of the shark being jumped for Billions, or its avant-garde apex? I prefer to believe that it’s just a portal to another dimension for this great show, one that is now fully aware of its own bro-Shakespearean excess.