Interview: Col. Hans 'The Jew Hunter' Landa - Christoph Waltz
by Alex Billington
August 20, 2009
If there is one actor that you'll walk out of Inglourious Basterds absolutely amazed by, I guarantee it'll be Christoph Waltz. This 52-year-old Austrian actor, who is fluent in English, German, and French, apparently got the role last minute, right before Tarantino was ready to give up because his character, Col. Hans Landa, was such an important part and he hadn't found the right actor. I had the tremendous honor of meeting and interviewing Christoph last week. While it was certainly one of the most unique interviews I've ever done, especially because he's such a humble person, it was also potentially one of the best. Read on!
I really can't say enough great things about Christoph Waltz. There is a lot of Oscar buzz surrounding his performance and I would say without a doubt he deserves to win the Best Supporting Actor Oscar. It was also incredible to meet him and discover that he's more humble and sophisticated than I was expecting.
Starting at the top, can you talk about you background and how you got to this point?
Christoph Waltz: That's two different stories.
Waltz: My background is, you know, very bourgeois, traditional, Viennese, middle-class, fourth generation theater. And how I got to this point, remember that joke, that old joke that Quentin says to Eli when he said, "You know what? You're getting pretty good at that." Remember that in the movie?
Waltz: And Brad answers "Well, you know how to get to Carnegie Hall. Practice." That's why I'm sitting here.
I've heard a little bit about the story and that Quentin needed an actor for the character and he was almost going to give up on making this until he came across you.
Waltz: It was very traditional, in a way old-fashioned casting process that… A casting agent in Berlin collected a few people for Quentin to meet and I was one of the lucky ones. And I don't really know at what stage I came into this. At first I didn't really take it that seriously because I didn't believe that they wanted someone like me for a movie like that. But then after asking twice whether this is all meant seriously and they said "yeah, yeah" they assured me. Because I wouldn't have gone to the casting. I don't want to expose myself to syndicates.
No, but they assured me, so I went and there they were, Quentin and Lawrence [Bender, producer]. They were so nice and we talked and then I read and Quentin played the other part -- so we almost read through the whole script. And then I had such a good time. It was so nice and relaxing. I remember realizing how relaxed it is and it was quite unusual. Because usually in auditions it's kind of tense and you're under pressure, they come out and look at you probingly and questioning-ly and somewhat intrusive always. They try to put you at ease but they never actually manage to do that. Not in this case.
And there was no electronic gadgetry around where you were recorded, but I always felt this very, very attentive kind of supportive look on Quentin's face. And it was great. So I left after an hour and a half and I said to the casting agent "That was great." If that should have been it, I have no complaints because it was fantastic.
What was your first reaction when you read the script and you got a sense of the character?
Waltz: Well the very first ignition, that first spark, really came from the page. Have you seen [the script]?
Waltz: [Talking about the cover of the script.] So I thought "Well that's unusual, it's in his handwriting, and that spelling…" So I was led to believe and I took it as such that he's kind of offering it like an invitation, a personal invitation. You know, because it's so personal in this funny sort of crooked handwriting. And I had the feeling that you enter into a kind of relationship. Then I read it and that was too much.
Waltz: Yeah, it was too much. The first scene is such a massive play, really, and then what follows out of it. I couldn't quite-- and being sort of so accustomed to that silly convention of three acts… We all have read "the book" and on page 23 you have to have the first plot point and on 97, the second, you know… We know that it's silly, but still, we are kind of conditioned [to it]. Now this burst all of that open, and five chapters and at various length and density. It was too much. I closed it. I thought, "I think they've lost their minds."
So what eventually convinced you to come back to it?
Waltz: Well then I went through all the movies again. I reviewed all [of his] films and in consecutive order and added the seventh by reading the script again, and then it made more sense in context. Going all the way back to Reservoir Dogs and that made a lot of sense. It really, really sort of opened the loophole for me into it. So I read it again and again and kind of warmed up to it. I understood the quality, but it was just the discrepancy between the script and me was so big.
When you first read through the script, did you feel right at that point you could pull off the character? Or did it take rehearsals and working with Tarantino on the set to feel ready to play Hans?
Waltz: Well you know he has various-- he does what is right for the people at that given moment. He has methods, yes, but they vary and he would talk to you completely differently than to me. Because you need other stuff than I do. He understands that. So we didn't rehearse all that much. Yes we did, but not all that much.
All in a very private atmosphere apart from that first read-through which was sensational because I saw -- for the first time I attached a person to the character, and I knew a lot of them. I knew a lot of them personally, but I'd never seen them in this context. That was so fascinating. I really had to see like 50 people around a square of tables and I got so enthusiastic when I saw these people at the read and heard them… How perfectly cast, every single one of them was. and I said to myself well, if I'm cast half as well as what I see, it's really a step in the right direction.
What kind of conversations did you have with Quentin about your character?
Waltz: Well, you know, we didn't theorize too much about it. I also said look, I think everything is here. He asked me whether I want him to suggest referential material like other movies and I said no, no. I want to stick with this script. I want to extract it, deduct it from the source. I don't need other outside influences. So he was cool with that. And yes, we had dinners where we kind of played around, toyed around with ideas, where this whole thing might be coming from, and what the kind of intentions [would be]. But it was never like a blueprint. It was always a conversation about toying, playing, juggling ideas, ping-pong back and forth. New things, "Well how about?" You know, "No, actually because…" "Yeah, good idea." Ping-pong, beautiful. Beautiful.
So was there any improvisation in it?
So it was just about developing the character then?
Waltz: Yeah, it had no improvisation whatsoever, for various reasons. The most important one being that I hate it.
Waltz: Yes. Second, maybe not a less important one is that I'm extremely bad at it. Maybe that's the main reason why I hate it. And also I'm not interested in putting my bit in. I want to get Quentin's bit out.
Makes sense. It's just a fascinating character.
Waltz: I agree.
I saw it in Cannes and then I saw it again four days ago and seeing it for the second time… I mean, we know Shosanna is the main character, but to see the progression of your character was so interesting in terms of what happens at the end.
Waltz: Yeah, I agree.
It was fascinating.
Waltz: So what do you think about this post-Cannes version?
I actually think it's better.
There was the scene he added before the bar scene and I think to me that felt like it made it more well-rounded.
Waltz: I agree. Because you didn't quite understand where Brad was coming from all of a sudden. "Hey are you in there?" Yeah. So now we understand apart from the fact that this is a lovely scene. And there were other minor adjustments, sort of rhythmically, musically. You know, this version is a minute longer.
Yeah, which is weird.
Waltz: It seems 20 minutes shorter, doesn't it?
Waltz: It's interesting.
It shows you the kind of talent he has for editing everything together.
Waltz: Yea, exactly.
What is your reaction to all the coverage from Cannes and all the Oscar buzz you are getting?
Waltz: Overwhelming, overwhelming. I employ my skepticism. You have to be careful. I take it as a great compliment and take the liberty of not really taking it any further.
Do you have any inspirations in your life whether it be other actors that you've seen that you've been inspired by?
Waltz: Yeah, when I was 20 I couldn't get enough of Marlon Brando.
I don't think anyone can get enough of him.
Waltz: Yeah, yeah. Well, now it's a bit different. Now I've seen it and, not that I mind seeing it again, but now I draw more inspiration from directors. But the main source for me is still music and classical music as such. Over the past ten years I've really got into that.
Did you listen to it on the set when you were working?
Waltz: No, no. I don't use it as background. I really didn't dedicate time. I go to the concert, I hear them play and I try to understand what it is that they're playing. Literature, sometimes [is also an inspiration]. I have to admit that late, very late, I discovered John Updike and I hadn't read the Rabbit novels and sort of just started. I've read three now. That's an inspiration. Really. Philip Roth is an inspiration. One of the great inspirations I find is [Nobel Prize winner] Saul Bellow.
Thank you to Christoph Waltz and Pantea at The Weinstein Company for coordinating this! I had an exceptional time talking with Christoph, a true honor. Inglourious Basterds hits theaters this upcoming weekend, starting on August 21st, and is well-worth the ticket price!