By Ema Sasic
German-born Udo Kier’s acting career has spanned five decades and more than 200 projects, but his newest film, “Swan Song,” is a milestone for him.
After taking on many supporting roles and often villainous ones, he’s the star of the show in the film written and directed by Todd Stephens. Kier plays Pat, a retired hairdresser from Sandusky, Ohio, who spends his days folding napkins and hiding cigarettes in a retirement home. One day, a lawyer tells him his former client left a provision in her will that Pat style her hair for her funeral. At first, he’s not interested, but seeing how drab his current life situation is, he embarks on a journey of self-rediscovery as he heads back to his old stomping ground and sees how the times have changed.
The legendary actor was kind enough to speak with me about his career, what made him fall in love with “Swan Song,” and what he has planned next.
Udo, it’s a pleasure to speak with you. You’ve had quite the career in hundreds of films. We don’t always get to see you in leading roles, but you’ve been making your way in some recent movies, like “Bacurau.”
I was nominated by the Seattle Film Critics Society for best villain (for “Bacurau“). I did a lot of good films, a lot of bad films. The film that was really important was “The Painted Bird” with Harvey Keitel and Stellan Skarsgård because it was an interesting story. A famous novel by (Jerzy) Kosiński, who wrote it in America. It’s about a young boy, and he’s the main actor. The parents are in a concentration camp, and they send the boy out, so he lives. The boy goes to different people to work for them, he’s ten years old, to work for them for food and so that he can sleep. I’m the miller, a generous miller, with my wife, and Harvey Keitel is a priest. It was amazing to make a film with Harvey Keitel. I never worked with him before, but we didn’t work together. We all worked with the boy.
Then came “Bacurau” and I met the director, Kleber (Mendonça Filho), and it was very funny — funny — because I went to Brazil. Everyone said, “Oh, you go to Brazil, beautiful girls, beautiful boys, a lot of parties”….uh huh. They took me to the airport and drove me five hours to the jungle and finally we arrived at the place where we shot “Bacurau.” Bacurau was a little town, and I liked it. I liked, of course, Sônia Braga, who was in one of my favorite films, “Kiss of the Spider Woman.”
How did “Swan Song” make its way to you?
Todd Stephens called, the director of “Swan Song,” and said, “Well, I’m doing a film; I would like to talk to you about it.” I said, “OK, why don’t you come to Palm Springs,” and we talked. I liked his explanation for the film, so I ended up making the film in Sandusky, Ohio.
Very different from Palm Springs.
Very different. The good thing about it was that Sandusky is a little town, and there was one big street, not too big. There was a store where we shot and where I got my suit. Across the street was a theater, so the whole street became a kind of film set because it was very low budget. We went to eat, there were restaurants, and we shot the film there.
It was amazing because of the story because it was not just the hairdresser, it was the conflict between generations, that is, an old man, played by me, who was very flamboyant like David Bowie and very well-known in that little town, then he had a heart attack, and he was offered to do hair for Linda Evans for $25,000. He says, “No, I’m retired,” but then he decides to go. It was the conflict also how the gay world was 30 years ago and how it is now.
The moment in the film when Pat goes into the gay bar on its last night before it gets turned into a pub is a perfect example of that.
UK: If you had said to me or to anybody else that one day in America, people can get married to men or women or can adopt children, I would say, “What? You must be joking!” No, it’s not a joke. That was also one of the main issues in that film, confrontation of generation. When he lived, you were sneaking into a gay bar; now, gay people go everywhere. There are no limits. If you want to go to that bar because you like it, you go in and get your drink, but that wasn’t like 30 years ago 40 or 50. That’s what “Swan Song” presented for me.
When did you film “Swan Song”? 2019?
Yes, 2019. It took a long time for the director. The music is great, lots of famous people. They did a lot of editing, they changed things around, but the result, I like it.
It’s not only a generation difference, it’s also, you follow a person. I had a few friends I showed a copy to, and they said they were crying and laughing, and that’s good. You can follow the actor in his emotions going to the graveyard, doing that, doing that, doing that, and then at the end the dancing with the chandelier on my head.
My favorite moment in the movie.
I couldn’t believe it when they told me that. Then they told me it’s going to be lit, and I said, “You must be joking.” I had electricity going on top of my head.
Nothing could go wrong, just like we saw in the movie.
Nothing, just falling down, exploding, and going to the hospital. I think it has a very strong sense of humor, which is important, and it’s like the old days. You go to a movie, and it’s not only action and cars flying through the air; you follow this old man going from folding napkins going all the way to be again doing what he’s supposed to do and then die.
I’m curious, not nervous, only curious how the audience will react. It’s also nice to see how young people will react and how older people will react.
It’s very funny from the beginning, seeing you escape the nursing home in your gray sweatpants, and you’re not looking like your usual fabulous self. Just that journey we see you on.
It’s a journey. He hitchhikes and tells a woman the whole story about his friend. She drives him to the cemetery.
It was also shooting very strong moments. Everybody understood that when we went to the cemetery, I didn’t want to see the gravestone, only when the camera was running and I’d see it for the first time. We did things like that. It was a small crew, nice and good, but not many people. At the cemetery, no one was talking to me, which I liked because I had to concentrate. The whole film is like that.
Also, what was important, I said to the director that I would like to shoot as chronological as we can. I stayed on my own in the retirement home with no camera, nobody. I stayed for a day to discover the room and bed, and corridor. We started shooting in the retirement home, then on the street and in the car. We were shooting, not all, but basically chronological so you can grow into it.
Is that what Todd Stephens also had in mind?
Of course. We had a lot of long talks about it because he wanted me to do the film, I agreed to do the film, and it was a low budget, so you have to make some compromises, but it worked very well. I was very happy doing the film.
I never watch the monitor, never. A lot of actors, when they do a scene, and it’s done, they go right away to the monitor, and I have never done that because I have a director, I trust the director. There are directors like (Rainer Werner) Fassbinder was or Lars von Trier; they would never allow the actor to see the monitor, which I think is also right not to see it because I trust the director. If the director likes it and says, that was good for me, OK. I don’t want to say, ‘I would like to do it again.” Then it becomes also technical, and I don’t like that.
We had a great time doing the film and being together all the time. There was no trailer or things like that. In the evening after work, we’d go to eat, not all, but different groups we went to eat and exchanged groups, talking a little bit the next day and then the next day we were shooting.
We shot the whole movie in 18 days.
Is that one of the shortest shoots you’ve been a part of?
I have shot films in one night. I met in Germany, we had a very good director, he died very young, Christoph Schlingensief, and I made my first film with Tilda Swinton, we made about seven films, and later on, we made one film in one night. We went in the morning and came out the next morning, and all the material was shot in black and white. Then, of course, comes the editing.
The TV show I do now, it’s for months and months. I prefer, of course, films which are done in one go and then it’s done. A TV show, of course, can never be done in one go. There are different actors, episodes, locations. Let’s see what that brings. They’re happy, and if they’re happy, I’m happy, so let’s see what’s coming because they shoot not one episode by one episode, sometimes they also shoot something already for another episode because it’s the same location.
What makes you fall in love with a certain project? You’ve been in so many genres and so many different types of roles, from the best villain to this beautiful soul that is Pat. So many different projects that you’ve done, but there must be something that draws you to them all.
First of all, I go very much by the director. If David Lynch would call me tomorrow, there’s no way I would say no. A lot of people died, like (Stanley) Kubrick, a lot of great directors. But I’ve never worked with David Lynch, I’ve never worked with (Pedro) Almodóvar, there’s a lot of directors I’d like to work with because their films are interesting. When I see a film by Almodóvar, I like the film. When I saw David Lynch’s “Lost Highway,” there was Robert Blake, and he calls Bill Pulmon, and he has little lipstick on, and he says, “I’m at your house.” I said, “Ooooh, that would have been wonderful!” Or you see a new director. I go very much, maybe every actor, by the director. They’ve made movies which I saw and said, “Wow, that is a strong, strong film.” That’s how it goes, not only for me, but every actor, and sometimes you’re lucky and have the opportunity.
In 1973, I met in an airplane a man sitting next to me, Paul Morrissey, and he wanted my telephone number. I said to him, “What do you do?” He said, “I’m for Andy Warhol; I’m the director.” A couple of weeks later, he called and said, “Hi, it’s Paul, remember the man from the plane?” I said yeah. He said, “I’m doing a film for Carlo Ponti, the husband of Sophie Loren, ‘Flesh for Frankenstein,’ and I have a little role for you.” I said, “Oh, that’s great; what do I play?” He said, Frankenstein. I thought he was joking. Then I became a vampire (“Blood for Dracula”).
Then comes in America, the point when you’re German, you have a German accent, you’ll be a Nazi or evil, which I understand, that is the way it goes. I like interesting stories, or people who have lived and their life stories if I would be fitting into that. I have nothing against commercial films like “Armageddon” playing a small part because for actors, a lot of actors, to play small parts in big movies, but it’ll be successful, you can say I was in that film, so people will maybe hire you because you were in a movie, or you’ll become a name, and then people find the money.
Maybe you can be in the next Marvel movie?
Yeah, Spiderman or something. So many bad men. I don’t know. I want to finish my show, and I don’t want to do anything for a couple of months.
Who are some of your favorite collaborators?
There are actors, believe it or not, I wouldn’t work with anymore. Not big ones. I found out over the years that the good actors, the nicest people, like Martin Landau, Bill Pullman, Michael Madsen, all these people, Willem Dafoe, I like to see him. I see him at festivals. I introduced him to Lars von Trier, and he was in a movie with Bryce Dallas Howard (“Manderlay”). Whenever I see him at a festival, we laugh together and get a drink. There are also some actors who are very insecure, but time is the sin, and I have no time to waste my time, especially when you’re turning 77. I want to have a good time.
Have you ever faced those insecurities yourself?
No. I was a lucky man. I didn’t want to be an actor, and because we didn’t have money at home, growing up with my mother, I went to London when I was 19 to learn English. I went to St. Charles School, and I was discovered. Somebody came and said they were doing a film and they wanted me to play this. I said, “I don’t know how to do that,” and they said, “Leave it up to us.” We made a film in the south of France, and the camera was always far away from me, so I was always thinking, “Why is the camera so far?” I didn’t know I was in cinemascope on the screen, and when the film came out, they wrote “The new face of cinema” and William Morris, the biggest agent contract worldwide, contacted me right away.
I liked the attention, so I decided OK, why not. I never went to acting school, but I became a professor. I have a title of teaching theory of acting in Germany because of all the films I made, I guess. So that’s how I started, and I was a lucky man. I got good roles with the best people.
You’re in one of my favorites, “Suspiria.”
I was in Munich and then I heard that Dario Argento was filming and that he wanted to meet me. I went to see him in the hotel, and he said, “I have a role, it’s not a big role, but it’s an important role because you explain stuff,” and I said OK, so I made it with Jessica Harper. Then we made a film, “Mother of Tears,” with Asia Argento in the lead. I like him (Dario), we see each other sometimes at conventions, and he signs autographs, and I sign autographs.
Have you seen the Luca Guadagnino version?
*Shakes head no*
Tilda Swinton plays your role!
When I did “Blade,” and then they offered me “Blade II,” I said no, one is OK. Somebody offered me a film, but I had been in the first one, and then Lars said to me, “You’re crazy. You’re in the original one. You want to be in the copy?” And I said you’re right. Why should I be in “Suspiria” again? I made my little man sitting on the stone in front of the BMW building in Munich with Jessica Harper.
What really sold you on Pat?
What I liked about it was first of all the director, Todd Stephens, when he was very young, he saw Pat, he didn’t know him very well. When I went to Sandusky, I met friends of his, and they told me how he smoked; that’s why I smoke like that. The real Pat was also performing in that club. I had a guideline, a little bit, not totally, and Todd wrote it very well. I like scripts that are well written so that I don’t have to invent too many things. The main thing in “Swan Song” was all there, and it was the town where he lived, the street where he walked. I walked to the old hairdresser store that he had. It’s still there.
Does it put pressure on you to play a real person and try to portray them as genuinely as you can?
The thing is, because the real Pat was very flamboyant and over the top, I didn’t want it to be that because I saw that the way the director wrote it and me playing it, I wasn’t trying to act, I was not kind of saying, “Oh, I do this big number!” It wasn’t like that. Good actors are also in it. Linda Evans is so professional. Everybody, all the actors, the woman in the thrift store, the woman in the retirement home, she doesn’t say a word, but it’s such an atmospheric scene when I do her hair and put a cigarette in her mouth. I just followed the location of the story. I made it my own, not thinking I have to be like him because he wasn’t that famous. If you play Liberace, you have a different story. He was just a hairdresser who was very flamboyant, and women loved him because they did their hair, and he went out and liked the nightlife.
First I read the script, I liked it, but I wanted to meet the director because that’s very important. Sometimes you get a good script, and you don’t get along with the director, and then why make the movie and suffer? But we got along very well, and he was very happy, and now he’s very, very happy, so am I. And I would have never thought it would be such a success. That’s not why I make movies. When you do “Blade,” there is an audience for it, but to make a little independent film for no money, for me, it’s the biggest success I’ve ever had.
Are you nervous for the world to finally see the film?
Not nervous, just curious. I saw it at SXSW, but because of the pandemic, there wasn’t really an audience. But now, here, there will be an audience.
What’s next for you?
I’m doing a TV show, but I’m not allowed to talk about what I play. It’s “Hunters” with Al Pacino. I’m going to work after the premiere. I like it. It’s a very, very big crew. I was laughing because it’s Amazon, so there are hundreds of people on the set. When I think about “Swan Song,” there was a cameraman, assistant, sound, director, and makeup, and that was it.
This year is going to be a big birthday because I like numbers. I always go by numbers. I’m born on October 14th. I’m going to be 77, 2×7 is 14, so I go all by the numbers.
So this is going to be an even bigger year.
I have one film coming out, which is an Israeli production. I shot in Columbia, it’s called “My Neighbor, Adolf,” and it’s two actors only, basically. I don’t know when it’s coming out, but now, of course, it’s all the concentration on “Swan Song.”
“Swan Song” is now playing in limited release in theaters from Magnolia Pictures and will be on VOD on August 13th.
You can follow Ema and hear more of her thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @ema_sasic