Christoph Waltz, the latest Bond villain, on winning fame and fortune in his fifties
A brace of Oscars in quick succession put Waltz firmly in the cinema stratosphere – although this mesmerising actor’s overnight success was actually decades in the making
Christoph Waltz is sitting upright on a two-seater sofa in a dimly lit hotel room. Given we’re here to talk about his villainous role in Spectre, the new James Bond film, I’m half expecting him to be in a swivel chair, spinning around and greeting me with, “Ah, I’ve been expecting you …”
But then that was 007 of old. Since Daniel Craig took over as Bond, the films have been a mite more grounded in the real world – the villains less likely to set up base in a hollowed-out volcano.
Not that Waltz is trying to sell Spectre as anything other than a rollicking good spy movie; the last outing, Skyfall,may have dipped into Bond’s past, as Spectre also does, but director Sam Mendes hasn’t left Ian Fleming’s MI6 super-spy on the shrink’s couch.
“This is not necessarily the movie for psychological details nor should it be,” says Waltz. “Daniel, much more so [than before]. Much more so. Bond per se – I’d hesitate to compare it to an Ingmar Bergman chamber film.”
This is typical from the bespectacled, erudite 59-year-old, who wraps his tongue around every syllable as if it’s his last. This may be the biggest-budget Bond yet (upwards of US$200 million) but Waltz is not one for hype.
“I’m disappointingly unimpressed by scale,” he tells me. “You could really impress me with detail.” Put it down to the 30 years of what he calls “enforced labour” – toiling away in German theatre, film and television productions. “It keeps your feet on the ground.”
The ultimate late bloomer, Waltz has seen his career go from relative obscurity to international acclaim in just over five years – since Quentin Tarantino cast him as SS officer Hans Landa in his 2009 second world war fantasy Inglourious Basterds. Winning him best actor at Cannes, it led to a year of acceptance speeches as he claimed 27 awards, including an Oscar.
Reuniting with Tarantino for his slavery epic Django Unchained, Waltz promptly won a second Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his deliciously scripted bounty hunter, Dr King Schultz.
With renowned directors such as Tim Burton (Big Eyes), Terry Gilliam (The Zero Theorem) and Roman Polanski (Carnage) all calling on his services, this must surely feel strange for an actor who has only experienced fame in his fifties?
“If I say it doesn’t feel strange, it doesn’t mean that I don’t appreciate it the way I do, which is limitless almost,” he replies. “But it’s not strange. It’s actually the level that I aspire to. I can appreciate it, because I’ve seen the depth on the other side. I know the difference.”
Being cast in a Bond film is yet another feather in his increasingly full cap. As the title suggests, this 24th movie reintroduces the shadowy terror network Spectre that dominated the early films when Sean Connery played 007. With a hint of menace and madness, Waltz appears as leader of this group, a man who appears to have a connection to Bond’s past.
Waltz, of course, has been sworn to secrecy about his character, though he’s more open about the nature of Spectre now. Following the cyber-attack against MI6 seen in Skyfall, “the specific quality of threat has changed, with Spectre”, Waltz acknowledges.
“We’re not so – except for Putin now! – remembering that the cold war was a cool thing … we haven’t been so worried about nuclear threats lately. We’ve been worried about what’s going on in the cybersphere. We have all reason to be worried about the transparency that is being imposed upon us against our will.”
Born in Vienna to an Austrian mother and a German father, Waltz is not the first from his region to play a nemesis to 007.
“I’m at least the third,” he says, pointing out there was Curd Jürgens, the German-Austrian who played Karl Stromberg in The Spy Who Loved Me, and Klaus Maria Brandauer, who appeared as Maximillian Largo in Never Say Never Again – a remake of 1965’s fourth 007 outing Thunderball andan “unofficial” Bond film in the canon, as it wasn’t produced by Eon Productions.
Of course, it was long rumoured that Waltz would be playing Spectre’s leader, Ernst Stavro Blofeld. “What am I supposed to say?” he says, exasperated. “I can’t say ‘yes’, I can’t say ‘no’. I mean, I can say ‘no’, but my usual response anyway, when people say, ‘Tell me about your character’, I say, ‘Why? That’s not what I do for a living. I play them so you can see them.’”
All true of course, but that doesn’t make extracting answers from Waltz, in the midst of an interview, any easier.
He’s prone to being cryptic. It’d be great if he made a third movie with Tarantino, I say. “I think [the director’s forthcoming western] The Hateful Eight is the third one – just without me,” he replies, somewhat bafflingly.
Was winning his Oscars for two Tarantino movies particularly meaningful? “Very, very. Apart from the fact I have no choice about it! But I’m glad it was with him. Those were the experiences that oddly redefined my understanding about why I’m doing this in the first place.”
Raised in a middle-class household where both his parents were costume designers, Waltz went to drama school and “hated it”, he says. “I left as fast as I could and I was lucky enough to get jobs right away.”
Stage work in Vienna, Zurich and Salzburg led to television roles and a career of what he calls “more downs than ups”. There were some British parts – including Channel 4 miniseries The Gravy Train – but largely he went unnoticed until he auditioned for Inglourious Basterds.
In the wake of his success, does he feel more pressure now? “No, no. Actually, in a way, less so. Not that I feel secure, but luckily, the existential threat has been removed. So I don’t feel I can’t support my family if I turn down a job.”
A father of three grown-up children with his first wife, he’s now married to costume designer Judith Holste, with whom he has a 10-year-old daughter. They spend their time between London (for “purely personal reasons”) and Berlin.
Already, he has two more movies under his belt – Tulip Fever, set in the 17th century, and a big-budget version of Tarzan. There are also plans afoot for him to direct his first feature film, The Worst Marriage in Georgetown, the true story of Albrecht Muth, who was convicted of murdering his wealthy older wife.
If he’s delighted by all these opportunities, he’d never show it. “I hesitate to say it feels right, but it feels right,” he shrugs. Well, Mr Waltz, we’ve been expecting you.
Spectre opens on November 5