Having gained something of a cult following for his work, the prolific German actor Udo Kier has starred in well over 200 productions, and one of them is Brawl in Cell Block 99, where he stars alongside Vince Vaughn in this brutal, compelling piece of cinema. We had the pleasure of meeting Kier in a small clothes shop in Toronto, and what transpired was one of our favourite ever interviews.
Before I had even sat down he asked where I was from, so I told him.
“London? That is where I was discovered,” Kier said. “People said they were making a movie, and I had no knowledge about it, but I did the movie and they were very kind, they shot me from far away. I said to myself that I liked the attention, I could live from this, and so I became an actor. And now hundreds of films later I’m sitting here with you at a table. In a store which reminds me of my last film with Mel Gibson, where I own a store like this. So anyway, I saw the film last night for the first time.”
I realised I had no idea what film he was talking about, Brawl in Cell Block 99, or the film he had just shot with Mel Gibson, which we can only assume is Dragged Across Concrete, the next film from Craig S. Zahler. So I asked which of the two he meant.
“I’m talking about Downsizing” he said. “Wait, no I haven’t seen that yet, I’m going to see it soon. Anyway, ask me questions.”
But just before I had the chance to ask anything, we were interrupted – as Vince Vaughn walked into the room.
“I love you pal. I’ll see you soon. You’re tremendous. You did a great job,” the actor said to Kier before he swiftly departed. Now, I figured, it was time to officially begin this interview – but then Kier was distracted again, when a family walked in behind where I was sitting.
“Is the shop open now?” Kier bellowed. “Oh, wait you’re the owner. There’s great stuff here. They took me here and said I can choose something to take home to LA, but I have enough,” before he turned and looked back at me. “So, ask me something”.
I quickly looked over my shoulder just to check Lars von Trier hadn’t popped in to say hello as well, before I opened up my notebook to ask my first question. But then I realised this wasn’t exactly an interview that was likely to go to script, so I instead started on our recent visitor Vaughn, and asked about collaborating with him (I could tell they evidently got on quite well).
“He did some amazing work, especially knowing how many comedies he did, to come and be so focused, it’s wonderful. Our scene together, when I read it, I thought, you must be joking. But it’s a very sick fantasy, but it’s not my character’s, it’s my bosses. I’m just the messenger.”
Kier’s character is something of a cameo in this film, but it’s a hugely significant role, and represents one of the film’s most twisted sequences, which is really saying something. So I asked how it was to shoot, and whether it was a challenge to leave an imprint on the movie with such limited screen time.
“Well, I’ve worked for years with Lars Von Trier – if he tells me in front of John Hurt who is unfortunately gone, that he wants me to go into the room with Kirsten Dunst, he asks, what would my character do? I say, well, I’m left handed, I would put my left hand in front of my face, and he says, okay – do that. Then in Cannes someone came up to me and said, ‘thank you Mr. Kier, my wife and I spent all night yesterday together covering one side of our face’. So certain directors are able to make even your little role be important.”
“When I get the script, I read only my role, and then I read the script with my role. If I think it’s unnecessary and people will forget it, why would I do the film? But if it’s a small role, but it’s memorable, and in this film it’s definitely memorable, then I do it. Downsizing I’ve not seen yet because I’m not evil in that film.”
He was talking about Downsizing again. Anyway, we moved to working with Zahler.
“I think I’ll make many more films with him, and I like that, it’s the same with Lars Von Trier. I worked years with him, and the same with Fassbinder. I like to work with the same directors because they know you already and you know them, it’s faster.”
“I like to work with young directors. It’s like an architect, when you’ve finished school and you build your first house, you make sure it is sensational, otherwise you don’t move on, and it’s the same with a young filmmaker, there is so much energy, they have studied for so many years, and that is their project, their baby, and you’re part of it – I like that energy.”
Kier has had a remarkable screen career, and has worked with so many hugely influential filmmakers in many memorable movies. But which had the biggest impact?
“For me it was Dracula and Frankenstein by Andy Warhol that changed my life,” he smiled. “That’s because my face was moving from daily paper to glamour magazines, I was all of a sudden in Vogue. That changed something. Then when I did with The Story of O, the most erotic film that came out in1975, that changed every cover magazine. Not because of me, but because of the forbidden book which was finally made into a film. People in London were forbidden, they came from London to Paris just to see this film, so that changed something. Then Lars Von Trier changed something.”
He admitted there is one stand-out director who he is yet to work with though…
“I must say, I’ve been around almost every famous director, and I have asked a director before if I could work with them. Imagine if I said to David Lynch that I’d like to work him, he’d just say ‘who doesn’t?’ So David Lynch, definitely.”
Though starring in such a vast range of cult movies, he did explain that gaining such a status has to be an accident.
“I don’t like the word ‘art movies’. It’s like when people call me and say they’re doing a cult film. Oh really? You’re doing a cult film, you know already? Wow. Don’t you have to wait for the people to decide? Believe me, I did a few.”
Talking of which, he’s about to star in another Iron Sky sequel.
“I play an evil guy in the first Iron Sky, a Nazi on the moon. In the second one I played a Nazi on the moon and I play my brother who is Adolf Hitler riding on a dinosaur on the moon, in uniform and he said, ‘heil, you mutafickers’ and that’s that. Now it’s number three, and it’s produced in China.”
It’s not the only time he’s played Hitler, either.
“I have played Adolf Hitler a few times,” he said. “I made a great film called Mrs Meitlemeihr in London. I played Hitler hiding as a woman, going to the Post Office, sending letters to Argentina, and there’s a Jewish guy who says, ‘hello my name is Lenny, I would like to invite you for a kosher dinner’ and Hitler, as a woman, has kosher dinner with Lenny. It’s a short, you have to see it, it’s unbelievable. They dance tango together because Hitler did not drink, so Lenny gives him a schnapps and they dance, and he feels something between his legs. It’s amazing, you’ll love it.”
Before I even had the chance to say, “I’m sure I would”, Kier looked over my shoulder again, this time to his publicist.
“Am I done for today?” he asked. She shook her head. “Good. Stefan, ask me more.”
Needless to say, I only had time now for a couple, so I asked what this fascinating man does in his spare time, when he’s not riding dinosaurs on the moon.
“I take a break tomorrow, in my private life I don’t talk much,” he said, which came as a surprise. “I am a gardener and I have a ranch with 360 degree mountains”, he said, which came as much less of a surprise.
“Tomorrow I will sit there with a glass of wine in my left hand, because I’m left handed, and I’ll have a little Toronto smile on my face because of all the people I spoke to. I’m a gardener, I have about a hundred palm trees I take care of. It’s not too big, I can still cut the ground. I have a private life, it’s just this year it’s 10 films. But they’re all interesting, none of them are ones I did for different reasons, money, or anything, they are all interesting. I mean, how can you say no to Alexander Payne or Craig S. Zahler?”
I thought I may have had time for one final question, but then Kier answered one I hadn’t even asked.
“Before you go, as a nice last sentence, Lars Von Trier has just finished filming The House Jack Built with Matt Dillon and Uma Thurman and he called, because I’m in every one of his films, to say, this time it will be different. The poster will say on top ‘without Udo Kier and without Stellan Skarsgard’. I said, that’s great, I’m on top of the poster without even being in the movie. But he was just joking.”
I asked if he will be in the movie at all.
“No, I’m not. But what can you do? I think why I’m not in the movie is because the producer said, “not again”. Anyway, do you have a card? You have to write your number.”
I did, but he still hasn’t called.
Brawl in Cell Block 99 is released on Blu-ray and DVD on December 26th.