The little-known Austrian basterd who steals the show

Inglourious Basterds may be directed by one of the biggest Hollywood names (Quentin Tarantino) and may star one of Hollywood’s biggest actors (Brad Pitt), but when it debuted at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year, the name on everyone’s lips was Austrian actor Christoph Waltz.

The 52-year-old plays Colonel Hans Landa, Tarantino’s ‘Jew hunter”, who charms his victims and orchestrates their death in the same breath. Waltz’s portrayal of the multilingual murderer earned him best actor at the festival’s closing ceremony and, if Tinseltown talk is anything to go by, there is still more acclaim to come.

You’ve given one of the most smashing performances at Cannes. When you were working on the film, did you know you were on to something special?
In a sense I did. What Quentin Tarantino wrote is the part of the century. The part — I am talking about the part, not the performance — of the century. It’s on a par with the great part of dramatic literature, from the beginning of the art.

Now consider that this medium, film, is just a little more than 100 years old and that tells you a lot about this part. How do you feel when somebody asks you to play the part of the century? You feel like Barack Obama when he was elected president.

So just how did you get the part?
It was through the traditional casting process. I had a casting agent in Germany, who pre-selected four people for Quentin who might be right for the part.

The ones they were interested in got sent the script. I got it. I thought: ‘They’re all out of their minds.” Then my casting agent said: ‘Read it again and think that it’s a Tarantino movie,” which made a lot of sense.

How so?
It’s like a pop-up book. My daughter has one that you open up and a landscape jumps into your face with birds and there are stereo speakers and then the birds start singing. That’s how it was: I opened it up and this thing jumped into my face and the speakers were blasting in my ears. It was too much.

What was it like working with Quentin Tarantino?
When I first met him that was the first step. I walked out of that room and said to the casting agent: ‘If this should be it, it was worthwhile. Thank you for this hour.” Because it was just fantastic — Lawrence Bender, Quentin Tarantino and myself playing a scene for an hour.

I once had the great fortune of playing with one of the great German theatre actors, Wolfgang Reichman. It was in Amadeus and I played Mozart. On his 50th birthday we were sitting in his dressing room.

I was 24 and he said to me: ‘You know, I have been an actor for 30 years and I can tell you the three parts that gave me the feeling it was worthwhile being an actor.” For me, this was one of those few occasions when I felt it was worthwhile becoming an actor.

There are so many different things that merge into that experience of working with Quentin. He sets the pace, the atmosphere, the frame. Quentin prepares the ground and takes you very carefully, very gently; he [is] immensely considerate and puts you on to that ground that he prepared for you.

And all of a sudden you skate and you didn’t even know you could. You’re doing triple axels when you were working only on your single one and couldn’t even manage that.

Did you take your character home with you each night?
I make a point not to use makeup. I did that whole movie without one gram of make-up. I went to the make-up department every day to say hello. And when I was pressed for time, I would just pop my head in. That’s how I do it.

The character, for me, is not some god-like being or a muse that comes down and vanishes at 6.30pm because you have to be at a party at 7pm. You are only one person, so, of course, you take it home with you.

Anybody who says: ‘I become that character and get into it” is either crazy or lying. This is the great thing about the term ‘actor”. When people ask: ‘Can you tell us about your part?” I say: ‘No, I can’t.” I can give you the theoretical blahblah, but I don’t want to. I have the unique chance of doing it. I don’t need to explain it to you. Everything I have to tell is for you to go and watch the movie.

Do you think this is the role that will change your life?
It might — let’s talk again next year.

Nadia Neophytou is the arts and entertainment reporter for Eyewitness News. She attended the Cannes Film Festival courtesy of the French Embassy of South Africa and Amarula

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