Christoph Waltz stars in “Django Unchained.”
by Brad Balfour
When Vienna-born Christoph Waltz got the part of Nazi Colonel Hans Landa in Inglourious Basterds, few thought this Austrian actor – well known back home, but a question mark for film fans here – would so define a character and himself through this Quentin Tarantino film. Now with Django Unchained, Tarantino has done for Blacks what he did for Jews – make a film that turns a sad history on its head and offers its actors a chance to create career defining characters.
In Django Unchained, the 56-year-old Waltz plays King Schultz, a bounty hunter endowed with a fine turn of phrase and a quick gun... as well as a willingness to stand on the good side when it serves him.
Set in the pre-Civil War Deep South and Old West, the film follows freed slave Django (Jamie Foxx) on a mission with Schultz, the man who liberated him, to rescue his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). This is hard, because they have to liberate her from a cruel, charismatic plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his right-hand man, senior house slave Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson). In the process, Django and Schultz take down a lot of slavers, their lackeys, and racist supporters, crescendoing into the final showdown between slave and master.
Such good work by Waltz, among others in the cast, proves that lightning can strike twice. Waltz has again been rewarded with numerous nominations for Supporting Actor, including this year’s Oscar.
Culled from a roundtable and press conference, this Q&A is true to this actor’s words and retains his unique diction, while being fine-tuned a bit for the better read.
This is your second time working with Quentin Tarantino having done Inglourious Basterds. Do you feel more relaxed on the set? Is it easier now?
I feel more relaxed, yes. Is it easier? Not particularly. It was a whole different set up. We were on his turf. Before we were on my turf, so to say. Everything was different. I was a little worried about repeating a great experience. Of course, there’s always a tendency because it went so well and it felt so good that you want to get more, but that’s probably the first alarm bell that you should listen to. If the thing demands its own right and you should be flexible enough to realize that.
Did you have any external sources you used to help you further develop your character?
In a way I think “outside source” is a contradiction in terms. I can only speak for myself, but the source is the script. The script has a source; I can point it out to you. [He points at Tarantino’s head.]
How much input did you have in creating your character?
I didn’t create him, but I'm playing him. I had no choice but had to exercise personal input because the poor character had no [way] to escape me. Though it’s me who plays him, I don’t claim to have input in Quentin’s writing. It would be very silly [for me to do that] because Quentin is a fantastic writer. It’s like imagining this little guy with a chisel and a hammer standing next to Michelangelo and saying, “Well I think you should do this…” No!
In this instance, is it like Michelangelo is making the piece while showing it to you?
I choose to use a bit of an extreme example. Quentin showed me what he had written, immediately after but not while he was writing it. He showed it to me in portions, whenever he had 20 pages done. As they came out of the printer, he showed them to me, and I read them. I marveled [at it] then wondered and was perplexed and then I shut up. I said, “I’m very curious how it continues” and Quentin said, “Me too.”
Did you like the part and your responsibility to him?
It’s not my own responsibility – the character is not my sole responsibility.
Did you speak with Quentin about the Siegfried story – which you outline at one point in the film – since it is part of a Germanic tradition?
Well Siegfried is not such an unknown story that it needs elaboration.
The character is so unique for a bounty hunter. Was there any person you turned to for inspiration?
Not at all. But yes, he’s an original. I didn’t put a dash of Clint Eastwood and two-thirds of Marlon Brando in there and then you shake it, stir it, and serve it cold. At least, I don’t think I did. Maybe there are actors who choose that way as a process. I know of one in the Austrian theater [community] and he comes to all of his performances after he travels around and gets movies of the play he’s about to do, looks at them all and then picks [his approach]. I find that boring and also unfair. Quentin didn’t write the part with proportions of other elements in it. He wrote a part [that was his own invention].
Was that sophisticated parlay of yours in the script performed word-by-word?
Yes of course.
You didn’t add anything when you were on the set?
No, this is serious work. This is not silly play acting. This is the real thing. It doesn’t get any realer than that. [It’s not like,] “Let’s play Pushkin but let’s make up our own Pushkin.” Maybe you haven’t heard of him, he was a writer back then, let’s just improvise on it. No. Why use Pushkin? Do your own. If I have a script like Quentin’s why would I try to drag it down? I’m busy trying to live up to it. That’s happening in a lot of branches of popular culture. They call it ripping and it’s ripping the original apart. They justify it through critical theory and post-modernism and deconstruction. Quentin doesn’t get any better than that script?
How would you describe your character?
I don’t for similar reasons. I don’t like to describe him because I infringe on your experience. I do this with the main goal to offer you on screen [someone] literally for your projection. That’s the very basic function of storytelling from the cave to today. To grasp our existence and give it some form where it becomes tangible. We can try and place ourselves in situations where we don’t have to suffer the consequences because it’s a story. That happens in the mind, but it happens in your mind, not in mine when you go to see the movie. When I play the character, it happens in my mind and the difficulty is to find out how to direct these thought processes into the right direction that’s in the interest of the creators and offer [the character] all the possibilities to shape this story for you to experience. I see it maybe differently than usual and I think there’s a responsibility involved. in making movies that is less for you than about you.
This film has fueled a lot of discussion for the use of the N-word...
What’s the N-word?
Thank you for saying it. There are many N-words as I learned from Sam Jackson. “What do you mean N-word? Nothing, nowhere?”
Do you feel this is an American discussion rather than one conducted by a European?
It’s an American discussion, you know why? We can have an opinion and we do whether we like it or not. As a discussion in America, it’s an American discussion. I, as a European, cannot come to America and all of a sudden say, “Let me participate in your discussion.” Why would I do it?
Well, it translates to Europe.
It doesn’t. We don’t enslave the immigrants. We don’t own them. We might treat them badly but that’s a big difference. They have rights. It’s a free country. There is no comparison. I find the comparison profane and ridiculous. Slavery is a dimension far beyond our grasp and that’s why I think we don’t have the right to interfere.
You seemed to be the only good white guy in the film. Is that a depiction of what it was like back then?
Probably not, but in telling a story, you cannot tell it by finding the appropriate average. You take pars pro toto [ed. note: That is Latin for "a part (taken) for the whole"] because you’re not talking about statistics. We’re talking about a story. We’re not talking about that kind of reality; we’re talking about another kind of reality. What you see on the screen is another kind of reality. Again, it ties into this thing: why tell stories at all? Why do we read stories to our children? They offer the opportunity to check our position on Earth against other categories that we don’t really have a grasp of. To finish, I believe I have no right in participating in the discussion, because I don’t know the finer connotations. I know what I consider facts that are learned but there’s a notion in between. I come from Austria. There’s something more immediate to deal with than slavery. We’re busy with that. It’s fantastically interesting.
A new book by Goldman comes out where he actually discusses Polish participation in persecution and extermination of Jews after the end of the second World War. That’s a European issue. When they shot Valkyrie in Berlin, it happened again and again that Americans lectured Germans about 1944, Stauffenberg, 20th July. We got explained our history. You could tell. It was so interesting, and they weren’t really wrong. They were informed but they had no tie, no emotional tie. That’s exactly how I feel about this position here. I have an opinion. I know certain facts. I have no right to participate because I don’t know the really fine points and I have no emotional connection to it. I disagree with that... and this ties in with the deconstruction discussion... I have no intention of claiming this post-modern generality where everything is for everybody. Everything is there to grab and make of it whatever you wish because it’s all the same. It’s not. I want to be specific, as specific as possible, and I cannot be as specific as this topic would require.
How was it working with Leo?
I don’t believe in good actors and bad actors. I might have said something along those lines, but I didn’t say he’s a good actor. I don’t believe there is such a thing as ‘a good actor’ and ‘a bad actor.’ You have actors, and Leo is certainly one among them who can depict and embody a character believably, engagingly more often than not. Others might be more no than yes. But all of that is pretty academic and it’s the moment that counts. It’s the fact that a movie catches a moment, and you can repeat that moment. That makes it more confusing. On stage, you can see that much better. Is the person that sucks that evening a good actor or a bad actor? It’s hard to tell because maybe he had a terrible day. Maybe he had diarrhea and he needed to run out and it ruined the performance and once he’s gotten over it, he’s fantastic. What do you go by? Leo is a joy to work with and a joy to be with. He’s imaginative and awake and finds solutions and turns thoughts and moods into plays. He plays this like a virtuoso musician. It’s fabulous to watch but it’s even more fabulous to engage and play along and give and take. Everything you do, you will always wish for.
Did you like the carriage – before you blew it up slaughtering the KKK that were after you?
I did. It was heavy. I trained on one. It was difficult to maneuver. We trained on one that was a two-wheeler and that was fun.
What physical training did you suffer in doing this part? It was reported that you injured yourself at one point.
I worked very hard, and succeeded most gloriously in falling off a horse, very quickly. This was very early on in the training. Then on, my work was a little slower for the first few months, then I got back up on the horse.
Copyright ©2013 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: February 20, 2013.
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