'Over by the pool, in the shade of some lime trees, James Franco is being pitched a movie about a couple in space (“the music is going to be really important” he insists.) The hotel’s entrance, meanwhile, is being converted into a red carpet run for this evening’s party, for W magazine, at which the fanboys and paparazzi will clamor, hoping for a glimpse of Charleze Theron or Tilda Swinton (“We love you Tilda!”). It’s hard when considering the change in Waltz’ fortunes not to be awed by the sheer heft of American soft power — the entertainment industry’s ability to pluck a man from East Finchley tube station, and set him down next to Charleze Theron.
“When I say I can’t believe it, trust me: that’s the truth,” says Waltz, wearing a long grey-streaked beard, that he has grown out for a role and fondles often. “But look. I started when I was 19, now I’m 55. I didn’t come up that fast. This is very exciting and wonderful that it happens at all. If it happens to a 25 year-old or a 20-year-old and they say they can’t believe it, its kind of obvious because almost anything else would be beyond his belief as well. I have a different perspective. After 30 years if you haven’t understood certain realities in this business, you’d have a different problem.”
The Polanski film is Carnage, an adaptation of Yasmina Reza’s play, Gods of Carnage, about two Brooklyn couples — played by Waltz, Kate Winslett, John C Reilly and Jodie Foster — at war after their respective sons get into an altercation in the park. It’s basically a four-way cat fight, doused liberally with Scotch, with Waltz playing gleeful ringmaster, delighting in the thinly-veiled savagery beneath everyone’s civilized veneer. “Its my comedy,” he says. “I consider this character the only one I’ve played with his two bits together. Kate’s too a little bit. She’s more erratic but I think he’s the only one who doesn’t sway. He sticks to his reality.”
Waltz speaks in softly-accented, sibilant-heavy English, with slightly lunatic precision, his long chin lending him an air somewhere between impish and lubricious. He could be a professor of drama at an obscure redbrick university whose students speculate as to whether he pays women to walk across his back in stilletos every night. There is a distinct hint of kinkiness to Waltz who, in a Pythonesque comedy segment taped for The Jimmy Kimmel Show, filmed shortly after his Oscar win, was shown lip-syncing a lyric-less folk song (“tro-lo-lo-lo-lo”), while humping various household objects — a lamp, a telephone, a ukulele — all intercut with a fake BBC interview in which he answered sober questions about his acting career (“in a way the strive, the quest, becomes the goal…”).
A surreal send-up of actorish affectation, a neat joke deflecting the horrors in his own back catalogue, it was also completely bonkers. Imagine Ralph Fiennes doing something similar after Schindler’s List and you realize how fully Waltz takes his place at the head of an illustrious table of Teutonic eccentrics which goes back to Klaus Kinski and fellow Austrian, Egon Schiele. The news that he once played Friedrich Nietzche in a German-French co-production should come as no surprise; there’s no mistaking the megalomaniac gleam to Waltz’s eye or the imperious jut of that chin. Those 30 years spent in obscurity seem to have lent his performances — as an SS officer in Inglorious Basterds, the villain of The Green Hornet, a sadistic circus master in Water for Elephants — a jack-in-the-box floridity.
It’s not hard to see why Tarantino liked him so much. Waltz’s obscurity was key: he kept Waltz from rehearsing too much with the other actors, and when he did told him to tone down the performance. “He didn’t want the others to get too comfortable with me. He wanted this insecurity on their part.” Only when the cameras rolled did he let loose: digging into the part of polyglot SS sadist Hans Lauda as if kissing each word in the script, his performance tip-toeing up to the edge of over-acting, dancing on the line, and then, with a dainty pirhouette, swan-diving into the end-zone — postmodern caricature meets Brechtian commedia dell'arte. “I revel in his writing, I really do,” says Waltz. “You can really play. You don’t just have to say it, you can do all thing with it, turn it upside down. And it will still hold. It will not fall apart. It does not require one singular delivery on which it depends. You can’t harm it. He’s a genius. I am completely, unconditionally devoted.”
The two men are now good friends, and are often to be found around the director’s Mulholland Drive mansion watching rare 35mm prints of old films, salvaged from closed-down theatres and distribution companies. Tarantino provides the post-match commentary — “maybe the story is contrived but he’ll go ‘yes but look at this actor….’” says Waltz. Other times, “we will meet for dinner without a single sentence uttered about movies.” In LA, and around Quentin Tarantino’s house in particular, that is what is known as a ‘comfortable silence.’'