Udo Kier, master of creepy and camp, looks back on a wild career: "I've made 200 films. 100 are bad"

"Sometimes I get a script that says, 'Only you can play it,'" the veteran character actor tells Salon

Published July 14, 2018 6:30PM (EDT)

Udo Kier (Getty/Jason Kempin)
Udo Kier (Getty/Jason Kempin)

Udo Kier has had a truly remarkable career over the past 50-plus years. He masterfully plays creepy and campy — sometimes in the same film. The size of Kier’s role in a film — he often has only one intense scene — never matters; he is always riveting. Most people think it is because of his piercing blue eyes and his intense gaze. Maybe it is his soft, German-accented voice that is at once seductive and sinister. However, Kier can also project the louche sensibility of a Eurotrash-y gentleman.

Kier’s qualities certainly prompted some of the greatest filmmakers of world cinema to hire him. Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Lars von Trier, Werner Herzog to name a few. And yet, the actor also appeared in “BloodRayne” by Uwe Boll, a filmmaker dubbed “the world’s worst director.” His Hollywood films include “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective.”

In June, he appeared in “American Animals” as Mr. Van Der Hoek, a European fence for the film’s amateur criminals. In August, Kier appears in “Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich,” a horror comedy about Nazi puppets, written by S. Craig Zahler, who directed Kier in last year’s “Brawl in Cell Block 99.”

Opening this weekend is “Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot,” Gus Van Sant’s biopic about cartoonist John Callahan (Joaquin Phoenix). Kier plays one of the members in John’s AA group. “Don’t Worry” reunites Kier with Van Sant; the actor appeared in “My Own Private Idaho” and “Even Cowgirls Get the Blues.”

Is there anything Udo Kier can’t or won’t do? On the phone from his home in Palm Springs, Kier chatted about his career so Salon could find out.

You are often cast as a sinister European. How do you create an air of mystery and menace around the characters you play?

“Cell Block” was [the]  first film I made with S. Craig Zahler. I read it and I thought, “I cannot say this line. It’s so brutal. I cannot talk about what my boss would do to the fetus of [a character’s] wife.” But there’s a certain way — Christoph Waltz is the same way — when you say, “I want to kill you!” you can shout, “I WANT TO KILL YOU!” or you can clean your fingernails and say, “When I’m done, I’m going to kill you.” They say my way is evil. It isn’t evil. It is unusual. I can’t answer when people ask why I’m so sinister. People say to me, “You’re so evil,” and yes, of course — the role required me to be evil!

You are also famous for your campy turns in Andy Warhol’s “Blood for Dracula” and “Flesh for Frankenstein,” directed by Paul Morrissey. But you have also played rakish characters, in films like “All the Queen’s Men” or donned drag to play a Madame in “House of Boys.” Can you discuss those roles?

The thing is, the writer writes it and the director directs it. In “All the Queen’s Men,” Matt LeBlanc hits me for grabbing him [making a pass] and I say, “That is evil! Do it again!” That is fun. In “House of Boys,” I wanted to be in drag. It was amazing to be in the middle of all these drag queens. They did my makeup. I hardly recognized myself! That was very funny. I played so many roles — Pope Innocent VIII in “The Borgias.” I’ve played vampires. I was in “Ace Ventura,” and I had a great time with Jim Carrey. He was very funny.

The most important thing is before I accept the role, I read the script. First, I read my role, then I read the whole script. If I discover the film can be made without my role, there’s no reason for me to be in the movie. I like to work with good directors.

Let’s talk about who you worked with. It’s an impressive list.

As an actor working for more than 50 years, I was a very lucky man. I worked with Rainer Werner Fassbinder — we met when he was 16 and I was 17. I didn’t want to be an actor, but we met in Cologne, where I was born, and I worked with him and Werner Herzog and Wim Wenders. . . .

At the beginning of my career, I was sitting in an airplane from Rome to Munich and a man sat next to me and asked what I do. I said I was an actor. He said, “Interesting, give me your number.” I asked who he was, and it was Paul Morrissey who works with Andy Warhol. He called with “Flesh for Frankenstein” and said, “I have a role for you.” “Which one,” I asked? He said, “Frankenstein.” I wasn’t supposed to do “Blood for Dracula.” I thought about Andy Warhol’s line about everyone being famous for 15 minutes. This was my 15 minutes. But Paul said, “I guess we have a German Dracula.” I said, “Who?” He said, “You!” I had to lose 10 pounds in a week. When we started filming, I was in a wheelchair. [Kier was weak from weight loss.] As an actor in “Frankenstein” and “Dracula,” all of a sudden it was interviews and glamor magazines. That’s how it all started. From there I went to Germany and worked with Fassbinder and the others,

Lars von Trier — I’ve made every film with him except for two which were done in Danish. I became the godfather of his child. I played the husband in “Medea.” Lars said to me, “You don’t look like a Viking. Don’t shave or wash your hair.” Two weeks later, I got the part. I did “Europa” with Jean-Marc Barr. He and I stayed friends; he’s a wonderful person. In 50 years working as an actor, the very good actors are the nicest people. Jean-Marc and Bill Pullman and Martin Landau. You could go to a bookstore and talk about things other than the film we’re shooting. When we made “Dogville” with Lars, everybody was treated the same way — Lauren Bacall, Nicole Kidman, Jean-Marc, Ben Gazzara, James Caan. . . . We all got the same trailer. It was more like a container — and we were all happy. It’s amazing that Lars can get all these people to accept that. Having dinner with Lauren Bacall or Martin Landau every night and listening to the stories. They would say “I told Jimmy . . .” — and they meant James Dean! I like that.

I heard you are working on a film with Von Trier that is shot one day each year for 30 years?

We stopped that. It was a great idea to do a film for 30 years, but we stopped after six or seven years.

Stellan Skarsgård and Emily Watson and Lars and I would meet every year for one day around Christmas and shoot three minutes of film and then have Christmas dinner. The idea was very good. We were not allowed to talk about it for the first two years so no one could copy it.

I work with amazing people. There’s a documentary about me “Arteholic.” I talk about kissing Elizabeth Taylor at a convention in Basel. I said, “I’m going to kiss Elizabeth Taylor,” and they said I wouldn’t do that. So, I took a rose out of a display and gave her a kiss and a rose while Audrey Hepburn spoke.

Ha! I once kissed Audrey Hepburn! But this interview is about you. Speaking of art, I understand you have quite a collection . . .

I’m sitting in Palm Springs, in a comfortable chair designed by Saarinen, in a formal library built by Albert Frey, with my collection of art by people like Robert Mapplethorpe, Robert Longo, and Andy Warhol, who I worked with. If I hadn’t been an actor, I’d be a gardener. I planted 80 palm trees and they grow a foot every year.

This week, Gus Van Sant’s new film, “Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot” opens. This is your third film with Van Sant and your second for him playing a character called Hans. Can you discuss your work with him?

The reason why I made Gus Van Sant’s film with Joaquin Phoenix is because Gus discovered me to do movies in America. I was in Berlin, and Gus came with “Mala Noche.” He was preparing a film with Keanu Reeves and River Phoenix. He wanted me to play Hans. I got my work permit from Gus. I wrote a letter to him with an ink pen — I would never write with a regular pen — and my first film in America was made in Portland, “My Own Private Idaho,” with an amazing performance by River Phoenix. Joaquin was 16 at the time and he came to visit his brother, and now, after all these years, he’s a brilliant, brilliant actor and we got to work together on “Don’t Worry.” In the film I wanted to play Hans again because it takes place in Portland. So, Hans from “My Own Private Idaho” never left. He wears a hairpiece now and goes to AA meetings.

Hans in “Don’t Worry” is in recovery. Can you relate any personal experiences that you have with therapy or recovery? How do you cope with modern life?

I live in Palm Springs. I’m 73, but I’m still young here. When I go to a restaurant, they ask me to “please pass the salt, young man.” I call it Cadillac City because they all drive Cadillacs here. I’ll be 74 very soon. I had a wild life. I’m happy. I have no problems. Sometimes I drink, but that’s it now.

READ MORE: When women stop coloring their gray hair: “I felt naked. I felt scared. I felt excited. I felt free”

You’ve made films that are semi-respectable cult classics such as “Mark of the Devil,” “Flesh for Frankenstein,” “Blood for Dracula” and “Trauma” (aka “Exposé” and “The House on Straw Hill”). But you also appeared in Uwe Boll’s “BloodRayne,” which is not. What do you think about the responses to your films? 

The thing is, when Uwe Boll wanted me to do “BloodRayne,” I said who is playing in it? He said Ben Kingsley and Geraldine Chaplin. Or when I made “Spy Games” [aka “History Is Made at Night”] and was told Irène Jacob and Bill Pullman were in it, I said, “Of course!” I have a good time. The good thing about films is, you never know how good they will be. If there was a formula, there would only be good films!

I’ve made 200 films. 100 are bad, 50 you can enjoy with some wine, and 50 are good. Lars has more than 10 on that good list along with Fassbinder and Gus Van Sant and Werner Herzog. There are a lot of good films, but the majority were bad. “Mark of the Devil” was my second film. I was in London. I was born at the end of the war — you can read about my birth online — and we had no money, and I wanted to learn English, so I went to London. I was taught, “It’s a nice day, isn’t it?” I went to the “Isn’t it” training. People said they were doing a film in France [“Road to Saint Tropez”] and they wanted me to play the leading man. I’d never done it. They guided me and were very kind. They shot me with a long lens. I thought, where was the camera? I was in close up looking for the camera! I got on the cover of “Films and Filmmaking,” and I liked the attention — who doesn’t? — and I got a leading part in “Shameless” in Vienna, and then “Mark of the Devil” with Herbert Lom. When that film opened, you got a vomit bag with a ticket. And the bag is now worth a lot of money! That’s how my career started. I have fun doing what I’m doing. If I didn’t, I’d immediately stop.

Is there a particular film or performance that you feel is underrated, are especially proud of, or embarrassed by?

I made a film, “Narcissus and Psyche” with one of the best directors, Gábor Bódy. I play a poet who is a mythological figure from 1800 - 1920 and we had a year of shooting because the director wanted all four seasons. So, they put a camera on my grave and you see the snow coming and going away and the camera took a picture every day for a year. I don’t know how they did that. But the Hungarian director, he killed himself the same way my character did.

It seems you are constantly working, which is great. You are always so much fun to watch. What’s next?

I have several films coming out. “Dragged Across Concrete” with Mel Gibson; one with Geraldine Chaplin in Santa Domingo; I just got back from Brazil, where I was making “Bacurau” [“Nighthawk” in the U.S.] for director Kleber Mendonça Filho with Sonia Braga; “The Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich;” and “The Painted Bird” based on Jerzy Kosinki's book. I played that last one with Stellan, in the Czech Republic. That is my life. I get quite a few offers from around the world from people who know me, and if I find it interesting . . . sometimes I get a script that says, “Only you can play it.” But I like roles in films with little moments — a hand movement in “Melancholia.” I don’t like the big speeches — the “Oscar speech.” I like to do unusual things on screen.

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By Gary M. Kramer

Gary M. Kramer is a writer and film critic based in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter.

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American Animals Andy Warhol Don't Worry He Won't Get Far On Foot Gus Van Sant Lars Von Trier Udo Kier