Mike Davies plays the libertine with John Malkovich
It's nine years since the incomparable John Malkovich took to the Chicago stage with the legendary Steppenwolf Theatre to play the title role in the American premiere of Stephen Jeffreys' highly acclaimed play The Libertine.
It's a robust, salty historical drama about John Wilmot, second Earl of Rochester.
An inveterate debauched rake and founder of the 17th century's answer to the Rat Pack, his scurrilous political satires regularly saw him exiled from the court of Charles II and he died from alcohol poisoning and syphilis at the age of 33.
His gloriously obscene writings much championed by the likes of Defoe, Voltaire and Tennyson, he's today regarded as one of the era's major poets.
Given the Earl's predilection for drinking, whoring, and stripping naked to preach sermons from tavern balconies, it's not too surprising that his story should eventually also make its way to the movies. And lo, here it is, adapted by Jeffreys and produced by none other than Malkovich himself. But, as he explains, it has taken a nightmare to get to the screen.
"I always had in my mind that we would attempt to get Johnny Depp to play the part I played on stage," he reveals in customary soft tones.
"He came to see the play in Chicago and we went out for dinner afterwards. I said 'do you want to do it?' And he said 'yes'. I said 'can you do it' and he said 'yes, not like that, but yes!' And I said 'Well good, I hope not like that!'"
Work started on the screenplay and after a couple of years that was in place along with the money to do it.
"Everything in fact," says Malkovich, "except the two people who were originally interested in it, Johnny and Nicole Kidman. We just couldn't get them to sign, and when one was available the other wasn't, and then my schedule didn't fit and finally I got quite frustrated by it all."
In the meantime Malkovich met director Laurence Dunmore while making a Eurostar commercial and was impressed enough to immediately give him a copy of the script.
"He liked it very much but then it was another couple of years before we could get Johnny back on board. Then we had to raise the money again from a different group of people!"
Eventually though, several years down the line, things finally came together and everything was proceeding relatively smoothly. Then the British government shut down the tax breaks.
"I was shooting a film called Colour Me Kubrick in and around London and on the Isle of Man when my production partners contacted me to let me know about the change in the English tax laws," he sighs.
"The powers that be were closing what they saw as a loophole and while I'm sure they were quite right to have seen it as that, it all happened very suddenly and affected a huge part of our budget just two weeks away from shooting when we were already in rehearsals. It was a very worrisome time.
"I called some people in the Government to find out if there was going to be any kind of grey period for films already in production or preproduction and everyone seemed to say no! Fortunately, the producers were able to strike a funding deal with Isle of Man Film and rescue the project.
"We were lucky because many films collapsed entirely," continues Malkovich, "but it wasn't a very pleasant time. It's never easy to find financing for the kind of films we produce and it's almost always nightmarish and everything that can possibly go wrong generally does.
"You just have to keep your eye on the prize and do your best to get the resources you need to make the film your director wants to make. It wasn't easy and it could have ended very badly, but we were graced."
Although Malkovich declined to direct and declared himself too old to take the title role he does turn in an exemplary performance as Charles II (complete with prosthetic nose that he was allowed to paint himself), even though he is at one point upstaged by a King Charles spaniel performing its ablutions in the background ("he did hit his mark though!"). But it's undoubtedly the hugely complex Rochester that remains his fascination.
"Rochester was a supremely gifted essayist and poet. He could have been a very gifted dramatist, but he never really did anything with his talents," he explains.
"I suppose broadly speaking it's a story about one's responsibility to one's, some might say God-given, talent. Rochester never did anything with his, unlike Elizabeth Barry (the actress who became his protege and a star of the Restoration stage) who wasn't blessed with anything resembling Rochester's talent but polished what she had to make it shine very brightly."
Marvellously vulgar, wickedly funny and plastered with muck and mud, the film has been nominated for no less than eight British Independent Film Awards, Best Actor, Best Director and Best Film among them, the results to be announced at the ceremony on November 30.
Malkovich can be justifiably proud of the end result of all the blood, sweat and tears, but does he not harbour any regrets that he never got to play Rochester on screen.
"None whatsoever," he insists quietly but firmly.
"For a start Rochester died at 33 and I was 44 when I played him. It's a young man's story. Of course, I got away with it on stage, but the cinema's not that!
"As soon as we began to think of it as a film I simultaneously thought of Johnny and never considered anyone else. So no I don't regret things like that, because it means Johnny wouldn't have done it. I've always directed, at least in theatre, as much or more than I act and I'm very happy to watch very good acting.
"I spend a huge portion of my life doing that and I never once felt compelled to try and do what they were doing, it would just never occur to me."