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When Christoph Waltz auditioned for the role of SS officer Hans Landa in Quentin Tarantino's 2009 film Inglourious Basterds, he read the passage assigned for the audition, then kept going until he had gone through the entire role as Tarantino himself filled in for the other parts.
"It was partly hilarious, partly just fabulous, partly scary," Waltz tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "And we arrived at the end and then we parted and I said to the casting director, 'If this should have been it, it was definitely worth it,' and, well, then they called me back."
Waltz wound up winning the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor the following year for his portrayal of Landa, and, at age 53, officially breaking into the Hollywood scene. The success of Inglourious Basterds changed his life, he says, and working with Tarantino was a revelation that renewed his faith in his craft.
Now he's starring — along with Jamie Foxx, Leonardo DiCaprio and Kerry Washington — in Tarantino's latest, Django Unchained. In this film, he plays a German bounty hunter who teams up with a former slave against a plantation owner.
Growing up as part of the fourth generation of an Austrian theatrical clan, Waltz never intended to enter the family business.
"I didn't want to have anything to do with it," he says, "because that's all I heard when I grew up. It was tedious. It brought tears to our eyes, my sibling and mine, because it was [at] dinner, breakfast, lunch ... the only topic of conversation was of theater."
He says it was only "out of a sheer lack of imagination" that he found his way to acting. That said, he loved old American films from an early age — the Marx brothers, Buster Keaton — and he would go to as many as three movies a week. Eventually, this led him to New York, where he studied for a time under Stella Adler, the actress and theater teacher. She had a lasting influence on Waltz.
"There were these little, little remarks that still are in my mind," he says about the things he learned from her. "And one of the most valuable things that she said to the class and so also to me — but it stuck to me for the past 35 years — is, 'Don't love yourself in art, love the art within you.' And that's something that never left me: that the play in front of you is more interesting than all the neurotic little maneuvers that you play within yourself."
On whether Tarantino wrote the part of Dr. King Schultz in Django Unchained specifically for him
"I sat at his kitchen table — literally at his kitchen table — with pages in front of me that were still warm from the printer. It sounds like a figure of speech, but they were literally still warm from the printer, and I read it in portions because, you know, I didn't sit there all the time and hear the typewriter click away in the room next door, but in like two, three weeks he invited me up to his house again and put another ... warm stack of paper in front of me and then eyed me and watched me reading and sort of reading my face and my reactions to it, so ... yes, I'm proud to say — and I hope it's not being presumptuous — he did write it for me."
About understanding the poetry, rhythm and humor of the language in Tarantino's scripts
"It's something about Quentin's writing. ... It's something about these specific words. Words are not all the same, and the combination of words. ... [I]t's an actor's dream to try to wrap his mind around these sentences. ... They jump at you because [of] the phrasing. It's not just the words in themselves, it's the rhythm that [Quentin] creates. You know, you might have heard very clearly, which is a good example, is "that of the rat." ... [I]f you have these two words, the pause between "that ... of the rat" is unavoidable, so you don't need to actually write anything, or take any notes. You just need to hand yourself over to the flow."
On the influence American movies and acting styles had on him growing up in Austria
"We didn't have a TV, so I didn't watch TV, but the movies and American movies were very decisive influences, so that's what I aspired to as a young guy, you know. ... [N]ot just acting, but the visual aspect, the narrative flow through editing, all of that was fabulously fascinating. So I actually wanted to go into that, and where else would I go to learn it than America? I also went to Los Angeles, and I didn't find much that was for me, and I ended up in New York. And I studied with Lee Strasberg at the Theatre Institute for almost two years — and with himself for unfortunately only a few weeks, and then he died."
On the American actors that he particularly admires
"Marlon Brando was very, very important to me. Or not he, himself — I couldn't care less — but his performances in his movies. And I'm not saying I liked every single one, but I followed it, and I kind of honed my critical observation. I loved the George Cukor movies. Philadelphia Story was the first movie that I saw three times in a row in a movie theater. I went [out] the exit and back in through the entrance three times. Cary Grant was a hero with his delivery and his irony and his bordering cynicism, sense of humor. I just adored him. ...
"But then, you know, I saw the Scorsese movies when they came out, the early ones — Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, King of Comedy — then Robert De Niro became this role model for me, with his unparalleled ability to make character and countenance visible through nothing. He doesn't do anything, yet he opens your understanding and he opens your mind and you fall into these characters."
On Stephen Sondheim and Sweeney Todd
"Stephen Sondheim I am in awe of. ... I would give my right arm, if I didn't need it in the musical. I've seen Sweeney Todd eight times, I think, or 10 times. I can sing it backwards and forwards. ... When I think about it, when I talk to you about it, I get the goosebumps. I think Stephen Sondheim is a — and I hardly ever use this word — but this is as close as it gets to a genius."