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Udo Kier on Lars Von Trier, Dogme, and the “Trailer Stars” of American Film
by Thom Fowler

Udo Kier strolled into the room in that empiric way he has, scanned the room with his intense blue eyes, nodded towards the assembled group of journalists and said ,”Guten Tag.” Guten Tag to you Herr Kier. This was a good sign. It meant we were going to go somewhere unpredictable and interesting. Kier works the room like a master. You can tell he’s the one who’s got the biggest audience at a party, keeping the guests giggling snidely. He was dressed in a classic continental European style, elegant and not fussy. He had a slightly unpolished aura about him, a little bit louche, something like the atmosphere Christopher Walken creates but sexier and more refined. Kier has been in films as diverse as JOHNNY MNEMONIC, MY OWN PRIVATE IDAHO and the universally panned FEARDOTCOM, on this side of pond and countless European films. Kier often plays the sinister character in spite of his marvelous sense of humor which you can see in his portrayal of Dracula for Andy Warhol in 1974

ALL THE QUEEN’S MEN, one of the best films of 2002, starring Matt LeBlanc, Eddie Izzard and featuring Udo Kier and set during World War 2 is about a group of English special agents and an American (LeBlanc) chosen to steal the infamous “Enigma Machine” from the Nazis precisely because of their incompetance. When their mission becomes a success, their loyalty is suddenly torn between fighting for their country and fighting for their personal dignity. In order to gain access to the factories where the machines are made, which are staffed by women, they must learn to act and dress like a woman.

Eddie Izzard plays a transvestite entertainer (surprise!) who is hired to teach them how to be women. The film is a sophisticated, well-rounded movie that doesn’t shy away from comedy in tragedy and displaces the traditional, “For the woman back home” by including homosexuality as part of the sexual and social fabric of the film. The homosexual characters are still marginalized in the context of the film, as they would be during WW2. The Nazis and the Allies all agree, Fags Must Die. The typical one-note cartoon of the manly GI , which always means sexist and homophobic, is refreshingly replaced with complex, multi-faceted individuals.

The man in drag, a favorite comedic technique of Shakespeare, provided some hilarious SOME LIKE IT HOT moments. Udo Kier plays a top Nazi, General Lansdorf, who doggedly pursues LeBlanc’s character, Steven O’Rourke in drag one night. O’Rourke has managed to get into a party for the Nazi elite at the home of the General played by Kier. He is interrupted while rifling through a safe and O’Rourke plays it off like he was there waiting for the General. As you can imagine, a macho, straight GI isn’t too thrilled to be fighting off the advances of another man. When O’Rourke punches the general, Lansdorf gets even more excited.

“It’s always difficult to make a film about the war as a comedy because its very easy for it to become a tragedy, which is also good,” Kier said.

“I guess the fact to be disguised by being dressed as women, that makes a comedy.”

Q. What do you think of Matt’s future as a movie actor?

A. I think, if you are in one of the most famous shows and he is a very talented man what is the difference, the difference is the screen but the talent is the same.

Now in America I find that a lot of film actors go in to do television. Finally they realize that television is more important to get your name around because people watch more television than they go see movies, maybe only once a week. A show like Matt is in you have to have talent. Shows in America, it’s hard, it’s totally different because it’s fast. You have to fulfill as an actor everything much faster, there is no time to have a big discussion artistically how you want to play it. Do it, take the money and run. That’s how it goes.

Q. How do you like to get into your part? Do you like to take the time to develop a character?

It depends on which director. With the Coen Brothers, David Lynch and Lars Von Trier, yes, but with a commercial director, maybe no because I know it’s not required. Like say a big film. I did ARMAGEDDON, or END OF DAYS, these kinds of films are not required to have a big discussion. In Europe it’s really different than America. When you are being cast you present yourself as what they are looking for. In Europe, normally, you are hired as the good actor and you create the character. Any actor can create a character, if you visualize the character. In America, they’ll do an audition and give 25 people the same text and if you get the part it means you are right in the mind of the people making the film. In Europe, they hire the actor they want and say, “Do the part.”

Q. What’s the difference for you, between working for someone like Lars Von Trier and working on a film like ARMAGEDDON.

A. In American films the light is stronger, the shadows are longer. And I love to work with a lot of light, every actor does. You see European films are more, not all, but a lot of European films are more creative. Directors like Lars Von Trier, for example. Lars Von Trier made all these movies that I was in, except one, THE IDIOTS, which I couldn’t do because it was all Danish actors but I did every film he did and also the last one with Nicole Kidman and Lauren Bacall, Ben Guzarra and James Caan, an amazing cast. The first film I made with Lars Von Trier was MEDEA and he told me “Don’t act.” That was the only thing he told me ever.

So when I do a film now like DANCER IN THE DARK and also BREAKING THE WAVES where I play the killer I never ask any questions how you want to play it. I go there and I don’t act. Which is not easy. You go there and I know he doesn’t like the makeup so you just go there and you have a text, a certain text and you just be there and you don’t act. I mean if someone says don’t act to you, the worst is if a director says “Be yourself.” And you say, “Uh, I don’t know. How am I?” I’ve made a hundred and seventy films, how am I? There’s always a little bit of every film in me, especially if I like the movie it sticks to me. So it is different. I like both. I like the European film.

I just did a film, THE INVINCIBLE with Werner Herzog. I’m coming from the Fassbinder era. And so when Fassbinder was alive I could not work with Herzog, I could not work with Wim Wenders because then Fassbinder’s people would have called me some kind of Soviet Spy. Herzog had Klaus Kinski, Wim Wenders had (koonoo Godska) They had all their own actors and we could never integrate with each other because we were doing a lot of films. Then Fassbinder died and slowly I could work with Wim Wenders and slowly I could work under Herzog. Because I always liked them, especially their early films because I thought they were really talented. So for me it’s the same in a way. I’m addicted to both.

I’m addicted also to a lot of so-called Los Angeles Hollywood because what makes American films so great is the money. In Europe, in France or in Germany they could never put so much money into a film because they would never get it back. Because sometimes people say to me, “Why do you go to America and play in MY OWN PRIVATE IDAHO films like that and play a small role. That small role I play, this film goes around the world. Where does a German film go? To the Goethe Institut in Brazil? Where do they go?

Dimension is a project which we have been shooting for 8 years and we aren’t allowed to talk about the story. We meet every year at Christmas, we have Christmas dinner and then we shoot one day, three minutes. So in the year 2024, we have 90 minutes and the actor will hopefully make it. So I hope I make it to then. And the actor, because he doesn’t wear make-up will grow older 30 years in 90 minutes. I am losing the hair and all that. I like Lars Von Trier and I think definitely Lars Von Trier is one of the most talented European director there is. Every film he makes is new.

For example the film we just did is totally new. It’s like a theatre play, it’s like a city with no walls. And these little houses which are no houses, they are only mud. And everybody is there. The actors had to be on the stage every day. So sometimes Lauren Bacall had to be three days the background of Nicole Kidman or the other way around. So he’s always presenting, like DANCER IN THE DARK with one-handed cameras.

Film is a very technical thing And to be part of the new creation of something technically new is always amazing for me. I like to work with him. When he gives me the chance, I always play the Devil. In THE KINGDOM I play the baby of the devil which was my biggest role ever to play a baby and then to grow big to like twice this room, 12 foot. Because he’s the baby of the Devil and he wants to die because his mother is good and his father is the Devil. I play the father and the baby. So he’s always kind of inventing of new things.

There is a difference between young talented directors in Europe and America. In Europe the government helps the young talent. So if you have a good story, you give the story to the government, they give you ten thousand dollars to write a script so then when you have the script, you go to television and they give you some money to start and then you go to different places. They give you their half a million, so you make a movie. In America this doesn’t exist unless you convice some private person or some sponsor to produce your movie. That’s why it’s very hard to find talent here because they have no choice. And there again Lars Von Trier was great because he invented Dogme film so he gave a chance for every director in the world to make a movie for 500 dollars. Because you aren’t allowed to have a light. You aren’t allowed to go back and flashback, you aren’t allowed to have a tripod. You have to do it with a little camera so you just have to buy the material and have a good story.

I have Dogme 7. I’m doing this film. I play a transexual in a wheelchair who lives on telephone sex and is a president of a club called Outsiders on Wheels. So I’m doing a totally crazy film that is really Dogme. And whenever it’s finished, who cares? If it turns out to be no good, I’m going to burn it and make a film about burning my movie. It’s a never ending story.

Dogme was a very important invention and a lot of people did Dogme films and even if Dogme ceases to exist people now can always say, “Here’s a movie I did like a Dogme style.” People may have to do a little sound effects afterwards.

So it’s a good thing for people to be able to do that. Lars Von Trier was the first person for whom Cannes accepted a film on video. This pompous french festival [and they accepted a film on video.]

Q. Did anything surprise you about Nicole Kidman?

A. Every star who has airplanes and flies around in airplanes always surprises you, I guess. Because they are stars. She is definitely a star. She doesn’t behave like a star. For me [the star] doesn’t exist. I work with many great actors and if someone tries to play the star with me I don’t see them. That’s it. I don’t cope with it because I have no time for it. And I found out in all my working with Malkovich or Martin Landau, they are all good actors, the nicest people. Only the insecure actors they give you all this thing about being stars. I call them “Trailer Stars” because they have a long big trailer and they hide in their trailer.

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originally posted: 12/07/02 10:05:31
last updated: 01/03/04 16:53:06
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