Secretariat - John Malkovich
Secretariat - Lucien Laurin (John Malkovich) ©2010 Disney, Photo by John Bramley
Secretariat - John Malkovich
Lucien Laurin (John Malkovich) © 2010 Disney

John Malkovich’s career has spanned more than 25 years, in which he has acted, directed and produced. He has been nominated twice for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, for Place in the Heart in 1985 and In the Line of Fire in 1994.

His recent movies include Burn After Reading, The Changeling and the upcoming Red and Transformers 3.

In the true story, Secretariat, which opens on October 8th, he portrays the eccentric retired horse trainer, Lucien Laurin, who comes out of retirement to train perhaps the greatest racehorse of all time. The movie chronicles the story of how Secretariat won the Triple Crown in 1973.

Can you tell us a little about your character?

Secretariat - Nelsan Ellis, John Malkovich, Otto Thorwarth
Eddie Sweat (Nelsan Ellis), Lucien Laurin (John Malkovich), and Ron Turcotte (Otto Thorwarth) © 2010 Disney

Lucien Laurin was quite a successful horse trainer. The part of this story that my character was involved in starts when he’s really kind of retired, he’s had his heart broken one too many times by a horse, and doesn’t want anything to do with the business end.

He is convinced by Diane Lane’s character, Penny Chenery, who was the owner of Secretariat, and owned her father’s stable, to come back and train this particular colt. The rest of the story of Secretariat is obviously history and more.

Was there any film of Lucien available, or did you create the part?

There isn’t much material available on video, or even written things, of Lucien. He does make a very brief appearance on a very nice program that ESPN Sports Century did. But, Randall (Wallace, the movie’s director) and I chose not to base it on his actual person very closely. We’re so different. He was a jockey before, so he was very diminutive and it wouldn’t have made a lot of sense for me to do that.

What was your biggest challenge playing Lucien?

Secretariat - John Malkovich
Lucien Laurin (John Malkovich) © 2010 Disney

For me, the challenge is always the same, which is to try to do something well. I don’t often think of that challenge in terms of playing a specific role. I think about, ‘What is my part in this film? What can I bring to it that will help the film, as a whole?’ I can’t say there was a specific challenge beyond what’s normally in movies, which is that you have very little time and almost no rehearsal. There just isn’t the time. That’s how they make movies.

Were you comfortable in the outfits Lucien wears?

Yes. I would have thought 1973 was really the nadir of the history of fashion. When you just watch the races on YouTube, the astonishing ugliness of the clothes just blinds you. But, sure, I was comfortable.

Do you remember Secretariat when you were young?

I followed Secretariat’s story when I was a young man. I was 19 and I really loved watching that horse. It was such a magnificent animal, unbelievably beautiful and powerful. It’s always nice to see something that close to perfection, a reason to celebrate.

I remember all the races very well. Oddly enough, the weekend of the Preakness, the second of the big Triple Crown horse races, I thought, ‘Oh, I bet all of the Secretariat races are on YouTube.’ Of course they are, and I started watching them again, even before I had heard about this film. I spent half the day because I loved that horse and loved to watch him.

Do you like horses in general?

Secretariat - Diane Lane and John Malkovich
Penny Chenery (Diane Lane) and Lucien Laurin (John Malkovich) © 2010 Disney

I like horses very much, but I wouldn’t trust one even remotely as far as I could throw one. The stimuli they respond to are completely different from what we respond to. You can sit on a horse all day, shooting scenes with people applauding – all sorts of noise – and they don’t even blink. But suddenly, they see a garbage bag out of the corner of their eye three kilometers away, and they go completely insane. You must have a healthy respect for these animals, even as you admire them.

What do you think you personally brought to your portrayal of Lucien?

Not particularly because it’s modest, but it’s hard for me to say what I brought to this film or any film. That’s up to the audience. I hope I communicated the love that I felt for that horse and for this story. If I didn’t communicate that, then I’m a failure.

The other thing that I probably brought to it is that, unlike my grandfather and my older brother, I’ve actually been able to make some money at the racetrack. That has great meaning!

Judy Sloane

Judy is Film Review Online's regular Los Angeles based reporter.