Since 2010, Christoph Waltz’s Hollywood star has been steadily rising. The winner of two Oscars for excellent performances in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained, he has just been cast as the villain in next Bond movie, Spectre. In Tim Burton’s Big Eyes, he plays Walter Keane, an artist in the 1950s who had been passing off his wife Margaret’s paintings as his own with phenomenal commercial success. His performance has been well-received (both by critics and Margaret Keane herself) and once again his name is being bandied around in the awards season. He sat down with Pure Movies editor Dan Higgins to talk about his eventual success and his hatred of all things; from biopics to Making Of documentaries to Wikipedia.
How aware were you of the story before filming Big Eyes?
I knew nothing about the story. I knew the paintings and that was reason enough to not find out about the story. But the great thing about this thing is that my opinion about the paintings is completely irrelevant. I had a long conversation with Tim [Burton] because he’d already warned me and said “There are only two opinions about it: the ones who love it and the ones who hate it and nothing in between.” And I immediately said “Well I belong to the latter” but really, especially in this context, imagine if the story had been told with someone along the lines of Picasso – you couldn’t tell that story any more, it would completely contort into something different, it would be about the art, it’d be about the artist’s quest, about the vision of the world.
This is a story about the relationship and that’s really what Tim convinced me of very quickly and then I even found the art – let’s call it such for argument’s sake – I even found it interesting and relevant because it’s like changing the key to a piece of music so it suddenly makes sense because it falls into place so that’s how I found out about the story and I was pretty convinced and engaged by it.
In an interview with Jon Ronson, Margaret Keane has said that watching the film was quite traumatic for her because your portrayal of Walter was so accurate. How does it make you feel when your performance is vindicated like that?
It doesn’t. It’s not what I do. It has nothing to do with what I do. From one person to another, I’m touched on a personal level but it has nothing to do with what I do as an actor. I’m not a biographer, I’m not a zoologist, I’m not an anthropologist, I’m just an actor. I get a script. That’s what I do. From one way of writing “No”, I try to find the right way of saying “No”. And the same thing with physical action. I try to translate what’s on the page to action so that the director can film it for his purposes. That she is touched, as I said – as one human being to another – I find that noteworthy and important and all of that, but it has nothing to do with my intentions as an actor.
As an actor then it must’ve been a joy for you to do all these different things in one movie. Is that what attracted you to the film?
Yes, exactly. Just like various parts over one career need to differ from each other, it’s uplifting to say the least to have that within one point. There are actors that relish in doing the same thing all along and you know if you look into other cultures, the Kabuki tradition is really doing one part that you train your whole life for but that’s the Japanese approach and of course they reach a mastership that’s unfathomable for us. We don’t even perceive it, only really experienced Kabuki viewers know and can appreciate it. So with us it’s more the short-term, short attention span culture so I would hate to repeat myself.
Would you consider doing more biopics because you follow people’s lives given the ups and downs in one particular life?
No on the contrary. Thank God this is not a biopic. It really isn’t. It tells the story about a relationship that happens to be a true story but it doesn’t need to be true. It doesn’t need to be true to be sold and it doesn’t need to be true to be told.
So, in preparing for a film based on reality, how much do you look at what existed? For example, with this film there were memoirs, court transcripts…
I don’t. That’s exactly the thing, I don’t.
And he was diagnosed with delusional disorder, did you look into the symptoms of that at all…
And what exactly would I then do with it? We are all fairly educated in psycho-analytical views of each other, we speak psycho-lingo, we’ve read about it and so there is a basic education in our western background. I don’t like to do biopics, I don’t like the responsibility. I take that seriously. I take the right of others to formulate their own way of appearing in public very seriously.
I am actually really against the enforced biographies through Wikipedia, for example. There was something in Wikipedia about me that I wanted to have changed because it’s not correct, and it also comes off as something I oppose. And they said “No, you can’t”. You have to prove with tangible proof that it is false and you have to prove that it is falsified with bad intentions, then maybe you can get it changed. So you see, I don’t have control over my biography, basically.
Perhaps you can say what that is now and use this interview as evidence to change it…
No, I’m not telling you.
My ethical framework is a lot tighter than that. I feel a responsibility towards the person I am being asked to portray and I don’t like that responsibility, it limits and restricts me as an actor.
Did you have any sympathy with Walter, wanting to be successful and appreciated?
My opinion is totally irrelevant. Do I sympathise? No, sympathise is not necessary. It’s actually the less I engage in personal opinions, the better it is. You should sympathise or oppose, because that’s what these movies are made for. You’re supposed to identify and come up with an interpretation and you’re entitled to a judgment, I’m not.
Do you get worried about being typecast as a villain?
If I were to look at it like you do, I would be worried. Thankfully I don’t. Because I don’t consider a role a bad guy or a good guy, that’s not a criterium; it’s a short cut to talk about it. I don’t talk about it, I do it. So I really investigate into the details and if you, for conversation’s sake, come to the conclusion that it is a bad guy, absolutely, it’s a valid point probably but from the reception side and not from the actors point of view.
Your career has developed dramatically in the last few years so you understand both sides of the coin in terms of acting success. How has your success changed you?
A lot of things change and, as you said, I know both sides of the coin. The other side is actually much bigger. I’m happy my success didn’t happen when I was 25, which is easy to say now. Had you asked me when I was 25, I’d have given a different answer, of course. But it’s important to know the other side of the coin. And when all this success is coming your way at the beginning I’m not sure you could maintain your sanity because you cannot really place that if that’s all you know. So, I can really appreciate with responsibility apart from the fact of that being age-appropriate, it’s quite a nice feeling. And also I don’t confuse it with a causal sequence, I don’t think “Well I did my duty and worked hard and now I’m being rewarded with success.” No. I did good work before as well.
That Margaret Keane is touched – as one human being to another – I find that noteworthy and important and all of that, but it has nothing to do with my intentions as an actor.
Whilst this is a film about relationships, it’s also about art and the mass marketisation of art. How much of a role does art play in your life?
Art plays a big role in my life but not only so-called fine arts – that are rarely, rarely fine – but art in general. I concede there is no such thing as general art but I mean all the various fields and genres of art. Music probably more so than visual arts. I’m a traditionalist in a way. Not necessarily in my views but certainly in my interest. For my personal development as a person, I find it more gratifying to look into mastership before it was turned into big business. Dutch and Flemish masters have been a great interest of mine.
You had a great chemistry working with Amy Adams. What was it like working with her?
Amy is my dream partner. It’s exactly like I like to work. Try out, be practical, no hifalutin claptrap about this or that, no theoretical discussion of method and pseudo-academic thing that is rampant lately. It’s all your fault because you seem to be interested in it. You’re forgoing the true responsibility of the audience to not identify with the making, but identify with the story that’s already being told. Let the making be our problem. I find going to the movies slightly problematic that I know so well how it’s being done done yet when it really grabs me and I forget all that and I live in the story, those are the moments that are worthwhile.
What was the last film that made you feel like that?
I watch a lot of old movies. I just saw The Miracle of Milan again. I’ve seen it many times but it’s really a movie in which your world and the limits that you put on your world all of a sudden bust open and you’re in something that is greater and grander than yourself. I mean, nothing better can happen. Why would you bog yourself down with “y’know in this comment in the Making Of you said the method is actually something…”. Really!
Big Eyes is in cinemas now.