On the eve of his 77th birthday, Udo Kier was on the phone at his home in Palm Springs, wearing a black T-shirt emblazoned with orange lettering that reads, “Don’t act.”
He received the shirt as a gift, and it bears a maxim he gleaned from Lars von Trier, with whom he began a three-plus-decade partnership on “Medea” in 1988.
“He means don’t act so people can feel and see that you’re acting. That’s the difference,” said the Cologne-born actor, the star of more than 200 movies from directors including Von Trier, Fassbinder, and Werner Herzog.
Over the years, Kier’s steely cobalt eyes and sinisterly soothing German accent have enabled him to play low lives, decadents, and villains. But he takes a break from all that in Todd Stephens’ “Swan Song,” released this past summer. In a perfect world, it would catapult the iconic performer into the awards conversation. And while an Oscar nomination may not be in the cards, other awards groups would do well to keep Kier in mind.
In the film, the actor plays Pat Pitsenbarger, a real-life hairdresser who, up until his death in 2012, was an adored figure in Sandusky, OH, and the subject of much local lore. He was also fabulously flamboyant in a dry, deadpan manner, which Kier — himself a queer icon — wanted to capture with as much verisimilitude as possible. The movie follows Kier’s retired hair maestro as he escapes from a nursing home, with nothing but a $30-something social-security check and a pack of Mores, to complete an erstwhile client’s look for her funeral.
“I wanted to shoot as chronologically as possible, and I didn’t want to go over the top, or be cliché, in the movements or the way to speak,” Kier said. You can often tell in movies when an actor doesn’t actually know how to smoke a cigarette, but Kier, meeting with Pat’s friends who are still living to get a sense of the man, studied how Pat walked and smoked. “Put it in the right hand, under the elbow of the left hand,” said Kier, who strived for Pat to be as realistic as possible with regards to a certain generation of gay men who came of age amid the likes of Judy Garland and Shirley Bassey and witticisms and cocktails.
“I grew up in Germany. There was AIDS and people died. There was no medication like today,” Kier said. “People went into a club to meet, they had to look left and right so their neighbors wouldn’t see where they’re going. Today I always say, the young people, girls and boys, and boys and boys, they’re kissing at McDonald’s. I’m going to be 77 tomorrow. That was also interesting to go back in your past and see how things have changed.”
Kier has played everyone from Count Dracula to Jack the Ripper, Dr. Jekyll, and Adolf Hitler. (“As a German, when I came to America, of course, you have to be the evil person,” said Kier, who came to the U.S. in the 1980s.) Kier has always been a keen collaborator who, whether playing a Nazi or a vampire or a butler in the wings of a production larger than him, never fails to deliver. “Swan Song” isn’t just a reminder of why he’s always been so fabulous — this is his show.
But while he’s headlined for films from foreign directors, he rarely gets to be the leading man in an American movie.
“When the New York Times wrote, ‘After 50 years, finally Mr. Kier becomes a leading man.’ I thought, ‘What?’” Indeed, reviews upon the release of the film last summer, including IndieWire’s own, called “Swan Song” the role of Kier’s lifetime, and one that finally ascended him to leading man status.
Recently, Kier said, he was at the American Cinematheque in Los Angeles, which showed restored prints of Paul Morrissey’s “Blood of Dracula” and “Flesh for Frankenstein,” in which he stars as the title movie monsters. “I had some good wine and was talking to the people, and they liked the films,” Kier said. “I was the leading man in those films, but I was never the leading man in America.” His bit parts in the country include films like “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective” and “Armaggedon.”
“When you have to lead the entire film, small or big or low-budget, people can follow you. In ‘Swan Song,’ it starts with me and it ends with me, so the people can follow. You can laugh with the person and cry with them,” Kier said.
From Pat smoking in a wheelchair in the middle of traffic as the bravado of Bassey belts on the soundtrack, to his swanning around town adorned by a boutonnière and a pink top hat, there are enough iconic Udo Kier moments for several movies here, including his character’s green suit. “Once I had the green suit on, I stayed in the green suit,” said Kier, who could be seen during the 18-day Sandusky shoot enjoying Chardonnay at the local bar, where everyone called him “Pat.”
“After I perform with a chandelier on my head, leave a hospital, steal a wheelchair, and all the cars behind me, sitting in a wheelchair with that green suit I found that so fantastically funny,” he said, referring to a pivotal scene in “Swan Song” that’s pure Kier.
Kier had a sense of humor about the idea that his turn as the fabulously witty, acerbic beautician might be awards-worthy. “I get all the awards now,” Kier joked, noting that he recently won a prize from the Monte-Carlo Comedy Film Festival, and another from Winston-Salem’s LGBTQ film festival.
“The thing is, when you play supporting parts, I only do it if I can leave an impact. If people can remember me,” said Kier, who offered an example of what that “impact,” what makes a character actor burrow deep into the viewer’s memory, might look like.
“If the director tells me to shoot somebody, I can take the gun in my left hand — I’m left-handed — and shoot,” he said. “And I also can clean my fingernails when the gun is in front of me, and I say, ‘You know? When I’m done, I’m going to kill you.’ And then I continue, and all of a sudden, I finish my fingernails, I’m happy, and take the gun and shoot. And people say, ‘Wow that was evil!’”
Evil may be Kier’s lot as an actor — he’s now in Prague finishing the new season of Amazon’s “Hunters,” in which he plays Adolf Hitler once again. He stars in an upcoming film “My Neighbor, Adolf” where he doesn’t actually play Hitler this time. Oh, and he also just reprised his role from Lars von Trier’s demented hospital melodrama “The Kingdom” for its upcoming third season. But “Swan Song” is a far cry from such malicious roles, as much as they are from the actor himself.
“I live in a library in Palm Springs. If I wasn’t an actor, I would be a gardener. I’ve planted a lot of trees. I rescue dogs. I collect modern art. I want to enjoy for a couple of months my life,” he said. “Of course, if David Lynch called me and said, ‘Can you come over and do a part?’ Yes, of course. But I have never asked a director if I can work with them.”
Kier has long made the joke that if he said to Lynch, “I want to work with you,” Lynch would respond, “Who doesn’t?”
“I had dinner a long time ago with David Lynch and Isabella Rossellini,” he said. “I didn’t say ‘I want to work with you.’ I would go under the table! Terrence Malick, Pedro Almodóvar, there are a lot of people I would like to work with, but I don’t tell them that. I only say, ‘I like your movies.’”
“Swan Song” is now available on streaming platforms.