After Christoph Waltz became an overnight American success in his fifties following his unforgettable performance as Hans Landa in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, he changed little about his work habits other than the geography: Through the ‘80s, ‘90s, and early aughts the Austrian-born actor worked steadily in European movies and TV series, and post-Basterds he kept up the same pace with Hollywood films, including two turns as James Bond archfoe Blofeld and films for directors like Roman Polanski, Alexander Payne, and Tim Burton. Waltz’s 2012 reunion with Tarantino for Django Unchained won him his second Oscar: It marked Waltz’s first role in a Western (albeit one that largely takes place in the antebellum South), a genre he returns to with the new Dead For a Dollar.
And who better to make that return with than Walter Hill? The director of 48 Hrs., The Warriors and many other revered films hasn’t made a proper Western since 1995’s Wild Bill, but the genre’s influence can be seen throughout his work. Dead for a Dollar (which also features Willem Dafoe, Rachel Brosnahan, and Benjamin Bratt) finds Waltz playing a character removed from some of his best-known roles. Bounty hunter Max Borlund is a man of few words but carefully selected actions, genteel by nature but uncompromising when the situation calls for it. By phone from Los Angeles, Waltz spoke to GQ about the part, his history with Westerns, and why he doesn’t spend much time reflecting on his past work.
After Django Unchained, this is your second Western. It’s rare for an actor these days to get a chance to appear in more than one. Did you grow up a fan of the genre?
Not as a fan, especially… When you grow up, your fascination with movies is so overwhelming—or at least mine was—that I did not really specialize in a genre. To this day I don’t, because I find it restrictive. But Westerns certainly were within my realm of attention. Even in Austria, you played cowboys and Indians for example. And for carnivals, a lot of kids wanted to be cowboys.
I never took to the cowboys, but the stories were compelling, at least the stories that I was allowed to see as a kid. I remember trying to get into Once Upon a Time in the West, I don’t know, for years, and I was too young because 16 was the permitted age. And until I could show an ID card to prove that I was 16, they didn’t let me in. But I knew Once Upon a Time in the West from being told what it was about by friends who did get in because they looked older. So yes, the Western movie experience was very much part of my life growing up.
Were there any that made a particularly deep impression on you?
There was a German author, Karl May, and every German-speaking kid read at least five or ten of his novels. They were actually predominantly about the American West and about this Apache chief and his white friend. Real Western stories by someone who lived near Dresden in the late 19th century and who had never set foot on America. And these novels are not young adult, but sort of generation-spanning literature and basic staple of your education over there. They did a whole series of movies [adapted from] these novels.
Each European culture had a way to adapt and emulate that Western genre somehow. Because it’s all about the dream of the surge westward into liberty, into the fantasized land of opportunities where you can start from the beginning, where you can be yourself, where you have to defend yourself, you have to test your aptitude and capabilities and be a man, basically. Because women were, unfortunately, just supporting characters in these stories.
Some of your most famous characters, from Hans Landa to Blofeld, are famous for verbal dexterity, for talking through situations. Max Borlund is someone who says as little as possible and speaks very directly. I think he even says at one point, “I don’t usually tell a man twice.” Is one sort of performance easier than the other?
No. I try not to be a brand actor who develops a brand and then sticks to that like, let’s say James Cagney, to be polite. But I try to follow the lead of the writer, and the script, rather, and find what’s in the case at hand and not so much in the generalization of, for example, the genre or the actor’s persona. I really make an effort to stick to the individual character because it serves a very specific purpose. And without the specificity you have more or less nothing.
Walter Hill’s screenplays are famously terse. This film only hints at Max’s past. When you have a situation like that, do you fill in the backstory yourself?
Well, I don’t like to talk about these things… You do that inadvertently. You do that even sitting in the audience watching the movie. You fill it in with whatever you have at your disposal. That’s what it’s all about. Because what I do behind the scenes is utterly irrelevant. Everyone needs to do whatever they do to get themselves going. And if they can generate it out of themselves, that much the better. You’re well advised to consult the sources, and the best source is always the script itself. But if there’s something that you don’t know or you find a sudden interest in or you’re intrigued by, you follow that. […] You can use a backstory of someone completely different or make up a story or you relate it to a different time, to a different gender, to whatever. All of that is your problem. Because in the end, it needs to serve the purpose.
It’s a matter of, what makes it onto the screen is what really matters, then?
No, what makes it off the screen is what matters. What’s on the screen is just there to inspire you in the audience.
How would you rate your skills as an equestrian?
Well, I’ve been doing it for a while, but not on a regular basis. So it should be better than it is. But riding is like singing, you need to do it on a regular basis to do it elegantly and so it is at least sufferable for the other creatures involved, be it your family at home in terms of singing or the poor horse in terms of riding.
You worked for years in films and on TV programs that weren’t widely seen by English-speaking audiences. Are there any projects you’d like to see resurface for audiences to rediscover?
No. I don’t even think about that stuff. I don’t know, maybe it’s something in my brain or maybe it’s something in my personality or both. I don’t know. Once I’ve done it, I’ve done it. And I’ve done a lot of things that I’m not necessarily proud of. And I’ve done quite a few things that I’m lucky and happy to say that pass muster. And both to an equal degree immediately go into oblivion once I’ve done them.
Why do you think that is?
It’s psychological and professional hygiene. It’s not that I’ve forgotten them, but it’s not something that I need to have present at all times. A lot of them I have forgotten, but for good reasons.