While roaming the screen rooms and adjacent spaces in Rotterdam, ScreenAnarchy had the honor to sit down with acting cult icon Udo Kier, who was there to promote his latest endeavor, Austrian miniseries Altes Geld, in which he portrays a patriarch with power and wealth in his hands and a failing liver inside him.
The pursuit for a new organ turns the family upside down in a subversive version of a family soap opera. Udo Kier´s prolific career envelopes 250+ films and counting. He has collaborated with big names from history books and has a diverse portfolio starring in thrash, cult, genre and award-swooping arthouse films all over the globe. ScreenAnarchy chatted with the actor over a glass of white wine.
ScreenAnarchy: You flew to Rotterdam to promote the last project you are starring in, Austrian television show Altes Geld. Why did you choose to participate in episodic format now when it is booming?
Udo Kier: I got the offer arising from a strange situation because I was replacing in the role very famous actor from Burgtheater, one of the most prestige theater in Europe. They started to shoot with him, unfortunately he fell sick, and the director had this idea, the original actor was in totally different direction. My agent called and I denied the offer saying “to replace a little person from Burgtheater is easy but not the king”.
Anyway, one day later, the actor died and the director David Schalko talked to me and because it all happened in one week, I could not read all eight scripts but I had to get the feel for the whole thing. I went to Vienna and shot the mini-series. The actors who had already shoot with my predecessor were very nice, all from Burgtheater mainly.
Schalko is a good director and it was two and half month great kind of work and a great show. I do not even think this was a calculation from the director - the American way because we made it one a half year ago and now Netlfix and everybody are producing their own shows. So, it is still fresh and why not if it is a good thing.
Personally, I do not watch much television, when you are an actor and you work in that industry, I prefer to spent time in my garden. I live in former library in Palm Springs and to be honest, and I am honest, television shows and even films became so violent for me. When I was in Andy Warhol´s Dracula [Blood for Dracula], ketchup was the blood and it was much more scarier and strange.
In our days, vampires become wolfs and their fly. Contemporary TV shows are so brutal, the ways they kill people, obviously since those shows are very successful, this is what people want to see. Even the film which I like very much, The Hunger Games, which is wonderful being totally different from Hollywood clichés but it is brutal, it is killing and it’s about a show about killing people so I am not interested in that.
It's interesting you mentioned ultraviolence. But you yourself happened to star in a film that was banned in several countries, The Story of O.
But this is not why I did it. I went to Paris for the opening of Warhol´s Frankenstein [Flesh for Frankenstein] and I shared a car with Polanski. After the premiere, we went to a night club and a man approached me there saying “We are making The Story of O. and we want to offer you the main part”. And I said “No, no, no, I do not do porn”.
Everybody was kicking me under the table and when the man left, they told me “Are you crazy? That is the most forbidden book in France. If they make it into the film and you have the leading male role of René, you will be at cover of every magazine”. Which I was, together with the naked actress, of course. And that also was not calculated.
I have never wanted to be a vampire in the first place. I was sitting in an airplane from Rome to Munich, next to me was an American man and he asks me like Americans do, going right to the point, “What do you do?” I said “I am an actor” and I showed him a photograph. It was in the beginning so I had to prove myself. Then he asked for my telephone number and he wrote it down into this American passport on the last page though there was no other number.
I found that rather strange, my number in his passport, and I asked him “Who are you?” And he goes” I am Paul Morrissey, the director for Andy Warhol”. I knew Warhol´s films because I am collecting modern art all of my life since I could afford it.
Two or three months later, I got a call. “Hi, it´s Paul from New York and I am doing a little film for Carlo Ponti called Frankenstein in 3D and I have a little role for you.” I said “Wow, thank you” and I expected to play a waiter or something like that. So I asked him “What do I play” and he replies “Frankenstein”.
Frankenstein I could understand but then they had another actor to play Dracula because it was one production - the two films together - one week stop in the middle, shot in three weeks. And everybody came to me saying “Why don´t you play Dracula”. And I said “No, no, no” I already had my fifteen minutes of fame as Andy said.
And when the last day of the first shooting came, I was of course sad and went to the canteen and ordered myself a half bottle of white wine. It was an amazing canteen because Fellini was shooting next door so all the actors and actresses with big breasts were sitting in the canteen together and I was in my costume of Frankenstein. And Paul Morrissey came in and said “Well, I guess we have a German Dracula” and I said “Who?” and he goes “You. But you have to lose 10 pounds in one week.”
I did not eat anymore only salad leaves and water. Not only Robert de Niro prepares himself for roles but also Udo Kier does. When the first day of shooting came, I could not stand up. That´s why Dracula sits in a wheelchair. I could not stand up which was very effective. I stood up for Vittoria de Sica and fell down on the floor. It was wonderful and made it more believable when I said “I need blood of a virgin. The blood of these whores is killing me” since I was so pale and skinny. An audience wanted me to finally find a virgin which I did.
That´s how it works. I never wanted to be a vampire. In my last film in Antwerp, I was Adolf Hitler riding on dinosaurs. I never wanted to be that but it is what it is - a film. Film is shadow and light and film is fantasy. And I already played Adolf Hitler several times but always in comedies. There you have it. It´s not me who wants to play that.
How do you choose your roles?
Unless they give me a script with check I can buy a house with, I do not care. In general, I choose my roles. When I get a script, I read it and before I know what is happening in the script, I read only my lines. Then I read the whole script. And if I would not be in a film and it would still be an interesting film, why should I be there? That is how I choose.
Another case is Lars von Trier with whom I worked for 25 years and I would do anything for him even if he said go from left to right. I am certain he would shoot in a way, and with a music, nobody would ever forget like I did in all his films. I play a waiter in Nymphomaniac, I chose that role.
Lars von Trier´s films are very deep and people need a moment of laughter explosion. Lars sent me the script and picked that role. When Shia LaBeouf tells Stacy Martin to put the spoons under her skirt and I am coming to the table and say “I am sorry, did I forget to bring the spoons?”, I knew the audience would burst out laughing. And then when they take their coats and the spoons fell down on the floor, I am speechless. And this is just a little moment but people won´t forget it.
Or in Melancholia when I put my hand in front of my face, Variety wrote about my hand not about my acting. And Guardian put me in for best supporting performance just because of the hand. That is what it is. It is not how big the role is but what you leave something behind.
How come you have such a bond with Lars von Trier?
I can tell you why. It is very simple. Because Lars von Trier likes Fassbinder and Tarkovsky and I worked with Fassbinder who liked Tarkovsky and I like him as well. I met Tarkovsky here in Rotterdam 34 years ago. I went to Manheim, they had an intellectual festival like this one and made a short film The Last Trip to Harrisburg, black and white and with cinematographer nominated this year for Oscars for Carol, Ed Lachman. Him and me, we did the film. And my film was screened at opening night with Lars von Trier´s film Element of Crime.
He had not arrived but when I saw his film, I could not get up from my seat. I said to the directors from America “Well, we cannot go home. Whoever made that film will get the first prize at this festival”. And Americans said “You think so?” and I said “Yes, I do”. And he did get the award. Then I went to the organizers of the festival and said “There is one person I want to meet and that person made this film”.
And I expected somebody like Kubrick or Fassbinder, dressed in black, scratching themselves, being in a bad mood and here comes this little boy, he was really little and very young back then. We had a few beers and exchanged phone numbers. I did not say I would like to be in your movie. I never say that to a director. I go only as far as I did with David Lynch saying “I like your movies”. Or Almodóvar “I like your movies”. But never more. That´s enough. Imagine I would say to David Lynch I like your movies and he would reply “Who doesn´t?”.
Then Lars called me explaining he is doing a script for Danish television from Carl Theodor Dreyer´s Medea and he offered me the main role - the husband of Medea, king Jason. He said “You do not look like a Viking, so do not shave anymore, do not wash your hair and arrive here dirty in one month”. I came to Denmark and producers agreed that I am the king of Vikings.
And that was our first film. I learnt from Lars no to act. That is his favorite word. “Don´t act!” When I had my first scene with him and I was under the earth in brown water washing my hand, I had an iron shirt, a horse next to me, two big dogs. I did my scene and he said “Stop” and I went “What´s wrong?”. “I forgot we have a star” he says. “Don´t act, I gave you a horse, it is a symbol of masculinity, you have two big dogs, you have iron shirt. Just be a tired king. That is the only thing he said in 25 years.
Then his first wife was pregnant and they got their first baby and he said to me “Udo, I want you to be the godfather to my child. It is very serious if my wife and I died in a car accident tomorrow, you are responsible for the intellect and upbringing of my child”. We became friends, I was a family member. Since then I starred in all his films except two Danish films. My roles in Dogville and Manderlay were smallish because the films were screened in America and I hate to try to imitate the American accent. I remember clearly I had to say to Nicole Kidman “The boss wants to talk to ya”. Oh, my god…
Have you shared such bond with Fassbinder, Borowczyk or Warhol?
When Fassbinder was 15 ½ and I was 16 years old, we met in a working class bar in Cologne where a very strange group was present. But Fassbinder was fascinated by those people and so was I because there you could learn life, a real life not like in a posh bar. Of course there was not a posh bar in 60´s in Germany. Anyway, that´s how I met him.
Walerian Borowczyk wanted me to meet in Paris because he wanted to do a film about Gilles de Rais and Borowczyk wanted to shoot a trial with him because when you were speaking at a court in those times, nobody was allowed to go to bathroom. They had to piss and shit in their pants because he was talking for twenty hours. And Borowczyk wanted to do that but ultimately he did not realize the project so he offered me the part of Jack the Ripper in Lulu and also the role of Dr. Jekyll in Dr. Jekyll and the Women [Docteur Jekyll et les femmes also known as Blood of Dr. Jekyll]. And I never saw him again. This is how my life works. I am not running after jobs or people.
But did you have also a personal relationship with Fassbinder for example?
I do not know what are you trying to imply. I did not have an affair with him…
…I meant alike to your friendship with Lars von Trier…
When I started working with Fassbinder, we lived together in a hotel in Munich. Then we moved to a private apartment and then to a penthouse 1980 where he did Lili Marleen. Of course, it was a strong thing. Some directors like Fassbinder or Lars von Trier, they like to work with the same people, almost like a family. And then there are those who work with actors just once like Gus van Sant. Even if we become friends, he did not cast me in anything else just My Own Private Idaho.
When you work with such big names, do you have creative freedom? First of all, there are directors who don´t like improvisation. With Fassbinder, there was no improvisation. Lars hated improvisation in the beginning. When I starred in the film Dancer in the Dark with Bjork, Bjork was totally in her concentration, she was blind and I went to Denmark to make the scene where I play a doctor to whom she gives money because she realizes her son has the same illness and I am an eye specialist.
Anyway, then we did the scene and Lars von Trier operated a little camera and after we did the rehearsal he says “I do not like it”. I say “Okay, but you did write it” and he goes “Improvise. You both are from Czech Republic, you both don´t like America. You bring him the money because your son is getting ill…”. I said to Bjork “Bjork, is this okay for you?” and she said “……ehmmm”. We did one take and Lars says “Thank you. You can go home, I got what I needed”.
That is how we worked, never big discussions. And the famous movement of my hand in Melancholia Variety was writing about, he said to me” I want you to go to the room, you are the wedding planner…” and of course, at the table was John Hurt, Charlotte Rampling, Stellan Skarsgard, Kirsten Dunst, everybody, all the extras and he said “Udo, I want you to…” everybody had ears like that because they knew how good friends we are and they wanted to see how he talks to me “…I want you to go to the room and you do not want to see Kirsten. What would you do?”….well….I said “I would put my hand out like that”. He says “Okay, do that”.
You see, it was my idea and that´s why it is so organic. If he said to me “Put your hand out”, I would not know which hand. And because I am left-handed, of course my left hand came up first. That´s how I work with Lars. You seen, in movies, I believe in little things. I do not believe in British actors Oscars´ speech. I call it the Oscars´ speech when they start back to the camera, they breathe and talk and they turn slowly around, still looking to the floor and talking and finally they are looking into the camera. And I do little things.
When I worked for Guy Maddin who I like very much, we did the film with Isabella Rosselini, Keyhole. I played the doctor and in the end, he says to me “…and then you go”. I said “What you mean?” and he says “You go out…”. “OK, but people won´t see me anymore?”, and he says “No”. “But I want to say something” and Guy says “Do not worry but don´t turn to the camera and talk”. He says “What?” and me “Just give me a moment”. Then I looked at the door and all around the door was beautiful wallpaper and I went, I did not stop, I went, I did not look back, I went and touched the wallpaper saying “Nice wallpaper” and left. When the film premiered in Paris, people were approaching me saying “Nice wallpaper”. It is those little unexpected things people remember, not the big numbers.
Have you ever demanded a rewrite?
I like the way you said it. “Demand a rewrite”. Yes, to Mr. Kubrick I said “I am not being in your film, take Peter Sellers” (Laughs)… No, but sometimes scripts are not written for actors. Then they have to come with an idea or sometimes when a director can´t explain himself and I know I cannot insult him in front of a big crew, then I say “Peter, why do not we try it as you told me last night” - he did not tell me anything - “Just tell me, do you remember?”. He would look at me “Let´s try it maybe it will be better”. Then I do my thing and no director has ever told me “What the fuck are you doing?” “So, did it work?” (Thumbs up). You cannot say in front of everybody “I have an idea” and that is how it is. But I mean not with Fassbinder or von Trier, but sometimes new directors cannot express himself or herself….where are you from by the way?
… is that former Czechoslovakia?
I was in Czech Republic at a festival last year…
…yeah, with a film about bees…
… Gyula Nemes´ Zero.
You did you homework, didn´t you. It is about bees. When bees are going to die, we all are going to die because we won´t have nothing to eat.
But you did a Hungarian film before for example with Gábor Bódi.
Yes. He was a good friend of mine and unfortunately he killed himself. And he killed himself exactly the same way he directed me in the movie. When I die - I did not like it - he told me to do it with both wrists open and put together pressed between knees, waiting. And of course, at one point you get tired, still loosing blood and you die. I made a film with him - very talented, very talented director - Narcissus and Psyche and I played a poet.
We were shooting one year - that was in 80s - we had no modern technology like today and he wanted all four seasons. He placed a camera on my grave with camera taking pictures every three or four hours so you can see growing flowers from my grave and snow coming - very talented man. He had black pigs with white wings flying in the air, he had a whole little town and he painted all houses red - not like Antonioni in Blow-Up just one wall - talented guy.
But I worked also with Miklos Jancsó, the big king of filmmaking, Hungarian Rhapsody which won Golden Palm in Cannes where I played also a poet. In 70s and 80s, Hungarian cinema was always winning awards because the government put all their money in cinema so they could shine with their films in Berlin or wherever. In communism or socialism, you could afford to shoot one film the whole year. Imagine shooting a film in Los Angeles for one year…
You are a prolific actor appearing in films throughout the whole spectrum from arthouse to genre and cult films, do you make difference between high brow and low brow…
…say what you want, do not try to sugarcoat it…why don´t you ask me “Why do you make arthouse films and thrash films?”. I like both sides of the spectrum. I like to work in America in films like Ace Ventura or Blade because a film is shadow and light and in America, the shadows are longer.
But I also like to make little films like for example with Lars. It is always amazing to work with him because all the actors get the same money, the same car, the same room and in the evening in a little hotel, you have a self-service and you have Nicole Kidman, Stellan Skarsgard, Chloe Sevigny, Paul Bettany and Udo Kier going with a plate. Then Lars comes in, looks around if everything is okay and he goes. This is more what I like…because even if we are working somewhere, there are not big trailers, just small boxes, each of the same size. Nobody is treated better than others. And this is much better also for the film itself.
You have received a lifetime achievement award from Berlinale. How does that feel for a still active actor?
I got that award last year and the year before I got the highest German award called CineMerit in Munich. All my awards are stored in my house, in the bathroom. When I have guests, at one point they have to use the bathroom and when they come out, they say “Oh, I did not know…” and I am “Aaaah…”. I am not an actor who polishes or have somebody to polish awards once a week, so everybody can see them.
It´s a pity that you always get the awards after you got old though. I mean I am happy, I saw Kirk Douglas when he got his lifetime achievement award and I am happy I do not have to go “Thank you, thaaaank you” (imitates paralyzed speech). I still can jump onto the stage. And the awards are good.
After starring in over 250+ films, don´t you feel burned out?
Do you have an impression I am burned out the way I am talking to you about film? Of course not. I need to go home and become a gardener smelling earth, planting trees, play with my dog, cook for my friends. This gives me the energy. But after a certain time, it becomes boring and I have to make a film. Then I check who from my friends is preparing something and there am I.
Where does your passion for acting come from?
You have to pose the question differently. “What is a talent?” I have never attended an acting school and I became a professor teaching acting at an university. And I am always telling my students “Talent is something you cannot learn”. You can learn techniques but not the talent.
And what is talent? If I would look back, I was born in the most incredible way being under rubble three hours and got freed by my mother. All the babies were dead, only I was alive [Udo Kier was born in a hospital bombed moments later after his birth].
And at the moment when I was growing-up, there was nothing. I was a forced vegetarian because we had no money for meat which was great. That´s why I am still healthy. Monday- soup, Tuesday – soup…all kinds of soup, potato soup, bean soup, lentil soup, always a soup. Just a little bit of meat every Sunday.
Being born at the end of war, it was hard time in Germany and I wanted to be different, wanted to leave. I was also very lucky because I was good-looking. If you were a good-looking as a young man in your 20s, and everybody looks at you for reasons I did not understand, that helps your ego and I wanted to leave. That´s what I did. I went to England. I was discovered for film. From England I went to live in Rome for three years, I was making films there. Then I was in Paris, making films there. This is the passion I have.
Will we see you in Lars von Trier latest project – miniseries The House that Jack Built [we have just recently learnt that the announced 8-part miniseries was changed for feature film format]?
I do not know. I talked to him last week but I do not know yet what it is going to be.
Portrait Udo Kier, actor and cast in Altes Geld. Photo: 31pictures.nl / (c) 2016
The Netherlands, Rotterdam, 29 January 2016, The 45th International Film Festival Rotterdam - IFFR 2016