Not many actors become overnight stars in their 50s. Austrian-born Christoph Waltz did it three years ago, however, playing a charming but murderous Nazi in Quentin Tarantino’s ”Inglourious Basterds’’ (2009). The performance earned him an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actor, and he’s been in high demand ever since – but solely as a villain. He played the main bad guy in ”The Green Hornet’’ (2011), a sadistic circus owner in ”Water for Elephants’’ (2011) and the scheming Cardinal Richelieu in the recent ”The Three Musketeers.” Now, however, the 55-year-old actor is moving away from the ”V’’ word. In his new film, ”Carnage,” he plays a corporate lawyer embroiled in a domestic crisis. Directed by Roman Polanski, the film also stars Jodie Foster, John C. Reilly and Kate Winslet.
”If I’d become famous at 19, I wouldn’t have known what it meant,” Waltz says in nearly flawless English. ”At 21 I would have taken it for granted, and at 22 it would have been over.” The actor is speaking by cell telephone on his drive home from the first day of filming Tarantino’s new film, ”Django Unchained.” It is shooting north of Los Angeles, where Hollywood westerns have been made for nearly a century. Waltz plays a 19th-century bounty hunter who agrees to mentor a former slave (Jamie Foxx) in his effort to rescue his wife from the tyranny of a Mississippi plantation owner (Leonardo DiCaprio). It hasn’t been the easiest shoot for Waltz, who was thrown from his horse during rehearsals, but he has no regrets.
”I don’t know if Quentin wrote the part for me,” he says, ”but I never considered not doing it, horse or not. I trust blindly that, if Quentin asks me to do something, he has a very specific reason.”
Some trust was also involved in ”Carnage,” since Polanski had cast Waltz and Winslet, an Austrian and a Brit, as an American couple. ”I was surprised to get the part,” Waltz admits. ”I remember seeing his ‘The Fearless Vampire Killers’ (1967) as a kid. I followed him and the horrible things that happened in his life. Polanski is one of the last surviving grand old masters of cinema. He was not an idol of mine, but now he is, having worked with him.”
”Carnage’’ is based on Yasmina Reza’s hit play, ”God of Carnage.” Polanski and Reza wrote the film adaptation, which, Waltz says, ”is more like people talk, less literary than it was on the stage.” Like the play, the film is set in a Brooklyn apartment where two sets of parents meet to discuss a schoolyard incident involving their children. The son of one couple (Waltz and Winslet) bashed the son of the other couple (Foster and Reilly) with a stick, damaging his teeth. ”The parental skirmishes are universal,” Waltz says. ”The parents of various apples of their eyes are like lion mothers jumping in to defend their brood. ”But that’s not the reason the story works,” he continues. ”People get the chance to laugh at themselves without having to expose themselves to ridicule. They can point their finger at the stage and laugh about those characters. Or, if they choose to think a half-step ahead, they might realize that they’re actually laughing about themselves.”
Waltz has four children, three with his first wife and a 7-year-old daughter with his current partner, costume designer Judith Holste. He insists, however, that nothing like the events of ”Carnage’’ has ever happened to him. ”I refrained from engaging in skirmishes with other parents,” he says. ”And now I’ve lived through the lesson by working on this movie for nine weeks.” Waltz considers his character, a lawyer named Alan, the most reasonable of the four parents. ”Alan keeps his feet on the ground,” he says, ”despite everything that the politically correct person might despise. He’s a pretty straightforward, clear and realistic person.” Much of the time, however, Alan is talking on his cell telephone, trying to resolve a problem at a pharmaceutical company. At one point his wife gets so incensed by his behavior that she grabs the telephone and drops it into a vase of flowers. The film basically takes place in a single room, which made Polanski particularly concerned with how the characters moved around. ”As a director he’s relentless,” Waltz says. ”He didn’t give anybody any slack … Polanski is so precise that I can see that actors might have a problem with it. I didn’t, nor did the other three. We liked it. ”In terms of the setting and choreography,” the Austrian actor continues, ”he will work at a scene until it is perfect. You do what he tells you, even though you don’t get the grander picture.
Then, when you see it, you say, ‘Well, of course that’s why he insisted on an inch forward or a fraction of a second faster!’ ”It all makes sense, because he really has this movie in his head.”
Three decades of work in the trenches has given Waltz both patience and perspective, he says, and left him in a position to enjoy fame without letting it go to his head.”For the first time I can voice my opinions and preferences,” he says happily, ”or say I’d like to meet this person because I’m interested in their work. People are happy to talk with me, even if there’s no specific project, with the idea that maybe we’d like to work together.”
Waltz had quite a different reception when he first arrived in the United States in the 1970s as a teenage acting student. He had grown up in a theatrical family – his grandparents were actors and his parents set designers – and initially had studied acting at the prestigious Max Reinhardt Seminar in Vienna. ”I did the traditional conservatory acting school, the academic approach,” he recalls, ”but it wasn’t really my cup of tea. So I dropped out as soon as I could.” Instead he came to New York to study at the Lee Strasberg Theater Institute. Hoping to put down roots, he married a New Yorker and worked to build an acting career in the United States – to no avail. ”I did want to stay in New York,” Waltz says, ”but waiting on tables was not exactly what I intended to do.” So he and his wife moved to London, and gradually he established himself in Europe. He made the occasional film, including ”Queen’s Messenger’’ (2000) and ”Dorian’’ (2001), but focused mainly on television and the theater.
He owes his second shot at America to Tarantino, who needed an actor who spoke fluent German, French and English and could hold his own opposite Brad Pitt. Waltz sold him, and critics and audiences alike agreed with Tarantino’s choice. He won dozens of awards for his performance, including the Academy Award. ”I was extremely honored to receive the Oscar,” Waltz says, ”but being welcomed into this new community meant even more. I expected to dislike living in Los Angeles, but I was wrong. ”I don’t have much to do with the glitzy, Tinseltown aspect,” he adds. ”The people I work with are down-to-earth, hardworking, clear-thinking and straightforward. I’m not involved in any finagling, twisting and contorting in order to make myself important.”If he does want a little glamor, of course, he can always check the cupboard where he keeps his Oscar. ”I keep the door closed,” Waltz says. ”It’s quite intimidating to look at it every day.”