On a recent day in Los Angeles, Christoph Waltz visited the Hollywood Costume exhibition at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences on Wilshire Boulevard and found himself struck by a quotation, from Harrison Ford, that appeared on a wall in the Star Wars section: “The role of an actor is to serve as a mirror. My job is not to show you that the character and I have something in common. My job is to show you that you and the character—even the one who may seem a little crazy—have something in common.”
He mentioned the quote to me after I made the mistake of offering my analysis of the eccentric character he plays in Big Eyes, a movie directed by Tim Burton that is scheduled for Christmas Day release from the Weinstein Company. I was hoping he would play along, but he said, flatly, “I never talk about character.”
After summing up the aforementioned quote, he went on: “I admire Harrison Ford even more for that wonderful and astute and precise insight. When you ask an actor to talk about his character, he’ll always tell you about how close he is to the character. Who cares! That’s not what it’s for! It’s like asking Philip Roth about basic English grammar.”
If a reporter were to stumble again by asking him something as stupid as “What was it like, to work with Amy Adams?” as I did, he will not hesitate to point out the banality of the question with an icy politeness. Mr. Waltz—a man who cries out for an honorific, and so I’ll employ it for the rest of this article in relation to the 58-year-old Vienna-born Oscar winner—does not suffer fools (like me) gladly.
In addition to refusing to discuss the parts he plays, he is reluctant to go into the details of his personal life. And why should he? He has the respect of his peers already and feels no need for Kardashian-like fame. Further, he is a man in possession of a deep sense of Old World etiquette, which makes the American manner of conversation, peppered with nosy questions that violate European notions of privacy, seem especially crass.
As tricky as it may be for a journalist to negotiate, I felt privileged to find myself in the presence of a man of such formal bearing. Dignity is a scarce commodity in this time of confessional social media and personal branding. To see it up close in 2014 is like spotting a rare bird in the wild.
Once I had fluffed and massaged my Amy Adams question into a shape that allowed Mr. Waltz to respond to it without feeling as if he were taking part in some mercenary exchange, he came through with an answer that met the high standard he has set for his public utterances, which must in no way resemble the usual promotional blather. “I’m impressed by every movie that I’ve seen of hers,” he said, “and by working with her even more so.”
It should be noted here that Adams plays the heroine of Big Eyes, a movie focused on the fraught relationship between Margaret Keane—an artist of dubious reputation whose prolific output (mainly oil portraits of large-eyed waifs and ragamuffins) achieved a massive popularity in the 1960s—and her second husband, Walter Keane, a promotional wizard and artist manqué who blithely took credit for her work. Mr. Waltz went on, on the subject of Adams: “She has done a lot of theater and, I’m sure, has taken jobs unworthy of her talent, and that has shaped her. I can’t remember any other actress who was so constructively and so hands-on and unpretentious in her work, and those are qualities that I value immensely.”
Mr. Waltz gave the word “immensely” a terrific charge. As he demonstrated in Django Unchained and Inglourious Basterds, the two Quentin Tarantino movies that won him Oscar statuettes and turned him into an A-list star after 35 years in actor’s purgatory, Mr. Waltz is a beautifully precise speaker; improbably so, given that English is his second language. Probably few people on earth are able to wring so much out of a line as he, especially when he is working with the rollingly musical speeches provided him by Tarantino. No mere puppet, Mr. Waltz is an impeccable speaker in real life, too, and he seemed to take sensual pleasure in uttering the word “immensely,” drawing out the bilabial toward the front, so that it seemed to hum and ooze, emerging as immmmmensely. No wonder directors (Tarantino; Burton; Roman Polanski, who cast Mr. Waltz alongside Kate Winslet in the underrated Carnage; and Terry Gilliam, who made him the tortured protagonist of his trippy Zero Theorem) love this guy.
Perhaps unwisely I poked a bit more at the place where Mr. Waltz said he would not go, with questions concerning the characters he plays and techniques he employs. He didn’t bite. “It’s like asking a magician to tell you his tricks,” he said. “Why would he do that? He kind of shoots himself in the knee!” But as much as he would prefer not to pull back the actor’s mask, in the probably correct belief that audiences will enjoy the work all the more if they have no idea what lies beneath it, he is so passionate about acting that he could not resist exulting over the performance of James Saito, a veteran character actor who has a small but crucial role in the climactic third act of Big Eyes.
At this point in the movie, Margaret Keane (played by Adams) is challenging her husband’s theft of her artistic property in a court of law, and Saito is playing the judge. Mr. Waltz, in this sequence, seems to take delight in the folly of the unhinged character he is bringing to life. While serving as his own lawyer, Walter Keane interrogates himself on the witness stand, and the scene takes on the lunacy of a Marx Brothers production, with Saito in the Margaret Dumont role—that is, the straight man, without whom the high jinks would make no sense. “This man was so fantastic to work with,” Mr. Waltz said of Saito. “Look how he played that judge! Did he go to law school for it? Of course not. He knew, because he has a great talent as an actor and he has a wonderful imagination. And imagination is so much more important than trying to mimic the facts. The tone he found—that fine line between amusement and outrage—oh! Just exquisite!”
Like Mr. Waltz, Saito has been in the thespian trenches forever: Lou Grant in the ’70s, Miami Vice in the ’80s, Home Alone 3 in the ’90s, Law & Order: Criminal Intent in the ’00s, and the rebooted cop show Hawaii Five-0 in the current decade. Along the way he found time for musicals and serious theater, winning an Obie for his work in Durango at New York’s Public Theater in ’07. It is a workmanlike career very much like the one that had allowed Mr. Waltz to make a decent living, with homes in Berlin and London, while also stunting him creatively, for the three decades that preceded his life-changing audition for the role of Colonel Hans Landa, a cultured, trilingual brute nicknamed “the Jew hunter,” in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. Mr. Waltz got the part at a Berlin casting call that he figured would come to nothing.
The enfant terrible Mr. Waltz had expected to find in Tarantino did not appear that day in the audition room. Instead, he saw in Tarantino a gentility of manner that seemed not to go with the man whose movies revel in bloodshed. As Mr. Waltz told it in an episode of Charlie Rose not long before winning his first Oscar, Tarantino conversed with the actor a while before he asked—asked—if he would like to begin reading from the script.
Just as Mr. Waltz was impressed with the man who had transformed the stuff of drive-in movies and pulp paperbacks into art, the director was completely smitten with the actor who sat before him. Tarantino even went on to claim that he would not have made Inglourious Basterds if had not come upon the trilingual Mr. Waltz. And when it was time for him to write Django Unchained, he did something unusual: He showed the script to Mr. Waltz as he was in the process of writing it, fashioning it not only for Mr. Waltz the actor but for the man he had come to know.
The two of them make a wonderfully odd couple. One is a dropout autodidact who grew up in the parts of Los Angeles not usually shown in the movies filmed in that city and who doggedly taught himself what he needed to know by working as a video-store clerk. The other was meticulously groomed at Vienna’s Theresianum private boarding school and then its prestigious Max Reinhardt Seminar at the University of Music and Performing Arts before his 1979 enrollment at the Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute in New York. All of this followed an upbringing that had him steeped in high culture—Strauss, Wagner, Ibsen, Zweig—from an early age. It was a household besotted with theater. Mr. Waltz’s father, Johannes Waltz, who died in 1964, when the boy was seven years old, was a set builder for the stage and a production designer for film and television, while his mother, Elisabeth Urbancic, was a costume designer; his grandmother Maria Mayen trod the boards of Vienna’s Burgtheater (a stage that would later host Mr. Waltz) and appeared in silent films, as did his grandfather Emmerich Reimers. Even his great-grandfather Georg Reimers was an actor of the stage and silent screen. (All the members of Mr. Waltz’s family mentioned here have their own IMDB pages.)
These days Mr. Waltz and Tarantino take in works of culture together, each filling in the other on what he may have missed due to accidents of geography and upbringing, with the director dropping new knowledge (kung-fu movies, roadhouse pictures) into the rarefied mind of the deeply cultured actor, and the actor recently having escorted the co-writer, co-producer, and co-star of the 1996 bloodfest From Dusk Till Dawn to four nights of the Los Angeles Opera Company’s production of Wagner’s Ring Cycle.
Did Tarantino enjoy all that Wagnerian bombast? “Absolutely,” Mr. Waltz replied. “And he shows me movies, and I say, ‘Well, excuse me, but how can you show me a movie like that?’ And every time it’s an eye-opener. I don’t even see that stuff, because I’m a snob. But that’s my problem, because you cut off great experiences for aesthetic reasons.”
As a boy Mr. Waltz wanted nothing to do with the stage, mainly because it was the family business. Asked if the talk in his Vienna household was about the theater, he replied, “Nothing else. Nothing else.” He seems to believe that those who practice the craft suffer from a deficiency. “It’s a developmental fixation,” he said. “It is really something that should be or could be medicated. Everybody wants to be some form of an actor at one point in their lives. And then a healthy development takes place, and people grow out of it and become human beings. The ones who, for whatever reason, get stuck at that stage in the development become actors or actresses.” I ventured to ask Mr. Waltz what fixation or weakness, particularly, leads someone to get up in front of others in an effort to entertain them. “A thousand different psychoanalytical explanations,” he said. “Some having to do with exhibitionism, some with not being able to handle their own insides, and so they need to borrow from someone else. These reasons changed recently. Now, you are hard-pressed to find a youngster who wants to be an actor who doesn’t claim, as the first objective, to become famous.” When he meets young, would-be actors, he tries to discourage them. “I ask them, ‘What exactly is it that you want to say?’ And they say, ‘I want to become an actor.’ ‘Why?’ ‘Oh, because I love it!’ ‘Well, yeah, I gathered that, but why?’” He looked away and said, as if to the air, “Why are old men the most interesting actors? Which I find. And they don’t do anything.”
He got the bug as a teenager. “Seventeen, 18. Exactly when these development processes should take hold and you grow into a responsible person with wider aspirations, that’s when I started to think about becoming an actor, after all,” he said with a tone of regret. “I had wanted to become an artist, and I painted, and then I worked during my summer vacations the last three years of high school in a television studio. So I found cinematography really the interesting thing.” (Asked if he still painted, he answered, “Nope.”)
Earlier, as a Viennese lad of the early 1960s, the time he spent at the movies may have given him a respite from the high-culture talk that suffused his youth. “There was one [theater], the Apollo, a really big one, and they had fashion shows before the screening of the movie. Department stores modeled there and that kind of thing. And the Metro was my first movie theater. My grandmother took me, because I was only five years old. And then, as soon as I could, I went on my own. Europe was different in the ’60s. Kids did stuff on their own. Parents went to work, and sometimes we had to raise money to go to the movies. I remember once we went into a little art gallery where they were having a meeting, and we performed something, and they gave us money. Somehow I couldn’t squeeze the money out of my mother to see a movie I wanted to see, so we got this little performance together. We saw American movies and German westerns.”
The German westerns, many of them loosely based on the works of Saxony-born 19th-century novelist Karl May, who wrote of an American West that existed mainly in his own imagination, never achieved the status of their Italian counterparts, the spaghetti westerns directed by Sergio Leone and others (which partly inspired Tarantino’s Django Unchained); but a few of them were grand productions, filmed in Croatia or Spain, and they now have a nostalgic following on YouTube. “Recently, I watched one with my ten-year-old daughter,” said Mr. Waltz, who has three (adult) children from his first marriage and one from his second, to costume designer Judith Holste. “She laughed.”
Soon after embracing the actor’s life, Mr. Waltz landed a small part, as a Nazi, in Breakthrough, a now-obscure 1979 sequel to Sam Peckinpah’s 1977 World War Two picture Cross of Iron. Breakthrough starred Richard Burton and Robert Mitchum, and Mr. Waltz played scenes with each. “I must have been 19 or 20,” he recalled. “I’ve never seen the movie, and someone [who saw it] said, ‘I didn’t see you,’ so I might have been cut out of it.”
Many years later, he hit a low point while onstage in Cologne, Germany: “I was working with a director whom I had a great problem with. There were constant conflicts during rehearsals. And then, when you get close to the premiere, adrenalin and nerves take over, and you try to do the best you can. But I remember that specific production, third performance, when that adrenalin is gone, and I was standing on that stage, and the whole thing hit me—what a complete and utter piece of crap this is, and how awful my performance is in it. The whole thing caved in like a house of cards.” A slight shake of the head. “I remember that very, very well.”
He was almost at the end of his tether in the time leading up to the Inglourious Basterds audition. Having directed and co-written a 2000 German movie, Wenn man sich traut, he was just about to direct his second film but the financing imploded three weeks before the planned start date. It seemed he would have to return to German television and perhaps even nights on stage like the one he had suffered in Cologne. And that’s when he won the part of Colonel Hans Landa, kicking off a series of movies that often have him playing men whose surface charm conceals inner demons.
In addition to his acting work (he has recently wrapped filming of Tarzan, a would-be 2016 blockbuster starring Alexander Skarsgård), he would like to take the helm once again. Earlier this year, he directed a production in Antwerp, Belgium, of the opera Der Rosenkavalier, with music by Richard Strauss and libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal (a friend of his grandmother), and now he hopes to put together a movie.
“I’m trying,” he said. “I’m trying hard, and I might succeed sooner or later.” If he makes it through the obstacles, he said, he will not be filming from a script he wrote himself. “I believe that if you were to write, even if it’s for movies, that’s what your life should be. You can’t write on the side. I don’t even touch that. I don’t even try. Not out of perfectionism, but out of sheer admiration for their talent and craft. And when you write, you sit. It happens in your head. When you direct, you have to get other people to help you translate that into a movie. It’s a different ball game. I’m not saying it never happens. Billy Wilder was one of the greatest writers and one of the greatest directors, but, as a rule, I believe to reach a point of extraordinary quality requires a lot of time and attention in doing that thing. Talent alone? No! I mean, we’re all talented.” And then he laughed.
Did he doubt his talent back when he was not having grand success in the long decades before his first Oscar?
“Yeah. And not just at that time. But that’s a normal thing. Everybody you should take seriously, everybody who’s really interesting, does that all the time, because that’s what facilitates progress. Self-doubt somehow propels you forward, because you want to develop. You don’t think, I’m there. Where would that be?”
I asked him how he would have handled the fame that goes with being an Oscar-winner as a young man, and he replied, “It’s kind of an obsolete question. Redundant. Things would have gone differently. When great things happen to you early on, the danger of taking them for granted is enormously present.” His face brightened a little, and he went on: “I enjoy being grateful. I really enjoy it! And it doesn’t make me feel like I deserved it one bit. Not one bit! But I like being grateful. I’m almost grateful to have had to do 35 years before something great happened with my career, because I have a very realistic perspective on what it is.”