by Zoe Stagg
photography by Robert Ascroft
“…experience helps … to put things into perspective, to take a step back and look at the grander picture. “
He has one of acting’s greatest assests: the face of a chameleon, at once recognizable and yet almost unplaceable. It’s a face you feel like you’ve seen forever – in stark contradiction with its transformative nature. For Christoph Waltz to do his job, that’s exactly what’s required. “I’m just supposed to be, not the mirror, but sort of a surface of reflection. The job of the actor is to really faithfully reflect what the author’s intentions are.” Whether dressed in the scarlet garments of Cardinal Richelieu, in the highly-decorated uniform of an Austrian SS officer, or most currently in the full beard and mustache of an antebellum bounty hunter in Django Unchained, Waltz is just the pond those authors’ intentions gaze into. “If I impose my opinion, my personal morals, my personal view of the world on to that, we would get a hell of a mishmash.” A giant list of accolades including a Golden Globe, a Screen Actors Guild Award, and an Academy Award suggest that “mishmash” has been avoided.
Born into a multi-generational theatrical family, his career stretches back more than three decades – with one very notable signpost in recent rearview. Austrian by birth, his credits are mostly European all the way up until 2009, when Quentin Tarantino cast Waltz as COL Hans Landa in Inglourious Basterds. With an auburn wave across his forehead, a square chin, and an eerie calm in his eyes, that part became the cross-over moment in a life of work. It was the first role attracting not only intense international attention, but an almost unending list of awards. “I worked as an actor for something like 30, 35 years before all of that happened – but I constantly worked as an actor.” It was a natural progression that he wouldn’t change. “Having spent time, experience helps. It helps to put things into perspective, to take a step back and look at the grander picture. It helped me deal with the excitement, and big exposure, not being all that green.” When the spotlight heated up, he was ready to give celebrity the proper role in his life. “I understood that I actually managed quite well without it, so it’s a wonderful bonus, rather than a burden.”
But to an American movie audience with a memory that stretches back only four years of a career almost eight times that long, it’s a lot of work less recognized. Waltz doesn’t resent this in the least. “That would imply that I do this for attention seeking, which I don’t. To be resentful about not having won an Oscar at age 23 – I know that this would be a, let’s say ‘modern’ or recent approach to a career, but that wouldn’t make it less ridiculous. Working, I did what I wanted to do and I could support everything that I needed to support – how resentful should I be about that?” To be an actor working consistently for 30 years is unusual enough, but to then experience the career trajectory he has is far from the typical Hollywood tale. He acknowledges it would be even less typical for an actress. “Well, anything’s possible, but the probability is admittedly, regretfully, unlikely. Commercial movies are sold like commodities on the level of attractiveness to the widest possible audience.”
With a careful cadence that thoughtful answers and fluency in several languages cultivate, he’s an actor who plies his trade strictly for the benefit of the audience. That notion of audience is present in almost every part of society. “Bertolt Brecht said, ‘Anything that is done on a stage is political.’ Meaning anything that is done publicly, is political in a way. So anything that is done publicly participates in the social organism whether it wants to or not.” It’s a great power at play without a lot of the proverbial responsibility to go along with it. “Regrettably very few… let’s say participants, in movies, theatre, music, pop culture altogether, are conscious of that fact. It’s complicated, especially during an election season, by the fact that those who are conscious of the fact, aren’t using it in our best interest. I find it rather regrettable that populations all over the world divorce themselves from political activities because they confuse politics with what’s happening at the Capitol or in the White House and nowhere else. Is there a line between politics and theatricality? In a way there is, and in a way one sort of overlaps the other. I think politics are more part of theatre, than theatre should be part of politics, but yet in a way politicians perform and perform increasingly so against their convictions – if they have any at all.”
Convictions, therefore, should exist without an audience to please, and power is not a complete political agenda. “Politics, especially nowadays, has more to do with establishing and maintaining power over others – and somehow it is mind boggling as to who gets to be a politician these days. When you read the paper how various politicians engage in this current hoohah, and with what arguments – the only thing that’s left to do is gasp and be ashamed.” He speaks with emphatic, implied italics and with the confidence of someone who knows he isn’t green enough to have to please. He doesn’t have an agenda. He can answer the questions he feels are interesting enough to explore, pass up those that aren’t, and doesn’t have to use his answers to curry favor. Waltz communicates how politicians should – and don’t. “[You see] arguments that are not just not thought of or thought through, but that are entirely populistic and demagogical and are only, only geared at theatricalities – but on the lowest level – meaning impressing an uneducated public for the biggest possible effect.”
There is one weapon, one fix to redeem us from this slide. “Education. Education is the only way.” It’s the only way, and it’s part of a media cycle that distracts us with Here Comes Honey Boo Boo so we don’t realize what’s behind the theatricalities passing-as-politics. “If you want my modest opinion, and it’s probably not terribly founded, but it’s an opinion nevertheless – it serves the purpose to have an uneducated population. Because an educated population wouldn’t let politicians get away with what they get away with these days. So it’s in the interest of the so-called politics that a population remains largely uneducated – it’s also in the interest of market economy that the population remains largely uneducated because education raises the standard. You would not be able to sell what is being sold today if you had a truly educated clientele.”
That isn’t to say there isn’t a place in culture for the exaggerated characters like the Honey Boo Boos. Waltz works with Tarantino, whose characters he pegs as “operatic.” “His characters are certainly without exception, literally without exception, larger than life.” If an actor’s job is to reflect parts of the audience back to himself, the audience has to make sense of what he’s being shown. “A spectator is supposed to pin certain aspects of his existence, things that trouble him or worry him or occupy his mind, on to what he sees in a piece of art.” Grandly drawn characters, unchecked antagonists, and outlandish revenge are all part of that, and part of what keeps us watching. “I doubt that revenge was ever a constructive approach. I doubt that revenge ever, in the history of mankind, changed things to the better. It just satisfied a very visceral, and in a way animalistic, side of human behavior.”
Revenge as told through the opera of cinema helps us make sense of our own lives, even though “it’s not a very refined approach to solving problems.” A certain amount of distance is required for that refinement – distance that Waltz has for the subject matter of Django Unchained. “The issue of slavery in America was literally not just five generations removed as it would be in today’s America, but it was also on the other end of the world, so I had no emotional connection to that whatsoever. Which was extremely helpful. It was extremely helpful first of all in an unbiased and unopinionated approach – it helps not to have a very strong opinion about something, to go about doing your job in a very clear and rational way.”
That emotionally-balanced, glassy-calm, reflective surface is who Christoph Waltz needs to be, so we can see in him what we need to be shown. To that end, to focus on any one of the wildly variant characters he’s played over more than 30 years, is to miss the view entirely. “If you stand up close to a wall with your nose to it, you won’t see much of it. But if you step back, you get a grander picture.”
And that grand picture includes a career with no horizon in sight.