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.”
When I tell Waltz that his late-career stardom — along with the attendant Oscar buzz — reminds me of the American actor F. Murray Abraham, who, until winning the Best Actor Oscar at 46 for Amadeus, was best known to audiences for playing the talking leaf in a series of Fruit of the Loom underwear commercials, he counters that he himself starred (as Mozart) in a stage production of Amadeus, in Zurich, at the age of 24. Waltz had recently returned to Europe after studying at the Actors Studio in New York, where he developed little affection for the Method (“I didn’t really like this orthodoxy”) but greatly enjoyed studying script interpretation with the legendary Stella Adler. “I’m fourth-generation theater in my family,” says Waltz, whose parents were theatrical set– and costume designers and whose maternal grandparents were both actors. “I tried to avoid it, but in the end I sort of caved in.”
Playing Hamlet onstage in his late 20s for the acclaimed Swiss director Benno Besson, however, Waltz had a crisis of confidence, wondering if he was really destined to be an actor or had simply taken the path of least resistance. “I remember one occasion in rehearsal, where I said, ‘I don’t think I can do it. I just don’t think I have enough. And at the age of 27, that is really a sort of existential moment.” When similar thoughts began to cloud Waltz’s mind during the making of Inglourious Basterds, he was considerably less panicked.
“I’m not so driven by fear to fail anymore,” he says with audible relief. “I’ve failed. I know how it is to fail. It’s not such a tragedy. You know, sometimes one has this fantasy, ‘If I could relive the past 20 years of my life knowing what I know today. …’ And in a way, working with Quentin had this quality, because after 30-odd years, you know what you have at your disposal, but you don’t know whether you have more or not. So, you have a firm stock to rely on and now you can venture out farther. Brad Pitt asked me, ‘How do you like this?’ And I said, ‘I feel like an old man falling in love with a young girl after having given up on love altogether.’ ”
Thanks to Tarantino, film fans now have a chance to fall in love with Christoph Waltz. Since Cannes, he’s landed an American agent, whom he calls “a smart cookie,” and notes that these days he finds himself with more offers from Hollywood than from Europe. “In Germany, people are scared now — I don’t know of what, but they don’t know how to deal with it,” he says with a Landalike grin. “But America’s different. They smell something that they can do, so this energy is really picking up. Doors are starting to open — they don’t even creak.”