Thirty years in the business, Christoph Waltz’s international breakthrough role has been a long time coming. But what a role. Nazi officer Colonel Hans Landa, the so-called ‘Jew Hunter’ and one of the central characters in Quentin Tarantino’s World War II epic Inglourious Basterds, will live long in the memory. Certainly, the 2009 Cannes jury agreed, awarding the Austrian-born Waltz the Best Actor prize. As far as Tarantino is concerned, had he not found Waltz, he may never have made the film. Needing to find someone able to bring to life Landa, a “linguistic genius” in Tarantino’s eyes who converses in French, German, Italian and English, was no mean feet. But the 52 year-old Waltz, who now lives in London with his wife and children, was perfect – bringing the right balance of humour and humanity to a role that otherwise might have simply become a cardboard villain.
What was your first approach to the role?
My first approach to the part was meeting Quentin Tarantino. That’s not a cute answer. Meeting Quentin is the start for something. You don’t know what in the beginning. I went for a casting, a very conventional casting. The casting agent in Berlin called me and I went and the unusual thing already was that I was sent the script. Not just the sides of a scene but the whole script. So I read the script before I met Quentin. I knew what it was for, that meeting. And that makes all the difference in the world.
Can you describe your thoughts when you first read the script? Did your character really leap from the page?
Yeah, he certainly leapt off of the page. But I didn’t know the actual quality of that leap, because it leapt straight into my face and sunk its claws into it. First impressions are against the common usage of it, and are not always to be followed. They’re not always the right impression. I find it in general a good idea to question first impressions, so that’s also the interesting part about my work – to challenge first impressions and ask further questions.
Was it easy to play a character many might regard as a villain and try and find some humanity in him?
Easy or not, I don’t know. I don’t evaluate the difficulties. But playing a villain, and passing the judgement, means doing away with it. And a verdict is always the end of a process. Finding humanity, or a human aspect in characters like that, is a worthwhile task. And you’re absolutely right. That is something to go for.
What sort of conversations did you have with Tarantino about your character?
The good thing…the thing that I like so much about working with Quentin – or one of the many things I like so much – is that he doesn’t tell you anything. He asks you what you think and he directs that too. He’s a director. And a director to the core. Every fibre of Quentin is a director. He’s not an instructor. He doesn’t tell you what to do. He asks your opinion about it, and then once the movement has developed, he directs that mood.
Did you have any preconceptions before going onto the set of a Tarantino film?
No. None whatsoever – because if you look at all the films, and I’ve seen all his films before, and most of them a few times, none looks, feels, or sounds like another. They’re all different from each other. Profoundly different from each other. So the thing that I expected was the thing that actually happened – that expectations are obsolete.
You have many juicy scenes in the film. But do you have a particular favourite?
Actually, they are all favourites for different reasons. The first scene for the linguistic [dexterity], moving through so many psychological fine-tuning aspects. The last one being the coming together of a whole scheme. In between, keeping this girl on edge. There were so many different layers and aspects to every single scene, that everyone is a favourite for different reasons.
How surprised were you with the Best Actor win in Cannes?
It’s not a Best Actor win, I’m sorry to say. It’s a prize for interpretation. And I find it immensely elegant, cultured and civilised – not to employ superlatives. To say that this is the prize the jury awards for interpretation – and not the sports-event kind of thing. You know – he came in last! I’d hate to see the last – or the worst – actor!
How did you feel with Tarantino playing with the outcome of World War II?
Well, you could look at it that way – that he’s playing with the outcome of World War II. We all know how World War II ended. You can look at it from a different point of view. You can say that this is art – and art offers you the opportunity to reconsider from a different perspective. And if you manage to actually take something from that process into your life, you’re the winner.
Were you nervous about acting in four different languages?
Not really, to tell you the truth. Actually, the language sooner or later becomes a detail. The story is the locomotive, the thing that pulls it. Whether the wagon is red or green or yellow doesn’t make much difference.
What did intimidate you?
Intimidate? Really the sheer form of this part. This is the part of the century. I’m serious. This is right there on a par with the other great parts of dramatic literature. And that is written on the page. It’s not something I came up with. Quentin came up with it, and he worked on it. It’s his skill that enabled him to put that on a page. Saying it’s a part of the century…consider that this medium is about a hundred years old – that tells you a lot about this part.
How did it feel to make Brad Pitt look dumb in the Italian speaking sequence?
I disagree with the label ‘dumb’. Nobody looks dumb. Nobody looks smart. That’s what I admire so much about the script.
He looks a little dumb…
Not only are you entitled to your point of view, you’re required to come up with this point of view. That’s another unique quality about this movie, as I see it. It provides a projectionist’s screen – not just in the literal sense of the word, with the light coming from the back of the movie theatre, to project the image. But it projects what you want to see or can see. It projects hopefully something you can enter and need to discover, and what you will see is always you.
Would you say yours is the main character?
Well, it would be interesting to come up with a statistic of time. And I don’t think Landa will be the character with the most time on screen. But the mode…in this case it’s the first scene that sets the mode. I didn’t sit with a stopwatch and time it but my feeling is that this first scene – especially the result of it, and what the first scene merges into – leaves such a strong impression that you keep that during the rest of the movie.
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