Christoph Waltz: slightly sinister, supremely talented

Precise, odd and a little bit untrustworthy, the Oscar-winner is the best thing in ‘Downsizing’

The official trailer for Downsizing, a science fiction comedy-drama directed by Alexander Payne and staring Matt Damon, Christoph Waltz, Hong Chau, and Kristen Wiig. Video: Paramount pictures

 

What did we do for a Christoph Waltz figure before we actually had Christoph Waltz? Like Donald Pleasance or Peter Lorre or (stay with me) Margaret Rutherford, he has a singular persona that he tweaks only mildly from performance to performance. There’s no need. His sinister Nazi was the best thing in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. His slippery dentist was the best thing in the same director’s Django Unchained. He won Oscars for both those films. Now, he’s the best thing in Alexander Payne’s defiantly strange Downsizing. Once again, he’s precise, odd and just a little bit untrustworthy.

We’re looking through the window at the closing days of a Soho summer. “There is one thing I do miss in LA. I love autumn,” he says. “It’s a misconception that you don’t have seasons in southern California. They are just very subtle. The vegetation is very different. Plants react differently. You just have to be a little more observant.”

That’s home now. Can he miss the icy winds that blew through the Vienna of his youth?

“Ha, no. Well that is more Berlin you’re thinking of.”

Matt Damon and Christoph Waltz in Downsizing. Photograph: George Kraychyk/Paramount Pictures
Matt Damon and Christoph Waltz in Downsizing. Photograph: George Kraychyk/Paramount Pictures

Waltz’s delivery is very much what you expect from the films. His English is, of course, perfect, but the diction remains weirdly precise. He pauses and has a real tug at certain, apparently random syllables. He has a very dry humour. He is inquisitive. He plays with language. “That is more his modus vivendi than his modus operandi,” he says of his role in Downsizing.

It is amazing that such an odd character remained obscure for so long. Born in 1956, Waltz trained first at the Max Reinhardt Seminar in Vienna and then in New York with the legendary Lee Strasberg and his equally legendary rival Stella Adler. You rarely meet actors now who strayed within those orbits.

“The interesting thing is they contradicted one another,” he laughs. “They despised each other. They didn’t even mention each other’s names. He said ‘she’ and she said ‘he’. That is about as far as it went.”

Does that training still hang around with him?

“In a way. Overall, it depends on where you choose to take your inspiration from. For me that dialectic was interesting.”

Thirty years as a jobbing actor followed. Waltz was rarely out of work for long, but he didn’t even achieve the “that guy in that film” degree of fame. There were many roles on German and Austrian television. He appeared frequently on stage. Somehow or other, in 2000, he arrived in Dublin to shoot a significant supporting role in Thaddeus O’Sullivan’s Ordinary Decent Criminal. This was the notorious gangland flick featuring Kevin Spacey – struggling beneath an awful oirish accent – as a barely concealed version of Martin Cahill.

I think that was Colin Farrell’s first or second movie and I remember one night with him in a pub somewhere. That was one of the nicest encounters I ever had with an actor

“I rarely think of that film. I don’t think I’ve seen it. I know that I did it,” he says with a furrow.

Oh come along. He must have an anecdote. Mid-Tiger Ireland. Early Colin Farrell. Give us a local story for local people.

“Oh yes certainly,” he says, suddenly waking up. “There are some lovely memories I have. I think that was Colin’s first or second movie and I remember one night with him in a pub somewhere. That was one of the nicest encounters I ever had with an actor. That connects me with Colin to this day even though it’s been 20 years. I rarely see him unfortunately.”

So he did have an anecdote?

“Yes, I’m glad you reminded me of that.”

Waltz somehow got by. He married twice and raised four children. In the 1990s he lived in London and took a number of unlikely roles that survive today on YouTube. Seek out his turn as a German spy on episodes of The All New Alexei Sayle Show. Was he always secure? Did he always feel comfortable in his profession?

“No, I was never comfortable,” he says. “Nor was there a reason to be comfortable. It’s a very uncomfortable position to be in. Strasberg said acting is being private in public. That’s uncomfortable.”

That’s you told. In earlier interviews he has admitted to a stubbornness that sometimes scared off potential employers.

“Yes, I am too stubborn. I won’t give up,” he says. “At times it could be difficult. But you learn how to employ your stubbornness more constructively. Thirty years ago I was stubborn just because I was stubborn. That’s kind of boring. Who cares?”

Inglourious Basterds: Christoph Waltz’s sinister Nazi was the best thing in Quentin Tarantino’s film
Inglourious Basterds: Christoph Waltz’s sinister Nazi was the best thing in Quentin Tarantino’s film

We imagine Quentin Tarantino spotting all his discoveries on faded VHS copies of obscure exploitation films. But it seems that Waltz secured his break in a more conventional fashion. A casting agent recommended him to Tarantino and the director immediately spotted something few others had seen.

“I had to postpone a vacation because he wanted to see me again,” he remembers. “It wasn’t really an audition. It was spending time with Quentin and his script. That in itself was fabulous. Had it not worked out it would still have been worth doing. That’s how directors should get to know actors. I thought: this guy knows. I got it when I read it. This guy knows about actors.”

He was over 50 when he secured the role in Inglourious Basterds. He immediately became part of the Hollywood machine. Who else but Waltz could succeed actors such as Donald Pleasance as James Bond’s great enemy Ernst Stavro Blofeld in Spectre?

There are a lot of opportunities where you could step over the line and mistreat people, abuse entitlements. I don’t do that because it just looks ridiculous

There are surely benefits to achieving fame later in life.

“Everything that happens later in life is appreciated in a different way,” he says. “You can appreciate the thing for what it is. Which you couldn’t if you were 25 and had never experienced much else. You would take it all for granted and think that’s what life is like. The abuse is less of a problem because you appreciate it to that degree.”

By “abuse” I assume he means being hassled in the street and so on. He doesn’t. As we speak, the Weinstein revelations are just breaking. Waltz’s comments offer prescient commentary.

“I mean the abuse of others,” he says. “There are a lot of opportunities where you could step over the line and mistreat people, abuse entitlements. I don’t do that because it just looks ridiculous.”

Waltz looks to be enjoying himself mightily in Downsizing. Payne’s film imagines a world – a utopia that inevitably becomes dystopian – in which citizens shrink themselves to make better use of the world’s resources. Matt Damon is the unimaginative American who signs up for reduction. Waltz plays a shifty Eurotrash hustler who lives in the upper floor of his now-tiny apartment building. It’s a funny film. It’s a compassionate film. It’s also very pessimistic about where the human race is headed. Environmental catastrophe looms over every frame.

“Would you delude yourself in harbouring a positive outlook?” Waltz says. “Just look what the madman in Washington is doing. If you go to Beijing on a bad day and you’re above the seventh floor you now can’t see the sidewalk. I don’t consider that very encouraging.”

There’s also something here about the differences between Americans and Europeans. Damon’s character seems to crave nothing more than clean suburbia and a benign office job. Waltz’s oily neighbour seeks danger and excitement.

“Europeans still believe that working is for living,” he laughs. “Americans often have that the other way around.”

Ah, the old Vienna before the war . . .

Five great Austrian actors

Arnold Schwarzenegger
Well, obviously. Born just outside Graz, Arnold did one or two things really well in huge films of the 1980s. You don’t need us to name them.

Arnold Schwarzenegger: the Austrian did one or two things really well in huge films of the 1980s. You don’t need us to name them
Arnold Schwarzenegger: the Austrian did one or two things really well in huge films of the 1980s. You don’t need us to name them

Erich Von Stroheim
His career as a director has come to overshadow his acting roles a little. Which is odd, as he is superb in two of the greatest films ever made: La Grande Illusion and Sunset Boulevard.

Hedy Lamarr
Yes, the famously beautiful and intelligent star of Samson and Delilah was born as Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler in Vienna. Devised technology that ultimately led to the development of Bluetooth. No, really. Look it up.

Romy Schneider
For a brief period in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Schneider was an international superstar. Worked for Orson Welles, Luchino Visconti, Otto Preminger and Joseph Losey.

Maximilian Schell
Classical good-looking, versatile leading man who won an Oscar for his performance in Judgment at Nuremberg. Maybe a little underused after that. But can be seen to advantage in Topkapi, The Odessa File and Cross of Iron.

Downsizing is released on Friday

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