Christoph Waltz, From Austria with love, the double Oscar-winning actor turns Bond adversary in the forthcoming Spectre. Article by Robert Chalmers.
We’ve been expecting you, Mr. Waltz.
It took Christoph Waltz 30 years to become an overnight sensation. The Austrian actor was thrust into the limelight by Quentin Tarantino and before you could say ‘next Bond villain’ he’d bagged two Oscars. GQ opens a file on Spectre, stardom and psychiatry with Hollywood’s secret weapon
STORY BY ROBERT CHALMERS
STYLING BY LUKE DAY
PHOTOGRAPHS BY MATTHEW BROOKES
Which single word, I ask Christoph Waltz, would least well describe him?
There follows a very long pause.
"Meaning," Waltz says, with a playful but mutinous look, "that I am not balanced."
In what way exactly?
"Hold on a second," Waltz says. "You asked me for an adjective. Not an explanation."
But it implies you are a person of extremes...
Yes, it does.
"No it doesn't." Another pause. "Actually, I thought 'balanced' was the most neutral answer that I could give."
I can think of other words, I tell Waltz, that describe the things he isn't. Such as verbose, over-frank and, above all, stupid.
"That's very kind," he says. "Thank you."
Christoph Waltz, in general conversation, is engaging, amusing and inventive; until you broach the subject of his own life, at which point he becomes evasive to a degree that makes Bob Dylan sound like a blabbermouth. Gernot Wolfson, in a spectacularly feeble attempt at a biography, mercifully not translated from the original German into English, does make one useful observation, namely that he "guards his privacy to the point of obsession".
Wolfson is right about that, says Waltz, who adds that he did everything to discourage the author, and considered suing him. Talking about himself, Waltz says, is something he just can't do. Which is a shame, I tell him, because it can be tricky to produce a portrait of a man who's wearing a suit of armour.
"I understand," Waltz replies, in the habitual tone of gentle irony that renders him impossible to dislike. "But you can't expect me to raise my visor merely out of empathy."
We're sitting in a deserted bar at London's Corinthia Hotel, where Waltz is taking a break from the filming of Spectre, the new James Bond film directed by Sam Mendes, out this October. He's 58 now, and age suits him very well, not least because he is one of the very few great cinema actors to have achieved global recognition after decades of trying. A respected talent in Germany and Austria, he was unknown to most English-speaking cinema-goers until Quentin Tarantino had the wit to cast him as SS Colonel Hans Landa in his 2009 movie Inglourious Basterds. Right from the captivating opening scene of that film, and throughout their second collaboration, Django Unchained (2012), you witness something that happens quite rarely in cinema: an actor who is uniquely equipped to comprehend, enliven and inspire the poetry of his director's script.
In those two films, each of which earned Waltz an Oscar, there are moments where the elegance of the language and the actor's delivery of it combine to produce the kind of shiver down the spine you can get from a great musician.
"Yes," says Waltz. "I think that what you're describing really is the same phenomenon that music can inspire. I believe that he [Tarantino] considers that dialogue to be poetry."
He has not been slow to grasp the opportunities created by his collaborations with the Tennessee-born director. Before Bond, he's set to star in Tulip Fever expected to be out this spring, the long-awaited film by British producer Alison Owen, alongside the likes of Brit tyros Jack O'Connell and Cara Delevingne, and has been cast as a Belgian villain (what else?) in David Yates' big-budget Tarzan, scheduled for next summer.
He is fiercely loyal to Tarantino. At one point I mention how certain attributes of his
character in Django Unchained - a Germanspeaking "dentist" whose areas of expertise do not include teeth - echo one of Inspector Clouseau's aliases in The Pink Panther Strikes Again. They even share a name: Dr Schultz. Waltz, addressing what I'd imagine was an affectionate in-joke on Tarantino's part, launches into an earnest complaint to the effect that "people are always saying Quentin rips things off. Has something been said before? Maybe it has. So be it. Shakespeare," he adds, "did not have one original idea."
Waltz was born into a theatrical family in Vienna, but in his early twenties moved to New York where he was taught by Stella Adler, legendary coach of, among others, Marlon Brando and Robert De Niro. Adler, Waltz has said, taught him to focus initially on the author's name printed on a script.
"She taught us to use the name as a gateway into the world of the drama. She was talking about Ibsen."
It's easy to imagine the value of such a technique when applied to classical theatre, or to the writing of Tarantino or Terry Gilliam. (Waltz gives a majestic performance in Gilliam's hallucinatory fantasy The Zero Theorem, released in 2013.)
But can you approach a Bond film in that same spirit of artistic endeavour? Or are you just doing it for the...
"A James Bond film can be artistically fulfilling," Waltz interrupts. "Absolutely it can. It can be complex and it can be interesting. I consider Bond movies to be an extension of popular theatre, a kind of modern mythology. You see the same sort of action in Punch and Judy, or in the folk theatre of various cultures, like Grand Guignol. [The 18th-century playwright] Carlo Goldoni took the commedia dell'arte and developed it into a complex psychological form, yet retained the connection with its roots."
While there's no pretentiousness about Waltz, this analysis is typical of the intensity he displays when discussing his work. You don't get quite so many references to the psychological origins of commedia dell'arte from Roger Moore, say, and to that extent Waltz might not seem the most obvious recruit to the Bond family. Did he hesitate before agreeing to appear in Spectre?
"I did, yes."
"I always hesitate... You ask yourself, hang on: what James Bond are we talking about?" Waltz explains. "The thing about Spectre is that it is not the work of hack writers. It does not have a hack director. The actors are not hams." The movie, he says, does include scenes that will resonate with an old-school Bond aficionado.
"The action sequences in Mexico are extravagant to say the least. The scenes in Austria are traditional Bond action in the snow." That said, he adds, "These films with Daniel Craig have shifted the tone. They don't depend on a set formula that forces actors simply to go through the motions."
'THE FALSE DAWNS WENT ON FOR A VERY LONG TIME'
So was his experience with Mendes similar to his first script reading with Tarantino for Inglourious Basterds: an epiphany which he has described as having given him back his vocation?
"No. Because this time I didn't have to audition. For Spectre they already had me in mind."
They wrote the part for you?
"In a way, yes. Let's say it was tweaked in my direction." People use the phrase "Bond villain" as if it referred to a single, clearly defined character, like Dracula, yet there have been wide variations in the way the role has been played. Yet it has been suggested that Waltz will be playing to archetype, as a reincarnation of Bond's long-standing nemesis, Blofeld.
"That is absolutely untrue. That rumour started on the internet, and the internet is a pest. The name of my character is Franz Oberhauser."
What was it your agent said when you first left Hollywood? (Waltz, after his first stint in the United States, returned to theatre work in Austria in the early Eighties.)
"He said, 'Do you want to be wandering around in the background yelling 'Heil Hitler' for the rest of your life?'"
And yet here you are again, playing a Germanic enemy of the right-thinking British...
The character of Oberhauser, he says, is a little more nuanced than that.
'BOND MOVIES ARE A KIND OF MODERN MYTHOLOGY'
Waltz has spoken many times about how little he enjoys the idea of fame. And yet it's hard to imagine that taking a starring role in one of the most eagerly awaited James Bond movies ever is going to render him more anonymous when he walks down the Kings Road.
"You're right, I suppose. On the other hand this film might help get other projects green-lit. And I prefer working to walking down the Kings Road any time."
Waltz's mother Elisabeth was an Austrian costume designer; Johannes, his German father, was a theatre director. (The actor has joint German/Austrian citizenship.)
Your father died when he was 42; you were seven at the time...
Was his death sudden?
"No." Just for a second, the visor creaks open a little. "It was not unexpected. My father was very sick, for some time. And then he died."
Depicted in fiction, such a tragedy tends to affect a child in one of two ways: it precipitates indiscipline, or inspires a precocious sense of responsibility. "There are infinite ways of dealing with such a thing."
How did you deal with it?
"I have no idea. What did people do before Freud invented the idea of 'dealing with' such experiences?" asks Waltz (whose first marriage, which lasted 17 years, was to Jackie, a psychotherapist). "They just got on with it."
So you "just got on with it"?
"I don't know."
You mentioned Freud: wasn't your maternal grandfather a psychiatrist?
"Yes. Today he would be as rich as JK Rowling. He wrote the first self-help books, mainly on sexuality."
Have you read them?
In his German cuttings file, I tell him, the notion of depression occurs more than once. One of his most distinguished ventures was a 1996 film on the schlager [light pop] singer Roy Black, who died young, frustrated and damaged by drink and drugs. Some have attempted to draw a comparison between Black's embittered mentality at the end of his life and Waltz's own reaction to periods when he had done outstanding work in Germany, but his career failed to build as it should have; he's spoken often about false dawns. (If the rollercoaster has become the default analogy for fluctuations in an individual's fortunes, Waltz almost always resorts to images involving darkness and light.)
"That was my experience, and it was very frustrating. These false dawns went on for a long time. It feels like someone keeps trying to turn the light up, but the dimmer switch is broken." He laughs, good-naturedly. "And then sometimes the bulb blows altogether."
One notable disappointment was The Gravy Train, a series produced for Channel 4 in 1990. A satire on the EEC, as it then was, it was written by Malcolm Bradbury. Waltz led a cast that included Ian Richardson and Alexei Sayle.
"It was the first time I'd ever really made friends with an actor on a set," Sayle tells me. "And as a friend he is wonderful. The most striking thing about him is his extraordinary intelligence. Christoph is one of the two or three brightest people I have met -ever, in my life. He always makes me think of Wittgenstein, coming as he does from one of those high-achieving Viennese families."
In 1995 Waltz appeared in Catherine The Great; a big-budget production featuring Catherine Zeta-Jones and Omar Sharif. His next job was in Rex: A Cop's Best Friend - a police series in which the leading actor was a dog. That can't have been an easy transition, I suggest, from the splendour of Imperial Russia to playing second fiddle to a quadruped.
"It wasn't. But I had to work."
To support your family?
You've been married twice, I say, first to Jackie, in your early twenties...
"You know more than I'd care to remember."
After a somewhat uncomfortable series of exchanges, we agree that he has three children from that first marriage, and one daughter from his second, to costume designer Judithe Holste. (He confirmed this second marriage, which had long remained unknown, in a 2013 interview; the ceremony is believed to have taken place in the late Nineties.)
Did he experience depression in those periods where his career seemed to falter?
"Yes. Occasionally. More usually, frustration. I am not clinically depressed now and I wasn't back then. I am not interested in gambling. I am not interested in drugs or firearms. But that doesn't mean that I didn't have depressed phases."
I didn't mean clinical depression, I say. I've seen what can happen to artists when they do good work and it isn't rewarded. The disappointment gets into their voice. You don't need a PhD in psychiatry to notice.
"No. You're right. What I'm saying is that... there were depressed moments," Waltz recalls, niftily dodging the intimacy of the first person, "and there was depression, but not of a kind that needed to be medicated or hospitalised. But it is, yes, bloody depressing when you try to get on with the work and it just doesn't..." He stops himself. "People cut you [dead]. They don't even greet you. They ignore you. A handful of [German-speaking] directors believed in me, one in particular.
Every time we made a movie it was a sensation. Yet somehow, nothing followed."
I tell him that I've seen several of his German language films, among which one
- Peter Keglevic's 2001 epic Dance With The Devil, concerning the kidnap and torture of millionaire Richard Oetker - struck me as, to borrow an overused phrase, a tour de force.
Waltz, as the kidnapper, is stunning, and the subtlety of his menace gives you an idea of what he might achieve in Spectre.
"Well, Keglevic is the director I was referring to just now. He always believed in me. He also made the Roy Black film, as you may know.
He is a real artist. He's far too difficult for the industry to oppress. He's slightly cantankerous and he doesn't suffer fools gladly; actually he doesn't suffer fools at all. So people shy away from him. But Peter Keglevic - yes. He's my guy."
'EVERY MOVIE WE MADE WAS A SENSATION. YET SOMEHOW, NOTHING FOLLOWED'
On the basis of no evidence whatsoever, I tell Waltz, he himself strikes me as a man who could be quick to anger.
"I am. Very. I would like to hit people."
Have you punched people in the past?
What form does your anger take?
"I get rude. Things can get a bit edgy."
If Waltz seems especially happy now, says a
Alexei Sayle, "it's precisely because there is an appropriate fit between his ability and his H
achievement. He did get very frustrated at the work he was getting. He was a star in Germany, but Germany was never enough for him. One of the extraordinary things about Inglourious Basterds was that English-speaking audiences were suddenly confronted with this person who arrived with the charisma, talent and assurance of a huge movie star, and yet most of them had never heard of him."
Waltz's interviewers can console themselves with the knowledge that his stubborn defence of his privacy is nothing personal. Footage survives of several sessions with the talented comedian and interviewer Harald Schmidt, who might reasonably be called a German David Letterman. The actor speaks forthrightly about things like the royal family and the cost of living in London (he had a flat in Muswell Hill for around a decade, beginning in the mid-Nineties) but clams up when his children are mentioned.
In one of those interviews, I remind Waltz, a keen republican, you say it's odd that Prince Charles should be opposed to genetically modified organisms, "because he is one". What do you feel about the press intrusion that his family endures?
"It's terrible. Though of course the Queen herself is extremely discreet. What happens within Buckingham Palace stays within those walls."
And that's what you'd like? A regal degree of distance?
Were you always like this?
"When I was about 25, that's when this whole thing started. My oldest daughter was a little kid. A tabloid reporter called my house. He said, 'I hear a child crying. Is it a boy or a girl? What's their name?' I said, 'I want to keep that private.' He said, 'It's not private.' That's when I decided I didn't want other people dictating what I disclosed."
As a struggling young actor in New York, Waltz tells me, he was a waiter in a Greek-owned restaurant where regulars included Bill Murray.
"He was just the nicest guy; he gave me the biggest tips. And now I know him: not as a close friend, but I know him. I really like how he handles privacy. But then Bill Murray is a radical."
And you aren't?
"I am not a radical. I am just a smartass."
So what made him choose this most heavily scrutinised of professions? Family tradition?
"I don't know. I really don't. Somehow I just ended up doing it." Today, he complains, many aspiring actors are "motivated by pure narcissism. Everybody just wants fame."
"No. I hate it. If you become famous because of your long career, that's one thing. As a motivation in itself, celebrity is foolhardy and stupid."
"You do find yourself asking why he
decided to act," says his former co-star Amanda Mealing. "It seems counterintuitive for somebody who is so private to enter a profession where you are constantly the centre of attention." Mealing, who appeared with Waltz in The Gravy Train, would go on to give acclaimed performances in such distinguished productions as Alan Bleasdale's GBH and Jake's Progress; she is currently combining a role in Casualty with completing a degree in psychology
On the set of The Gravy Train, she recalled, "He was extremely reserved, but you sensed there was this rod of steel at his core. He sets his mind on something and quietly pursues it without any great fanfare. That's how he works. The drive and the ambition are there but they are never explicit or overt."
Waltz was the star of that production; was he stand-offish?
Absolutely not, says Mealing, who recalls that, in one episode, her character was required to play a game of topless table tennis against him.
"I was very uncomfortable with that," she tells me, "but it was a battle I was never going to win. A day or two beforehand, seeing I was upset, Christoph came over to me. I told him I was unhappy not with the idea of nudity but because I thought the idea was just crass. He said, 'I do too.' Then he walked off. Very shortly afterwards the scene was dropped. He's very quiet, very caring, and he doesn't miss a trick. Nothing passes him by."
I AM ENTITLED TO SAY YES: IT FEELS GOOD. I FEEL LIKE I HAVE SERVED MY TIME'
y own suspicion is that, though he's too modest to say it, the craft of acting is what has driven him; that, and the understandable desire to be recognised as the great actor he is. ("I think," said one colleague who knows him well, "that Christoph always wanted to be a star.")
Terry Gilliam told me how, when they were filming The Zero Theorem, Waltz would deflect praise by saying, "It's not the actor, it's the part." The film, Gilliam said, was green-lit only from the moment the Austrian agreed to join the cast. His performance as a man trapped in a futuristic nightmare where he's charged with discovering the meaning of life, gives an indication both of his range as an actor and his
capacity to support an original project, even if many orthodox Hollywood executives might fail to understand it.
"I believe it's one of the very best performances Christoph has ever given," Gilliam says. "There's nothing showy about it; everything is internalised. When he's working, the character dominates him. He isn't a method actor and doesn't claim to be one, but on that film he became totally imbued with his character's isolation. The Zero Theorem was his film. I followed him. And when I saw where he led us, I was blown away by his utter truthfulness."
I talk to Waltz for the best part of four hours. Once he's away from the unwelcome territory of his own life, he's amusing, amiable and highly opinionated. He enthuses about the acerbic genius of Randy Newman and, less predictably, the work of Frank Zappa. He admits
- unprompted for once - to a love of horses.
"Not as a gambler," he says. "Just to see
that beautiful spectacle of a horse in full gallop. I like..."
Please don't say dressage...
"I love dressage," Waltz replies, with just the slightest hint of mischief in his eye.
Without seeking to make him sound smug
- he isn't - Waltz does exude a sense of real contentment, of the kind born of having to work long and hard for a reward.
"I do feel I can say - without smugness
- that this feels good. I am entitled. I am entitled to judge the situation and say that yes: it feels good, and that yes, I agree with you. I feel like I served my time. I feel I have paid [my dues]."
And then we're back to the images of light.
"I have learned that the experience of seeing what you later realise to have been a false dawn, is very tough," he says. "The period following that realisation is infinitely tougher. But if you can hang in there long enough to see a real sunrise, well then the feeling really is incredible. Because you can't mistake a real sunrise."
This is Waltz looking back; but what is really energising about the actor is not so much his past as his possible future. Mature as he may be, you get the sense that this is the beginning, not the end, of his exhilarating international career. Who knows what he might achieve? Reticent, evasive and wilfully vague as he can be, Waltz can't help but radiate one unmistakable truth: namely that this particular star, having taken so long to rise, will not easily allow its brilliance to be extinguished.
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[Source: GQ (Gentlemen's Quarterly) British, May 2015, P.1, 17, 162-170. © 2015 THE CONDE NAST PUBLICATIONS LTD. All rights reserved. Visit GQ.co.uk/magazine to subscribe.]