Christoph Waltz Commandeers Awkward 'Big Eyes' Q&A as an "Effort to Demystify the Actor"

Big Eyes 92Y H 2014
Michael Priest Photography

Big Eyes 92Y H 2014

Alongside Amy Adams and director Tim Burton, he noted, "I refuse to answer, 'Can you tell us about your character, can you tell us?' No, go see it!"

Friday night's Big Eyes discussion at New York City's 92Y left the audience wide-eyed as Christoph Waltz stepped in to question the integrity and effectiveness of Q&As about films altogether.

Between very short clips of the upcoming Margaret Keane biopic, director Tim Burton first discussed making films about "real but slightly unbelievable people" like Ed Wood, how he chose his leads and when he personally learned of the illustrator ("When I was a child and I'd see these things hanging in people's living rooms, I'd question, 'Why do these grown people have a crying child in a painting?'").

Read more Margaret Keane on 'Big Eyes': "I Didn't Know Who Amy Adams Was"

Amy Adams was also asked by moderator Dave Itzkoff of The New York Times about evoking the internal character of Margaret Keane ("She's a woman who makes a series of strong and bold choices, but very quietly"), if the idea of women not being able to take credit for their work has modern relevance ("I don't think it's necessarily a female tale, but I think it coincides with this emerging feminist culture"), how she feels about constantly portraying real people onscreen and what similarities Big Eyes' Keane has to American Hustle's Sydney Prosser, since both women are lying in some way.

When Waltz was asked his first question of the hour-long, screening-less discussion, he instead leaned forward to address Itzkoff: "Can I ask you a question? What's that obsession or that obsessive insistence on true stories? Why does it have to be true in what we call 'real life?' Your questions so far are all about how it relates to what you call truth and real characters." He pointed to the screen above them and continued, "That's real, that's our reality, that's where our stories are." The moderator then jested that Waltz must have psychiatrists in his family tree, to which he replied, "Not one — he was a psychoanalyst."

Waltz then continued, "It's just a question because I really think our work is not the work of biographers; we're not scientists, we're not academics. Talking for myself, I'm just an actor, but Tim is an artist. That's a reality. It's just not necessarily the 'reality' that is used in vernacular terms, or called in vernacular terms 'reality.' It's not unreal when we're doing it — but anyway, ask your question."

Itzkoff somewhat defended that "as a journalist, if I can still call myself that tonight," his task is to stick with facts and "keep it within a certain realm — if I invent the way that you invent, I will not be employed for very long." Burton tried to lighten the mood, saying, "Well, I've heard of several colleagues having that as a common practice. ... They call it Fox News, don't they?"

Read more How 'Big Eyes' Star Amy Adams Became the Darling of the HFPA

Waltz was then asked about his approach to portraying Walter Keane. "It might sound like an evasion, but I stick to the script. I read the script, and I try to do what an actor does: translate what's in the script into action, for Tim to film, to amass the material to come together. I'm not being coy, it's how I understand my craft, profession," he said to the audience's awkward giggles. "I admit, there are certain things that are behind it, because nowadays, it's fashionable to make things scientific to ask about the research [to play a character]. ... No. I just do what actors have done throughout the centuries: they look at the material and they think, what can I contribute to the whole to make the story worthwhile to be watched."

Itzkoff then wondered if Keane is an enjoyable character to play, and Waltz said, "Yeah, occasionally, I even do. Yes. ... It is, it is work. But as strange as it sounds, everyone here, when you apply what you love to do and you think all your faculties are engaged and you get into this flow, you're happy. And whether it's acting or typing or writing or scientific research, that's more or less what human beings do. You understand that I'm making a great effort to demystify the actor?" Adams then admitted, "I'm finding this very helpful."

After Burton noted that he doesn’t like how today's moviegoers have access to so many details about the production process — "especially if you're looking at Sony, everyone knows. ... I feel the magic of that is gone" — Waltz did praise the film's 1950s setting. "That distance actually makes it easier for us to identify, otherwise it'd be too immediate, threatening and too difficult to perceive. I think Tim did this master thing to put it in the fifties and sixties, yet never lose the connection to us today."

However, when Itzkoff read an attendee's question off a notecard of what filmgoers should take away from Big Eyes, Waltz explained, "I refuse to answer, 'Can you tell us about your character, can you tell us?' No, go see it! ... I recently saw or read a quote about Harrison Ford saying one of the best things I've ever heard about acting. 'My job as an actor is not to show you how close I am to a character, my job is to show you how close you are to the character.' And bravo, Harrison."

See more 'Big Eyes' Trailer: Tim Burton Makes a Movie About Normal People

Another audience question asked Waltz about the best advice he's received from Quentin Tarantino and Burton, to which he noted, "I'm sorry, I'm completely overbowled by this question. I take advice from everybody, I just reserve the liberty to employ it! I'm sorry, it's embarrassing, I don’t know what to say."

Yet the occasionally awkward hour-long discussion included a heartwarming ending, as an attendee's question asked the director about effectively maintaining a childlike imagination.

"Every kid can draw, everybody at a certain age loved to create," he said. "There's something about just being inside yourself, exploring your own imagination and don't really let anybody tell you that you can't do something like that. You may not earn a living from it, but it's important that everybody, no matter what way, shape or form, creates."

Big Eyes hits theaters Dec. 25.

Dec. 14, 10:45 a.m. A previous version included various incorrect quotes from the moderator. THR regrets the error.

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