You should expect to see Christoph Waltz’s name when Oscar nominations are announced in a few months. His indelible performance as Nazi inspector Hans Landa in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds this summer is still reverberating throughout Hollywood, which was a huge factor in his being tapped to replace Nicolas Cage as a Soviet villain in Michel Gondry’s version of The Green Hornet. After spending 30 years working as a journeyman actor in Austria’s thriving but small film and television scene, Waltz spoke with Vulture about his newfound American recognition, what it’s like filming a comic-book movie, working with Quentin, and the essence of being so villainous.
What did you think when you got the call to replace Nic Cage as the villain in The Green Hornet?
Now I was a bit, a bit surprised to say the least, why they would want me as a comic-book villain, because it’s not something that I’m terribly familiar with. I wasn’t familiar with it at all. And then, it had to happen kind of quick and they mailed me the script, and I was on a vacation in Spain. And I read it. And my agent had read it at the same time and the next day we talked on the phone and I said, “Sorry, I don’t get it.” And he said, “You know what I thought when I read it?” I said “What?” He’s like, “I don’t get it.” [Laughs]
Now I do. Now I met the people. It’s Michel Gondry directing. It’s Seth Rogen who is this really smart kid. And actually, it’s his smartness that intrigued me about the whole thing. And Evan Goldberg is sort of his sidekick. No, that’s a nasty thing to say, co-writer! And Neal Moritz, the producer. I spoke to him very briefly on the phone when I was in Spain. I said, “Look, I’m sorry, I find it hard to find my approach to this.” And he said, “Oh, well you have to keep in mind that we want sort of a villain in his midlife crisis.” And I loved that! Exactly, that turned the switch.
Do you worry about being typecast as a villain after receiving so much recognition as Hans Landa in Inglourious Basterds?
Well, I don’t personally disagree with calling him a villain. That doesn’t mean that I call him a villain.
What do you call him?
I just call him by his name, you know, Landa. I’ve been asked frequently about that, “How do you play a Nazi?” And you know, it’s the villain question taken to the cliché extreme. How do you play a villain? How do you play a Nazi? I don’t know. You know what? I don’t care. That’s not what I’m after. You know, try to be serious about it, try to be grown-up about it a little bit. Approach it, you know, not scientifically, it’s not a science, but like a conundrum — like an issue worth dealing with responsibly, attentively, carefully, where you can apply, or should apply, everything that you have in order to detect, find out what it is that it says on the page rather than all the nice things that come to mind about how I could do that.
Why do you think Quentin was able to get such a tremendous performance out of you?
You see, I don’t know. I’m still trying to figure it out. I said to Quentin once, “Why is it that I’ve never seen a bad performance in one of your movies?” Even from actors — well, you know my belief is there’s no such thing as great actor, good actor, bad actor. And Quentin’s movies are the perfect proof for that. Because when someone is right, he or she is right. And only then can she be good. And with Quentin, I don’t know the way he casts, the way he looks at people, but also, you know, the way he writes his parts, every single part is a great part. There are no lousy parts in Quentin’s movies. So if you find the right person for a good part, it’s bound, it’s inevitable, that it will be a good performance because those are the requirements. So he said, “Yeah, why is it?” And I said, “You know, I think you don’t expose actors to the necessity of bad acting.”
He’s after your experience and not after the ham actor who shows off what he can do, virtuoso kind of bullshit. Not at all, not at all. He’s after your experience and he doesn’t evaluate, he does not label. That’s why I hesitate to call Landa a villain.
What would you say are the big differences for an actor being in a European film production versus an American film production?
Well, in Hollywood, it’s infinitely more professional; it’s therefore infinitely more fun. People know exactly what they’re doing and so they don’t interfere. I can tell you one significant difference, and maybe it all comes down to that. It’s my personal feeling, and I don’t know if it holds water or not, well who cares anyway. I think in Europe, movies are made like a commodity, and then sold as art. Here, I have the feeling, they are made as art, and sold as a commodity.
Why is that?
Well, because everybody takes such pride in what they are doing. And they don’t do it negligently. They don’t do it casually. It’s not just economic pressure, that if you do your job badly then you will lose it. Maybe that has something to do with it. We all know that the economy plays a vitally important part in everything, even in marriages or maybe especially in marriages, so why would it be different in professional life? But they take pride, the ones that I have the good fortune to work with, in what they are doing. They want to excel. They want to do the best they can and possibly better. And that is a drive forward, and that drive has energy, and that is beautiful.
You’ve said working on Basterds was this kind of 30-year culmination. It is also being well received. Your performance has been recognized and rewarded. Would it have all been worth it if it had not been recognized?
The recognition is fantastic. It is reassuring. It is reassuring that I kind of consoled my frustration, a little bit — sounds somewhat dramatic, but it is — by telling myself, “If one person sees what you’re trying to do, it is perceivable, and therefore you’ve done it.” Still, you know, human nature is not that pure, to be satisfied and content with that one person. Yet I was relying a lot on “the chosen few,” — “chosen,” “enlightened,” who am I to tell? — that hidden arrogant streak in me.
So you’re enjoying the fame?
Fame, in a way, from my perspective, would be to presuppose that. To experience it right there and then has nothing to do with fame — you know, it’s just fun and energy and excitement and addictive. So I’m glad to be 53 and not, you know, trade something. Because I think I would fall into the addiction. I used to hate exposure situations. What is generally referred to as “red carpet.” You know you get a photo call. Ten flashing lights are a nuisance, but 500 are fantastic.
I don’t think I can even imagine.
No, you can’t. You just can’t. It’s fantastic.