Until five years ago, it's safe to say that almost no one in the United States had heard of Christoph Waltz. The actor had worked for many years, mostly in Europe, but he admits that he was "frustrated" with his career until Quentin Tarantino cast him as Hans Landa, the diabolical Nazi at the center of "Inglourious Basterds." Waltz went on to win the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, opening a world of opportunity here in America -- but not in Europe, apparently. "So, right now, I have no business being there," Waltz says.
I met Christoph Waltz at a Midtown Manhattan hotel on a cold, drizzly Sunday afternoon in New York City. He was incredibly polite and charming -- which came as no surprise, as even his wickedest characters fit that description. That's one reason his performance in Tarantino's latest film, "Django Unchained," is so interesting: for once, Waltz gets to play the good guy. (Just don't tell him that, because he'll disagree.)
In "Django," which opens on Christmas Day, Waltz plays Dr. King Shultz, a German-born bounty hunter who frees a slave named Django (Jamie Foxx) in exchange for Django's help tracking down three wanted criminals. Later, the pair hatch a plan to free Django's wife (Kerry Washington) from a villainous plantation owner (Leonardo DiCaprio). Ahead, Waltz reflects on his unexpected rise over the past few years and his defiantly non-strategic approach to the future.
You're playing the good guy this time.
A sort of good guy.
A better guy than some of the guys you have played.
No, I know what you mean by it. I try to refrain a little bit from categories of "good" or "bad" and all that. Not because I don't think that they are good or bad, it's because I have to do it and play it and I don't really know how to play "good" or play "bad."
What does that mean?
It mean, how would you play "bad"?
Well, a guy like Hans Landa [in "Inglourious Basterds"] did some very bad things.
That's exactly it. But he did it in a very charming way.
I was going to use that word to describe Landa, at least until you see his actions. King Shultz is charming, too, but his actions don't turn me against him.
No, you're right. So, where we agree is that it is in what Quentin invented for him to do. And that's really what it is, because a person is only as good as his actions. Why would that be any different with a character?
This time around, was it important for you to play a character who makes good decisions with his actions?
Well, you see...
To not just repeat what you did in "Inglourious Basterds"?
Well, exactly. And I'm just after the part. I want the good part. I'm not even sure whether the whole character needs to be good, but it's certainly not the moral interior. Because that's already an evaluation from the outside. Pretty much along the lines of what Quentin said this morning at the press conference: These characters, they don't know that slavery ends within eight years. They think it will go on forever. We know because we can look back. But, they, who look ahead, have no way of telling. Along those lines, me, as an actor, I don't know what the result of my action will be at that point in the story. I'm just the person behind it.
Does Schultz have a backstory?
Well, everybody has a backstory.
That you created? We don't learn a lot about his past in the movie.
I did think it through, of course. But, anything that gets your imagination going is helpful. Because I don't really believe in the, let's say, what would you call it? Evoking the reality. You do that inadvertently. We're evoking a reality right now. Reality is a very dynamic little beast and it hops from one end to the other. And to say, "Well, I pin it down and I know what it is," and the finagling and to make that roaring beast raise its head and call it "Method"? Give me a break. It's imagination. Because we play! That's why you play theater or you play in movies. And you don't "Method-icise." Wait, what's the verb for method?
In the context of Method acting, I'm not sure there's a correct word.
I was about to invent that term! "Methodize."
So is it annoying to you when someone is Method acting on a set?
Well, it's their thing. If I feel like entering their sacred little realm and playing along ... OK. If it's worth the effort. If it bothers me, I wouldn't and I don't talk to him or her. You know, no big deal. Whatever works. Whatever makes you go.
I would assume that Method acting would be hard to do on a Tarantino set. I've heard the mood between takes can be light.
Jamie Foxx mentioned that there are shots involved.
I believe he said tequila.
Tequila shots. Well, sometimes. But that's a Quentin tradition that, every hundred rolls [of film], you drink a shot of something. That's an old tradition that we have in Europe. That if all of the numbers on the slate are identical, we drink a shot. It's an old tradition and now, of course, it grew into a big nuisance. Because everybody tries to outdo and sponsor and they turn into parties -- and that's not what it is. If you have, "1-1-1-1-1," everybody drinks a shot and continues working. And that's the old way.
You had a long and successful career in Europe before becoming successful in the United States just in the last few years. Do you ever think, "Wait, how did that happen?"
[Laughs] Of course I do! I'm befuddled, to say the least.
There was no moment when you thought, I'm sure I will be extremely famous in the United States someday.
Of course not! Of course not.
But what about after shooting "Inglourious Basterds"? You had to know that people would respond well to that performance.
No. With "Inglourious Basterds," speaking of befuddlement -- that was the Big Bang of my befuddlement. You know, I went to Cannes to see the movie. I didn't go to Cannes trying to get my triumphant march together. I had not seen the movie before and I was in the movie -- so Harvey Weinstein paid my flight, you know [laughs]. I came to see it! And I saw it. So that propelled me into this whole thing.
Define "this whole thing." I mean, you weren't a teen actor with sudden fame. You've been doing this a while.
Actually, what saves my sanity is that I'm not a teen actor. Because if I were a teen actor, I'd have a serious problem. It's good that I was on the verge because I was increasingly getting frustrated. Trying with more and more effort to cope with my frustration.
Yeah, because I didn't get the roles that I wanted to play. And I wanted to direct a movie that broke apart -- twice -- three weeks before we started shooting. And I was like, "Oh, God, is this how I spend the rest of my life? Trying to fight to get the things together that I would like to do?" And, you know, for 98 percent of the people around, it is. And it's not the worst. I mean, I've done it for 35 years. And then Quentin just happened to -- deus ex machina -- and, literally, like that, pulled me out of my thing.
Do you now feel vindicated as an actor --
No. Because there is no -- sorry to interrupt.
That might not have been the right word anyway.
But I know what you mean.
In terms of, "If I can just get a large audience to see me act, people will respond to it."
There is no causality. You can be as good as you want or you can, or whatever, and there is no logical consequence that will emerge as a career. Yes, the logical consequence is, "if you take care of your profession and you do it responsibly, you will get better and better at what you're doing." But that doesn't mean that it's going to be appreciated.
I lived here in New York in '79 and '80. And, through a friend, I had the good fortune of meeting Jean Dalrymple. Then, she was already an old lady and she was the producer of the original productions of "Oklahoma!" and "Annie Get Your Gun" and stuff like that. It was around the corner here, on 56th Street, as far as I remember. And I waited in her lounge there -- then she breezed in. Really sharp and she must have been over 70 already. And she sat down in front of me and said, "Oh, I can tell right away that you are a fabulous actor." And I was so flattered. And she said, "Really. But, let me tell you, nobody gives a shit."
People do now, though.
Yeah, but, you know, it was really such a lesson. Such a lesson. Because I understood what she meant. That one thing doesn't have anything to do with the other. And that's something that I am always telling youngsters who say, "Oh, I want to become an actor." I say, "Oh, why do you want to become an actor?" They say, "It's my life." Then I say, "How do you know? You have your life in front of you. On what basis do you make that choice right now?" They say, "Well, it's all that i want to do." Well, that's a different subject already. If you're not prepared to take the hard times, in a way, you have no business in the good times either.
You mentioned your frustrations before "Inglourious Basterds" happened. After winning the Oscar, was it the opposite? Was it overwhelming?
Here, yes. Here, in America, they are open because they can smell an opportunity. And I'm not saying that in any negative or derogatory way. On the contrary. Because that's what this is all about, opportunity. Europe, the Old Country, is not necessarily all about opportunity - the reality, the tradition, how we do things. The offers I get in Germany now are things I wouldn't have done five years ago.
That's surprising. I just assumed an Oscar win would resonate wherever ...
No, no, they totally respect and admire and see it for what it's worth. Totally. But it doesn't result in any tangible opportunities. So, right now, I have no business being there. It's funny.
Have you been satisfied with your Hollywood career so far?
So far, I have. Very much so.
Why I started this by mentioning that you're playing the "good guy" is that I feel you've been cast in a lot of villain roles until now. At least the more action-type films.
It's true. And one has to watch it a little bit. But as long as the parts are good, it would be silly to not play it because it doesn't fit some sort of fantasy strategy that you might concoct. And strategy doesn't work. It's silly. Maybe a strategy works with an industrial corporation and all that -- but I'm not an industrial corporation. I'm just me. I have interests to follow that change once in a while. What is interesting to me today might not necessarily be so interesting tomorrow. There's someone living in this suit.
Maybe it's not strategy, but you've picked some good directors. Even a movie like "Green Hornet" that some people liked and some people didn't, it was still Michel Gondry.
Well, exactly! Look, you named it. So, I just follow my interests. Not only my instinct, but always my interest. And I mean "interest" in the true sense of the word. "What can I do now? Is that something that I've done before and I don't really need to go after it because I don't want to repeat myself?" "But that's something I've never done before with a filmmaker like Gondry and I've never been in a comic movie." Now, all of a sudden this comic movie comes in and it is Michel Gondry who directed it -- how silly would I be to turn it down? Just because, "Oh, it doesn't fit my strategy."
Who out there do you still want to work with? You're working with Terry Gilliam on "The Zero Theorem."
I just did it. We just finished.
There are plenty of them.
What about David Fincher?
Well ... there you go.
Let's make that happen.
[Smiles] Well, there you go. I mean, hey-hey. That would be a good thing.
Are you being coy?
I'm not being coy. I'm not being coy. Maybe in the near future you will understand what I'm saying. But, no, I seriously mean it. For example, I hesitate to say a name because that would be just grabbing into a big reservoir of talents that are around. And there are constantly becoming new ones. And there's plenty to do and plenty of people to do it with.
It was nice talking to you, but I don't want to take any more of your time.
You don't? We're just starting to have fun.
Mike Ryan is senior writer for Huffington Post Entertainment. You can contact him directly on Twitter.