Mr. Beaks Squares Off With INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS' Christoph Waltz!
Published at: Aug. 21, 2009, 1 p.m. CST by mrbeaks
Just when you think you've seen every conceivable type of Nazi villainy, along comes Colonel Hans Landa, the calabash-puffing, milk-chugging "Jew Hunter" of Quentin Tarantino's World War II fantasy, INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS. From the film's very first scene, in which Landa deliberately convinces a French dairy farmer to give up the Jewish family he's hiding beneath his house's floorboards, you can't help but be a little taken with this monster. Though the content of Landa's extended monologue is repugnant (his credits his Jew-hunting success to his ability to think like a rat), the delivery of it is captivating; in another life (perhaps in the one he left behind when his country went to war), Landa might've been the German Sherlock Holmes.
This was always going to be the plum role of INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS, but no one could've expected a performance as dexterous or iconic as the one turned in by Christoph Waltz. This is partially because very few people outside of Europe were aware of his thirty-two-year body of work. But even if we'd been familiar with Waltz's past performances, it's unlikely we could've anticipated the fifty-two-year-old actor giving us one of the most charismatic and complex human predators since Anthony Hopkins's Dr. Hannibal Lecter.
Just don't call Landa a sociopath in Waltz's presence; he has no interest in explaining away Landa's twisted deeds that easily. To his mind, Landa is something altogether more noxious: he's a social virtuoso; a man who can thrive in any environment. Waltz is full of interesting ideas like this. I hope you enjoy our lively little discussion.
(Warning: Spoilers are discussed throughout.)
Mr. Beaks: The thing that gets me about Landa is that I can't help but like the guy on some level. I'm always most engaged with the film when he's onscreen.
Christoph Waltz: And how does that make you feel?
Beaks: It's very disturbing.
Waltz: Isn't it? That's fantastic.
Beaks: He's just so eloquent. And so incredibly strategic in the way he lures people into his web. In a way, he's kind of like a TV private investigator like Columbo or something. He feigns aloofness or silliness, and that disarms people.
Waltz: Absolutely. I agree. And it is all on the page. I didn't need to build anything. It's all Quentin's invention. It's fantastic. I think you can really busy yourself endlessly with the script. So in terms of preparation, it's butt in seat.
Beaks: I've read that you don't get too method in building your characters. When you get the script, do you pretty much have the character right then and there?
Waltz: That's what I like to do. Technically, it's not the most sensational way, but it's my preferred way of doing it. I don't need to skin beavers to play an indian; I don't need to live in a teepee for half a year. Apart from the fact that playing this kind of character, you'd be hard pressed to find the right thing to do. How do you get accustomed to finding hidden people?
You know, humans have this wonderful device: their fantasy. They can go back to that. What would be "if"? The much-quoted, magic "if". But that's already the second step. The first step is to find out what it actually means that is on the page. "What is it?" And "How do I do it?", I'm really not that interested in, because if I really know what it is, how I do it will follow.
Beaks: You've said you just like to get out of the way.
Waltz: That, in a nutshell, is my philosophy. Find out what it is, and then get out of the way. Because I find a lot of acting these days with the emphasis on virtuosity - which I admire greatly, but it gets on my nerves endlessly. Even in musicians. [pianist] Lang Lang has perfect technique, but I kind of get bored with perfect technique. You don't want perfection; you want humanity. You want the old guys, like Leon Fleisher. Or Alfred Brendel playing Schubert. That's probably not perfect technique. I don't know. I really don't know anything about it. But you feel the interest in what the music is supposed to tell me as a human. And where it's coming from. Sitting in a concert, I actually cherish the moment when I detect that something didn't go quite perfectly; it makes me sort of participate in something from one human to another. When Lang Lang plays these immense virtuoso Chopin things, I'm just... (Snores).
Beaks: But in film, those imperfections get cut out. There are no false notes if the actor is doing their job.
Waltz: Exactly. So get out of the way. Don't give me Lang Lang. Give me Chopin.
Beaks: And that's still fun for you?
Waltz: Still? That's where the fun is! Because then you can dance. If you think the culture of the Western world rests on your shoulders, how can you dance? That's too much weight. I like it light-footed. In this specific case, Quentin actually facilitates that. He intends that. Everything is in there. With Landa, this light-footedness is a very, very important quality. I don't occupy myself too much with "Is it bad?" or "Is it good?" That's your job as a critic or an audience. It's not mine.
Beaks: I know that Quentin likes to show a lot of movies or reference them for his actors when he's working on a film. Did he point you in the direction of any specific actors?
Waltz: He asked me whether I wanted to, and I said, "No thanks very much! I'd like to stick with what you've written." And he said (Extremely deferential), "Oh, that's cool." He doesn't pressure you into doing anything. That's not how he works. He inspires you. Now, I'm more compelled to ask him if he could suggest [a movie].
Beaks: Is that just to see how he might've envisioned the character using previous performances as a reference?
Waltz: That's not so much the question. Just because he knows so many movies that I've never heard of, and that I might be interested to see. He's got one of those encyclopedic film minds. I mean, we've seen a few films, too, but he knows everything!
Beaks: I know that your pipe was written in the script.
Waltz: It's a calabash. He wrote "calabash" in the script.
Beaks: So when you've got this wonderful prop to use, how do you not let it dwarf your character? It's so ostentatious.
Waltz: In the script, the calabash appears a few more times. But after we used it, we discussed whether the calabash should come back. Is Landa really someone who'd smoke a pipe like that? Because if he doesn't, the use of it in the first scene makes it something else. And we both kind of liked that. The [farmer] says, "Can I smoke my pipe?" And then [Landa] says, "Can I smoke my pipe as well?" And out comes this calabash with this lofty little sound effect that they put on. And now this poor guy is completely taken aback. "I smoke a pipe, but when this guy smokes a pipe, he really smokes a pipe."
Do you know where the calabash comes from? Sherlock Holmes.
Beaks: Which brings us back to the private investigator angle.
Beaks: Landa really enjoys the game. Interrogation is thrilling for him. Given what he's going after, do you think this makes him a sociopath?
Waltz: Quite the contrary. He's not a sociopath at all. He just understands how society works. Not everybody who understands how society works - who does not subject themselves to these mechanisms - is a sociopath. He's a step ahead. I'd say three steps ahead. And how he interacts with everybody, how he can switch on a social level from one layer to the next - to talk to the farmer like he would talk to a farmer - to reassure him. And to talk to a movie star like he would talk to a movie star. That is socially adept on a high level. That's not sociopathic.
Beaks: How do you think he came to that understanding?
Waltz: Landa? I don't know. Let's go ask. I know him personally. We can go and ask him!
Beaks: (Laughing) I ask because there's that line in the script where he says, "I'm aware what tremendous feats human beings are capable of once they abandon dignity." How does he know that? Is he speaking to something in his past? Did you think about that?
Waltz: Yes, I did think about it. I have a sort of convoluted theory that, to tell the truth, is too complicated to disclose. In the wake of the emergence of cognitive sciences, this whole thing came in motion that philosophers and psychologists and neurologists started to discuss that there is no defined reality. Reality as we perceive it is actually a construction. And language plays an important part in it. Language has a transformative quality. Language can cause reality into existence. If you think of it, especially we who work in media, how we use language to create a form of reality that is considered the reality. Whereas why would that be reality when something else isn't? This whole thing is a bit complex, but that links a bit to your idea about the sociopath, whereas I say he is a social virtuoso. These quantum leaps he can take between various layers of reality.
Beaks: So he's a master pianist in a way. And this is actually his masterpiece.
Waltz: Well, this is what he does. This is not his masterpiece. This is just one segment of his story. There was a lot before, and there is a lot after. He is coming from somewhere, and he doesn't die. And he now has a swastika on his forehead. That will change a few things. But he will continue. So that is up to your fantasy.
Beaks: What a challenge for him now, to have this stamped on his forehead and then to still be able to proceed in society and... perhaps thrive?
Waltz: Yeah, absolutely. It should be interesting to see.
Beaks: So what do you do now with the acclaim you've earned for this role? I guess it's the old question. Are the offers pouring in? Is Hollywood taking an interest?
Waltz: An interest? Absolutely. And the interest is really flattering. In a way, it's overwhelming. It's left me bedazzled. That is something that I really admire about this culture, this interest in talent. "What can we do with this?" There are now possibilities. "Let's use him!" Where I come from, things like that are rather dealt with in a complacent way. We have what we have, and we protect this. And that's why not all that much is coming out of it. They kind of go through the motions - in general. There are exceptions. But they never really go out of their way to venture into the unknown. Here, it's different. They really lap it up. They jump on it. We'll see. But the fact that they are so interested in possibilities is fascinating.
And with Christoph Waltz, the possibilities seem endless. So go see INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS this weekend and check out the performance of the year.