Quentin Tarantino once said he was days away from giving up on making his World War II movie Inglourious Basterds and publishing it as a screenplay instead, because he couldn’t find someone to play the key role of the Nazi villain, SS Colonel Hans Landa. Then Christoph Waltz turned up.
“He didn’t know me. He did a cattle call and I was one piece of cattle,” Waltz says, of the open audition in 2008. By the time Waltz won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance, the movie world had fallen for an Austrian man in his fifties who only his fellow countrymen had ever heard of.
“A camera operator said to me recently, ‘Ooh, you’re an overnight success.’ After 35 years, yeah,” Waltz laughs.
Three-and-a-half decades ago, Waltz began his career in a German TV show as a bumbling thief in Weimar Berlin. He worked steadily in German and Austrian films and TV from that point, with only a couple of English-language credits before Basterds. Could an interested party mine the internet for nuggets of Waltz’s pre-overnight success?
“I wouldn’t recommend anything,” he says. “Not because I would want to scare people off, or that I think nothing is worthwhile watching. There are plenty of things that I don’t mind, but there’s nothing that I’m particularly proud of where I would say, ‘You have to see that.’ I just don’t let that thought enter my mind.”
(You might like to ignore his advice and, on the 4oD catch-up service, watch the 1990 comedy-drama The Gravy Train, a four-parter written by Malcolm Bradbury, starring Waltz as a Brussels-bound bureaucrat caught up in red tape and smartly amusing professional and personal snafus alongside Alexei Sayle.)
Talking to the 57-year-old, it’s hard not to be reminded of Basterds’ Hans Landa. Waltz has the same expressive gift with language as that character – what Tarantino said “saved” Basterds and caused him to write a part for Waltz in Django Unchained (2012), which led to another Oscar. Many actors will tell you that they don’t watch their stuff because they don’t like to be reminded of it. Only Waltz will tell you that it’s because “otherwise, the accumulation would be a burden”.
He has two movies due out imminently – Big Eyes and Horrible Bosses 2. In the latter, he’s one of the title characters – “what else would I be playing?” – and in the former, he plays Walter Keane, the US painter who was sued by his wife for passing off her work as his.
Big Eyes is a Tim Burton film that appears to be closer in tone and subject matter to the director’s earlier, smaller-scale work, but appearances can be deceiving. “Any movie that Tim Burton makes is a Tim Burton movie,” Waltz says, “but I don’t really accept the branding of people. Tim Burton is an artist, and he changes, sees the world under different auspices as he develops as a person. Everything exists in its own right.”
The moustache Waltz carries off splendidly in his photo shoot for Esquire exists because its owner has worn it for several weeks while making the new Tarzan film, with Alexander Skarsgård and Samuel L Jackson.
The lair of the lord of the jungle was recreated at Leavesden Studios, Hertfordshire (home to Bond and Potter), and the set, declares Waltz, “is the greatest thing I’ve ever seen”. He says so with his arms spread, eyes wide and you absolutely believe him.
Horrible Bosses 2 is out on 28 November; Big Eyes is out in January 2015