Interview: Inglourious Basterds' Christopher Waltz
August 30, 2009
According to QuentinTarantino, without finding Christopher Waltz, there would have been no INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS. It was essential to Tarantino to cast actors with impeccable linguistic skills to match equally superlative acting talents. He found both in Christopher Waltz. Humble to a fault, Waltz’s sincerity and generosity of spirit illuminate the room on being told of Tarantino’s praises. "There is nothing that I can say about that. How could I possibly. How can you comment on a compliment like that? One of my deflective answers is, every casting process ends with the role being cast. I am honored, flattered, ashamed in a way."
So, how does one become the anchor of INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS?
Born in Vienna, Waltz is a fourth generation theatre veteran. "I did all the classical, boring, conventional things. Finished high school. Went to acting school. I thought this was so conventional, so boring and so stupid anyway. I started working very early on when I was about 19. I did films, plays. Then I thought I might not have really completed proper training and I might be one of these half-amateurs that I despise." Wanting to understand what he was doing as an actor, Waltz "started traveling around looking for a place where I could continue training and I ended up in New York in 1979. In New York for two years, he studied with Lee Strasberg and Stella Adler. "Then I got offers again from Germany and I went back to Germany and worked and started in the theatre. I did theatre for about 12 years, one part after another."
Part of several theatre companies, Waltz stayed a year or two with each and moved on to the next. "In the German speaking area, every bigger town has subsidized theatre company and I was lucky enough to get the good jobs in the big city. Good companies and really did interesting stuff."
"After this really extensive theatre period I started to get into films and television. There’s no real film industry in the German speaking area. There are films but it’s not a real industry. Industry is television. Then I stopped doing theatre after awhile altogether. I did a few guest appearances here and there. [Theatre] also developed in a way that it shifted entirely towards the director and I disagreed not with the directorial approach but I disagreed with the directorial abuse. I am still interested in the author more than in the person of the director. I don’t care that the director always shows what he can do. I’m not interested. I’m sorry. I believe him. I would believe him if he told me. I don’t need to see it. And I definitely don’t have to participate in it."
The German entertainment system, however, is "slightly different" than what we call Hollywood. "The stars don’t really play that big of a part in that area of the world. I was well known. I got the good offers. I got the good jobs and I was lucky enough to work with good people."
Now age 52, Waltz is an almost 40 year veteran of stage and screen (both big and small) and thanks to his performance as Colonel Hans Landa, is taking the world by storm. Already winning the Best Actor Award in Cannes, the handwriting is on the wall for Christopher Waltz to take home Oscar gold. Not prepared or ready for his win at Cannes, for Waltz it "was something that happened to me. It happened to me like a fairy coming down and touching me with her magic wand. Raining pennies and tiny sparkling stars over me. Further than that I don’t even think about it. I didn’t think about that either. From the very beginning when I walked into casting with Quentin, it was good. It was perfect. It was one of these rare, rare, and for me, very new incidents, where when it is, is perfect as it is. That should have been enough. Enough is enough. How can you perfect perfection? But then this Cannes thing comes my way. First of all, the immense success of the movie at the screening. How would you want to top that? And then they awarded me this incredible prize. It cannot be surpassed this prize. So, why would I now seek surpassing it nevertheless? No, no. It is perfect as it is and I really seriously intend to stick to it."
"I would advise everybody to make his or her breakthrough at this age. In a way, it is infinitely more gratifying and you kind of know what’s happening. You’ve seen the other end of the line in a way and you’ve had a few ups and a lot of downs and you’ve survived. It’s much much more secure way of approaching [a career] than when you’re 25 and being thrust into this thing and you don’t know what it is."
Filmed in Berlin but financed primarily through American money, the production of INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS happened in Berlin. However, for Waltz, "This is not a Hollywood movie. And I don’t consider Quentin Tarantino is a typical Hollywood director. His whole thing is unique. It’s not European. It’s not American. It’s not Asian. It’s Tarantino."
So, what is about Colonel Hans Landa that drew Waltz to the role? What jumped out at him?
"What jumped out at me is, first of all, the dialogue. That’s the first thing you notice. How ingenious this dialogue is and what it hints at is endlessly multi-layered and multi-faceted, fascinating, character who just understands how the world was."
Crediting Quentin’s mastership with deciding how to play the manipulative Colonel Landa, "he put that on the page. So it’s all there. All I need to do is try not to miss anything. Whether Quentin intended it or not is not the most important thing at that stage. It’s just try to find everything that’s in it. That’s a commonly understood phenomenon. Sometimes authors write something that they are not even aware of. That doesn’t mean it’s not there. That’s my job. Ask a question, "what is this.’ Find out what it is and go from there. Try to reach the next level and then do the same thing."
This script is so amazing that Waltz firmly believes "you could teach a course at university on that script and do it the next year, the next year and the next year. There is so much there. At one point I asked Quentin, "I don’t think you really understand the scope of what you have written, do you?’ And he laughed, ‘Aw, maybe not.’"
A villainous character, Waltz adds an edge of comedy to Landa without making the good Nazi into a caricature. "We’ve gotten too used to cartoon characters; to stereotypes. In cartoons we have instantly recognizable characteristics. That’s why these characters look the way they look. But in real life, and therefore in drama, we are ill-advised to apply these because we are all far more conflicted and far more interwoven with various different seemingly contradicting qualities. Evil and charm don’t contradict each other."
In terms of preparing for the character, "Quentin asked me if I wanted him to suggest things for me to watch and I said, ‘No thank you, I don’t want to see anything.’ So he let me alone." Expounding on his praise of Tarantino, Waltz believes that "Quentin is a master of language and also a master of filming language. When we talk amongst each other, to each other, we don’t invent language every time from scratch. We use words that have been in usage. We don’t make up new words and Quentin doesn’t make up new words for his films either. His vocabulary is infinitely larger than the normal vocabulary. So, of course, when we discover these as somewhat, filming earthlings, when we discover these unusual words, we recognize the point and moment where it’s been used before. But for Quentin, this is almost vernacular."
Given the depth of Waltz’ career, and the superb performance he gives as Landa, one would think somewhere in his theatre history, a villainous performance had been elicited from him. But, such is not the case. "There is no villain like this. I haven’t played this before, not that I haven’t been offered [ a villain] before, but I haven’t played them because they were lousy roles. Why would I want to play a lousy role?"
One of the things that I find most intriguing about Waltz, besides his European charm and Germanic good looks, is the wealth of experience he brings to the table and a refreshing outlook and philosophy. There were times while speaking with him, I felt him to be almost a kindred spirit in so many respects, perhaps based in part on the reasoning behind his preferred performance medium - film. "I am interested in the medium as a whole. And really it’s the musical aspect of film that fascinates me the most. It has much more to do with music and dance than with literature or fine art. That’s why I love Quentin’s movies. Because of the musicality, and the rhythm, and the melody, and the movement in his films are extraordinary. If you think about that scene in the basement tavern. It goes on and is somewhat sort of swaying, swinging kind of tone and rhythm and all of a sudden, it is riddled with staccato, percussive musicality for maybe 10 seconds. So much happens. [So much] compacted. It’s like in a Mahler symphony when the strings go on and then all of a sudden the whole brass and percussion goes in for 10 seconds and then the strings continue but in a different mode."
As for INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS, "One thing I love about this movie, and pretty much what I love about this character, is that it has so many layers and in a way, if you want so many realities and so many angles, perspectives, point of views, auspices, whatever, distance, then depending on what point of view you consciously choose to assume, what you see will change. I have favorite scenes but it’s more or less every scene that’s in the movie from a certain perspective is my favorite scene. I cannot tell you how much fun it is to watch the movie with that in mind."
The consummate professional, Waltz has the utmost respect for his co-stars. When it comes to Brad Pitt, "in a way I acknowledge that this is one of the biggest stars in the world. He is for a good reason. I think he’s one of the few stars that are what they are for a reason." Although not star struck, Waltz believes it’s up to the "star" to welcome other actors into their arms, into their confidence, treat them as equals. With Pitt, "It was not my place to level that difference. He did it within the first second of meeting each other - ‘Hi, I’m Brad.’ That did it."
Is Waltz now fearful of being typecast as the "bad German"? Not in the least. "The only way an actor can actually influence his development or his fate is by saying no [to a role]. I am fully aware of the fact that I will be offered Germanic or German-like villains. That doesn’t mean I have to do them."
However, he wants nothing more than for the audience to remember Colonel Hans Landa. Good, bad or indifferent, "I would like them to remember that seeing what you see depends on your perspective."
From any perspective, Christopher Waltz, is the stuff that moviemaking dreams are made of.