For his newest film, "Django Unchained," writer/director Quentin Tarantino not only set out to tackle one of America's most contentious subjects in slavery. He also, as the Wall Street Journal pointed out last week, wanted to create a story that helped "redeem the Germans a little after his last picture," "Inglourious Basterds," depicted the brutal nature of the Holocaust.
It should be no surprise then that Tarantino brought on Christoph Waltz to help out. Waltz is best known for playing Hans Landa, the Jew-hunting Nazi in QT's "Basterds" (a performance than got him an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor). However, in "Django," the Austrian actor is more hero than villain. As German bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz, he frees the slave Django (Jamie Foxx) to help him track down a trio known as the Brittle Brothers. In exchange, Schultz will help Django rescue his imprisoned wife, Broomhilda.
I sat down with Waltz (who just received a Globe nod for his performance as Shultz), to discuss his roles in "Basterds" and "Django," how his career has changed since Tarantino plucked him out of relative obscurity and how his German bounty hunter character somehow found himself in America two years before the Civil War.
Congratulations on the Golden Globe nod.
You’ve been through this dance before. Is it exciting? Nerve-wracking? Exhausting?
Very exciting. I just finished a movie last week and I am still dizzy, so it hasn’t quite soaked in yet.
I wanted to talk about the backstory of Dr. King Schultz. Specifically, how did this German come to America and become a bounty hunter?
Quentin has a detailed biography before he sets out to write the story. But he doesn’t burden me with it because he wants me to come up with my own ideas. Now, the Union Army in the Civil War had 10 percent German soldiers. We know that in the Independence War that there were a high percentage of German officers involved. We know that English just became the language in the new country by one single vote. Had it not been that one vote, it would have been German. If you go to the old cemeteries in New Orleans, two out of three graves from that era have German names on it. So, it’s not that difficult to make a connection. Then, look at European and German history. Around that time, the French Revolution changed everything. It spread all over Europe. They started to revolt against the feudalism. There was a major uprising in 1848 that was brutally beaten down, and a lot of people had to find a way out.
How early on were you involved in the creative process of this movie?
I witnessed Quentin writing it. But so much goes on inside of Quentin and so many notes and various branches of that imagination grows in all directions. What he gave me...were the first pages to read. I refrained from even commenting. I just wanted to see how it went on. To kind of interfere and comment and usurp the cooperation would’ve been a grave mistake. Because I am interested in what is coming out of his mind.
I guess since he was sharing the story with you that early on, you assumed you were going to end up playing Dr. Schultz?
Yeah, that was his way of showing his intentions.
Was there any hesitation on your part joining a film that takes on such a difficult subject?
Nope, not one bit. It’s been quite the contrary to what Leo [DiCaprio] said during the press conference: he had to find a way to play the most despicable human being that he ever encountered, real or fictitious. That was not the case with me.
So do you see your character as a hero of sorts?
Well, hero is the outside perspective and sort of the description as the result of the action. I tried to see the action from the other side. So, no, I don’t see the hero. It’s a wonderful narrative device to bring someone from the outside and look through his eyes if you want to describe the absurdity and preposterous reality that is accepted amongst the ones who are inside. And outside, this is how I feel about the whole thing: I am from Vienna. We never had slaves. It’s a concept and a social model that was never implemented where I come from. We know the facts, of course. But we have no immediate emotional connection to it. So, to enter an endeavor and a narrative of that kind, you have to do it from the inside.
Prior to “Inglourious Basterds,” you had spent your career mostly doing German TV and film. How have things changed for you both personally and professionally since Quentin casted you as Hans Landa?
It’s changed completely. It’s a pretty good story about the unknown TV actor. Really, most of the work that I have done over the past 20 years in Europe was television. I also did years and years and years of theater, which helps when you work with Tarantino. It’s interesting for him to say that Sam Jackson and I can say his dialogue better than anyone else -- we are two guys that grew up in the theater. Anyway, I’ve done so many years of theater, and I am not a real theater animal who needs it. I have always been so interested in film as a medium. And there was not much happening [in Germany]. They make movies but they are geared towards TV. I sort of made a living [doing it] and I was grateful for that, but it was never the challenge that promised satisfaction.
So had you been trying to break into English-speaking roles for awhile?
I had been trying for years. I was already giving up. I lived here in New York when I was very young. I went to Lee Strasberg’s theater hoping that I could break in. Well, that turned out to be impossible, and “Inglourious Basterds” kind of brought me back. Now, I am not entirely uncritically throwing myself into anything that comes my way. But the fantastic thing is I don’t have to because so much comes my way that, on top of getting to do it, I get to choose what it is I do. The moment I start to think about it, I want to fall on my knees and thank my creator that he has opened this opportunity for me.
So it feels like that hard work has finally paid off?
Exactly. That it was worthwhile sticking it through. That it was worthwhile to develop it, even under circumstances that I hardly ever agreed with. In a way, I don’t dare to think about it, because I would end up with a question Why me? What did I do to deserve it?
What was the reaction in your native country to starring in all of these international blockbusters?
It’s funny. Initially it was surprisingly positive, because we don’t really have a camaraderie in the business there. It was only support and positive energy that came my way and I was really moved. Of course, that wears off a little bit, and then you hear, “Well, yeah, it was good but I hope he knows it’s going to be over in a year.” Well, I didn’t forget that it could be over in a year, because I have encountered that spot several times. So it’s quite familiar, the possibility. Yet it hasn’t been over in a year, and I wonder if I am right in perceiving slowly, slightly different vibes.
You just have to be in Tarantino films the rest of your career and you’ll be fine.
[Laughs] Well, of course I am over the moon about all of this. You can’t always do the extraordinary, in between you have to do the ordinary. Because if you didn’t, what would constitute the extraordinary?
Jamie Foxx & Christoph Waltz
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