Who Could Star in a Modern Being John Malkovich Remake?

Spike Jonze’s Being John Malkovich is the kind of movie that’s somehow both timeless and grounded in the period in which it was made. When it comes to the focus of the movie, it’s so late-’90s/early-’00s: the absurd, existentialist angst of a puppeteer who works on a half-floor at his dead-end job, only to discover a portal into a well-known actor’s mind, and then fulfills his dreams of total control. Not to mention the lighting, costumes, and complete lack of Internet. And yet, the notion of inhabiting a celebrity’s body has grown even more alluring with the explosion of social media—the kind of prescience for which Splitsider praises the movie.

Charlie Kaufmann wrote the screenplay for Malkovich specifically. Even when he was offered the chance—including by Malkovich himself—to fund the movie with a different lead, he stuck tight to this idea. Interestingly, he couldn’t even really explain why at the time:

It’s hard to explain, but I thought it was funny, but not jokey. Because [John Malkovich] is a serious actor, he is a great actor, but there is something odd about him and there is something behind his eyes that you can’t see. And I thought that was a good person for this.

Splitsider interprets this as Malkovich being so vague that the movie’s characters don’t even actually care about details of his life. They just care that he’s someone else.

If you were to remake Being John Malkovich today with another celebrity’s name in the title, you wouldn’t be able to rely on that same vagueness. We now have access to all the disgusting trivialities of a star’s life so that there’s little to no mystery… and we still want in. That existentialist drive still exists, and it’s gotten even more meta.

Malkovich was also a great choice for gag reasons (something that influenced at least one of my picks):

Malkovich was picked at least partly because of how funny his name sounds in repetition. “When we were thinking of alternatives, we found that a lot of them weren’t fun to say.” Yet the script’s version of Malkovich turns out to be a somewhat piteous figure: “There’s never anyone else there with him; his life seems kind of sad and empty.”

But even as they were putting him through the wringer for the sake of surreal comedy, Malkovich understood the gravity of what the role required of him:

On a [1999] Charlie Rose show, the real John Malkovich said he figured out how to play the movie’s Malkovich manque by getting into the writer’s head. So in a sense, I suggested to Kaufman, Malkovich was portalling into him. “I can’t say how much I admire his courage in doing this,” said Kaufman.

Is there a present-day actor who can keep up with the acrobatics this kind of role requires? I can think of seven.


Benedict Cumberbatch

Being John Malkovich remake Benedict Cumberbatch

With Cumberbatch at peak popularity, with women asking to taste him, giving people access to his mind would be downright dangerous. Mostly because most fans’ first impulse would be to fly the Sherlock star to Martin Freeman’s apartment and not leave for days (recent engagement be damned). But the top reason I chose him was because of what would be an utterly insane “Cumberbatch Cumberbatch Cumberbatch Cumberbatch” scene.

Photo: Dale May/Time Out London


Tilda Swinton

Being John Malkovich remake Tilda Swinton

Swinton is herself a veritable chameleon: In one of this year’s biggest movies, she carried off a role that was originally written for a man. She’s also weird as all get-out, and I love her for it. She would have no problem playing an Everyman (or Everywoman!) Inside Tilda Swinton’s Head. In fact, she would probably relish the chance to be so meta.

Photo: Norman Jean Roy/New York Magazine


Jackie Chan

Being John Malkovich remake Jackie Chan

Why not go for broke and cast a full-blown cultural icon? A screen legend to multiple cultures and several generations, Chan has evolved from the cartoonish hero of our childhoods to a more realistically problematic idol (with family drama and himself an object of ridicule on Chinese social media). Plus, as age and his many stunts have caught up to his body, Chan now yearns for the dramatic roles he fears he’s closed himself off from. Seriously, who wouldn’t want 15 minutes in his head?


Viola Davis

Being John Malkovich remake Viola Davis

After 34 years of acting, Davis has (surprisingly) received her first starring role on ABC’s crime drama How to Get Away With Murder. But maybe a juicy role like this could tempt her back to film. Speaking about the responsibility and humility of carrying a television show, Davis told Vulture, “I was ready to be the show. I was ready to step into my power as an actress.” Could she be ready for someone to step into her?

Photo: Juco


Bryan Cranston

Being John Malkovich remake Bryan Cranston

Where the movie could play off Malkovich’s movie-star remove from his eventual puppeteers, I could see a remake casting someone who (by contrast) the audience feels more of an emotional connection to. With Breaking Bad, Bryan Cranston was our Everyman—albeit a version who had the balls to be badass and villainous in ways we never dreamed we could. Who wouldn’t want to wear the face beneath the Heisenberg hat?

Photo: Helga Esteb


Ben Kingsley

Being John Malkovich remake Ben Kingsley

If you saw Iron Man 3, you know why we picked him. If you haven’t, go watch his take on the Mandarin. Another chameleon (which fits, since he’s friends with Tilda Swinton), he has admitted that the only way he knows how to describe the “real Ben Kingsley” is by looking to a composite portrait of his varied roles: “Without a mask, I haven’t got a clue.” A film like this, where there’s no mask to be constructed, could perhaps help him get in touch with the real Sir Ben.

Photo: Adam Fedderly


Bill Murray

Being John Malkovich remake Bill Murray

He’s already played himself in Zombieland, so there’s no doubt Bill Murray is down with self-parody. Plus, unlike the other nominees on this list, he’s got plenty of offscreen antics including bartending at SXSW and allegedly crashing normal-people parties; Being Billy Murray could encapsulate a lot more than just Hollywood.

Of course, no one would ever believe you.

Photo: Martin Schoeller for Variety


Who do you think could star in a Being John Malkovich remake?

Natalie Zutter writes plays about superheroes and sex robots, articles about celebrity conspiracy theories, and Tumblr rants about fandom. You can find her commenting on pop culture and giggling over Internet memes on Twitter.


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