Christoph Waltz on Bond, Burton, and Channeling His Inner Darkness
The two-time Oscar winner opens up about his latest film Big Eyes, how he goes to dark places, and his villain in the upcoming James Bond film Spectre.
“There’s darkness in everybody,” says Christoph Waltz.
The Austrian actor’s playful, Cheshire cat smirk has uncoiled, and his eyes have gone from sparkling to callous. He shifts in his seat. Waltz is discussing evil—in particular, how he taps into his own reservoir of darkness to breathe sadistic life into his gonzo characters, from Inglourious Basterds’ quadrilingual, calabash-puffing “Jew Hunter” Hans Landa to Dr. King Schultz, the redneck-dispatching bounty hunter of Django Unchained.
“It started in Victorian times, where that darkness needed to be denied to be socially acceptable, which only made things worse,” he says. “You have to learn to look at it, and deal with it. You read stories about someone who was the nicest guy, lived with his mother, bought the family groceries, and drove a school bus, who one day takes a gun and shoots everybody. There’s a light side in all human beings, as well as a dark side.”
Waltz pauses, and leans in. “I don’t deny its existence.”
In the six years since he burst onto the scene in Quentin Tarantino’s wish-fulfillment fantasy, a role that magically found the then-obscure thespian after Leonardo DiCaprio passed, the 58-year-old has won a pair of Academy Awards and gained international acclaim for his silver screen rapscallions.
Tim Burton’s Big Eyes sees Waltz portray Walter Keane, a sociopathic bully in 1950s San Francisco who manipulates his wife, painter Margaret Keane (Amy Adams), into letting him take credit for her popular creations—canvases boasting ethereal, big-eyed children. Walter is a huckster of the first order; a talentless buffoon who convinces the impressionable Margaret to bear the burden of his crippling inadequacy.
When Waltz and Burton met, they spoke about “kitschness in art and the constellations,” as well as Walter’s psychosis. Following the tête-à-tête, Waltz says he got a good read for the real-life oddball—a plagiarist who caused such a scene at their eventual authorship trial that the judge threatened to have him shackled and gagged.
“It’s up to the director to scale, modulate, and encourage you, or temper you,” says a chuckling Waltz. “Because this guy was untamable.”
As a “big fan” of Burton's oeuvre (Big Fish is his favorite), Waltz wanted to work with the filmmaker because he views Burton’s works as a healthy marriage of “form” and “content.”
“It happens very often that the form smothers the content,” he says. “Or there isn’t much content, and it’s all form. Gravity was, more or less, all form. Surrealists in the twenties made movies that were only form.”
I mention Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali’s Un Chien Andalou, and he smiles. “They cut a pig’s eye!” Waltz giddily exclaims.
For years, Waltz toiled away on European television and working for various theater companies—times which, he says, got quite hellish. Not on the level of Walter Keane, but damn close.
“Was I abused or instrumentalized for other people’s purposes? Absolutely,” he says. “I did many, many years of repertory theater, and directors pick people like they pick vegetables at the supermarket according to their hopes of manipulating them, and frequently, you get literally terrorized.”
But that all changed when Waltz met Tarantino. The actor and filmmaker are inexorably linked, since the Austrian remains the only actor to win an Academy Award for a role in a Tarantino joint—make that two, for Basterds and Django.
Waltz has talked openly about his admiration for Tarantino, saying the director “changed his life” when he cast him as SS-Standartenführer Landa, and while there wasn’t a role for him in the filmmaker’s upcoming western The Hateful Eight, he’s hoping the two can hook up again soon.
“It’s music that speaks to me,” Waltz says of Tarantino’s dialogue. “You don’t like every piece of music that you hear, but sometimes there’s a song where you might not even understand why you like it so much, but you do. In that respect, I know exactly why I like it so much. I can tune into the wavelengths, and the flow of it.”
Despite his pair of Oscars and nimble turn as Keane, which earned him a Golden Globe nod for Best Actor, the most anticipated role of Waltz’s career is his next—as a Bond villain in Sam Mendes’ 24th installment in the spy franchise, Spectre, due out late next year.
When asked about the rumors that he’ll be playing Ernest Blofeld in the film, a nugget that was unearthed during the Sony hacking, Waltz gets very careful with his words.
“It is exciting,” he says of Spectre. “I don’t start shooting until February, but I can tell you for sure my character’s name is Franz Oberhauser. I don’t know anything about the hacks, but the only thing I can imagine is that [Blofeld] refers to the case that they’re still dealing with with one of the writers.”
And with that, a publicist swoops in and announces that our time is up. Waltz shakes my hand and, unleashing that world-class grin, says, “I hope we’ve fed The Daily Beast appropriately!”