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Lifelong maverick film star goes his own way

In a cult actor extraordinaire THEO PANAYIDES meets a sleek professional whose sinister onscreen persona hardly reflects his real life, although details of that are kept thin on the ground

Udo Kier is toying with me. There’s something I wanted to ask you, I venture; “Well, ask me!” he drawls in his unreconstructed German accent, with ‘vell’ for ‘well’. He sits in the lobby of the Mediterranean Hotel in Limassol, in black top and mustard-yellow trousers, sipping a glass of white wine – “It’s the end of the festival for me, so I can relax,” he explains, a reference to his tenure as president of the jury at Cyprus Film Days – and answering questions he’s probably answered before. Your onscreen persona seems very sinister, I note politely; is it the way you talk? “Vell, I’m talking to you,” he points out. “You should make a decision.”

He’s not being hostile, just humorous – playing a role, as befits a famous star: the interviewee as diva, an hour with a male Norma Desmond (from his favourite film, Sunset Boulevard). It makes sense, I guess. For one thing, he’s just come out of the final meeting where he and his fellow jurors decided on the festival awards (Best Film went to Los Silencios by Brazilian director Beatriz Seigner), so he’s in a jaunty state of mind in general. For another, he’s been doing so many interviews lately – maybe because he’s been getting so many lifetime achievement awards, at a festival in Macau then again in Brussels and now in Cyprus. Just last week, he sat down to a long interview with The Guardian, he informs me. I find that piece (by Alex Godfrey) later, and note that he told them much the same stories he told me – but one quote seems to sum up the man, at least professionally: “When I have a part that isn’t the leading part, I want to act in a way that people remember. Otherwise, what is the point?”.

This is true, and also the reason why being (mildly) trolled by Udo Kier is an honour more than anything – not just because he’s famous but because he’s Udo Kier, cult actor extraordinaire, a man whose refined, sardonically creepy persona has graced over 200 films by some of the world’s finest filmmakers. If anything, it’d be a shock to find him chummy and forthcoming; a certain aloofness is part of his brand – a remoteness, coupled with his fathomless green eyes, that’s been used to suggest all kinds of evil and depravity. In Breaking the Waves (by Lars von Trier, with whom he’s made nine films), his character name is simply ‘Sadistic Sailor’. In this year’s Iron Sky: The Coming Race he plays a double role, Adolf Hitler and his brother, who lives on the Moon: “I played Adolf Hitler riding on a dinosaur on the Moon, and screaming ‘Hi, you motherfuckers!’ – but in German, ‘mutterficker’.”

Does he never play ordinary people? An accountant who lives in the suburbs, perhaps?

“Well, I would like to play an accountant who has a family,” he replies in his slow, measured way. “And my son is washing my car, and my wife is in the kitchen. But then at midnight I become a vampire, and I go out and kill some prostitute.”

Udo Kier knows what Udo Kier stands for – and the life story, as related in other interviews, is designed to burnish the brand, preserving an air of mystery and keeping our hero opaque, almost passive. The arc is simple enough. Born in Cologne in 1944, to a much-loved mother and a father he never met, a soldier who was already married with children (they spoke, once, on the phone when Udo was 40). Moved to England in the mid-1960s, with no thought of acting – his plan, he says, was to learn English so he could travel the world as a salesman for Bayer, the German pharmaceutical company – only to be approached by pop-star-turned-filmmaker Mike Sarne for the lead role in Road to Saint Tropez, a short film made in 1966. Instant stardom, a magazine article describing the striking-looking 22-year-old as “the most beautiful man in the world”, then a contract with the all-powerful William Morris agency. Then come those 50-plus years and 200-plus movies, everything from arthouse auteurs – not just Von Trier but Fassbinder, Herzog, Van Sant, Wenders – to the likes of Armageddon and Ace Ventura: Pet Detective; his vivid, uncanny presence works on the popcorn crowd as readily as it does on serious cinephiles.

He works hard; according to the Internet Movie Database he made seven films in 2018, two already in 2019, and has eight more awaiting completion. Why so many? “Because they all were good,” he replies implacably. I assume it also fits his lifestyle – he lives alone, in Palm Springs, in a former library designed by Swiss-born architect Albert Frey; he’s never married, or wanted children – and also speaks to some inner need for being seen. “I liked the attention,” he tells me earlier, speaking of his instant celebrity in the 60s – and it’s true, he does. Despite his rarefied manner, he seems to get a kick out of being recognised in public, and may even try to provoke it. “I was shooting a movie in Brisbane,” he tells our waitress apropos of nothing, hawking his movie-star status; “I didn’t recognise you before,” she admits apologetically when she returns with our drinks (it’s unclear if she recognises him now, or is just acknowledging the air he exudes of a person one ought to recognise). Later, he startles some random stranger who sits down next to us by breaking off to greet him cordially; the stranger just stares in bewilderment, clearly more of a Game of Thrones fan.

What do people know him from, usually?

“The commercial ones, of course. Blade, Ace Ventura… I don’t expect that people know Lars von Trier’s films, or Wim Wenders or Herzog, because they’re very artistic.”

Why should ‘artistic’ be a dirty word?

Udo pauses, looking at me shrewdly. “Well, you said that. I didn’t say that. ‘Artistic’ is my life.”

Now we’re getting somewhere – and indeed, that appears to be a big part of why Udo Kier works so hard, using his celebrity as a force for good. He’s always ready (he says) to lend his talents to some up-and-coming filmmaker doing original work, often just on the strength of meeting at a festival and clicking creatively. His CV is wildly eclectic; he once spent a whole year in Budapest making Narcissus and Psyche (1980), a four-hour poetic masterpiece which he singles out as his most underrated movie. Despite his many roles in horror films – he’s forever being cast as a vampire or witch-hunter – his heart beats for art, and not just cinematic art; like another actor who specialised in villains, Dennis Hopper, he’s a serious collector. “I like modern art, I know more about modern art than movies. All my life I’ve collected – not only because of Andy Warhol, I collected before. Man Ray, Magritte, Giacometti.” Udo knew Warhol well, and made two films (playing Frankenstein and Dracula) for his close collaborator Paul Morrissey; he’s also been friendly with Robert Mapplethorpe – who took pictures of him – and David Hockney and Alekos Fassianos, both of whom painted his portrait.

Celebrity friends make frequent appearances. I ask if he’s worried about turning 75 this year, but he shrugs blithely. Benedikt Taschen of Taschen Books, one of his closest chums, will probably throw him a party, he muses: “For my birthday when I was 70, I got the Rolling Stones book signed by the four Rolling Stones. I don’t know what I’ll get at 75”. Names are dropped as a kind of shield, warding off tricky questions – yet the craving for art, and artists, isn’t just skin-deep; he clearly appreciates his ‘artistic’ directors and seeks out that kind of imaginative genius, even if the films are weird or uncommercial. Talent is easy to spot, says Udo, “because they do the unexpected… If I see somebody who wants to be an artist, and he sits in a corner with a little wooden car and he’s painting the little wooden car, I know there is talent. Because it’s not a normal thing”.

‘Normal’ is for accountants living in the suburbs. “Who cares about people who are good people?” he notes with a hint of mischief. “Who cares about these people, when making a movie?” The much-misunderstood Von Trier is a close friend (Udo is godfather to his first child) – and there may be a basic shyness to Udo Kier, as there is with the prickly Dane. He prides himself on never having approached a director for work (they come to him), yet his policy seems rooted in social anxiety more than anything: “Imagine if you say to David Lynch ‘I would like to work with you’ and he answers ‘Who doesn’t?’. I would go under the table [with embarrassment]!”. I get a sense that he thrives on creative relationships even more than ‘normal’ ones, and tries to treat the latter as the former whenever possible. “I gave you an hour of my life,” he mock-grumbles at the end of our interview, playing the diva again.

“It’s more than I deserve,” I reply, trying to play along.

“Well, that was the wrong answer!” chuckles Udo – and it’s all quite good-natured, but I see his point. He doesn’t want humility and deference, he wants to be challenged. For want of a better word, he wants art.

What about his life in Palm Springs? I suppose the house is very beautiful?

“How dare you ask me a question like that?” he exclaims, trolling again. “What do you think, I live in a barrack? Or in a container? My house is beautiful.”

It sounds like he appreciates beauty in general.

“Well, of course…” he shrugs. “That is a normal thing, because it gives you pleasure. Why should I depress myself with something horrible?”

The house is in the desert, a long way from Cologne both literally and metaphorically. (Despite the thick accent, he hasn’t lived in Germany for decades.) Udo lives alone, though he has “a very good friend who helps me,” he explains vaguely. “I’m a gardener. I have many properties in the desert. I plant trees with my own hands, without gloves, because I don’t care if my hands are bleeding. I rescue animals. I collect furniture from the mid-century.” He also has a life-sized plastic horse called ‘Max Von Sydow’, he adds with trademark irreverence, employing Max as a background prop “when I take pictures for magazines, as a cowboy”. Joking aside, though, this quiet outdoor life clearly speaks to him – albeit mostly as a brief respite from his many acting jobs. “I’m happy. Nobody can take that away from me. I’m happy and I do – what – I – want!” adds Udo Kier, stressing each word separately. “Nobody tells me what to do.”

Maybe that’s the key, in the end (also harking back to what he told me earlier about his mum, that she “let me do with my life what I wanted to do”). Maybe that’s the best description of the man, as a lifelong maverick going his own way – the equivalent of the artist sitting in a corner with a little wooden car – prizing beauty and originality and forever on the lookout for other mavericks, his slight remoteness and playful joshing air (like the creepy, cult-movie roles he likes to play) being the defence mechanisms of a private person with a sociable streak. The other Cyprus Film Days jurors seem to love him, and he surely couldn’t make so many films unless he was good with people – but it’s also true, despite the many interviews, that details of his private life are scarce, beyond what he himself keeps repeating. “I just came out with that, I’ve never said that in my life,” he remarks at one point – implicitly admitting that the rest of what he tells me is mostly recycled.

Almost time to go. I scan my notes quickly, and notice an unticked question: “One last thing,” I plead.

“Okay,” he replies – then goes back to playing: “Wait, wait. It better be a good one.”

I think it is.

“Vell, I decide!” he says sternly. “Tell me.”

He makes so many movies. He had one at the multiplex last month (Dragged Across Concrete) and has one in the Cannes line-up this month (Bacurau). How does he decide what to do?

“People find me,” he replies with a shrug. “It’s like – I’ll say something I’ve never said, new,” he offers, as if granting me an exclusive – “it’s like a magnet who goes around, and the magnet only attracts the things that he is interested in”. Udo nods, the green eyes amused. “People say: ‘He works with all these directors, what does he have? What’s so special about him?’. I say: ‘Nothing. You get what you see’.” Fortunately, what you see is – or was – the most beautiful man in the world.

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