Interview: Christoph Waltz of 'Django Unchained'
On big acting, bad acting, and riding a strangely updated 'Old West' ...
With elegant diction and Old World manners unmistakable even as he's clad in the hats and coats of the New West, Dr. King Schultz drives "Django Unchained," recruiting Jamie Foxx's freed slave Django to his bounty-hunting operation and kicking off the consequences that then unfold in Quentin Tarantino's latest film. Actor Christoph Waltz plays Schultz, a more likable version of the talky amoral killer he played in "Inglourious Basterds," Col. Hans Landa. We spoke with Waltz by phone about working with Tarantino, wearing Western garb and his approach to the work of acting.
MSN Movies: I read somewhere that essentially you were sort of being invited-slash-summoned to Mr. Tarantino's home to read King Schultz as he was writing the part. And when you have a writer/director so renowned making stuff that specifically that he has your cadences and presentation in mind, how much of a gift is that?
Christoph Waltz: It's as big a gift as you can ever get. However, having said that, there is a danger lurking that you can kind of take for granted that everything is coming your way automatically, and that would be extremely unfair to the author, the character, and the work you're supposed to do. So with the self-consciousness and sort of honor about the honor being bestowed on me, I felt it puts and extra responsibility on me because I can't say, "Well he wrote it for me. He gave it to me. It's all mine. And I don't need to really make a big effort to understand what it's all about because it was written for me, and therefore it must be already in my pocket." Well, it isn't. He put it in front of me and not inside of me, and I needed to do the work that was required to understand what was going on. And because I was so afraid of falling into the trap of taking anything for granted or repeating anything or reverting to anything that has proven to be workable, practicable, or even successful, I kind of felt that it was my responsibility to make an extra effort to do fairly the work that I would've done anyway.
As a clumsy analogy, is it like suggesting that while Mr. Tarantino made you a bespoke suit, you still have to put it on and make the best effort to wear it right?
Well, that's not such a far-fetched analogy at all. Yes, it was a bespoke suit, but he didn't promise to wear it for me exactly. And yes it fits better, but that doesn't mean that everything else follows on its own.
Being one of the people in this film with experience on Mr. Tarantino's films, did you ever find yourself officially or unofficially talking to the other actors about, "No, no. This is how it works"?
(Laughs) Never. Never.
We don't even have to delve into it or go any further into it. No, of course not. I mean who am I to interfere with other people's work just because I was lucky enough to have worked with him before? And even luckier, as you put it, to have a suit tailored for me, does not even remotely give me the right to interfere with somebody else's work. Apart from the fact that it's stupid to interfere with other people because one of the things that you can actually really gain from collaboration is their completely individual approach. There's only one group of people that all choose, or not choose but take the same approach, and that's the Army when they march in a group.
We're not that. We come from as many different angles and points of departure as possible. so I would not only be obnoxiously stupid, but I would shoot myself in the foot.
I don't think anyone would suggest either those things.
(Laughs) But it also would be outrageously disrespectful.
Let me ask you, King Schultz has that great flair for the theatrical whether it's introducing Fritz or stating his business in this sort of loping, gentle, hypnotic rhythms of his speech patterns. But while that stuff is fun, we also get to watch King Schultz become a very different and a very moral person in the film.
Is it nice to know that at the end of the day for all of the gunplay and sweeping grand gestures and showiness there's an emotional core of the character that makes the character's part in the story more than merely procedural, just walking around events?
Well, I mean, it wouldn’t be a real character where it'd only be procedural. And the other side of the character, as you put it, I always find the other side the one that one should put in focus because there's no such thing as a one-dimensional human being. And despite the sense of showmanship, it only is bearable if there is another side other than that. Without that it would be hard to take I think because it would be just an a**hole prancing around somebody else's story.
And I don’t think anybody wants that. I mean Mr. Foxx, he certainly has experience as a rider; he's riding his own horse in the film. When I read that fact, I was curious about your level of comfort or experience with all of the physical accoutrements of Western-style cinema. Did you get along well with your horse? Did you enjoy your long duster coat or did you just find it tedious?
Well, I found it heavy and warm, especially in Louisiana in June. But it was not unbearable. There's a fur coat -- in the snow when we started work at minus 28 degrees Fahrenheit -- it was a welcome addition to my costume. But no, I was riding before. I was not an expert horseman, but I've ridden for a long time off and on but not that style of riding so that needed to be acquired. I have a strong objection against firearms so that needed to be acquired, that skill I mean. And we had the most fabulous instructor, who holds the world record in quick draw and has held it for a long time and can shoot a gun, draw, cock, shoot, hit the target about the size of a silver dollar at the distance of 20 feet within 5/100 of a second.
That's an ominous degree of skill.
It's unbelievable. The man shot his gun, he fired two shots, but you could only hear one because the second shot went straight into the sound of the first. And I literally did not believe that he had shot two rounds, and he showed me the chamber and there were two cartridges fired.
When you get up on a horse and you have your gun, is it hard for your inner kid to not have a smile when you younger playing cowboys and Indians?
(Laughs) It's very hard not to have a smile. You're absolutely right. Especially when you walk off and you have sat in your saddle for a few hours, you get off and you walk off, and you walk off like a cowboy. Then yes, you cannot suppress a smile. (Laughs)
In terms of reading the script, and it's always very interesting to me that you can tell when somebody's a great actor when they're a bad actor. And there are several characters in this who, by virtue of what they have to do, have to act and do so badly. You're certainly better than Mr. Jackson's character or Mr. Washington's character, but do you find there's a pleasure in bad acting as part of a performance when a character has to lie or pose or put on a con?
It's always difficult to find the degree that that makes sense, you know? It's always very difficult. How much do you let the audience know that you're acting? How much is it necessary for the story to be perceivable that you're acting or lying or whatever because it sort of raises the bar considerably and the trap opens very wide that you could fall into. So it's very difficult to make the choice and to kind of draw the line. And usually you just try out. That's what rehearsals are good for. You try out how far. How far can I get? How far can I take it without becoming just signaling, therefore truly bad acting and not bad acting once removed? So it's a matter of rehearsal really.
When you're watching Mr. Tarantino direct, what's the number one thing you're curious about in terms of his process?
How he picks it up -- it remains a mystery to me how he picks it up because he's fabulously discreet when he directs. He never yells across the floor his directions. He's coming up and whispering in your ear, and it's a very private thing. And that privacy makes it that much more powerful because the direction is only for you. It's not a general direction. It's for you alone, so nobody else has to hear it. And I've seen him whisper in actors' ears a sentence in a half and turn the performance around. So that is as I said a mystery, but that's the thing that I admire unconditionally.
Have you had a superfluity of people intrigued by your career after "Inglorious Bastards" who didn't quite seem to get it or, rather, were enthusiastically trying to get you to go back into the kind of box you had been in already?
No, no actually. I'm happy to say no. It's remained on a fairly consistent and clear progression. Yes, sometimes people will want to just repeat because they look at the figures like, "Hey, that movie made money. He can do the same thing for me." But that, in a way, is up to them. I don't have to buy into it. But all in all, I'm quite flattered and honored that I'm being sort of evaluated as a craftsman than a moneymaker and a problem-solver more than a figure in the bank.
Right. You're not a rainmaker who can bring box office but people are looking for you to liven up with performance for the overall quality of the film.
Yeah, and they entrust me with difficult and challenging tasks, and that's what I'm interested in.
It is of course the end of the year, and I'm curious what piece of filmmaking did you enjoy most this year that you were lucky enough to see as a member of the viewing public?
To my shame, I have to admit I saw very little, very little, because I was very busy all year. We shot until July on "Django" and then I went shortly after into the Terry Gilliam movie, and I don't watch movies while I'm working because I find movies very powerful and they pull me out of what I want to concentrate on. So I've seen very, very little and now that I'm finished with everything I can try to catch up. I've seen "The Master," and I was really impressed by it.