"I'm glad I'm not twenty-five anymore," Christoph Waltz told me Monday morning before the New York premiere of Quentin Tarantino's latest. The Austrian actor is a bit more than twice that age and exudes a level of comfort and confidence that he says is rooted in his maturity and experience. We were talking about the attention he's received since this year's Cannes Film Festival, where the power of his performance in Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds" received raves along the Croisette and beyond.
There's well-deserved excitement for Waltz, but whether a Cannes acting prize and the concurrent critical attention will lead to a steady stream of work, and even awards season acclaim, remains to be seen. He seems OK with that because he's been down this road before and seems comfortable relishing in the moment. Waltz first received attention after a big role in his twenties but the momentum "evaporated into thin air," he said. Along the way he learned a pragmatism that is letting him savor his current success with the right attitude.
Sitting for a casual chat downstairs at The Standard hotel in New York City where he was staying this week ahead of the "Basterds" release (and where the debut party took place hosted by NYC's Cinema Society that night), the fifty two year old expressed a quiet excitement.
"Sooner or later I will have to let go, but for me, I would like it to be later than sooner," he said softly, commenting on the afterglow of his performance and the attention he's been receiving of late.
Asked about his work on the film, Waltz continuously deflected attention to Tarantino and the "Basterds" screenplay that he says gave him the essential elements he needed to interpret the character. To focus on just one part of the film is "rather ridiculous," Waltz noted, saying that his performance grew from the personal relationship he developed with Tarantino.
Waltz studied Tarantino's previous films and then read the script over and over to build his performance. "He let me do," Waltz praised the filmmaker simply. "He inspires, he doesn't instruct. You end up wanting to do exactly what he needs." Beyond sharing some broad background and insights, there isn't much to say, we agree later. The work should speak for itself and it's up to an engaged viewer to bring a critical approach to the experience of watching a movie.
From the start of "Inglorious Basterds," Waltz makes quite a mark on the audience. He potrays an almost hypnotically devilish Hans Landa, a Nazi Colonel known as "The Jew Hunter." An intense early sequence crystalizes his talents when Landa roots out a Jewish family hiding out on a French farm, allowing one young woman (played by Melanie Laurent) to escape alive - and setting the stage for Tarantino's fantasy tale in which a renegade band of Nazi trackers join forces with the woman to topple Hitler's Third Reich.
Talking about the film back in Cannes, Quentin Tarantino said that he worried that he might not find the right actor to play this character, and had he not found Waltz he might not have made the movie. "I realized that I was writing a pretty impressive character pretty early on," Tarantino explained in Cannes, reiterating that finding the right actor was essential to the movie. "There was something very liberating about [being willing to walk away] from it rather than make a compromise."
Back here in New York this week, as we're chatting further about the idea of Waltz' current success being a bit more manageable thanks to his maturity, co-star Melanie Laurent suddenly appeared from the lobby. "It's all on the page" she joked more than once, teasing us about our serious conversation. They chatted a bit in French and then she popped outside laughing. "It's all on the page," she said again.
"I'm glad I'm not 25 anymore," Waltz reiterated as Laurent left us to take a seat out on the hotel's streetside patio bar. She laughed in the sun with friends as Waltz and I observed the young group from a large window near our quiet indoor table. He admitted to having a paternal fondness for the young actress, praising her level headedness and talent.
"So play," he advised young creative types like Laurent. "Do take it seriously, but don't take it for everything," Waltz added, paraphrasing, "As Brecht said, 'Make a plan and then make another plan.'"
As we start to wrap up our conversation, I wished him the best on his ride with "Inglourious Basterds."
"It is a ride," he agreed, pausing. "So far, it's not a rollercoaster."
We laughed a bit.
"I'm not a roller coaster rider... The uphill is more manageable, but once it goes down, gravity takes care of everything."