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|from rainer werner fassbinder's 'berlin alexanderplatz' to lars von trier's new movie 'dogville', actor udo kier has left his inimitable mark on scores of movies over the course of his thirty-five year career.
udo spoke to german actress franka potente at his home in echo park.
franka: You've worked with so many great directors, from Fassbinder and Warhol to Gus Van Sant and Lars Von Trier. You seem to have had a special relationship with Fassbinder.
Udo: I knew him from living in Cologne. We met in a working-class bar. He was fifteen and I was sixteen. We'd play the pinball machine on the weekends.
As we all know, he was never very attractive. I was very good-looking, so together we looked like Beauty and the Beast. I didn't know then that he wanted to make films. We lost touch when he moved to Munich to start his theater group.
franka: When did you start to work with him?
Udo: He offered me a part in a movie called Fox and His Friends. I read the script and I didn't want to do it „ the story didn't interest me. He never forgave me, but later he asked me to play a role in The Stationmaster's Wife, which I accepted.
franka: When you appeared in Fassbinder's Bolwieser, with Elizabeth Trissenaar, you were also credited as the assistant director. I've heard that on Fassbinder's movies everyone did a little bit of everything.
Udo: I didn't want to be the assistant director. Fassbinder was a very strong personality „ actors would run away from him, so he'd put his friends under contract.
franka: What was he like to work with?
Udo: Of course, like all geniuses, he was a very difficult person. But he made forty-two films. Berlin Alexanderplatz alone contained thirteen episodes. It was amazing how much he worked. You could feel how quickly he was burning himself up. At the end I had to run away too, because he took away my peace of mind. Fassbinder liked to play games. There was a game called Truth. It was brutal. You are asked a question, and you have to answer honestly. If you lie, and someone in the room knows it, you are immediately exposed. From Fassbinder, I learned always to tell the truth.
franka: Did you ever study acting?
Udo: No, I learned by doing movies, which was difficult. I've always taken acting very seriously, even though most of my films have been comedies and, in a way, ridiculous.
franka: It's interesting how many of the people you've worked with, including Fassbinder and Warhol, remain cultural icons. How did you start working with Warhol?
Udo: I met Paul Morrissey, who was directing Warhol's movies, on a flight from Rome to Munich. A man sitting next to me asked what I did, and I told him I was an actor. Young actors are insecure and always have pictures with them. I showed him my photo and he told me that he was a director. I knew right away who he was. Paul wrote my number down in his passport because he didn't have a piece of paper. Then one day I got a call saying, "This is Paul Morrissey from America. I'm doing a film, Frankenstein, and I have a small role for you." I asked him what the part would be and he said, "Doctor Frankenstein."
franka: Didn't Carlo Ponti, who produced Blow-Up and Dr. Zhivago, produce Frankenstein and Dracula?
Udo: Yeah. Morrissey told Ponti that he could make a 3-D horror movie in three weeks for three hundred thousand dollars, and Ponti said, "Here's six, make two." So he filmed Dracula right after Frankenstein.
franka: So were you originally hired to star in both films?
Udo: No, I was only supposed to play Dr. Frankenstein. They had chosen the Yugoslavian actor who played the monster in Frankenstein to play Dracula. I was depressed, I didn't want all the glamour to end. But after Frankenstein finished filming, Paul Morrissey came by and said, "Well, I guess we're going to have a German Dracula." For some reason the Yugoslavian didn't work out. Morrissey told me I had to lose twenty pounds. I had four days to do it.
franka: What did you do?
Udo: I ate nothing but salad and I only drank water, so I lost the weight immediately. In Dracula I had to sit in a wheelchair because I was so weak.
franka: Morrissey's films were usually improvised. How did you prepare for the roles?
Udo: When we shot Dracula, no one knew how it would end. One evening we were talking and I mentioned that I like to cook with herbs. Paul said, "Okay, why don't we do a scene in a kitchen and you talk about herbs? But no garlic." For Frankenstein I took lessons from a real doctor and I learned a lot of Latin medical terms. But during the shooting I mixed them all up.
franka: After you worked with Warhol, you continued to make filmsin Europe. How did you end up in America?
Udo: I met Gus Van Sant at a party at the Berlin film festival in the late ྌs. He was totally unknown at the time. He said, "Oh, you're my favorite actor. I want you to be in a movie I'm making with two teenage idols, Keanu Reeves and River Phoenix." I had never heard of them. People always talk at festivals, so I gave him my address expecting that I would never hear from him again. But a month later Gus wrote, "A script is on the way. I want you to play Hans." In American films, if you're German, you always have to be Hans. But I owe Gus a lot.
franka: Was it difficult to adjust to working in America?
Udo: It was at first. I didn't even know what an audition was. I remember doing my first one, and the casting directors said, "Oh, yeah, great. We'll call you." A few days later I asked my agent if I got the part. He told me that they didn't think I would work in the role. I said, "Why did they tell me they liked me?" He said, "They always say that." I said, "No more auditions."
franka: So how did you keep going?
Udo: My role in My Own Private Idaho drew people's attention „ it was a critically acclaimed film. I remember the opening at Lincoln Center in New York. When I came on screen the second time, people were laughing. I thought, my god, what did I do wrong? I had no intention of being funny. And Gus Van Sant said, "That's exactly why you are funny."
franka: I never tire of your work because you take the malevolent offbeat characters that you play very seriously. You're great in The Kingdom II, Lars Von Trier's Danish television series. I love the shot where you emerge from this woman's body as the devil.
Udo: I'll never forget shooting that scene. They built enormous woman's legs and I had to lie on my back inside the belly in the dark. They put all this blood and slime on my hair „ I was supposed to be a grown-up baby. When the shooting started I pushed but I couldn't get out. But I kept pushing and came out with a scream. It was improvised, but I knew it was effective.
franka: You've done a lot of movies with Lars.
Udo: We have a thirty-year contract to do a project called The Dimension. It began eight years ago. We meet every year for one day, and we shoot for three minutes. It will be completed in 2024. I'm not allowed to talk about what it is.
franka: You're talking about it right now.
Udo: But I haven't said what it is. If it's completed, you will get to see me age thirty years in ninety minutes. If I am around that long.
franka: And if you're not?
Udo: Lars has permission to film my funeral. He'll focus on one person there who will take over for me, so I won't be forgotten, so I'll live through the whole film.
franka: You appear in Lars's new film, Dogville, which just premiered at the Cannes Film Festival.
Udo: Yes. It's an ensemble work influenced by the plays of Bertold Brecht. The set is entirely abstract. Imagine a very big sound stage. The film is located in the little town of Dogville, and all the "houses" are simply marked in white chalk, like an architectural plan. All the actors are always on stage. So when the action is focused on Nicole Kidman, you can still see what Lauren Bacall is doing in her house. James Caan plays my boss. I'm his right hand man, the brain of the operation. I know it's going to be something incredible. It's totally new, like Dogma was several years ago.
franka: You're now directing and producing your own film influenced by Dogma.
Udo: I wanted to do a Dogma film because it's cheap. You have a camera, but you don't need lights because the rules don't allow it.
franka: The title is Broken Cookies. What is your role?
Udo: I play Lola Stein, a transsexual in a wheelchair who makes her living doing phone sex. I'm thinking of calling it Roll Lola Roll. I cast two real transsexuals from Santa Monica Boulevard.
franka: What does the title refer to?
Udo: When I was a child after the war I would always buy bags of broken cookies because they were cheaper.
franka: Usually directors are control freaks. Are you making your own movie so you can have complete control?
Udo: I do want creative control. We actors, when we do a movie, are at the mercy of the director and the editor and the person scoring the film. We're just a part of the final product. I wanted to be accountable for the whole thing.
franka: Nowadays you do both commercial and artistic projects.
Udo: People complain about my commercial films. When I did Barb Wire with Pamela Anderson, my friends asked, "How can you do a film with her?" But you never know. I've made movies with great actors like Timothy Hutton and Bill Pullman and they went straight to video. I've made movies where I said, "Nah, I don't like it," and they were nominated for Oscars. I've made movies where I thought, "Maybe I'll get an award," and they never came out.
franka: You have always tended to be a supporting actor.
Udo: Maybe that's better. In this industry, if you're a really big star, and you make three flops, it's very hard to ever get another movie „ they've already wasted too much money on you. But if you have a supporting part, they never blame you. How can they blame a supporting actor if the film doesn't work?