Dark and in­ter­est­ing

Pre­cise, odd and a lit­tle bit un­trust­wor­thy, Os­car-win­ner Christoph Waltz is at it again

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - NEWS - WORDS BY DON­ALD CLARKE Downsizing open­sonJan­uary24th

Two-time Os­car-win­ner Christoph Waltz

What did we do for a Christoph Waltz fig­ure be­fore we ac­tu­ally had Christoph Waltz? Like Don­ald Plea­sance or Peter Lorre or (stay with me) Mar­garet Ruther­ford, he has a sin­gu­lar per­sona that he tweaks only mildly from per­for­mance to per­for­mance. There’s no need. His sin­is­ter Nazi was the best thing in Quentin Tarantino’s In­glou­ri­ous Bas­terds. His slip­pery den­tist was the best thing in the same di­rec­tor’s Django Un­chained. He won Os­cars for both those films. Now, he’s the best thing in Alexan­der Payne’s de­fi­antly strange Downsizing. Once again, he’s pre­cise, odd and just a lit­tle bit un­trust­wor­thy.

We’re look­ing through the win­dow at the clos­ing days of a Soho sum­mer. “There is one thing I do miss in LA. I love au­tumn,” he says. “It’s a mis­con­cep­tion that you don’t have sea­sons in south­ern Cal­i­for­nia. They are just very sub­tle. The veg­e­ta­tion is very dif­fer­ent. Plants re­act dif­fer­ently. You just have to be a lit­tle more ob­ser­vant.”

That’s home now. Can he miss the icy winds that blew through the Vi­enna of his youth?

“Ha, no. Well that is more Ber­lin you’re think­ing of.”

Waltz’s de­liv­ery is very much what you ex­pect from the films. His English is, of course, per­fect, but the dic­tion re­mains weirdly pre­cise. He pauses and has a real tug at cer­tain, ap­par­ently ran­dom syl­la­bles. He has a very dry hu­mour. He is in­quis­i­tive. He plays with lan­guage. “That is more his mo­dus vivendi than his mo­dus operandi,” he says of his role in Downsizing. It is amaz­ing that such an odd char­ac­ter re­mained ob­scure for so long.

Born in 1956, Waltz trained first at the Max Rein­hardt Seminar in Vi­enna and then in New York with the leg­endary Lee Stras­berg and his equally leg­endary ri­val Stella Adler. You rarely meet ac­tors now who strayed within those or­bits.

“The in­ter­est­ing thing is they con­tra­dicted one another,” he laughs. “They de­spised each other. They didn’t even men­tion each other’s names. He said ‘she’ and she said ‘he’. That is about as far as it went.”

Does that train­ing still hang around with him?

“In a way. Over­all, it de­pends on where you choose to take your in­spi­ra­tion from. For me that dia­lec­tic was in­ter­est­ing.”

Thirty years as a job­bing ac­tor fol­lowed.

There are some lovely mem­o­ries I have. I think that was Colin’s first or sec­ond movie and I re­mem­ber one night with him in a pub some­where. That was one of the nicest en­coun­ters I ever had with an ac­tor. That con­nects me with Colin to this day even though it’s been 20 years

Waltz was rarely out of work for long, but he didn’t even achieve the “that guy in that film” de­gree of fame. There were many roles on Ger­man and Aus­trian television. He ap­peared fre­quently on stage. Some­how or other, in 2000, he ar­rived in Dublin to shoot a sig­nif­i­cant sup­port­ing role in Thad­deus O’Sul­li­van’s

Or­di­nary De­cent Crim­i­nal. This was the no­to­ri­ous gang­land flick fea­tur­ing Kevin Spacey – strug­gling be­neath an aw­ful oirish ac­cent – as a barely con­cealed ver­sion of Martin Cahill.

“I rarely think of that film. I don’t think I’ve seen it. I know that I did it,” he says with a fur­row.

Oh come along. He must have an anec­dote. Mid-Tiger Ire­land. Early Colin Far­rell. Give us a lo­cal story for lo­cal peo­ple.

“Oh yes cer­tainly,” he says, sud­denly wak­ing up. “There are some lovely mem­o­ries I have. I think that was Colin’s first or sec­ond movie and I re­mem­ber one night with him in a pub some­where. That was one of the nicest en­coun­ters I ever had with an ac­tor. That con­nects me with Colin to this day even though it’s been 20 years. I rarely see him un­for­tu­nately.” So he did have an anec­dote? “Yes, I’m glad you re­minded me of that.” Waltz some­how got by. He mar­ried twice and raised four chil­dren. In the 1990s he lived in Lon­don and took a num­ber of un­likely roles that sur­vive to­day on YouTube. Seek out his turn as a Ger­man spy on episodes of The All

New Alexei Sayle Show. Was he al­ways se­cure? Did he al­ways feel com­fort­able in his pro­fes­sion?

“No, I was never com­fort­able,” he says. “Nor was there a rea­son to be com­fort­able. It’s a very un­com­fort­able po­si­tion to be in. Stras­berg said act­ing is be­ing pri­vate in pub­lic. That’s un­com­fort­able.”

That’s you told. In ear­lier in­ter­views he has ad­mit­ted to a stub­born­ness that some­times scared off po­ten­tial em­ploy­ers.

“Yes, I am too stub­born. I won’t give up,” he says. “At times it could be dif­fi­cult. But you learn how to em­ploy your stub­born­ness more con­struc­tively. Thirty years ago I was stub­born just be­cause I was stub­born. That’s kind of bor­ing. Who cares?”

Cast­ing call

We imag­ine Quentin Tarantino spot­ting all his dis­cov­er­ies on faded VHS copies of ob­scure ex­ploita­tion films. But it seems that Waltz se­cured his break in a more con­ven­tional fash­ion. A cast­ing agent rec­om­mended Waltz to Tarantino and the di­rec­tor im­me­di­ately spot­ted some­thing few oth­ers had seen.

“I had to post­pone a va­ca­tion be­cause he wanted to see me again,” he re­mem­bers. “It wasn’t re­ally an au­di­tion. It was spend­ing time with Quentin and his script. That in it­self was fab­u­lous. Had it not worked out it would still have been worth do­ing. That’s how di­rec­tors should get to know ac­tors. I thought: this guy knows. I got it when I read it. This guy knows about ac­tors.” He was over 50 when he se­cured the role in

He im­me­di­ately be­came part of the Hol­ly­wood ma­chine. Who else but Christoph Waltz could suc­ceed ac­tors such as Don­ald Plea­sance as James Bond’s great enemy Ernst Stavro Blofeld in Spec­tre?

There are surely ben­e­fits to achiev­ing fame later in life.

“Ev­ery­thing that hap­pens later in life is ap­pre­ci­ated in a dif­fer­ent way,” he says. “You can ap­pre­ci­ate the thing for what it is. Which you couldn’t if you were 25 and had never ex­pe­ri­enced much else. You would take it all for granted and think that’s what life is like. The abuse is less of a prob­lem be­cause you ap­pre­ci­ate it to that de­gree.”

By “abuse” I as­sume he means be­ing has­sled in the street and so on. He doesn’t. As we speak, the We­in­stein rev­e­la­tions are just break­ing. Waltz’s com­ments of­fer pre­scient com­men­tary.

“I mean the abuse of oth­ers,” he says. “There are a lot of op­por­tu­ni­ties where you could step over the line and mis­treat peo­ple, abuse en­ti­tle­ments. I don’t do that be­cause it just looks ridicu­lous.”

Waltz looks to be en­joy­ing him­self might­ily in Downsizing. Payne’s film imag­ines a world – a utopia that in­evitably be­comes dystopian – in which cit­i­zens shrink them­selves to make bet­ter use of the world’s re­sources. Matt Da­mon is the unimag­i­na­tive Amer­i­can who signs up for re­duc­tion. Waltz plays a shifty Euro­trash hustler who lives in the up­per floor of his now-tiny apart­ment build­ing. It’s a funny film. It’s a com­pas­sion­ate film. It’s also very pes­simistic about where the hu­man race is headed. En­vi­ron­men­tal catas­tro­phe looms over ev­ery frame.

“Would you de­lude your­self in har­bour­ing a pos­i­tive out­look?” Waltz says. “Just look what the mad­man in Washington is do­ing. If you go to Bei­jing on a bad day and you’re above the sev­enth floor you now can’t see the side­walk. I don’t con­sider that very en­cour­ag­ing.”

There’s also some­thing here about the dif­fer­ences be­tween Amer­i­cans and Euro­peans. Da­mon’s char­ac­ter seems to crave noth­ing more than clean subur­bia and a be­nign of­fice job. Waltz’s oily neigh­bour seeks dan­ger and ex­cite­ment.

“Euro­peans still be­lieve that work­ing is for liv­ing,” he laughs. “Amer­i­cans of­ten have that the other way around.”

Ah, the old Vi­enna be­fore the war . . .


Christoph Waltz: ‘Ev­ery­thing that hap­pens later in life is ap­pre­ci­ated in a dif­fer­ent way.’ Above: Matt Da­mon and Christoph Waltz in Downsizing.

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