When Christoph Waltz auditioned for the role of SS officer Hans Landa in Quentin Tarantino's 2009 film Inglourious Basterds, he read the passage assigned for the audition, then kept going until he had gone through the entire role as Tarantino himself filled in for the other parts.
"It was partly hilarious, partly just fabulous, partly scary," Waltz tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "And we arrived at the end and then we parted and I said to the casting director, 'If this should have been it, it was definitely worth it,' and, well, then they called me back."
Waltz wound up winning the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor the following year for his portrayal of Landa, and, at age 53, officially breaking into the Hollywood scene. The success of Inglourious Basterds changed his life, he says, and working with Tarantino was a revelation that renewed his faith in his craft.
Now he's starring — along with Jamie Foxx, Leonardo DiCaprio and Kerry Washington — in Tarantino's latest, Django Unchained. In this film, he plays a German bounty hunter who teams up with a former slave against a plantation owner.
Growing up as part of the fourth generation of an Austrian theatrical clan, Waltz never intended to enter the family business.
"I didn't want to have anything to do with it," he says, "because that's all I heard when I grew up. It was tedious. It brought tears to our eyes, my sibling and mine, because it was [at] dinner, breakfast, lunch ... the only topic of conversation was of theater."
He says it was only "out of a sheer lack of imagination" that he found his way to acting. That said, he loved old American films from an early age — the Marx brothers, Buster Keaton — and he would go to as many as three movies a week. Eventually, this led him to New York, where he studied for a time under Stella Adler, the actress and theater teacher. She had a lasting influence on Waltz.
"There were these little, little remarks that still are in my mind," he says about the things he learned from her. "And one of the most valuable things that she said to the class and so also to me — but it stuck to me for the past 35 years — is, 'Don't love yourself in art, love the art within you.' And that's something that never left me: that the play in front of you is more interesting than all the neurotic little maneuvers that you play within yourself."
On whether Tarantino wrote the part of Dr. King Schultz in Django Unchained specifically for him
"I sat at his kitchen table — literally at his kitchen table — with pages in front of me that were still warm from the printer. It sounds like a figure of speech, but they were literally still warm from the printer, and I read it in portions because, you know, I didn't sit there all the time and hear the typewriter click away in the room next door, but in like two, three weeks he invited me up to his house again and put another ... warm stack of paper in front of me and then eyed me and watched me reading and sort of reading my face and my reactions to it, so ... yes, I'm proud to say — and I hope it's not being presumptuous — he did write it for me."
About understanding the poetry, rhythm and humor of the language in Tarantino's scripts
"It's something about Quentin's writing. ... It's something about these specific words. Words are not all the same, and the combination of words. ... [I]t's an actor's dream to try to wrap his mind around these sentences. ... They jump at you because [of] the phrasing. It's not just the words in themselves, it's the rhythm that [Quentin] creates. You know, you might have heard very clearly, which is a good example, is "that of the rat." ... [I]f you have these two words, the pause between "that ... of the rat" is unavoidable, so you don't need to actually write anything, or take any notes. You just need to hand yourself over to the flow."
On the influence American movies and acting styles had on him growing up in Austria
"We didn't have a TV, so I didn't watch TV, but the movies and American movies were very decisive influences, so that's what I aspired to as a young guy, you know. ... [N]ot just acting, but the visual aspect, the narrative flow through editing, all of that was fabulously fascinating. So I actually wanted to go into that, and where else would I go to learn it than America? I also went to Los Angeles, and I didn't find much that was for me, and I ended up in New York. And I studied with Lee Strasberg at the Theatre Institute for almost two years — and with himself for unfortunately only a few weeks, and then he died."
On the American actors that he particularly admires
"Marlon Brando was very, very important to me. Or not he, himself — I couldn't care less — but his performances in his movies. And I'm not saying I liked every single one, but I followed it, and I kind of honed my critical observation. I loved the George Cukor movies. Philadelphia Story was the first movie that I saw three times in a row in a movie theater. I went [out] the exit and back in through the entrance three times. Cary Grant was a hero with his delivery and his irony and his bordering cynicism, sense of humor. I just adored him. ...
"But then, you know, I saw the Scorsese movies when they came out, the early ones — Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, King of Comedy — then Robert De Niro became this role model for me, with his unparalleled ability to make character and countenance visible through nothing. He doesn't do anything, yet he opens your understanding and he opens your mind and you fall into these characters."
On Stephen Sondheim and Sweeney Todd
"Stephen Sondheim I am in awe of. ... I would give my right arm, if I didn't need it in the musical. I've seen Sweeney Todd eight times, I think, or 10 times. I can sing it backwards and forwards. ... When I think about it, when I talk to you about it, I get the goosebumps. I think Stephen Sondheim is a — and I hardly ever use this word — but this is as close as it gets to a genius."
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS")
CHRISTOPH WALTZ: (as Colonel Hans Landa) I'm a detective, a damn good detective. Finding people is my specialty. So naturally I worked for the Nazis finding people, and yes, some of them were Jews, but Jew hunter? Just a name that stuck.
GROSS: That's my guest Christoph Waltz, playing the Nazi Colonel Hans Landa in Quentin Tarantino's film "Inglourious Basterds." Before that film, Americans had never heard of Waltz, but he managed to win just about every major award for his performance in "Inglourious Basterds," including an Oscar, Golden Globe, Screen Actors Guild and Cannes Film Festival Awards.
Waltz is Austrian and had been in European movies, TV shows and theater but rarely got the kind of role he wanted. Since teaming up with Tarantino, he's been in the films "Carnage," "Water for Elephants" and "The Green Hornet." Now he stars in Tarantino's new film, "Django Unchained," which is set in the American South two years before the Civil War.
Waltz plays Dr. King Schultz, a dentist turned bounty hunter who frees a slave named Django, who helps him track down plantation and slave owners with bounties on their head. Django and Schultz become partners and go searching for Django's wife, who was brutally beaten and sold to a different plantation.
In this scene, Schultz tells Django, who's played by Jamie Foxx, that he thinks Django's wife is now a slave owned by the brutal Calvin Candie, whose plantation they just visited on false premises.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "DJANGO UNCHAINED")
JAMIE FOXX: (as Django) You sure it's her?
WALTZ: (as King Schultz) He didn't call her by name, but she's a young lady with marks on her back and speaks German. Now, while it's not wise to assume, in this instance I think it's pretty safe. Point being, don't get so carried away with your retribution you lose sight of why we're here.
FOXX: (as Django) You think I lost sight of that?
WALTZ: (as Schultz) Yes, I do. Stop antagonizing Candie.
FOXX: (as Django) I'm not antagonizing. I'm intriguing him.
WALTZ: (as Schultz) You're yelling abuse at these poor slaves.
FOXX: (as Django) I recall the man who had me kill another man in front of his son, and he didn't bat an eye. You remember that?
WALTZ: (as Schultz) Of course I remember.
FOXX: (as Django) What you said was, was that this is my world, and in my world you've got to get dirty. So that's what I'm doing. I'm getting dirty.
GROSS: Christoph Waltz, welcome to FRESH AIR, and congratulations on your Golden Globe nomination. That's fantastic.
WALTZ: Thank you. I think so too. It is fantastic.
GROSS: So your character in "Django Unchained" is German, and his being German is woven into the plot. I assume that's because the role was written for you by Quentin Tarantino.
WALTZ: Well, you know, I hesitate to say yes immediately. It comes down to the same thing - yes, it was - but the process was a little more involved because he might have thought of me, and he actually invited me to not participate but observe this creative process, which was stunning, really stunning.
GROSS: What does that mean, you sat with him as he wrote?
WALTZ: Well, not directly, but I sat at his kitchen table, literally at his kitchen table, with pages in front of me that were still warm from the printer. You know, it sounds like a figure of speech, but they were literally still warm from the printer. And I read it in portions because, you know, I didn't sit there all the time, hear the typewriter click away in the room next door, but in, like, two, three weeks, he invited me up to his house again and put another little stack of paper, a warm stack of paper in front of me and then eyed me and watched me reading it and sort of reading my face and the reactions to it.
So to come back to the question, yes, I'm proud to say, and I hope it's not being presumptuous, but he did write it for me.
GROSS: In "Django Unchained," you're a German bounty hunter in the South two years before the Civil War. And Jamie Foxx is a slave who you have managed to free, and you enlist him to help you track down plantation hunters who you will get a bounty for, because he'll be able to recognize them, and you don't know who they are.
GROSS: And he tells you that he wants to find his wife, who was sold to a different plantation, so they were separated, and her name is Broomhilda, and you explain to him, you suggest, well, maybe she's German, she must be German because that's such a part of German lore.
And of course most of us know Brunnhilde as, you know, inspired by that lore, from Wagner's Ring Cycle, you know, the opera. Now, I know you studied opera. Do I have that right?
WALTZ: Well, yeah, it is, and it isn't. I studied voice and singing for a while, parallel to drama school, and then they said, in both departments they said, well, you have to make a choice. And my voice was good enough to get through the audition and into the academy in Vienna, but I'm not so sure whether it would have been good enough for an opera career.
There are remnants of that in the form of like a desperate desire to come into contact with music one way or another, but I still think it was the right choice. But we went to the opera together. I thought he would like it because I find his stories and his movies operatic. They are huge filmic operas, and if you watch them from that perspective, you gain even more joy and entertainment.
They are operas without singing, and so I thought...
GROSS: But with great music. He always has great recordings he uses, yeah.
WALTZ: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Absolutely, and dramatic usage of music, you know. It's not - he doesn't pick music because it sounds nice. He picks music because it supports the story, and it is the right music at the right time, very much like opera.
So we went - they put the Ring Cycle at the L.A. Opera, the full cycle, which is, you know, not that often it happens that they play all four operas back to back. And we went.
GROSS: So in "Django Unchained" you have to do some horse riding, and you're on a coach, because you're a dentist turned bounty hunter. So was this the first time you were on a horse?
WALTZ: No, no. The first time I've been on a horse is probably 40 years ago.
WALTZ: But I never really - yeah, I never really rode constantly. Riding is something that in order to master it you have to do it like playing an instrument, a musical instrument. You have to do it every day, and you have to do it over a long period of time. So I do, you know, the occasional bit, and when I need it for a movie, I start training again. But, you know, I kind of knew what I was doing.
Shooting guns was something that I had absolutely no idea about it, nor any interest, I might add, because firearms are scary, and I have a - you know, I'm afraid of firearms. It's quite, quite simple. So I hired an armorer to show me how it is to shoot a real gun, and the idea that if I do a wrong move out of incompetence and ignorance somebody might die greatly disturbed me.
GROSS: You were in an accident, I think, riding, and...
WALTZ: And it was pretty nasty, yeah.
GROSS: Yeah, dislocated a pelvic bone, so...
WALTZ: No, I didn't dislocate anything. I broke it right through.
GROSS: Oh my God, really?
GROSS: So at that point, do you ask yourself: Is the movie worth it?
WALTZ: You know, I'm not superstitious. We always try to find causality where there is just coincidence, and it's a mistake. Is the movie worth it? I don't know. It's not the price for the movie. It's not the tender for the movie. It happened on a movie, but it could have happened in a car, and it could have happened anywhere.
It was actually a long time before we started shooting. I came here to train and practice and blah, blah, blah, and it happened very early on. I think it was the third day of my training. And so we had to pause, and I had to get surgery and all that.
GROSS: Is this part of the reason why your character spends so much time in a coach as opposed to - a horse-drawn coach as opposed to on horseback?
WALTZ: Yeah, I'm afraid it is.
GROSS: Oh, clever.
WALTZ: Because I couldn't get on a horse for three months.
GROSS: Wow, well, what a smart...
WALTZ: That's Quentin.
GROSS: Yeah, and Quentin makes the most of it because...
WALTZ: Quentin said, you know, Quentin said - I remember Quentin's eyes when he came to the hospital to visit me, and I said, oh, I don't know what we're going to do. I can't ride for three months. And he looked at me and he said, you know, if you don't talk too much about it, I might get some interesting ideas. And he did.
GROSS: Because the way the character is written now, you are a dentist turned bounty hunter, and you're driving around in your dentist horse-drawn coach with a big tooth, a big sculpture of a tooth on top.
WALTZ: Right, yeah, the bouncing tooth. No, it always was a dentist, it has nothing to do with the dentistry, no. Really then in the West, dentists were - how else would they have gotten around? They had a bag of tools, and the tools were nothing like dentists' tools, they were more like blacksmiths' tools.
WALTZ: And they had a bag of that on their horse, and that's how they went from town to town, and all they did was extracting teeth.
GROSS: My guest is Christoph Waltz. He stars in Quentin Tarantino's new film, "Django Unchained," and he starred in Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: So, your first movie with Quentin Tarantino was "Inglourious Basterds," and you won just about every award for it, including an Oscar and an award at the Cannes Film Festival.
And with your permission, I'd like to play a scene from it.
WALTZ: Oh, thank you.
GROSS: You play a Nazi named Colonel Hans Landa, and the opening scene is remarkable. It is an homage to spaghetti Westerns in the way that it is shot. And it's like a Sergio Leone Western. And so it opens during the German occupation of France in World War II. A French dairy farmer, who lives in a kind of remote part of the French countryside with his three daughters, sees you from a distance. Your car is coming closer.
And we see the fear register on his face, and we all know no good is going to come of this visit. So you get there, you kind of ingratiate yourself. He's forced to invite you in. You sit at his table. He's a dairy farmer. You ask for a glass of his milk. And as you're drinking it and telling him how delicious it is, you open your leather portfolio, and you're very orderly, kind of fastidious.
And you take out some papers and arrange them on the table, take out your little bottle of ink, open up the lid, fill the fountain pen, very neatly put it down, and screw on the lid with this flourish of your hand. Then you explain to him why you're called the Jew hunter and that it's your job to track down the remaining Jews hiding in the French countryside.
And as you speak, the camera goes beneath the floor of the farmhouse, and we see several Jews are hiding beneath the floorboards, terrified. So here's some of the dialogue in which you're explaining to this French dairy farmer that it's your job to find the Jews, that you're there to hunt for the Jews and that you know how to do it, you're good at what you do.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS")
WALTZ: (as Landa) The feature that makes me such an effective hunter of the Jews is, as opposed to most German soldiers, I can think like a Jew, where they can only think like a German, more precisely a German soldier. (Laughing)
Now, if one were to determine what attribute the German people share with a beast, that would be the cunning and the predatory instinct of a hawk. But if one were to determine what attributes the Jews share with a beast, it would be that of the rat.
The fuehrer and the government's propaganda have said pretty much the same thing, but where our conclusions differ is I don't consider the comparison an insult. Consider for a moment the world a rat lives in. It's a hostile world indeed. If a rat were to scamper through your front door right now, would you greet it with hostility?
DENIS MENOCHET: (as Perrier LaPadite) I suppose I would.
WALTZ: Has a rat ever done anything to do you to create this animosity you feel toward them?
MENOCHET: Rats spread disease. They bite people.
WALTZ: Rats were the cause of the bubonic plague. But that's some time ago. I propose to you any disease a rat could spread, a squirrel could equally carry. Would you agree?
WALTZ: Yet I assume you don't share the same animosity with squirrels that you do with rats, do you?
WALTZ: Yet they're both rodents, are they not? And except for the tail, they even rather look alike, don't they?
MENOCHET: That's an interesting thought, Herr Colonel.
WALTZ: However interesting as the thought may be, it makes not one bit of difference to how you feel. If a rat were to walk in here right now as I'm talking, would you greet it with a saucer of your delicious milk?
MENOCHET: Probably not.
WALTZ: I didn't think so. You don't like them. You don't really know why you don't like them. All you know is you find them repulsive. Consequently, a German soldier conducts a search of a house suspected of hiding Jews. Where does the hawk look? He looks in the barn. He looks in the attic. He looks in the cellar. He looks everywhere he would hide.
But there's so many places it would never occur to a hawk to hide. However, the reason the fuehrer's brought me out of my house in Austria and placed me in French cow country today is because it does occur to me, because I'm aware what tremendous feats human beings are capable of once they abandon dignity.
GROSS: Wow. That's my guest Christoph Waltz in a scene from "Inglourious Basterds." The writing in that and your performance in it are so extraordinary, and I love the logic in which you're explaining.
WALTZ: Thank you.
GROSS: You know, you're explaining how logical it is to hunt the Jews.
WALTZ: All it requires is a shift of perspective, and it becomes scaryingly logical. I loved your description of it. It was like a little play in itself. Thank you very much.
GROSS: I was wondering if there were stage directions, you know, or whether it was just your idea to do - you're obviously like so neat, and you're so enjoying, like, filling the pen and laying everything out, because this is such a rational world you're inhabiting, you know, like of course we're hunting the Jews, of course I love my ink, and what delicious milk.
WALTZ: You know, I'm afraid that's what made those Nazis really, really terrifying - their efficiency and their technocratic and bureaucratic thoroughness. And everything is correct. All - as I said, all it takes is a step across the line and the reassurance that you're on the right side. And that's something that needs to be considered not just in historical hindsight but even more importantly for our lives today.
GROSS: When I interviewed Quentin Tarantino about "Inglourious Basterds" in 2009, he said he was having a lot of trouble finding an actor to play the role that you ended up playing. It was hard to find an actor who could speak German, French and English fluently, and on top of that, who knew how to deliver Tarantino-style dialogue.
And I want to play what he said about the difficulty of finding someone and of, then the joy of finding you. So here's Quentin Tarantino recorded on FRESH AIR in 2009.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
QUENTIN TARANTINO: I was having a problem with them doing my dialogue in English. And it wasn't a matter of fluency. You know, a lot of them could come in, and we could speak for the next nine hours in English, and there would be no problem. English wasn't the language for them to read poetry in, and there is a poetic quality to my dialogue.
I mean, there's an aspect I've always said that it's, you know, it's not poetry, but it's kind of like it. It's not song lyrics, but it's kind of like song lyrics. It's not rap, but it's kind of like rap. And it's not standup comedy, but it is kind of like standup comedy. It's all those things together.
And there's word play, and there's rhythms, and you have to be able to get the poetry out of it. You have to be able to sell my jokes. And when it came to a lot of these German actors with the English, they just couldn't do it. They couldn't get the poetry out of it. They couldn't own it and make it their own.
And then Christoph came in, and I didn't know who Christoph was. He's a TV actor in Germany. He came in and I can literally say halfway through the reading of that first scene in the farmhouse, I knew I'd found my Landa.
GROSS: That's Quentin Tarantino, recorded in 2009. So Christoph Waltz, obviously Tarantino was mighty impressed by the time you were halfway done with the audition scene, and I believe the audition scene was the scene we just heard.
WALTZ: Yeah. We then went on throughout the whole role. He read all the other parts. It was partly hilarious, partly just fabulous, partly scary. And we arrived at the end, and then we parted. And I said to the casting director: If this should have been it, it was definitely worth it. Then they called me back.
GROSS: So when you were preparing for the audition, did you treat his script kind of like a score? Did you write in pauses and accents so that you could get the music of the language?
WALTZ: I didn't write them in, but you know, they jump at you because the phrasing, it's not just, it's not just the words in themselves, it's the rhythm that he creates. You know, you might have heard very clearly, which is a good example, is "that of the rat."
Now, it's not the rhyme with "that" and "the rat," but if you have these two words, the pause between "that... of the rat" is unavoidable. So you don't need to actually write anything or take any notes. You just need to hand yourself over to the flow.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Christoph Waltz. He stars in Quentin Tarantino's new film "Django Unchained." Waltz won an Oscar and a Golden Globe, as well as several other awards, for his performance in Quentin Tarantino's film "Inglourious Basterds," as Nazi Colonel Hans Landa, a.k.a. the Jew Hunter. Waltz is Austrian, and Americans were unaware of him until Tarantino discovered him and cast him in "Inglourious Basterds." When we left off, we were about the difficulty Tarantino had finding a German or Austrian actor who could get the rhythms of Tarantino's language and land his jokes.
So when you had your audition for "Inglourious Basterds," how well did you know Tarantino's movies?
WALTZ: I knew all of the movies.
GROSS: You'd already seen all of them?
WALTZ: I saw, I had seen all Tarantino movies as they came out, as they were released, starting with "Reservoir Dogs," and I even had seen "Death Proof." Yeah. So I knew them all.
GROSS: So you already had an ear for what he was doing.
WALTZ: In a way. In a way. I had a fascination, you know, even in "Death Proof," which is somewhat, you know, not as easily accessible, but somehow watching "Death Proof" I understood something about the dialogue because these girls were driving the car and one had her legs out the window and the other one was, you know, bored and just getting on with it somehow, and they were talking about nothing in particular for a long time, and I was mesmerized.
WALTZ: And I always wondered what is it that I'm so interested in? There's nothing interesting. But why am I captured? Why am I at the edge of my seat even though nothing is happening other than two bored girls driving alone?
GROSS: But "Inglourious Basterds" is different. There's a lot happening. There's a lot at stake. There's a lot of tension in this film.
GROSS: It's not just people talking about their Cheeseburger Royale or whatever. Do you know what I mean? Like there's really a lot at stake. Yeah.
WALTZ: Yeah. Yeah. And the same thing in "Django" with...
GROSS: In "Django." Absolutely. Yeah.
WALTZ: Are you Canadian?
GROSS: No. But I lived in - oh, what did you hear an "out" or something?
WALTZ: I - "about." Yeah.
GROSS: Yeah. I grew - I went to school in Buffalo, New York and I went to college there and listened to the CBC all the time during very formative years...
WALTZ: Ah. Yeah. Yeah.
GROSS: ...and I think I picked up a Canadian O-U.
WALTZ: My first wife's from Buffalo.
GROSS: Oh seriously, really?
WALTZ: Yeah. Seriously.
GROSS: Oh, how do you like that? So, small world.
WALTZ: I don't.
WALTZ: Buffalo, I didn't like that much.
GROSS: Oh it's cold. But it was great. I loved living there when I lived there. You come from a theater family tree. Would you just describe...
GROSS: ...some of the branches of that tree?
WALTZ: Well, I'm fourth-generation theater in my family. And my great-grandfather was an actor, my grandparents were actors, my parents were designers and I didn't want to have anything to do with it.
GROSS: Why not?
WALTZ: Because that's all I heard when I grew up. It was tedious, you know, they'd brought tears to our eyes, my sibling and mine, because it was dinner, breakfast, lunch, in between. The only topic of conversation was the theater, and I wanted to do everything but. And somehow out of sheer lack of imagination I ended up in it.
GROSS: So, I'm, you know, wondering in Austria, when - for your, maybe, grandparents....
GROSS: ...did they have to do propaganda theater at the insistence of the Nazis?
WALTZ: No. No. No, no. No, no. They were members of the big state theater there and, you know, the Nazis came to Austria in '38 and the war started in '39. They still played until, I don't know, '43, I think, '42 and then the theater closed down. And no, they didn't have to do propaganda. They just played the classics.
GROSS: So you studied in New York with Lee Strasberg and Stella Adler.
GROSS: Were there big differences between what you learned in New York and what you learned studying in Austria?
WALTZ: Yeah. Absolutely.
GROSS: What are some of the differences.
WALTZ: ...one of the reasons...
WALTZ: One of the reasons I came here was for that difference. I went to drama school, you know, that was founded by Max Reinhardt, the big theater impresario, director, producer in Austria in the '20s and '30s. And he immigrated to California when the Nazis came and never quite caught on because it was a very specifically European and Austrian theater. That's kind of the world that I grew up in. The American influence is - after the war, was very strong through movies. The Americans used movies as a sort of re-educational process in Germany, and it was very important. So when Germany split in two and Austria became neutral in order to just save itself onto the right side of the Iron Curtain, it opened itself to this American influence. So my influence was - we didn't have a TV so I didn't watch TV, but the movies and American movies were very decisive influences. So that's what I aspired to as a young guy, you know, movies.
And also film as a medium was infinitely more fascinating to me than the stage because I had, you know, stage was all I knew in a way, from as long as I could think. But movies, movies was the real fascination for me. And not just acting, you know, but the visual aspect, the narrative flow through editing, all of that, all of that was fabulously fascinating. So I actually wanted to go into that and where else would I go then to learn it, than America. And I also went to Los Angeles and I didn't find much that was for me and I ended up in New York and studied with Lee Strasberg - at the Theater Institute for almost two years and with himself for unfortunately, only a few weeks, then he died. But the real gem and jewel in my, let's say education, was Stella Adler.
GROSS: Could you compare Stella Adler's approach with what you learned in Austria?
WALTZ: I didn't take acting classes with her, I have to add. I took script interpretation and that was a real eye-opener - how to read a play. Which brings us back to Quentin's text and Quentin's scripts.
WALTZ: How to actually, you know, put a play in front of you and start on the title page to figure out what it is that's in there. That was the real thing that fired me up to, and changed sort of the course of my approach totally. Totally. And I...
GROSS: What are some of the things she told you about that?
WALTZ: Well, apart from technical aspects, on really how to take a script or a play apart in order to find the bits that you can translate into action for an actor, there were these little, little remarks that still are in my mind. And one of the most valuable things that she said to the class and so also to me, but it stuck to me for the past 35 years, is don't love yourself in art, love the art within you. And that's something that never left me. The play in front of you is more interesting than all the neurotic little maneuvers that you play within yourself.
GROSS: That sounds like a different approach than what we think of as Method, in which you're kind of going deep into yourself...
WALTZ: Oh, yeah, come on.
WALTZ: Oh, yeah, come on. Method is just a brand.
GROSS: Are you saying that dismissively or, or...
WALTZ: Yes. No. I mean, you know, there is, as Lee Strasberg, who was one of the most fascinating persons and definitely a genius teacher, as he taught it has nothing to do with what a lot of people claim is the Method today.
GROSS: I see what you're saying. Right. Mm-hmm. OK.
WALTZ: You know, nothing whatsoever. That's where the two who didn't specifically like each other - Lee Strasberg and Stella Adler - actually met on the same point, is what I said before, you know, don't love yourself in art, love the art within you. That's plenty, plenty to take care of. Lee Strasberg phrased it differently. He said it's about the work, which is also something that I don't forget.
GROSS: How did making "Inglourious Basterds" change your life as a person and as an actor?
WALTZ: The movie, you mean?
WALTZ: Oh, well, the movie changed my life inasmuch as I finally found a text and a director who thinks very much along the lines that I think in, not necessarily on the surface but, you know, deeper down. The interest in dramatic elements is very congruent and that was just exhilarating. And that, you know, to answer the question more simply, to finally find someone who recognizes and utilizes what I have to offer was just, you know, a major turnaround in my life...
GROSS: Well, you were...
WALTZ: ...not just in my career.
GROSS: You were what, in your late 40s by the time you made "Inglourious Basterds"?
WALTZ: No, I'm afraid I was a little older than that.
GROSS: Around 50 or something?
WALTZ: Yeah. I was 52. Mm-hmm.
GROSS: Yeah. So, well, so that must've been really frustrating to have spent the first few decades of your acting career feeling like you weren't being well used and you couldn't find the roles or the directors who you really synced with.
WALTZ: Yeah. Yeah. Absolutely. You just said it. It was extremely frustrating and I was on the verge of thinking of other possibilities; not dropping acting because I didn't spend three decades in one thing - you know, I finally got to the point where I sort of knew how to handle it and then to drop it, with something else, be it pottery or racecar driving, you have to spend another, another, I don't know, at least a considerable amount of time to get down to the bottom of the craft and what it's all about. So I didn't - I wasn't prepared to just chuck that over my shoulder. But I - and I still do, but not out of frustration, now it's out of fascination - you know, I still sort of try to get a movie together to direct.
GROSS: So when you were young what was one of the most important American movies in your life that made you fall in love with movies?
WALTZ: You know, oddly enough, the first movie that came to mind when you asked that question is "Reflection in a Golden Eye." It's a John Huston movie with Marlon Brando. And it's...
GROSS: Oh, you know, I haven't seen that.
WALTZ: Yeah, well, it's not so well known but it's one - oddly enough, the first movie that came to mind when you just asked. There are other movies of - Marlon Brando was very, very important to me. Or not he, himself - I mean, I couldn't care less, but, you know, his performances in his movies. And I'm not saying I liked every single one, but I followed it, and I kind of honed my critical observation. I loved the George Cukor movies. "Philadelphia Story" was the first movie that I saw three times in a row in a movie theater. I went out through the exit and back in through the entrance three times. You know, Cary Grant was a hero with his delivery and his irony and his, you know, bordering cynicism, sense of humor. I just adored him. I never was a great Hitchcock fan. Now I start to discover him. I was a member of the Film Museum in Austria and - in Vienna, and I went to see old movies probably three times a week. The Marx Brothers I knew by heart backwards and forwards. One of my biggest heroes of all time in the movies is Buster Keaton. But then, you know, I saw the Scorsese movies when they came out, the early ones, "Mean Streets" and...
GROSS: "Taxi Driver."
WALTZ: "Taxi Driver." "King of Comedy." Then Robert De Niro became this role model for me, you know, with his unparalleled ability to make character and contents visible through nothing. He doesn't do anything, yet he opens your understanding and he opens your mind and you fall into these characters. It is really, really unique and we have to be grateful for people like that.
GROSS: Just one more question. When you saw all these movies that were so formative in your development, did you see them dubbed or in English?
WALTZ: I tried to see them in English. I hate dubbed movies. And I hate...
GROSS: Oh, me too. Because the voice is so important.
WALTZ: And you know what I hate more than dubbed movies is dub movies. I just did "Django" in German because, you know, it would be silly to have it in German without my voice. I - I don't like doing it. But, you know, it's better I do it than someone else.
GROSS: Oh, yeah. I'd never really thought of that. That's so odd.
WALTZ: Yeah, it is. Yeah.
GROSS: That's really odd. OK. So I take it you still love music and love to sing. What do you sing when you sing around the house?
WALTZ: Schubert, right now.
WALTZ: I'm in a complete Schubert vortex right now. Oddly enough, I listen to Schubert all the time right now. It'll change. It'll change but while I do, I love it.
GROSS: Can I put out a plea for somebody to cast you in a musical?
WALTZ: Yes, please do. I'd love to. I mean, Sondheim is another thing.
GROSS: Oh, yes. Oh.
WALTZ: Stephen Sondheim I am in awe of.
GROSS: Oh, me too. Oh, you must be in a Sondheim musical. Somebody tell Stephen Sondheim.
WALTZ: I mean, I would give my right arm, if I didn't need it in the musical.
GROSS: Oh, "Sweeney Todd." You'd be great.
WALTZ: I've seen "Sweeney Todd" eight times, I think, or 10 times.
GROSS: Oh, you must do "Sweeney Todd" sometime.
WALTZ: I can sing it backwards, forwards. (Singing) Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd. His skin was pale and his eye was odd. He shaved the faces of gentlemen who never thereafter were heard of again.
GROSS: That is my very favorite musical.
WALTZ: Ah. When I think about it, when I talk to you about it, I get the goosebumps. I think Stephen Sondheim is a - and I hardly ever use this word - but this is as close as it gets to a genius.
GROSS: Well, I regret that we're out of time. Thank you so much for talking with us. It's really been a pleasure.
WALTZ: Thank you. Thank you.
GROSS: Christoph Waltz is nominated for a Golden Globe for his performance in Quentin Tarantino's new film "Django Unchained." He played the Nazi Colonel Hans Landa in Tarantino's film "Inglorious Basterds." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.