For the Actor, It's a Villain For a Bedmate
Finally, he bites. Villain. Christoph Waltz tosses the word into the ring in his precisely accented English. “I always say I don’t use the v-word,” says the 56-year-old Austrian born actor, who has been typecast since his breakthrough role in 2009 as the deliciously maniacal Colonel Hans Landa, not-so-subtly known as “the Jew Hunter,” in Quentin Tarantino’s bloody brilliant WWII gem, Inglourious Basterds.
Waltz was showered with (what else?)—accolades, countless nominations, a Golden Globe, an Oscar (a first for an actor in a Tarantino film) for Best Supporting Actor, and Best Actor at Cannes. Suddenly, after subsisting for more than 30 years largely on a steady but pedestrian diet of German television, Waltz found himself the recipient of a glittering tray of blockbuster movies by Hollywood herself. 2011 alone saw Waltz starring in large studio films: as a paranoid, power-hungry Polish gangster in Seth Rogen’s action-comedy The Green Hornet and as a sadistically tyrannical ringleader alongside Reese Witherspoon and Robert Pattinson in Water For Elephants. Then there was Roman Polanski’s Carnage, in which Waltz is excellently loathsome as a detached, bluntly unsympathetic businessman and callous husband in a brutally entertaining depiction of two couples whose social and cultural expectations and niceties unravel, revealing the animalistic base of the human core.
Undoubtedly, Waltz’s physiognomy aids the industry in repeatedly stamping him with the v-word. A longish face with a slightly protuberant nose that culminates in an oft-mentioned jut of sharply squared-off chin lends to the imperial aura about Waltz. When not conversing, his face is expressionless. Small, bright eyes train intently on their interlocutor, as if coolly sizing them up, waiting to see if they’ll blink or flinch.
I’m attempting to do neither.
Although he understands actors are often cast based on their last role or their most well-known, Waltz has no interest in being pigeonholed. “How do you play ‘a villain’? We use that word in order to not have a proper conversation. To finish it right there.” Mindlessly following an established character arc is out of the question. Formulaic, Christoph Waltz is not.
The Vienna native is, however, an amusingly animated package, settled on a cushy wicker couch on the Sunset Boulevard Luxe Hotel’s shaded patio in Los Angeles. He leans in closer, emphatically jabbing at the air, explaining that, first and foremost, there must be a good story. If satisfied, then comes considering a character—any character, that is—who serves the story. Waltz gently interrupts my winding, musing analysis of connecting to a character within a script with a simple, firm explanation: “Look, it’s like meeting a person. When you walk in and talk and they look at you and say, apart from the beauty and attractiveness, there’s something I am interested in. If it’s hidden, it’s okay. Then it’s something that needs to be discovered, but you kind of feel it. When you’re interested, you try to find out what’s going on. The more you’re with that person, the more you discover.”
There’s a bright, zealous gleam in Waltz’s eyes and an eagerness to his voice that belies both his years and neat-as-a-pin exterior—an army green polo tucked smartly into crisp khaki pants, Ray-Ban sunglasses safely hooked onto his thigh.
“You’re in a relationship,” he continues, “and your relationship is always fascinating. Like a love relationship, it’s all hormonal, and you’re in a heightened state of existence on account of the inspired chemical rush that’s keeping you entertained. And then, after awhile, because you’d go crazy if you maintained that hormonal level for the rest of your life, you kind of calm down. It levels out and you start to see new aspects of that persona, and after three years you are so annoyed you wish you could get away, but there are dependencies.”
A great role sucks you in, turns you into an obsessive, lustful teenager. One great role can catapult an actor from relative obscurity to the stratosphere of international acclaim. You must fiercely love that role, and it must fiercely love you back.
For Waltz, it was Colonel Hans Landa, and, boy, did it love him back. The eerily tantalizing way Landa toyed with his prey before striking created Waltz’s most memorable monster, and arguably one of Tarantino’s as well, who managed to be entirely terrifying while strangely…charming. One cannot forget Landa savoring a verbose unraveling of a visibly terrified Diane Kruger, snapping the telltale left-behind heel onto her foot, while drinking in Kruger’s trembling realization of the end, before throttling her in a vicious finale.
Come Christmas, Waltz pairs again with Tarantino, starring in the dramatic, spaghetti western-inspired Django Unchained as bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz alongside Django (Jamie Foxx), a slave recruited by Schultz to help take out a merciless gang of killers in exchange for saving Django’s wife (Kerry Washington) from a ruthless plantation owner (Leonardo DiCaprio) and granting Django his freedom.
Basterds might have kickstarted the working relationship between Waltz and Tarantino, but the duo have since developed an extremely close friendship that reaches far beyond their intertwined professions. Besides their obvious shared appreciation for film and their deep respect for each other’s talents, their connection seems to be rooted in the mutual childlike enthusiasm with which they approach and dissect their crafts.
“With Django, Quentin invited me to his house and showed me pages that he had written and I read it when it was sort of coming into existence and developing and taking shape, [watching the story] going one way, and through that way, and another way, and I was following him. Quentin follows his characters and I follow Quentin.”
Waltz shoos away any notion that he helped steer the script’s direction, although he was aware Tarantino was crafting Schultz with him in mind.
“I want Quentin’s material, not mine! I know my ideas; I’m not that interesting.”
His face splits into a grin, though he’s entirely serious. For Christoph Waltz, everything is in good fun, including toying with the press to see if they have the chutzpah to re-package an evaded question. He dares you to cherry-pick which slyly vague answers to challenge, to separate his signature dry humor from frank lack of interest in the value of a particular inquiry.
“I don’t pass my time. Time kind of passes me, in a way. I’m always busy; I’m never bored. Time passes much too quickly for me, for what I’m doing. I don’t drive sports cars, I don’t fly airplanes or collect wristwatches.”
There’s the grin again. And a small chuckle.
“I don’t know, I was just trying to comb through the glossy magazine and suggest hobbies for our gentlemen.”
Again, in an industry where many actors find comfort in walking worn grooves and regurgitating well-manicured answers for an expecting public, Waltz will have none of that. Perhaps it comes from having his ‘breakthrough’ at a more mature age, which he has found to be beneficial.
“If you romanticize this business, you’re already swept,” he says pointedly. “First of all, acting, it’s not different in that respect from anything else, be it plumbing, or rocket science. Experience doesn’t help; experience is the basis of it. [They say] ‘He had talent.’ Well, everyone has talent. But experience is time. Time needs to pass while you’re doing it.”
Waltz speaks with the confidence of an actor who started at 19 after growing up in a theater-driven household, who paid his dues both on stage and on television and in the odd movie—a man who knows that one has to work tirelessly without prestige and limelight in mind.
German culture resigns itself to a sense of “mediocrity in the highest standard,” as Waltz best summarizes it, so he’s interested in how the medium of film allows for endless opportunities for expression of all kinds. He finds the increasingly prevalent cheap thrill of 3D features and piled-on special effects to be counterproductive to what film should be about.
“How much ‘wow’ can a nervous system take? It’s not unlimited. I think the ‘wows’ have been exhausted, and you can tell. Nobody is ‘wowing’ anymore. I think a lot of these overpowering effects serve the purpose of dulling the critical faculties.”
Waltz returns to his fundamental principle: No matter the topic, films are about the story. A film should provide true moments of personal, human identification.
As such, Waltz’s upcoming projects are an assorted bunch that satisfy this “critical faculty,” from voicing a role in the animated, Epic, to starring in Terry Gilliam’s The Zero Theorem (an Orwellian take on seeking the meaning of life), to navigating the Cold War conclusion as Mikhail Gorbachev in Reykjavik. And then there’s his rumored role in the Muppets sequel.
But for now, Waltz is content to see the narrative of Django Unchained play out in its entirety on the screen. We share a laugh about Django’s slated Christmas debut, bundled with the standard stock of warm fuzzy holiday movies. Because what’s more festive than slavery and Tarantino’s love of wanton and gratuitous violence?
“This movie—apart from the blood and the gore that happens occasionally—it’s a movie about friendship and liberation and support, and …” Waltz trails off, pausing for just a moment. “And opening this world to let the light in.”
With a flourish of the hand, he finishes. And there it is again, that villainous grin.