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Christoph Waltz remembers exactly where he was when he learned he had won the role of the grandiloquent, polyglot SS Colonel Hans Landa in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. He was on vacation in Tuscany, sitting on the terrace, reading a biography of the Austrian conductor Carlos Kleiber, when he stepped out onto the lawn to take a call from Tarantino’s German casting director, Simone Bär. “She said, ‘I have someone on the phone for you,’ so my heart started to beat a bit faster,” Waltz recalls. “Then Quentin came on and said, ‘I’m just calling to tell you you’re my man.’ ” And at that exact moment, Waltz put his bare foot down on a stinging thistle. “So I was sort of torn between the burn in my ear and the burn in my heel!” he laughs.
It’s a story the Austrian-born Waltz (who now divides his time between London and Berlin) clearly relishes, because it adds to the inherent drama of his overnight transformation from gainfully employed character actor to award-winning leading man. It’s a familiar part of the Tarantino mythos — the director plucks a faded, middle-aged star from the brink of obscurity and restores him or her to their former glory. Only, unlike John Travolta, Pam Grier and David Carradine before him, the 52-year-old Waltz was never that kind of star in the first place. Although he has worked steadily in film, theater and television since his late teens, even collecting a handful of prestigious prizes along the way, his most prolific roles have been in British and German TV productions unseen outside Europe and in incredibly schlocky direct-to-video movies of the sort every Tarantino actor seems obliged to have on his résumé. Presumably, it’s those roles, like the coup-minded Kazakh terrorist he played in 2000’s poverty-row espionage drama, Queen’s Messenger, that the soft-spoken, erudite Waltz has in mind when he says that an acting career can make you miserable. “It becomes work, it becomes making a living, it becomes unpleasant a lot because you work with people who don’t like you and tell you it’s all wrong,” he says in the lobby bar of the Four Seasons Hotel on the afternoon of Inglourious Basterds’ L.A. premiere.
Working with Tarantino, however, was “a whole different ball game.” When Waltz was first invited to audition for the role that would eventually win him the Cannes Film Festival’s Best Actor prize, he thought that he was actually being considered for a lesser role. Then Bär told him, “ ‘No, it’s for this part,’ and I thought, somehow this is odd, but I like this oddity. I found it very attractive.”
Still, Waltz admits, upon first reading Tarantino’s script, he had some reservations. “Not that I thought it wasn’t good, especially this first scene,” he says of Landa’s show-stopping entrance, interrogating a rural French family believed to be sheltering a family of Jews on their dairy farm. “But after the first reading, I thought, I’m just the old Nazi.”
So Waltz did some homework, rewatching in chronological order all of Tarantino’s movies on DVD. “Of course, I’d seen them before,” he says, “but I studied them in this context, to kind of recapitulate the development, and I arrived at Death Proof — for 40 minutes, these girls are driving and talking and talking and driving, and I couldn’t believe it. I had seen it in the theater, but I couldn’t quite recall the extent of this dialogue. And all of a sudden it clicked: We’re talking about art. He uses genre for his art.”
Waltz also has high praise for Inglourious Basterds’ cheerful historical irreverence, coming after a long line of humorless, dogmatic World War II movies that, despite taking their own frequently gratuitous liberties with the facts, bore the all-important escape clause: “Based on a true story.” (Tarantino, by contrast, begins Inglourious Basterds with “once upon a time.”) “A movie does not tell the truth, by definition, apart from the fact that there are more learned discussions going on here about whether there is anything like the truth anyway,” Waltz says. “Many of these movies abuse history for their own purposes. They’re not after facts — a documentary, maybe, but even then, is that the truth or is it a take? It has to be a take, because the moment you set up a camera and put in a lens, you select, and by selection you shape.”
For his part, Tarantino has said that Waltz was one of the only non–native English speakers to audition who could perform his lines the way he intended them to be spoken — with a certain musicality and flair. It helped that, in addition to German and English, Waltz is also fluent in French and Italian, given that Landa is required to speak all four interchangeably over the course of the film. “He uses language to establish a world, or a reality, if you want,” Waltz says. “This man has language at his disposal to the degree where he can actually juggle with reality. Whereas the others are somewhat stumbling through their layer of reality, he can pinpoint things by using the right language, and this is just incredible.”
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