If the film would be strong also without me playing the part, then why should I be in the movie? I like to be in movies where people remember me.
Udo Kier is reminding us that “time is going by very, very slowly,” in that unmistakable, thick German accent of his. The cult figure is taking our call from his home in Palm Springs—converted from a modernist library and more like a compound—as he rides out the “very, very evil virus” that has taken all of us hostage in 2020. But he seems more than happy to regale us with stories from his remarkable career that spans over five decades, always with a twinkle of unexpected humor. He has rarely strayed from the absurd, leaving his indelible, inimitable mark on scores of movies—over 260 of them. Today, directors continue to tell Kier that only he will do, writing roles with him in mind specifically. This man has done it all, and he has seen things.
Kier’s life was fueled by drama from the very start. The hospital where he was born in Cologne towards the end of World War II was bombed moments after he arrived, and his mother dug them both out of the rubble. It would be a defining event in a long series of them. Kier grew up in unimaginable poverty. There was no hot water. He recalls always buying broken cookies because they were cheaper. That seared memory informed the title of his first feature as writer-director, Broken Cookies, which he later abandoned. He hopes to return to that project at some point.
Flash forward to 1965, Kier moved to London to study English. In those early days, also as an aspirant actor, he was discovered and chased after by the likes of Paul Morrissey (Andy Warhol’s movie director), Gus Van Sant, and Lars von Trier—all of whom share Kier’s penchant for staring into the abyss. Whether it was Count Dracula, Jack the Ripper, Dr. Jekyll, Adolf Hilter or a zoot-suited Nazi war criminal that he played, Kier was always interested in maximum impact, bestowing his characters with bizarre idiosyncrasies that audiences wouldn’t soon forget.
Now 75, it’s business as usual for the actor who has carved out a life-long niche for himself with such demented turns. This month sees the release of Václav Marhoul’s The Painted Bird, a black-and-white, punishing but unforgettable, trudge through Holocaust hell. Based on Jerzy Kosiński infamous 1965 novel of the same name, the film is a series of tableaux that tells the story of a Jewish child (Petr Kotlár), who, after being separated from his persecuted parents, wanders the Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe countryside during World War II, meeting senseless violence and inhumane torture along the way. Also featuring an ensemble cast that includes Stellan Skarsgård, Harvey Keitel, Barry Pepper and Julian Sands, Kier plays Miller, a jealous husband who takes in the adrift orphan. Convinced that his wife is sleeping with their young farmhand, he plucks out the peasant’s eyeballs and feeds them to the family housecats. It’s a masterpiece.
The Painted Bird opens in select theaters, drive-ins, and digital/VOD on July 17th.
Are you calling from Palm Springs?
Yes. I’m here in this moment where you have to stay home, and I’m very fortunate that I live in a wonderful building. I’m surrounded by my art collection and by my furniture collection. So I’m okay. The time is passing by very, very slowly.
You also have this new film coming out. This is going to sound hacky, but I, too, believe that The Painted Bird is a rare masterpiece. It’s timeless. The movie’s alive.
I love the movie. I love of course the camerawork. It’s amazing. I like black and white very much, especially for a dramatic story like this one. When they offered me the part in the movie, I had read the book, but many, many, many, many years ago. So I read it again to get the feeling from the book, to get the feeling from where I was born, and I had also the script. I think how the story is told by Václav [Marhoul] is amazing. Also, the boy who’s playing the leading part is very, very strong. He was discovered. When he’s on screen, his eyes and his whole body movement are amazing. And then of course we had amazing actors. I’ve made many movies with Stellan Skarsgård, through Lars von Trier, who I’ve worked with for 30 years almost. Harvey Keitel… Amazing, amazing actors. While I make a movie, I never see the so-called dailies or rushes. I always want to see the finished movie and I saw the finished movie actually in Los Angeles. I was really amazed with the film. I’m lucky that I have two films coming out: Bacurau, which of course was the jury prize winner in Cannes, and then came right away The Painted Bird. Unfortunately, both films came just at the time when this virus came to the world. I hope now the movie will still come out when they open up again the theaters. So let’s see!
Bacurau is another great addition to your repertoire. It’s a long list.
Did we meet in Macao?
We actually didn’t. But I was there the year you received the Career Achievement Award.
I was only once [at the International Film Festival & Awards Macao]. Mike Goodridge organized the invitation. It’s a very good mixture of films from all around the world. It was very nice.
You once had this to say about Rainer Werner Fassbinder: “Like all geniuses, he was a very difficult person.” You’ve worked with a lot of geniuses, sometimes repeatedly. You click with them. They obviously like you.
In Germany, I met Fassbinder when he was 15 and I was 16. We met on weekends in bars and then later on when I left Germany to go to England to learn English. Then he became very famous and we started working together. I am a lucky man. I sat in an airplane and next to me was a man who says to me, on a flight from Rome to Munich, “What do you do?” I said, “Well, I’m an actor.” I showed him right away a picture of myself because when you’re a young actor you’re insecure. He said, “Oh wonderful. Give me your number.” I said, “Who are you?” and he said, “My name is Paul Morrissey. I work for Andy Warhol.” Lars von Trier I met at a festival. Gus Van Sant came to me in Berlin and he said, “Hello, I’m a young filmmaker from America. I have a film here, Mala Noche, which I made for twenty thousand dollars. But I’m making a bigger film with Keanu Reeves and River Phoenix, and I would like you to be in my movie.” Of course I like festivals because you are seeing movies, which normally you will never see. They’re coming from all around the world and they’re amazing movies. So that’s how I worked with these people. I worked with Lars von Trier first on Medea, with a script by Carl Theodor Dreyer. I made movies with Fassbinder, and then Wim Wenders and Werner Herzog. As I say, I’m a lucky man. They somehow find me and then we work together. It’s always for me a compliment when I work with one director more than once, and it’s much, much stronger because the whole getting to know each other is gone. You just concentrate on the work.
I have also two more movies coming out. One I just finished in Columbia, just before I came back to America at the end of February. It’s called My Neighbor, Adolf. It’s also a very strong story about a man that takes place in Brazil in the sixties. He’s hiding from the concentration camp on the countryside. His whole family was killed. He lives very lonely and then somebody moves in—that’s me—and because of the German accent and the German Shepherd and so on and so on, he thinks I’m Adolf Hitler. That is the story about the film: The relationship between these two old men and them getting to know each other. They’re editing it now. I think it will come out in a couple of months. Then there’s a movie called Swan Song, which they’re editing now. It’s with Linda Evans. It’s a comedy. I play a famous hairdresser. So life goes on. Now I have a lot of time to think about life, about my past, and enjoy what I’ve collected over the years. Time goes by slowly. But what can we do?
You’ve always said that you want the roles people will remember. You don’t waver on that.
Well, yeah! Because otherwise why do I make a movie? [laughs] Time is the sin. It all starts with the words printed on paper. So when I read the script, like I’m reading one now, I read my part first and see. Then I read the whole script with my part. If the film would be strong also without me playing the part, then why should I be in the movie? I like to be in movies where people remember me. I used to play a lot of evil roles in movies because you know I am totally different in my private life. I’m a gardener. I plant trees. I like to smell the Earth. I like to see my art collection. All my life I have collected from Andy Warhol, David Hockney, and Robert Mapplethorpe. I stare at my walls. I’ve met a lot of painters in my life. As I said before, I like mid-century modern furniture so I have a collection. I surround myself with beautiful things to be able to create my role and talk to the director about it, which is very important. I think movies are a very powerful art form, not only as entertainment. As you know, I also made movies like Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and Armageddon and Blade. I like also the commercial films from time to time—if I like the part.
You once said that you would quit acting if you made “the perfect film.” Did you ever come close? I did wonder if you maybe said that because you actually have no plans to stop.
A perfect film—it’s a very strong word. I definitely like Bacurau. I definitely like The Painted Bird. It’s very well told, the stories in both films. The perfect film is—I don’t know. You see people ask me that question and I say, “I would like to see myself.” Because you and me and everybody in the world, we have never seen ourselves. You only see your reflection in the mirror. You see yourself in photographs. But you have never seen yourself, and that is kind of my dream: If I could walk into a studio and stay in the corner and watch myself moving and talking. I came quite close to it once when I did the film Johnny Mnemonic with Keanu Reeves. Because I get killed, they made a model of my body, of my face. I came to the studio two weeks later when they had made all the models. They said, “Come to the studio!” and I said, “Wait, I just arrived.” So I went to the studio and I saw myself standing. I went slowly towards to see myself. It was the closest I came to see myself, and that would be a perfect story. But to make the perfect film? I don’t know. Maybe I say this, but what is a perfect film? A perfect film is—I don’t know.
I don’t have to tell you this, but you’ve lived a storied life. You’ve been a survivor since the beginning. You talk about having grown up in “unimaginable poverty.” With The Painted Bird you’ve said, “I identify so much with that boy. I grew up like that boy.” When you channel your own struggles into a movie, are some memories very difficult to revisit?
Well, I was born in 1944 at the end of the war. I grew up in a horrible environment where there was nothing to eat. When I was growing up, my school was old barracks for soldiers. I grew up myself not as strong as this boy who was sent away by his parents from the concentration camp to survive. As I said at the beginning, the actor who played the young boy was so amazing. It’s just such a strong journey to watch that boy going through horrible things in life, being abused, working just to have something to eat. Because he’s so strong, I wonder if he becomes an actor. I mean, he is an actor already. But [I wonder] if he liked what he did and he continues doing that.
First of all, The Painted Bird is a very famous novel, as we know already, by Jerzy Kosiński. That’s number one. Number two, Václav was working for many, many years on the subject to make it into a movie. Then he got his dream—I mean, dream, maybe not—or got his wanted cast together. Stellan is very strong. Harvey Keitel and many other actors are very, very strong in the movie. Everybody has strong episodes in the movie. When I read the script the first time, what I had to do in the movie because out of jealousy and what my wife is doing to me was very, very strong. I said, “Oh my god.” [laughs] But it worked. It worked. As I said, I hope The Painted Bird still goes to cinemas and is seen because there is a big difference—TV screens, even if you have a big one. It’s not the same as going to the theater, being in the darkness, and concentrating on the story you want to see. I think The Painted Bird will be seen if the cinemas are opened again, in many parts of the world. Because through the virus for three, four months, everything calmed down. They had invited me to the Lincoln Center in New York to talk about Bacurau, to talk about The Painted Bird, and then it all got cancelled. We had the premiere planned in Los Angeles at the Nuart, which is a very wonderful cinema—cancelled. Everything was cancelled so I’m happy that the film is now coming. Everything is slowly opening up again so the film can be seen.
There was at least one movie in your career that was abruptly cancelled midway. I’m of course talking about Dimension, which involved you and Lars von Trier getting together once a year to shoot three minutes of footage, spanning 33 years. That was projected to be finished in 2024. Were you disappointed when he decided to abandon the project 8 years in?
Of course. Lars is a good friend. He wanted me to become the godfather of his child, Agnes. Now the daughter is married and has children of her own. That’s how I know how long I’ve worked with him. We made all the movies together, except two or three films where he used Danish actors. I was sad that I was not in the movie The House That Jack Built. But we’re friends. He must have his reasons. Maybe it was because I was in too many of his movies. I like Breaking the Waves. I like the parts. I always get the script very early [from Lars] and I look to see what part I would like to play, like in Breaking the Waves. There’s very interesting stories, like Dancer in the Dark. Lars doesn’t like actors to act. He’s favorite sentence is “Don’t act.” So we don’t act if it’s possible. But you know, when he says, “don’t act,” he means don’t show emotion in a way that’s photogenic, etcetera, etcetera. It’s more realistic if not. We will make I hope a lot of movies still together. I hope I work again with Gus Van Sant. But I don’t know. It’s like at the moment I don’t know. I’m sitting in my building across from the park. I see a lot of big olive trees moving backwards and forwards in the wind. I have a dog, Liza, like Liza Minnelli. I have beautiful things around me. And I’m enjoying now in the moment talking to you, who’s far away from me. Let’s hope that people are understanding that they have to wear a mask and keep the distance from other people because this virus is very, very evil. So that’s how it is at the moment. Now I have my coffee and that’s it. Maybe we will meet one day. You should come to the film festival in Palm Springs. I got this year a star on [the Palm Springs Walk of Stars].
I would love to. And I did hear about your star. That’s a beautiful thing.
And the City of Palm Springs declared the third of January Udo Kier Day. So now I have to think every year on the third of January what I’m going to do. [laughs] I have to not only go to my star and wave at people… I wanted my star to be next to Lauren Bacall’s and I am next to Lauren Bacall in front of the old library in Palm Springs. So there’s always something new and surprising.