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Q&A: Christoph Waltz, 'Unchained' on Awards Season, Tarantino and His Beard

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It has become a pastime of late for actors to bite the hand that feeds them and voice their disdain for awards season and critics in general. Left and right, you hear that awards aren't important, that ceremonies are superfluous and that old bag about what an honor it would be to be nominated.

Not Christoph Waltz, however, a Best Supporting Actor winner who seems to relish awards season. Good thing, too, since the German-born Waltz could be in the thick of it once again for his role in Quentin Tarantino's "Django Unchained." Waltz stars as a dentist-cum-bounty hunter who helps Django (Jamie Foxx) find his wife.

Waltz sat down with NextMovie in New York City ahead of the Christmas release of "Django Unchained" to talk about awards season, the emotional complexities of growing a beard and saying the n-word.

Congratulations on the movie; it seems like we've been hearing about it for a long time and now we're finally getting to see it!
Today's New York Times has a list of the 25 favorite movies of the year. Today is the 15th of December! The year's not over! What is this top 10 list business, I don't quite understand it. That sportive thing, that number one, number two, number three — was it the fastest, was it the loudest, was it the brightest? Why number one? You liked it, sure. Say that.

And it's all based on personal taste, too.
And that changes. Maybe in March next year you would write a completely different list. But in the end, the list is completely irrelevant.

Speaking of taste and best-of lists, what do you think of awards season?
I think awards season ... it all depends on what you see in it. If you really see your only purpose for existence in it, then I think you have a problem. But if it is accolade and praise and acknowledgement and recognition, then I actually think it's a cultural thing. It doesn't have to be stupid.

So would you say you enjoy it?
Well, it's also how a business presents itself, and in a way I do. Germany did away with all of that, for example. And in Austria we still have like decorum and all that, but Germany did away with all that after the war because, I don't know, it was anti-democratic or whatever, but something's lacking.

Christoph Waltz and Jaime Foxx in Django Unchained Columbia Pictures

No more bells and whistles.
Totally! It's not nice. Now they came back, but the first few years of the Berlinale and for the German Film Prize Award, it was just a room with a table and then they read it and then the person went there to get it and, oh, thank you very much, and maybe they had a little party afterwards.

So it sounds like you like a full-blown ceremony, the whole shebang.
I do, in a way I do. It's a part of it! Why just sweep it under the carpet? If you're going to do it, do it properly. That's how I work, too. I love these old American sayings, and the one that refers to that is "a job worth doing is a job worth doing well." If you're not going to do it well, then don't do it!

I heard that you actually saw the script for "Django" as Tarantino was writing it. So did you help develop the story at all?
I was reading it, but I kept my hands out of it. First of all, I read it in slices and portions and not in one go, so with Quentin's scripts, things develop in one way and then they turn a tight corner and go in exactly the opposite direction. So I was just reading and wondering and anticipating and then reading again and I wanted Quentin to finish it before I said anything about it.

He didn't ask for feedback?
Nah.

What were you expecting, story-wise?
I wasn't expecting anything. Because first of all, I knew vaguely that he was working on a Western, and that was about it. I knew vaguely that slavery was going to be a part of it, but very little. That's the first thing he let out, what I read. I'm interested in Quentin as a writer, I'm interested in Quentin as an artist and a film director and I'm interested in Quentin as a person. I'm not interested in my influencing him, because why would I?

It sounds like you guys are pals. He just called you up, like "Hey, do you want to take a look at this?"
That's exactly how it was. It was at his kitchen table. He said, "Wanna come up? I wrote something. Do you want to read the next 30 pages? They're ready."

There are rumors that a lot of the movie ended up on the cutting room floor, and that you guys shot a lot more than we'll see in theaters. Is there anything you hope makes it to the DVD or were disappointed to see go?
No, because these choices that Quentin made in the editing are very clear. I can understand why he lost them. The fact that I liked doing it, or that I thought they came out well is unimportant. It's the same thing, really, why would I want to interfere? He comes up with something that he considers his work of art. I just contribute. I just lend the body, so to say.

Tarantino is also famous for elaborate backstories. Is there a history to your character that we maybe don't see in the movie?
No, no. There is a backstory that he came up with, but he dropped that. It might have been an idea to incorporate that, but then it would have been a 12-part miniseries. He didn't even tell me that much about it.

That's another thing, because sooner or later I have to not take over, but take over that one thing that has to do with the body because he can't shoot his words. Or the print on the paper. Even though that would be an interesting movie, just shoot the script.

So he wants me to come up with my backstory, because the backstory really isn't, it's important to make what I do tangible and clearly focused but it's not important for the story that he wants to tell. In the end, that's what we set out to do, to make his story happen.

Christoph Waltz Getty Images

So you made your own backstory, mentally? What is it?
The thing with actors who delve so much into their preparation — I'm not poo-pooing anything or anybody, because if that's what helps you find your spot, by all means, anything that works. Anything that gets you going, anything that sets your faculties in motion. What it is, you have to decide that on your own. It might not be the best thing, because we all have a tendency to delude ourselves, not just out of vanity but because we're not aware of the weaker or stronger sides of our personality, whatever. It doesn't even have to closely relate to the story or the historical era or all that. You just look around and whatever gets your imagination going is helpful.

You had a magnificent beard in this movie. Do you miss it?
Thank you! It was like a pet. I miss it a little bit. I also liked to have long hair, but it's good this way, too.

You had that look with the long hair and big beard going for over a year. Are you relieved to have shaved it all off?
It wasn't easy. And sometimes I thought about when women or girls cut their long hair, in some cultures it's like a big ritual. The hair just grows and at one point it gets its first cut. Usually girls break out in tears. Yeah, I kind of understood, you're kind of sacrificing something, you're kind of giving something up.

I had it longer than a year. I had to clip it, or else it would have been down to my waist had I not cut it every once in a while. I wondered whether I should just cut it off in one and keep it.

This movie has some pretty controversial language, including a certain racial slur. Did you feel uncomfortable with that at all?
I think you can't tell a historical context and alter the language to be subjected to 21st century political correctness. You have to decide. If you can't use the language, don't try to depict that era. If you decide to tell that story that takes place in the Antebellum American South, and you don't say n***** ever, how does that work? It doesn't.

What Sam Jackson [during a press conference] said was gold, when Jamie said, "Yes, I was exposed to the word 'n*****' in my childhood." And Sam said, "At home." You know, that's the 20th century, when they were kids. At home! So why kid yourself and pretend it doesn't exist? Things don't go away by not addressing them. They don't. That's one thing that this movie hopefully really gets across. They don't go away by not addressing them. You can sweep it under the carpet and you can trample around on the carpet as much as you want, but it's still gonna be there.

One of the notable things about "Django" is how violent it is. Of course, you don't control the release date of the movie, nor do you control the news, but do events like the mass shooting in Newtown make you think any differently about how you view violence in film?
No, no it doesn't change. I'm afraid I was aware of that explosive potential in our society before. Tragically, it was not the first time something like that happened. There was no surprise, but I wish it would have been.

In "Django Unchained," you and Tarantino have your revenge on slavery, and in "Inglourious Basterds" you two tackled the Holocaust. What historical wrongs will you right together next?
It's funny that you should say that because yesterday someday mentioned that Quentin founded a new genre, the history fantasy genre, I don't know what we would call it. It doesn't have a name yet. But maybe that's what he does, that's how he approaches the history of the world.

Oh man, history's full of it. I said something about Napoleon before, that's an interesting story. It's inspiring how the great liberator turns into the tyrant.

So would you play Napoleon?
I'm too old. Too tall. Even though that sounds kinda funny, I am.

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