Although Christoph Waltz has been working as an actor since the early 1980’s, he was relatively unknown to American audiences before his Academy Award-winning performance as Hans Landa in Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglorious Basterds.” Waltz’s elevated status catapulted him into a string of Hollywood releases in 2011 that including “The Green Hornet,” “Water for Elephants” and “The Three Musketeers.” But it is Waltz’s smallest role, as Alan Cowan in Roman Polanski’s “Carnage,” for which the actor is drawing his greatest acclaim since ‘Basterds.’
Based on the play by “God of Carnage” by Yasmina Reza, Waltz is Alan Cowan, a prominent attorney and the husband of Nancy (Kate Winslet). The couple is called to the house of Michael (John C. Reilly) and Penelope Longstreet (Jodie Foster) after the sons of the two couples get into a skirmish at school. The entire film takes place with the Longstreet’s spacious Manhattan apartment.
The Playlist spoke with Waltz recently about his experience on the project and what it was like to work with the great Roman Polanski. Here are some highlights from our discussion.
Alan Cowan is a lawyer that lives and dies by his Blackberry. Regardless of what he’s got going on in front of him, the gadget’s ring always takes priority. Polanski builds this annoying trait to a beautiful fever pitch. Much like the other characters of “Carnage,” audience members will be dying to smack the phone from Cowan’s ear. “Everybody finds Alan so obnoxious for talking on the phone,” Waltz told The Playlist. “Well he’s got something more important going on than that. If it’s more important to him, what can you say? So why be condescending and judgmental? We’ve all been in that situation. I’ll tell you why, it’s because it relieves us of our own discomfort. It’s easier to pass judgment on someone else than question your own behavior, so that’s where the laughter in this comedy is coming from.”
Waltz recently found himself in a similar situation, guilty of the same behavior as Alan. “I was recently in a situation where I was invited for dinner. It was two days before I was supposed to fly here and I still didn’t have my flight and I still didn’t know where to go. So I was at dinner and I kept getting these calls and everybody at the dinner knew the play. As these phone calls came in which I always answered because I needed to know what plane to board and all that, there would be another comment and it became like a running gag that evening.”
Over the years, many actors have spoken about Polanski’s exacting standards on set. For Waltz, it was a perfect match. “He knows exactly what he wants and I admire that in a director,” the actor said. “I admire Roman Polanski from A to Z. He made his first movie before I was born and he’s kept it up for this long. There’s a lot to be said for that. You can’t argue with him. He’s right. After 60 years of making movies, how could you possibly not insist on what it is that you want? And this is paired with an extraordinary talent and an inside knowledge of the process of making movies. He’s completely with it. I loved that precision, his obsession with details.”
Polanski also kept Waltz on his toes. “He did not let you get away with shortcuts and that helps me. I do take shortcuts some of the time because I’m a lazy bum. But he kind of catches you doing it before you even start up. It’s fantastic.”
Finding that perfect chemistry between two actors is a rare commodity, much less four. But the collective chemistry of this cast is crucial to the success of “Carnage.” “From a chemical point of view, he put the ingredients of this brew together,” Waltz says of Polanski’s casting. “He knew why he chose these people for very specific reasons. He was the chemist who mixed that concoction and it was a fabulous cocktail, really a dream situation.”
“[We had] two weeks of rehearsals just like in the theater. We did run-throughs after eight days, the whole play from A to Z. There were days in rehearsal where we did two run-throughs, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. It’s not that big of a piece and since it’s all in one room and everybody’s there all of the time, you can do it. So we knew the stuff he wanted to do before the first setup was ever started. It’s an ideal situation. It’s a very rare luxury to start the first shot with having done the end already.”
Becoming The Character, Alan Cowan
Waltz says much of the Cowan character was on the page in Reza’s writing. Polanski also gave his own guidance and, during the intensive rehearsal period, the actor was able to boil his character down to the essentials. “It’s not really that academic,” says Waltz. “Sometimes I think acting and drama teachers are so full of it because they claim its so mysterious. Then, on the other hand, I say well how would you teach that without making some of it mystifying or blowing it a little up or giving it importance? Because the disillusioning down to earth nitty gritty situations are inevitable anyway. But after a few years, you understand that yes it is this wonderful process, but it’s also very straight forward, very down to Earth. You go through the play bit by bit, you stumble with your lines, you try again. You want to practice something mechanically because you need a certain fluidity, you come up with something new, you fight something, you contradict. You try out. That’s what rehearsal is all about.”
“Carnage” opens in New York and Los Angeles December 16th, 2011.