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“The better the dog, the busier you have to keep him.”
That was the advice a dog trainer, of all people, gave Christoph Waltz, the Vienna-born actor who won the top acting prize at Cannes for his role as the maniacal Col. Hans Landa in “Inglourious Basterds.”
Now he’s keeping busy. Very busy. Sporting a beard for his new role as the villain in “The Green Hornet,” the 53-year-old actor is co-starring in a major studio film and fielding offers for everything from star parts to A-list parties.
He appears somewhat bemused to be invited to events and roundtables with the likes of Nicolas Cage and Morgan Freeman, but his confidence in his own skill is apparent.
“I’m arrogant and blase enough to consider myself a very good dog,” he jokes, while admitting that the long time it has taken him to achieve this level of recognition may have chafed. “You take pride in what you’re doing, in your craft, and all of that, but — I wouldn’t say I resigned myself to mediocrity, not at all, but I started to accept that there might be an ideal you strive for (and) never realize.”
Now he’s found that ideal with Landa. It was a piece of casting that director Quentin Tarantino considered so essential for his film that he was almost ready to give up on the whole project, having spent more than $1 million of his own money to develop it, after weeks of failing to find the right actor. Then Waltz walked in and Tarantino knew he could make his movie.
“I consider myself one of very few who get the chance to have that experience,” Waltz says. “(But) it would be completely presumptuous, or, in a way, childish, or rather infantile to expect that could happen again and again.”
Being born into a family of theater professionals has helped him keep things in perspective. Waltz’s parents worked as set designers, and he also had grandparents and even great-grandparents who were involved in the performing arts. After studying acting in Vienna at the University of Music and Performing Arts, he learned Lee Strasberg’s techniques, living in New York in the late 1970s, before returning to Europe, where he established a stage career and worked extensively in television, netting several awards for his work.
“The one advantage of having grown up in the business is that you don’t romanticize it,” he says. ” ‘Oh, isn’t it wonderful?’ Blah, blah, blah. No, it isn’t! I’ve never romanticized it.”
Does that put him in the minority in Los Angeles? He laughs. “Perhaps. But on the other hand, the conviction, the dedication that you see here, is tremendous. It would be awful if the whole business consisted of grouchy farts like me.”
Waltz seems devoid of delusions about his own grandeur. “I know what I can contribute,” he says. “And that’s a very limited, very specific unit, whether it’s a big movie, a small movie, a German movie, an American movie. That’s the advantage I have over a 25-year-old. I’ve had the chance to understand what it is I do.”
Now he’s doing it on “The Green Hornet.”
“It’s fun,” he says. “It’s a lot of special effects and it’s terribly interesting because these people are so adept and so professional and so skillful. (Writer-star) Seth Rogen is such a lovely man, such a smart and funny person. His ideas are bubbling out constantly, and his (writing) partner Evan Goldberg translates them onto the page as they bubble about. And, most of all, (director) Michel Gondry (is) a very interesting, quite eccentric, quirky character with fabulous ideas. How his mind works is really, really fascinating.”
Waltz is relishing the other new opportunities “Basterds” has brought about.
“It opens doors I didn’t even know existed. All interesting directors end up here, and I’d be thrilled to work with the greats. I’m a great Tim Burton fan and an admirer of Martin Scorsese. This is how different my interests are.”
Thanks to the richness of Landa’s character, those directors probably have him on their list of actors to watch. Luckily for Waltz, he isn’t simply fielding offers to play SS men.
“Nobody’s talking about that. I get interest coming my way from many different directions. I’d hate to pigeon-hole myself. The variety is what’s interesting.”
No, he says, he won’t be playing any more Nazis. But he does hope to make more Hollywood films. “In Europe, everybody would say, ‘Well, they just want to squeeze you like a lemon.’ Well, yeah! But, you know, if I have the juice, why shouldn’t they?”
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