“Big Eyes star Christoph Waltz: ‘Winning two Oscars doesn’t change what I do with my life’”
THE EXPRESS Dec 21, 2014
THE most important part of the job is to find the specific kind of energy that you’re trying to employ
By HENRY FITZHERBERT
Just a few days have past since the announcement that Christoph Waltz will play the new James Bond villain when I meet the Austrian actor, a double Oscar-winner for his roles in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained.
I ask him how excited he is. On a scale of one to ten. His eyes narrow. “I know where zero is but where is your ten?” he asks me. Hmm. It suddenly feels like I’m in an Oxford tutorial with Blofeld (the legendary Bond villain Waltz is rumoured to be playing in Spectre).
“To tell you the truth there is one thing that drives me absolutely insane and that is listings,” he goes on. “When the year comes to an end all these lists come up. The ten best this, the 100 best that. Why? Most likely my number three is not even on your list at all and vice versa.
”Refreshingly in a universe where we all have to genuflect at the same Oscar-winning masterpieces, Waltz, 58, loathes any kind of cultural conformity.
“Why can’t we make our experiences and perception of the world we live in more personal? A little more detailed. Any idiot can put a list out on the internet and it will appear on IMDB (the Internet Movie Database). It’s a disaster. So how excited am I on a scale of one to ten? I don’t know if I employ the same scale as you do.”
That puts the James Bond conversation to bed then. In any case, Waltz will probably be zapped by Goldfinger’s laser if he divulges anything about Spectre, which began filming earlier this month.
What we’re here to discuss is Big Eyes directed by Tim Burton, a highly entertaining drama based on a bizarre true story about one of the biggest art cons perpetrated on the public.
Waltz plays San Francisco-based painter Walter Keane who became famous and very rich in the Fifties and early Sixties thanks to his trademark portraits of waif-like children with fried egg-sized eyes. Revolutionizing the commercialisation of popular art, Keane sold thousands of posters, postcards and calendars.
The con? They were actually painted by his wife, Margaret, a vulnerable divorcee with a child (played in the film by Amy Adams) who was seduced by Keane’s charm and salesmanship.
The film chronicles their relationship and Margaret’s eventual efforts to be recognised for her work. The climax is a surreal and amusing courtroom confrontation which sees Walter/Waltz performing with gusto.
How demanding is it, I wonder, to play someone who is always “on”? In keeping with many of Waltz’s best known characters like his terrifying SS officer Colonel Hans Landa in Inglorious Basterds, Walter is an expansive personality with a florid turn-of-phrase.
“Of course it requires a lot of energy,” says Waltz. “Playing a role altogether requires energy. The most important part of the job is to find the specific kind of energy that you’re trying to employ.”
As for the language, Waltz’s facility with words and almost musical delivery marks him out as a screenwriter’s dream. It’s surely one reason Tarantino plucked him from “schlocky TV”, in Waltz’s words, to deliver his memorable dialogue in Inglorious Basterds and subsequently Django in which he played a German bounty hunter in the slave-owning Deep South.
“We’re all to various degrees dependent on words so it’s an interesting aspect of our existence,” says Waltz who is fluent in German, English and French (and spoke all three in the Tarantino movies). “Language is a passion of mine.”
He was familiar with the “big eyes” artwork but knew nothing of the true story before signing on and was reluctant to probe beyond what was in the screenplay. Playing a real person makes him feel uncomfortable even if, as in this instance, that person is no longer alive (Walter died in 2000, broke and bitter).
“It bestows a certain responsibility that an actor shouldn’t have,” he explains. “An actor should have a responsibility to the character and not so much to the real person. An actor is not a biographer. I don’t want to have an opinion about the real person because it puts me in a pickle.”
However, he is prepared to divulge an opinion on Walter’s work – or rather Margaret’s. In the film Terence Stamp plays New York Times art critic John Canaday who fulminated at the public’s appetite for such kitsch “hack work”.
Says Waltz, who was born in Vienna to an artistic family (his father was a set designer, his mother a costume designer): “I identify with the art critic in that respect. Most certainly.”
Walter is another plum role for Waltz following his breakthrough, aged 53, in Inglorious Basterds for which he won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar; he won the same award in 2012 for Django. Earlier this month he was honoured with a star on the the Hollywood Walk Of Fame.
Did he ever conceive such a level of stardom for himself during his years of largely unheralded work in Germany and Austria? He studied acting at the Max Reinhardt Seminar in Vienna and for 35 years worked mainly in German language productions on stage and television.
“Of course not. I mean, come off it,” he says. “I might be conceited but I’m not stupid!” Were it not for Tarantino, he says, he would be in Germany doing “classical plays or schlocky TV”. He now lives mostly in Los Angeles with his second wife, Judith Holste.
By the Nineties, the long years of relative obscurity had begun to take their toll and Waltz considered alternative career paths. “I must admit frustration set in,” he says. “I was looking for a way out of acting and it wasn’t that easy. Not out of this profession but to start directing or writing because I didn’t feel that I could continue exclusively with acting. Anyway, that was taken care of by Quentin.”
Directing is still something that appeals (he’s directed for German television) but Waltz admits that “it would be kind of preposterous to say I forgo working with one of the masters to be a dilettante.” The directors who have hired him since Tarantino include Roman Polanski (Carnage), Terry Gilliam (The Zero Therom) and Harry Potter supremo David Yates (the upcoming Tarzan).
Back to those lists that infuriate him so much. As a winner of two Oscars, does he not have some appreciation for such distinctions?
“I’m flattered, I’m honoured but it doesn’t change what I do with my life. I think there’s too much attention given to awards and accolades.”
The Oscars, I venture, are a bit like Christmas – spoilt by all the endless fuss beforehand. “You have a point. And you’re talking to probably the biggest enemy of Christmas ever” he admits.
It seems a fitting moment to wrap things up. Waltz agrees. “With heartfelt bah humbug we finish the interview,” he chuckles.