THERE are brief moments, in my conversation with Christoph Waltz, wherein I momentarily imagine that I am talking to the character which made him famous; that of Colonel Hans Landa in Quentin Tarantino’s 2009 film, Inglourious Basterds.
When he slowly pours me a glass of water, for example. Then there’s his very deliberate way of speaking, his clipped but courteous tones, his consistent eye-contact.
Landa is one of the baddest of bad guys in recent cinema. A brutal and sadistic Austrian SS officer whose hammy good manners are aggressive and chilling, Tarantino has said that Landa might be the greatest character he has ever written and that he had feared he might be “unplayable” until the then-unknown Waltz came along. The Austrian actor’s performance carried the film and won him the best actor award at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival as well as a BAFTA, a Golden Globe and an Oscar for best supporting actor.
He has once again been nominated for a BAFTA and won a Golden Globe in the same category, and an hour after our interview, he will receive a phone call from his agent to tell him that he has been nominated for an Academy Award. This time, it’s for another Tarantino film – Django Unchained – which picked up five nominations in total, including best picture and best original screenplay.
Set in the deep south in 1858, the film follows the story of Django (Jamie Foxx) a freed slave-turned bounty hunter on a mission to rescue his wife from a cruel plantation owner, Calvin Candie, played by Leonardo DiCaprio.
The 56-year-old Waltz plays the German Dr King Schultz, a former dentist now working as a bounty hunter, who recruits Django to help him track down the notorious Brittle Brothers, a trio of murderers working for a plantation owner. Django displays a flair for killing bad guys and so the two partner up.
Is there a palpable buzz in the air in the hour leading up to the nomination announcements? Possibly. Ahead of our interview I sit for a few minutes in a chair outside Waltz’s room in London’s Dorchester Hotel, waiting for him. Jamie Foxx bounces along the chintzy corridor singing the film’s title track Django at the top of his (Grammy-winning) lungs. A couple of minutes later, Kerry Washington – who plays Django’s wife Broomhilda – walks past, saying an excited “good morning” to every stranger she encounters.
When my time does come to meet Waltz, he’s distinctly relaxed, and if the nominations are playing on his mind, he doesn’t show it. Would I like still or sparkling water, he asks me? I can’t help but think for a moment of the famous scene in Inglourious Basterds where Landa offers a woman whose family he had slaughtered strudel and a glass of milk.
His English is perfect (he is fluent in German, French and English), his accent bouncy and sing-song. Only very occasionally does he betray that it is not his first language, when, for example he says that he and Jamie Foxx “‘hung out’, so to say” ahead of filming or when he says that actors “tend to play from instinct and feeling what is generally referred to as ‘the gut’.”
Waltz’s good manners are, of course, warm and genuine, but it’s testament to the power of the character that I can’t entirely shake the feeling that I’m alone in a room with one of 21st century cinema’s most ruthless baddies.
This time around he gets to play a good guy, a character written for him by Tarantino. Is it more fun to be good or to be bad, I wonder? He’s non-committal. “It depends on the goodie and the baddie of course,” he says with a shrug. “One without the other is unbearable so you need to find the adequate balance more than making a decision for one or the other. So it’s actually that amplitude that is interesting and the wider the amplitude the more exciting it gets.”
At the core of the film is the relationship between Django and Schultz. Together, they are in almost every scene, and Waltz forged a friendship with Foxx over dinners at Tarantino’s Mulholland Drive home long before filming even began.
“Our relationship was never engineered. We met, we had dinner, we met again and socialised, went out and did stuff and at one point we started reading the script. And then at one point we started to rehearse and it just continued very easily and very light-footed. There were days when we were both tired because we worked a lot and it was very hot and humid and we were sitting on horses, not terribly busy and we didn’t say anything for hours. We just sat next to each other. Actually, those were the nicest, most comforting moments. There was no one-upmanship. Just riding next to each other.”
Whenever I try to draw him on the film’s themes or intentions, he is fairly vague, preferring to let me, representing the audience in this discussion, decide for myself. When I ask him about the film’s darkly comic elements (the audience in my screening guffawed throughout, often at very uncomfortable moments) and his character’s humorous quips he says, “I don’t disagree yet I wouldn’t know the argument to agree either. Because the comedic side is a result. It is, in a way, in the eye of the beholder because it’s the result of what’s going on. It’s the process that’s the means to an end that I’m involved in. The end is you and I’m the means, so to say.”
His performances are, he hopes, emotional but not emotive. “What I mean when I make the distinction between the two is that I’m not trying to squeeze your emotions like a lemon. I try to inspire you to feel.”
Since working together on Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino has become a close friend. The director has said that of the five Oscar nominations for the film, Waltz’s “means the most” to him. “The way he does my dialogue, he sings it, he turns it into poetry,” he said recently. Tarantino is his biggest fan, his greatest supporter and the man who introduced him to an international audience. Their friendship is, says Waltz, “no Russian novel. We kind of meet and do what we do and we talk about what we’re interested in. And it’s not only movies. So it is rather, I’m pleased to say, ‘normal’.”
Born in Vienna, the son of a set designer and a costume designer, Waltz studied at the Max Reinhardt Seminar in Vienna and attended the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute in New York. For 35 years he worked in mainly German-language theatre and television before he auditioned for the role of Landa. He has described his career pre-Tarantino as featuring “more downs than ups”.
The resulting exposure led to roles in The Green Hornet, Water for Elephants, Carnage and the Three Musketeers before Tarantino came knocking once again. His life has been altered “completely” in the past three years, he says. What has surprised him the most, I wonder, about the way things have changed for him?
“That it would actually continue. I thought it would go away pretty quickly. I did not expect it in the first place but when it happened I kind of expected it to wane rather promptly. And it didn’t.” He smiles slowly.
“[My life] sort of flipped over to the other side. And it would be ridiculous to say it doesn’t have anything to do with success. Of course it does. Unfortunately we work in a business where success facilitates opportunities. I really like the opportunities. People are interested in what I have to offer and I don’t have to bend over backwards and contort myself to fit into somebody’s mould.”
Finding fame in his fifties after being completely unknown outside his home country is fairly unusual, even if Hollywood does love a fairytale. He is glad, however, that the gratification was so delayed: “I never take it for granted. And that’s why it’s so much better to have this happen when I’m over 50. Much, much better. Because I can really, really appreciate it for what it is. Because I know what it is. And when you’re 25 you have no idea, and why would you appreciate it?”
“The chances that it would destroy a young person are much higher than not,” he adds.”When you’re young you’re out to conquer the world. And when [fame] happens to you you think you have conquered it. But you haven’t. You’re participating in something but you haven’t conquered the world. And that can cause serious confusion. If you’re intelligent you have an additional problem because you see that it’s not the only thing [in life]. I always say the flip side is equally important.”
What was the flip side for him? “Being unemployed for nine months and not knowing where the money was coming from to support my family or how to pay the rent. Not knowing how to convince the guy in the job centre that yes I am looking for work but I’m not following the suggestion that he just gave me.”
Life today is so very different. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife, the costume designer Judith Holste and their daughter (he has three adult children from a previous marriage). Once the Django hoopla dies down he will focus on his upcoming projects which include playing a computer programmer in Terry Gilliam’s Orwellian science-fiction film Zero Theorem opposite Matt Damon and Mikhail Gorbachev opposite Michael Douglas as Ronald Reagan in Reykjavik.
After paying his dues in the doldrums of obscurity for more than three decades, to work on films of this scale still feels like something of a novelty. “It’s not the number of trucks parked outside that make a movie interesting but if you have more money you have more time,” he says. “More time enables you to try out other possibilities or follow an interesting lead. I don’t like indulgence but to have more possibilities is always more interesting. When I’m forced to hurry up very often I walk away realising that I missed the best bit because I was pressured and I didn’t have that good an idea. And I have it later, in the pub. Well, it’s not that productive to have the good ideas in the pub...”
With the nomination announcements looming, I take him back to that night in 2010 when Penelope Cruz pulled a card out of an envelope and read out his name. I suspect it feels like a pivotal moment? “You don’t feel the pivot. You’re just in a daze. That’s how it must feel to women having given birth. I don’t know, it must be the combination of adrenalin and... what’s the hormone that makes you feel so good?” Endorphins? “Yes, yes, endorphins! That cocktail is so potent that to actually deduct anything concrete from that would be ridiculous. I didn’t. It’s too much to take in, to digest, to get used to. I just leave it alone.”
Did he allow himself to analyse the experience once the high had worn off? “I didn’t analyse it. I think analysis is coming out of fashion anyway. We deal more with the immediate cognitive aspects of our existence.” Fair enough. So what can we deduce today from the immediate cognitive aspects of his existence? He pauses. “That doors open up in front of me and I’m actually asked to choose which to walk through. And that’s something that I haven’t had in 35 years.”
• Django Unchained is on general release.