index Magazine, USA, 1996
Udo Kier has appeared in nearly sixty
films, playing everything from a "French type" gigolo in The Road to
St. Tropez in 1963 to the Puppet Master in this year's Pinocchio. In
between he secured horror cult status starring in Andy Warhol's
Frankenstein and Andy Warhol's Dracula, and was closely associated
with Rainer Werner Fassbinder, with roles in the director's last five
films, including the epic, Berlin Alexanderplatz.
Gus Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho was Kier's first American film, in
which he sang, with a lamp, to Keanu Reeves and the late River
Phoenix. Since moving to Hollywood he's been in films with Jim Carrey
and Michael J. Fox, in videos with Madonna, and later this year he'll
be seen alongside Baywatch beauty Pamela Lee in the futuristic Barb
Wire, set against the second American Civil War. But perhaps Kier's
most ambitious upcoming project is his participation in Lars Von
Trier's Dimension, for which the cast is being followed and filmed
three minutes each year over thirty years, and won't be released until
A complete filmography follows our interview here for those who care
to index Kier's career for themselves.
UDO: My agent said never mention the word "art" in America because art
doesn't make any money. So forget about art. Just talk about your
commercial successes in films. But if you come from Germany, even
working with Fassbinder, those films are never commercial. In America,
Hollywood stands for the film industry. It's an industry of making
films the way other people make washing machines. The reason why I
moved to America was to prove to myself, to nobody else, that I could
function in commercial films. I didn't want to think about it when I
was 65, sitting in Germany, saying, if I would have gone to Los
Angeles, I would have made it there. Now that I've done everything
else, the last station for me was Hollywood ... actually, maybe not
the last, maybe I'll go to India and make films, make twenty-five
films a year, same costume, same studio.
MALE SPEAKER: When we met, what struck me was that you have more ideas
than most directors ... like that scene in My Own Private Idaho.
UDO: Well, I always had the ambition of ideas. If you have the lead,
the story gives you the ideas. But if you are a supporting actor, you
have to have ideas, otherwise nobody remembers you, and I don't want
to make movies where nobody remembers me. Because when I could be a
postman or a gardener, who would be in touch with the earth directly,
or with people directly. That's why I always bring unconscious things
into films. Even if it's not explained where the character is coming
from, I have to know. If I go to the director and ask, what was my
father's background? And they say, "that's not important, we don't
know," then he's a bad director.
In America I leaned a magical word. Research. Everything you can do is
research. You can run naked through New York and the police will
arrest you, and you say, I'm researching my next film, and I have to
research the feeling of running naked through Fifth Avenue in the
MALE SPEAKER: What you're saying implies that the character is fully
formed, but in recent American cinema a lot of the characters are very
cartoony. One of your new films is based on a fairy tale, and the
other is science fiction, which lends itself to that. So if you're
playing a mythic character, like a king, do you think in the same
psychological terms about where the character is coming from?
UDO: If I play a king, I want to play a king which people have never
seen before, a king who is not showing his power, because everybody in
the audience knows that he has the power. Otherwise he wouldn't be the
I'm going next week to do a documentary for the BBC, and they have
everyone from Jeremy Irons to Ralph Fiennes to Liam Neeson. It's set
in the first World War, and I'm reading letters of three German
soldiers. But I'm also going to do the voice of Hitler, when he was
young. so it's very hard for me to imagine the world of somebody who
wanted the power, already, but didn't have any. So I have to really
think about that.
MALE SPEAKER: Have you ever played a part like that before?
UDO: They offered me many times the part of a Nazi, but I never played
one in my life. Actually, I did once, for a film called Last Hour of
Adolph. It was made in one night, and it was a comedy. Everybody was
drinking, and everybody was having sex, and ... they end up killing
themselves. So I could only do it as a comedy.
MALE SPEAKER: You made a point of avoiding the stereotypical German
UDO: Well, in America the Germans have to play the villain. Before
they played the Nazis and now it's the villain. Name one German actor
who ever played anything else. Klaus Maria Brandauer is the villain in
the new James Bond film.
Hollywood always goes by trends. When the film The Boat came to
America, all of a sudden you had to go to auditions with a turtleneck
sweater because you had to be the captain of a boat. So there's always
a trend because it's an industry. That's why an independent film in
America has no chance to be a big release. They need five million just
for the advertising.
MALE SPEAKER: You weren't a villain when you played Dracula?
UDO: When I did Dracula, it was very funny and very poetic in a way.
This poor Dracula, he wouldn't do any harm to anybody, but he had to
get the blood of a virgin just to live. So he goes to Italy because he
hears they're religious, but they're all whores, and he gets more and
more sick. So, you see, there's a poem behind it. Francis Ford
Coppola's Dracula was such a mixture of Fellini ... of course, Gary
Oldman is one of the best actors, but they tried to make Dracula
erotic and for me the movie wasn't. In Polanski's film, he shows it as
a comedy, which was much more erotic because it wasn't pretentious.
And it didn't have all those modern techniques, I mean, we're going to
get a lot of surprises in the next twenty years. Actors will be
painted in. You go for the audition and they say, give us a smile,
give us a cry, turn around, thank you. The only good thing about this
is that computers don't have a soul, so it never will work.
MALE SPEAKER: You're probably one of the few people around who can
explain what Fassbinder was about. I've seen a lot of the movies, but
in terms of the person and the creative process and the final product,
UDO: I met him when he was 15 and I was 16. We met in a working class
bar in Cologne, and I only knew his name was Werner, and he only knew
my name was Udo. We both didn't have money at that time. On the
weekend my mother gave me about three dollars. So you cannot do a lot,
but everything was cheaper then. It was like thirty dollars today.
Then I went to England when I was 19, and we lost contact. I always
liked to travel because I was born in such a tight circle after the
war. I always had my great, how do you say?, my great adoration for
America because I was brought up with American powdered milk, and the
first chocolate I ever got was from an American soldier. I'm born in
'44, and I was born very dramatically. Maybe that's why I became an
My mother was going to take the main bridge to go to the hospital. It
was just in front of her, and the bridge collapsed. So they took
another bridge, and she was in the hospital and I came into the world.
That evening, when the nurses were collecting all the babies back from
the mothers, to put them in one room for the night, my mother asked if
she could have me a little bit longer. So the nurse gave me back to
her. At that moment the alarm came, and my mother saw the wall coming
down over the babies, and they were all killed. And then my mother had
to go through the wall with her arm and wave for help, and eventually
pulled her out. That was my first day of life. So it was already very
MALE SPEAKER: So how did you decide to become an actor?
UDO: I went to England to study English. My idea was to learn four or
five languages, and then work for a company, any kind of company,
where I could travel. And one day at school a girl said to me, they're
looking for somebody for a film, why don't you go? So I went and I got
I didn't know at the time, because I had never made a film, that the
camera had a zoom lens. So I didn't know they could take a picture
from far away. And they put it far away from me so I wouldn't be
nervous. And I was searching for the camera in the scene. So when the
movie came out, everybody wrote about this "new face," they wrote,
very interesting, intense expression ... Which was an accident,
because I was just looking for the camera. So that was the beginning.
So there I am in London, and I open Stern magazine, and I see a
picture of a big face, and it says, "the genius and the alcoholic,"
and it was Rainer, and I thought, he became a director? We met again
after many years, and it was very strange. Slowly, in starts, he
offered me a role in Fox and His Friends, and I turned it down. I
wanted my career to go in a different direction. But a few years later
he offered me a part in The Stationmaster's Wife, which I took.
MALE SPEAKER: What was he like to work with?
UDO: Of course, like all genius people, he was very difficult as a
person. But he made forty-two films. Berlin Alexanderplatz alone was
thirteen episodes and a prologue. It was amazing how much he worked.
And you could feel how he was burning himself up. At the end I had to
run away because he took away my security, my brain. It was a game, in
a way. One was the game of truth, which was very brutal. I played that
with Visconti many years before, so he didn't invent the game. In the
game of truth, I can ask a question of you, and you have to answer.
But if you lie, and someone in the room knows, then you're out. So you
learn something. And with Fassbinder I learned to always tell the
When we were making The Stationmaster's Wife, I heard that Elisabeth
Trissenaar said she would work with me in a film, but not on stage.
And I mentioned it to Rainer. Why would she say that? Later, at dinner,
everybody was there, and Rainer said, Udo, what did you tell me today?
And he said, repeat it. And she was sitting right there. But it was
great because after that everybody was very open.
Anyway, he never did like any formation of groups. He was scared of
that. Sometimes, with friends in a restaurant, we would stage a fight
just to please him. He would be very happy if two actors were fighting.
And he would calm us down, but it was just a little show to make him
MALE SPEAKER: It seems that you function through your sense of humor,
and he probably didn't have much sense of humor.
UDO: I don't know if I have a sense of humor. I don't know what it is,
MALE SPEAKER: Let's say a sense of ironic detachment. And from his
films, I would imagine that Fassbinder functioned entirely through
UDO: He dealt a lot with himself. I mean, in Alexanderplatz, Franz
Bieberkopf was him. Veronika Voss was also him. He gave always a big
part of himself, of his personality, to the role. And the actors knew
that, so they're trying to bring something from knowing him.
Especially if you worked with him a lot, as many did, then you adopted
certain things. But he became more and more difficult, not because he
became more known, he was just burning himself out.
We were living together for a while at the time of Lili Marleen, and
at one point I had to move out. We were still friends when I left, but
it was just too heavy ... telling me every morning that I'm the worst
driver, the worst actor, the worst everything. He had to let him
emotion out to somebody. If it would be the cleaning woman in the
morning, she would get it. The first person gets it, and that was me
for a while, so I left.
After that, he wrote a great script based on the book Cocaine, which I
hope one day somebody else makes. Actually, I would love for Gus Van
Sant to make this film. So there was a great script, and a great cast.
It would have been his next movie.
MALE SPEAKER: Who was going to be in it?
UDO: He wanted Brad Davis, Nina Foche, himself, myself, Romy
Schneider. But then he died.
MALE SPEAKER: I think Americans are somewhat insensitive to this, but
post-war Germany was an extremely difficult situation, with the
deprivation and the destruction. I mean, to be able to make art coming
out of that ...
UDO: But a much stronger sense of art comes from that, from deep down.
They not only had to rebuild the houses, stone on stone, but they also
had to rebuild the art back. Of all the directors, Fassbinder was the
only one who really took the time and brought it into films and really
built it up slowly. The amazing thing is that he had to make forty
films before, all of a sudden, with The Marriage of Maria Braun,
people were talking about him. There again, you see how ignorant
people are about art.
MALE SPEAKER: You've also done a lot with Lars Von Trier.
UDO: I already made seven films with him. He's really a genius
director too. I have a contract with him for the next thirty years. We
meet every year for three minutes. So with the finished film, in one
evening, in ninety minutes, we get thirty years older ... if I make
it. Let's touch wood.
MALE SPEAKER: It's a real commitment to a director to stay alive that
UDO: Not only that, the commitment is also that I would go so far that
I give permission to film my funeral. Which means they show my funeral,
and they have to focus on one person there, who takes over so I
wouldn't be forgotten, so I would live through the whole film. This
person, like a seed, comes out of there.
I'm going in June to film The Kingdom II with Lars Von Trier. You
haven't seen it, but at the end of The Kingdom, I'm born. They built
this gigantic woman's legs and in between you see that something wants
to come through. They made my hair very short and there was a lot of
slime, and all of a sudden I come out, just a head on the screen, and
that's the end of the film. So now, in the next part, I'm going to be
a very tall, very big baby.
MALE SPEAKER: Now that you're in Hollywood, are there any directors
you want to work with?
UDO: Many. Although the ones I really would like to work with are dead.
Like Elia Kazan. But today, Gus Van Sant is one of my favorites. I
already made two movies with him, and I hope many more. I think David
Lynch would interest me. The problem is that a lot of talent in
Hollywood is spoiled by the industry. Somebody who has talent will get
an offer from a studio, and then the studio dictates. So any kind of
independent director who goes to Hollywood to do studio pictures is
going to be circumcised immediately. That's why Fassbinder never
wanted to make movies there.
It's amazing how Jim Jarmusch can make a major movie like Dead Man.
But again, you see, if he had made the same film with unknown actors,
he wouldn't have gotten the money. But because of Johnny Depp, who is
a star ... Most people don't go to movies for the director.
MALE SPEAKER: Someone like Johnny Depp is interesting because he'll do
a movie for his own reasons. He made Ed Wood, and his agent probably
told him not to.
UDO: For him to do a film like that was as much a risk for River
Phoenix and Keanu Reeves, being teen idols, making My Own Private
MALE SPEAKER: But time will show that's a movie they'll be remembered
UDO: Definitely, because this is a piece of art.
MALE SPEAKER: This may sound a bit romantic, but in a way I feel that
in your career you decided not to become part of the industry, and be
a star that people would go to see ... even though it would have come
very easily to you.
UDO: When Dracula and Frankenstein opened in America I think I should
have been here. Now I know the importance of having the leads in two
films coming out back-to-back. But then maybe I would have been a
cocaine addict or would be dead already ... if I would have been there
at the time. I believe very much in things just happening. And I know
why I'm choosing parts. I knew why I chose Ace Ventura: Pet Detective.
I knew right away ...
MALE SPEAKER: You knew that was going to be a really big movie?
MALE SPEAKER: How?
UDO: Because I had seen him on television, and I knew that he was
standing out to strong ...
MALE SPEAKER: Jim Carrey?
UDO: ... and I knew that he had that power.
MALE SPEAKER: Kids love Jim Carrey, but I can't figure out what his
screen magic is. Can you explain it?
UDO: It's not easy.
MALE SPEAKER: But is it like Jerry Lewis or something?
UDO: I don't think so, and I'm sure Jim Carrey doesn't like to hear
that. When I was young, I never liked Jerry Lewis films very much. It
was too nice to look at, perfectly photographed, beautiful women all
over-sexed, and him in between. I mean, if you've seen one, you've
seen them all. The acting is always over-the-top, and there's nothing
there to surprise you. When I watched Jim Carrey in rehearsal, I said
to myself, I have to hold back. Because he's so over-the-top, I had to
be very straight, to have an irony.
MALE SPEAKER: Haven't you taught acting?
UDO: I did, in Germany. And I started by saying, let's buy some wine
and some cheese and some bread, and let's go to the forest. So we went
to the forest, and I said, let's all take some earth and smell earth.
Most of them had never done this before, and it was such an incredible
experience for them. And the director of the academy asked me, how did
you do this? Now, they hug each other, and before they were always
fighting, and nobody talked to each other. What are you doing?
MALE SPEAKER: Udo, you're a bad influence.
UDO: Do you know how I got the job? The director invited me to give a
speech, but I didn't want the job, I just wanted to give the speech.
And all of the professors come because they want to see if you're
going to influence the students politically. Usually they come for ten
minutes and then they go away. But with me they stayed three hours,
and I talked three hours about peeling potatoes. I said you can
analyze someone if you give them a knife and a potato. If they're
nervous they make a square out of it. And if they're sensitive, or if
they're mean, maybe they just go on the surface, takes them maybe ten
minutes for one potato. So I talked for three hours and I got the job.
They had to invent a new name for what I was doing, which they called
Theory of Acting.
MALE SPEAKER: How did you teach that?
UDO: I would develop a story with the students, and then act it out,
including my preparation. I mean, can you imagine a professor standing
in front of the class in a cheap black night gown, with the price tag
hanging down, bought for nine marks. I had jeans and boots on, a cheap
black wig and some pearls. And I was teaching. I called the story
Florian Gray, because I had a flower shop. In one part I had the
camera over my shoulder, I was stumbling into the bathroom, with three
different wigs, and I take one off and put it on the other way around.
Then I look at myself in the mirror and I use some candle soot for
make-up, because I didn't want to do it with a pen. Then I put some
lipstick on my hand like paint, and smeared it across my lips. So I
come out of the bathroom and I'm singing, Happy Birthday to you. And
that was my way of working with them. That was the only way I could
tell them what it's all about.
MALE SPEAKER: So somebody comes to the school and peels potatoes with
the students, walks with them in the woods, and acts out amazingly
UDO: But in a way, they don't realize how important it is to do simple
things. For example, do you know how many men in the world have never
cleaned a window? There you go. Let's clean windows. Let's see how you
do it. You express yourself much more with simple things.
When I walked with my students that first time in the forest I was
very open, seeing everything. Afterwards I asked, did you see that
bird's nest, it was all totally ruined? But they hadn't. And I said,
well, how are you going to make films?
MALE SPEAKER: Now that you're in L.A., are there any actors that you
really want to work with?
UDO: Well, I don't know any actors, and I stay away from actors. And I
don't live in West Hollywood because I still want to smell the earth.
I live on top of a beautiful hill, and I have a lot of things that
I've planted. I see how they grow, and I take care of the trees. I
like to paint the walls inside my house, make it sometimes light
yellow, after my mood. My house is my only castle. It's for myself,
not for other people. Now on the outside it's a beautiful blue and
yellow, and the fence is green. With a 50s house it works. And I'm
always changing the color. If you live in Los Angeles you have to keep
yourself occupied, otherwise you get into that bitter and mean thing,
"Oh, they made a film, I could have played that part much better. Why
didn't they take me!" I don't want to do that, so I'm ignoring it.
MALE SPEAKER: That's good advice, actually, for anyone.
UDO: That's why I don't want to be surrounded by actors. I never meet
them unless I work with them. The actors I'm not working with I don't
want to be around. They're tearing my down because I'm working and
MALE SPEAKER: It must be nice growing things in Los Angeles. Is it
UDO: It grows quickly.
MALE SPEAKER: If you water it.
UDO: In the morning when I get up, I walk my dog to the park where the
Dodgers Stadium is, and then I water my garden. For me, it's a
meditation, having a hose and watering. People say, why don't you get
an automatic machine to do it? And I say, no, I'm doing it myself.
MALE SPEAKER: Why should the sprinkler have all the fun?
UDO: Exactly. I like to have the hose in my hand, and then I water
everything. I don't have to sit and cross my legs and stare at the
ceiling. I mean, I have it all in nature.
MALE SPEAKER: If you lived in New York you wouldn't have a garden, and
you'd have to be in Woody Allen movies.
UDO: I did an audition for him, but it didn't work out because I was
MALE SPEAKER: Don't you know John Waters?
UDO: John, I know for very long, and we're friends. I'm one of the
people on the list for his wonderful Christmas cards. They're amazing
every year. One year I got a card with Tina Onassis on the cover and
she looked horrible, and on the inside he wrote, " May you feel better
than Tina Onassis. Happy Christmas." And she sued him, poor thing.
MALE SPEAKER: She sued him?
UDO: Oh, yeah. Another year I got a card where John is sitting under
the Christmas tree and the tree is burning. And he's in a tuxedo, very
casual. I like John.
MALE SPEAKER: He was at our party last night.
UDO: Oh, shit! I missed him.
MALE SPEAKER: He told us that his next movie is going to be called
Cecil B. Demented.
UDO: I went to visit John in Baltimore, and we had so much fun. You
know when you go out and you want to see other people, but you end up
standing on the corner just talking with each other? You don't even
know where you are, just because you talk and tell funny stories. The
only thing I miss in Los Angeles is to make friends. But I'm always
very careful between seeing people I know and friends. A friend, for
me, is somebody I could help to give one of my fingers, because he
needs that finger to live. Or an ear, and I would give it, and have a
plastic one for myself, to feel the same as he does. A strange ear ...
Anyway, that's a friend.
Someone to trust. Friendship is total trust. So maybe my dog is my
best friend. Maybe animals are really the best friends because they
love you ... and they need you. In Los Angeles I have not more friends
than fingers on one hand.
And the only thing I don't like about Los Angeles is, sorry to say,
this way of positive thinking. It's like, you open the door of a house
and you haven't even seen the inside, and you say, what a great house.
Or you've been three days on the road and you look like shit and
people say, you look great, how do you do it? ... but I think that's
part of the game. People ask me if I like it there, and I always say
that if I didn't, I would live in New York. Nobody forced me to live
in Los Angeles.
MALE SPEAKER: What part of town do you live in?
UDO: I live in Echo Park, a gang neighborhood. I have friends coming
every Friday, and the gangs are all shooting at each other. My friends
think it's fire crackers. I like that.