The HFPA’s Helen Hoehne interviews Indie, B-movie and art-house legend Udo Kier
World-renowned cult actor Udo Kier (72) has starred in hundreds of films from art house to blockbuster. He has played Frankenstein and Dracula and worked for directors as diverse as Fassbinder, Dario Argento and Lars von Trier. In his latest film Courier X, Kier plays Nathan Vogel, a CIA informant and former member of the East German secret police (Stasi). The conspiracy thriller links the 1996 crash of TWA flight 800 to the CIA who solicited a black market smuggler working for Vogel to help take down the flight and to cover up the Nicaraguan blackmail attempt on the agency after the release of an online article by journalist Gary Webb. We spoke to Mr. Kier in his Palm Springs home.
What attracted you to Courier X?
I like independent films and when I read the script, I was really attracted to the story. Those were the kind of films I used to do before I came to America. I worked with Fassbinder, Wim Wenders and Werner Herzog. They were all independent filmmakers. In America my films became a lot more commercial with titles like Ace Ventura, Pet Detective, Armageddon or Blade. It was a totally different way of working. As I am approaching my 50 years in this business, I like to go back to independent films. This is a true story about the CIA taking down TWA flight 800. I play a retired Stasi man who is an informant for the CIA. It was a very low budget film and a small team. I think as an actor, you can concentrate much better when there are fewer people. There is no stress. It’s different with a big movie.
How much did you find out about Nathan Vogel?
I got all the information from the writer and director Thomas Gulamerian. That’s all I needed to have an idea who this man is and why he did what he did. I was born in West Germany and didn’t know much about the Stasi. There were many rumors about how the Stasi operated but nobody really knew what was going on. When the Berlin Wall finally fell, it was amazing what we found out. Everyone in East Berlin had a file. I knew people who didn’t want to see their file because they didn’t want to know if their neighbors were spying on them. The Stasi blackmailed people to spy on others. This was before the Internet, cell phones and hackers.
Your career spans over 50 years and you don’t seem to slow down. Do you enjoy acting as much as you used to?
I enjoy it for different reasons. When I started 51 years ago, I wanted to make three movies at once and I enjoyed people recognizing me. I remember the attention I got for “Mark of the Devil” (1970) and loved it. Over the years, these feelings change. I choose my roles much more carefully these days because life is important. I am a desert person and have places there. I have a ranch and I live in a former library in Palm Springs. I collect furniture and modern art. I like gardening and rescuing dogs. My private life has become more important than running after movies but I am a lucky man. There are always people who sent me scripts and if I like the role, I do the movie. I just finished an Alexander Payne film (Downsizing) with Matt Damon and Christoph Waltz, which was a lot of fun.
How did you meet all these well-known directors you worked with?
I met Fassbinder when I was 16 and he was 15. We became friends and later started working together. I met Paul Morrissey on the plane when I sat next to him. He asked me what I was doing and I said I am an actor and showed him my photo. He said great and wrote my number on the last page of his passport. A couple of weeks later he called me and said he is doing a little film for Andy Warhol. It’s called Frankenstein and I have a role for you. I said great, what do I play? He said Frankenstein. I met Gus Van Sant in Berlin when he was at the beginning of his career. He made a film for $20 000 called Mala Noche (1985). Later he offered me a role in My own private Idaho (1991). I met Lars von Trier who I’ve worked with for 25 years at a film festival in Mannheim (Germany). Shortly after that he called me and offered me the lead role in Madea (1988). His favorite line to all the actors is, “don’t act.” I often worked with the same directors, which is a wonderful thing. You know each other.
What are your memories of Andy Warhol who produced Frankenstein in 1973?
Andy took pictures of me and had some ideas but I collaborated more with Paul (Morrissey) who wrote and directed the film. But I remember that Andy documented everything. We went out for dinner in Rome one night with Mick and Bianca Jagger and there was always a tape recorder running. Then Andy went home and had his secretary Pat Hackett transcribe it. After a few evenings, it became the diary of Andy Warhol. Andy was very important even if people at the beginning did not understand him. I had a good time talking to him even if he didn’t say much. He let other people talk. When we shot Frankenstein in Cinecittà, he came to the set and we had dinner. We all lived together in a villa and were very focused on work. There was no sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, what people would expect from Andy Warhol.
Where you surprised about all the offers to play vampires?
Yes, because I didn’t necessarily see myself in these roles. But then I did the movies and they became successful. I entered a totally different category of filmmaking and it was fun. But it wasn’t a genre I was chasing or looking for. It just came to me.
There is a remake of the classic horror film Suspiria ( dir. Dario Argento, 1977) in the works.
This is the first time I hear about it but I think it’s very good. I was working in Münich with Fassbinder, when I heard Dario Argento wanted to meet me. We met and he offered me the role. It was only one day of shooting but Dario explained the whole movie to me. I like him very much.
Do you have a favorite director?
I was very close to Fassbinder because we met when we were both so young. I also really like Lars von Trier. I did all his films with the exemption of two because they were shot in Danish and I don’t speak Danish. I would always work with Wim Wenders and Werner Herzog if there is a role for me. There are also directors I still like to work with such as David Lynch. I would never tell him that because that’s not my style.
Where do you like to work these days?
I still work a lot in Europe. I did a TV series (Altes Geld) in Vienna recently, which will be shown at the Palm Springs Film Festival in January. My base is in America but my German roots are important to me. My closest friends live in Germany. We don’t talk much about the past because I like to live in the moment and the future.