“If I play a smaller role, nobody will ever forget it”: Bacurau star Udo Kier recounts his long and varied career at Cannes 2019
Udo Kier is a legendary actor with over 250 credits to his name. He’s regularly worked with the best, including Lars von Trier, Gus Van Sant and now Kleber Mendonça Filho with Bacurau. Playing a mysterious mercenary called Michael, Kier steals most of the scenes he’s in, with his piercing green eyes and steely German demeanour. Kier talked to us about how he first got into acting and the kinds of experiences he’s amassed over the course of his long, varied career.
What was it that made you want to become an actor?
I never wanted to be an actor. I was born at the end of the war in Germany, and it was a very strange time. We had no money, and I wanted to learn English because my mother couldn’t afford high school. So I went to London to learn English – I went to school in Oxford Street. And then one day a man came to me and said we’re doing a film in the south of France called Road to Saint Tropez, and we want to offer you the role of a gigolo – because you’re very photogenic. I was nineteen, maybe twenty. And we went to Nice, and I had to come out of the water – I had black hair, green eyes – and I was just looking where the camera was, because they were so far away. But I didn’t know I was in close-up, in Cinemascope! Then they wrote about me in London: “The New Face of Cinema”. And I liked the attention. I thought okay, people like me, I’ll become an actor.
I’ve never been to acting school, but later on, I became a professor teaching the theory of acting. Because what is acting? Talent is a thing you cannot learn. You have it or you don’t. You can learn a technique – if you want to play in the theatre, then technique is enough, because you learn a technique to speak so that everyone understands you and your body movement. I was a lucky man: people found me, I didn’t find people. In London, I opened a magazine, and when I was a young boy in Cologne, I met [Rainer Werner] Fassbinder – he was 15, I was 16 – in a working-class bar. At ten o’clock we were thrown out because we weren’t 18. [Doing an impression of the bar owner] “Rainer! Udo! Out!” And then in Stern magazine in London I saw his picture, and I contacted him. He offered me a movie, I said no. He offered me a second one, I said yes. It was The Stationmaster’s Wife. Though you have to be careful with directors, which was something I learned very early. If you accept a small role then you will always play a small role.
Though you’ve always had a lot of very different roles, an eclectic taste.
Well, I’m a lucky man. I went to a festival in Berlin, and a young man came up to me and said, “My name is Gus Van Sant, I have a little film here I made for $20,000, but I’m making my next movie with Keanu Reeves and there is the role of ‘Hans’…” And once I was on an aeroplane, and sitting next to me was a man, who says, “I’m American, what do you do?” I said, “I’m an actor.” But I was at the beginning of my career so when I said that I showed him my photograph. He said, “Interesting, give me your number.” Then he took out his American passport and wrote on the last page my number. There were no other numbers. I said, “Who are you?” He said, “I’m Paul Morrissey, I’m the director for Andy Warhol.” And Andy Warhol was becoming known in Germany at that moment because his movies which Paul Morrissey directed – Trash and Flesh – they were not censored. You could show a man have an erection; there was no censor because it was art.
So then a couple of months later he called me and said, “Hey, it’s Paul from New York! I’m doing a film in Rome at Cinecitta, with [special effects artist] Carlo Rambaldi called [Flesh for] Frankenstein and I have a role for you.” I said, “Oh great! What do I play?” He said, “Frankenstein.” So I became Frankenstein. They were going to do Dracula afterwards with the same crew. We shot in three weeks, for $300,000, and then the last day of shooting I went to the cantina and [Federico] Fellini was shooting next door. So all these characters from his film – big, tall – were sitting there, and I was Dr Frankenstein, with my little [glass of] wine, and Paul Morrissey came in and said, “Well, I guess we have a German Dracula.” I said, “Who?” He said, “You! But you have to lose ten pounds in one week.” So I didn’t eat any more, only salad and water. And when filming started, I couldn’t stand up, so they had to get a wheelchair – my first scene in the film is in this, and I try to get up and fall down.
I went to [the Mannheim-Heidelberg International Filmfestival and saw a film called Element of Crime by Lars von Trier. I’d made a short film myself [The Last Trip to Harrisburg] which was in the competition too. All these American directors were there. When I saw Element of Crime I said to them, “We can go home. Whoever made that film will get the prize.” And he did. I said I wanted to meet the person who made that film, so I expected somebody like Kubrick or Fassbinder, dressed in black, scratching themselves, being in a bad mood. And in comes this student-looking young man, Lars. We had a beer, and a couple of weeks later he called me and said, “I’m doing Medea, a script by Carl Theodor Dryer, and I want to offer you the main part of the husband of Medea, King Jason. But there’s a problem.” “What is the problem?” “You don’t look like him. Please, don’t shave for one month, don’t wash your hair for one month, and come here because I have to sell you to the Danish television [network] as the king of the Vikings.” I looked horrible, I was smelly in the aeroplane, everyone moved away from me… but I made my first film with him. His wife had a baby and wanted me to be the godfather, and he said, “If my wife and I have an accident and die then you’re responsible for bringing my child up.” I thought wow, that’s a compliment. We made more movies together after that.
So it’s important to have a close connection to your directors?
How were things with the directors of Bacurau [Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles]?
I met Kleber in Palm Springs [International Film Festival]. There’s variety every year, and a list of ten directors to watch. He was one of them. And he saw me at a dinner and came to me and talked. I realised that he knew a lot of my work. He told me he was preparing a film and sent me the script, and I read it and liked it, because the role of Michael was very strong, but without explanation for where it goes. You don’t know if he’s a perverted person who likes to torture people, is he working for an organisation, is he a millionaire who wants to have fun taking people’s electricity away – so that’s how we made the movie. And he said today at lunch, “You know why you are so good in the film – because it’s a bigger role. In most of your films, you have a small role, but in this one you don’t. So people can follow you and see the development until you put the gun in your mouth.”
He called your character an “agent of chaos.”
When I saw the movie [at its premiere], when the lights came up I was crying, for the first time in 50 years. And [Mendonça] was crying. I could cry now! First of all, I know they worked ten years to make the movie – imagine, ten years; it’s their baby, and now the lights come up and people love it, they explode with emotion and screaming. The only thing I didn’t like was that the camera was on my face the entire time, because it was my moment, I didn’t do that for the audience. I will work with him again, for sure.
I have an American director, [S] Craig Zahler, I did with him the film Brawl in Cell Block 99, and we like each other. And when I read the script [for Brawl] I said, “I cannot do your movie.” He asked why, I said, “I cannot say that.” Because I have to go to jail, and Vince Vaughn[’s character] is in jail, and I tell him what my boss is going to do to his wife and her unborn child. And I have to say, “My boss knows an abortionist who claims that he can cut the limbs off your unborn child, and maybe you will get a package in jail with the little limbs.” But then I’m disgusted and say okay, I’ll do it like it’s an excuse. So we had a good time, and he liked it, and then he said, “I’m doing a film with Mel Gibson called Dragged Across Concrete, and I have two roles for you. One as a gangster, or one with a big scene with Mel Gibson.” And I said, of course, I want the big scene with Mel Gibson. So I did the scene, and then he calls again and said he wrote for me the role of the Puppet Master [in Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich].
So I like to work with Lars – I’ve worked with Lars for thirty-five years – with Fassbinder for many years, Gus Van Sant for a few films, and my new director is Kleber. I will work with him again. It’s nicer – “nice” is the wrong word, but you feel comfortable because you know each other, you know what you did already, you know what they expect you to do, how far they know you will go.
And you don’t mind the size of the part?
I always leave an impact. With Guy Maddin, in Paris, we made thirty films [The Forbidden Room]. Every day, in the museum – Centre Pompidou – one film, with Charlotte Rampling, Geraldine Chaplin, [Mathieu] Amalric… Which was basically an acting exercise, because every day I was playing a different person. But to answer your question, if I play a smaller role, nobody will ever forget it. Because I will find a way. And I did a film with Guy Maddin with Isabella Rossellini [Keyhole], and Guy Maddin just said, “And now you go.” And I said, “I go? Nobody sees me anymore, that’s it?” He said, “Yes, to the door.” I said, “Can I say something? Don’t worry, I’m not going to give a big speech, just on my way out I want to say something.” He asked what. I looked at the wall, and said, “Nice wallpaper.” And when I go out, my hand touches the wall, and I say, “Nice wallpaper.” And when the film premiered, a lot of people came to me and said, “Nice wallpaper.” Because it was so unusual! That someone would say that.
Your character in Bacurau objects to being called a Nazi. Was that improvised?
No, it was written. But you see, I’ve played Adolf Hitler four times, but I have never played a Nazi. I only play him for comedy. And when I play Hitler on the moon in Iron Sky, riding on dinosaurs, it’s always funny whenever I say, “Hello, you motherfuckers!” But I’ve never played it in a serious way, because they offered me in America to play [Adolf] Eichmann, to play [Josef] Mengele, and I said no. When I play Adolf Hitler, I always think of Charlie Chaplin, when [in The Great Dictator] he kicks the globe. It’s always comedy, because comedy also has a message, what you should do or not. But a Nazi screaming, “Achtung, achtung!”, all that shit, no, I don’t do.
Are there any other kinds of roles you’d want to play?
Well, I’ve seen films, like [David Lynch’s Lost Highway], with [Robert] Blake, who has the little lipstick and the telephone and calls Bill Pullman and says, “I’m at your house.” Why didn’t I play that? That would have been perfect! But you cannot play everything. I’m happy – I’m a lucky man, I’m happy with people finding me. I know David Lynch, I know Jim Jarmusch, I know Almodovar, I know them all, but imagine if I would say to David Lynch, “I would like to work with you.” And he would respond, “Who doesn’t?” I would go under the table! I would be crying.
Do you prefer the directors you work with writing roles specifically for you?
If a director writes a role for me – if he really knows me – and I read it and say, “Why?”, then I interfere, because I want to make it memorable. But I don’t write, I don’t suggest, I let them come forward with the idea and I play it. For me, as an actor, in my private life, I’m totally the opposite. I’m a gardener, [gesturing to his hands] I’m bleeding from cutting palm trees, I rescue dogs. And I like to cook for my friends. If they don’t appreciate it, they’ll never be invited again.
Photo: Dominique Charriau/WireImage
Bacurau does not have a UK release date yet. Read our review here.
Read more reviews from our Cannes Film Festival 2019 coverage here.
For further information about the event visit the Cannes Film Festival website here.