Give the English-language cinema an intelligent, alert, ingenious, ambitious actor of Teutonic origin and it will reflexively make him a villain. Since his Oscar-winning turn as the hissable Col. Hans Landa in Quentin Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds," Christoph Waltz has played a sadistic circus master, an L.A. crime boss, a viperish lawyer and a calculating cardinal.
Now the estimable Austrian wears a hero's gun belt in "Django Unchained," his reunion with Tarantino, opening Wednesday. Waltz has just earned a Golden Globe nod as Dr. King Schultz, a sure-shooting bounty hunter. Emancipating the title character played by Jamie Foxx, he rides with Django on his quest to rescue his still-enslaved wife.
Entering the film's universe was almost a homecoming. In his youth, Waltz said, "there was no escaping the spaghetti western. That was the regular movie fare. We didn't have a TV. My parents didn't believe in it. I was still a little young," he said, "because all these movies were restricted. But I knew about them, and as soon as I could sneak into them I saw them." Sergio Corbucci's 1966 revenge epic "Django" not only impressed Tarantino in the United States, it made a sensation among Waltz and his peers.
"Django was almost a synonym for cool," the 57-year-old actor recalled. "Even as a sarcastic comment you could call someone Django and everybody would understand. It was like a code."
A nasty accident
Tarantino has said that Samuel L. Jackson and Waltz speak his dialogue better than anyone else. Waltz ascribes the success of his creative partnership with the director to "a kind of sensory premonition I have of what he would want.
"I try to facilitate the script to come to life. Quentin's scripts are more literary than other scripts. It's not just a blueprint for a movie. You can enjoy just reading it and putting your mind into it. You don't say, 'Now I can see myself galloping through the prairie.' No, it's far more enjoyable to read. Delicious is the word."
While preparing for the film, Waltz was sidelined for weeks when a horse threw him, breaking his pelvis. "The accident was pretty nasty. I had surgery," he said. "They're such erratic creatures, such frenzied little beasts. God knows what it was. Sometimes they shy from their own shadow. They were created to be hunted and eaten by predators. That's their very nature.
"I have a friend who works with horses who said were it not for the domestication of horses about 15,000 years ago, they would be extinct by now," a prospect which, by the tone of his describing it, would not break his heart.
Waltz's character is baffled and disgusted by the racial dynamics of antebellum America, one quality of the character that the actor understood instinctively. "We always knew that America had slaves, but we had no real grasp of what it means because we never did. In our heritage we have a lot of dark spots. We have to deal with some heavy conundrums. Slavery's not one of them. When I began to do my research, I discovered to my amazement that it's an unresolved issue in this society."
Waltz has a theory about why the story of the Holocaust has been told on film repeatedly while American slavery has inspired relatively few films. "I think had the Nazis won the war, we wouldn't talk about the Holocaust, either. This nation, this civilization, this culture, was never forced to look at its own disasters because there was never defeat."
Austrian in Hollywood
While Waltz hopes that he and Tarantino will have a long and close collaboration, "I don't need to nudge him. I know if he writes a story where there is a part for me, I will play it. If I'm not in his movie, there was no part in it for me."
Unlike some European actors who find success in English-language films, Waltz does not foresee a career shuttling between his homeland and Hollywood. Since his breakthrough he has planted roots firmly in the American film industry.
"The past three years, I did everything I did over here. And I'm quite happy with that because there's not much coming from over there for me. I've been welcomed here with open arms, made to feel at home here a hundred times more than in Germany, for example. And in Austria, where I come from, there's not that much happening."
Waltz leaps ahead a few centuries for his next starring role. He plays a genius computer programmer inTerry Gilliam's Orwellian science-fiction film "Zero Theorem," also featuring Matt Damon. Then he plays Mikhail Gorbachev opposite Michael Douglas as Ronald Reagan in the missile summit drama "Reykjavik." Though a major makeover would seem to be required to turn Waltz into the bald, birthmarked Soviet leader, he said he intended to keep the prosthetics to a minimum.
"It should be about that one decisive weekend in history, not heavy makeup. It's not a carnival show. I don't agree with mimicry. Bill Murray is infinitely more Roosevelt [in "Hyde Park on Hudson"] than he would have been had they put a ton of makeup on his face."
Though it's been three years since "Inglorious Basterds" transformed him from a working European TV actor into an international star, Waltz says he is still amazed "every day. It is miraculous, and I have not ceased to be astounded."
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186