Christoph Waltz brings villainous charm to 'Big Eyes'

Roger Moore
Tribune News Service

'The most cruel dictators are usually, in private, quite charming people," purrs Christoph Waltz in that gloriously precise, Oscar-winning Austrian accent. Not that he'd know. He's not met any, or played a dictator in a movie — yet. But give him time.

In just a couple of years, Waltz has become the cinema's go-to villain. Quentin Tarantino unleashed him on the world with "Inglourious Basterds," for which Waltz won an Oscar. Then "Django Unchained" earned him another. He smiled to hide a violent streak in "Water for Elephants," grinned and stabbed Jason Bateman, Jason Sudeikis and Charlie Day in the back in "Horrible Bosses 2."

He's to be the heavy in the next Bond picture, "Spectre." And he's alternately charming and abusive to America's Sweetheart, Amy Adams, in "Big Eyes." So he knows a little something about the villain's point of view.

"You need to consider the whole, and his role in the story," Waltz says. "You can't say 'I want Walter Keane (in 'Big Eyes') or whoever to be this and that.' Maybe he has some interesting evil aspects, but if those aspects don't serve the story, it doesn't make any sense in this context."

Walter Keane is depicted as a hustler who "rescued" painter Margaret Keane (Adams) in "Big Eyes"; a man who charms his way into her life, discovers the novelty in her "big eyed waif" paintings and markets them to fame and glory. It's just that he stole the credit for the works as he did.

"His charm, his charismatic and attractive traits are very important to the story," Waltz says. "If he's just an ogre, you think 'Margaret is just a plain idiot to fall for that.' You want to be on her side. You want to understand what she sees in him. And you want to identify with her and not just be scared off, as in a horror movie. That charm and attraction is how these characters go about their business in real life."

"Real life" is of no concern to Waltz, even when he's playing a real person. The real Keane actually could paint and the chronology of the Walter and Margaret story is seriously compressed in Tim Burton's "Big Eyes." Waltz is all about the script, "the world the screenplay" creates for the film.

"I'm not saying I refuse to think further than the script. But I like to think INTO the script rather than AWAY from the script. Sometimes, detours are helpful. But I like to bring the discussion of a character back to what the actual job is — the screenplay, by the screenwriter...

"A life is not really a story. The screen writer, one could say, distorts a life into the shape of a movie. Hitchcock said 'What is drama but life with the dull bits cut out?' "

Waltz is famously blunt in interviews, griping about how Johnny Depp keeps getting the musical roles Waltz craves. A lyric baritone, he's directed opera in Europe and loves to sing. But nobody in Hollywood has asked. There's an art critic in him too, it would seem. Margaret Keane's paintings? He remembers them from Austria and Germany during the '60s.

"Kitsch postcards, really, not real art. I remember very well how ubiquitous they were. They were everywhere. Just not in galleries and museums — like Norman Rockwell, only not as well-painted. So you'd see these ... on calendars you got for free from your bank manager once you had more than $1,500 in your account — not art."

And "Big Eyes" as commentary on the American contemporary art scene?

"In America, it's about whatever you can turn into money," Waltz says. "I think the art world here, as depicted in the movie, is not so much embracing 'the new' for novelty's sake as embracing 'the new' for mercantile purposes. So, money has a different importance in America than in Europe."

That cynicism serves Waltz well in film after film, especially in "Big Eyes." Even in what Forbes critic Scott Mendelson calls "a grandiose showboating turn" the actor insists that we "see the fakery in every hard sell and the underlying shame of a man who thought we would be great but only achieved success on the (not-entirely-willing) back of his wife."

In person, Waltz can be a fascinating raconteur, waxing eloquent on the rapidly evolving San Francisco of the late '50s to early '60s that Burton's film recreates ("Humankind was still striving for enlightenment in the '60s, especially in San Francisco. Unfortunately, that's gone away."), on co-star Amy Adams ("She may be America's Sweetheart and have big eyes, but ... she's so practical, so to the point ... unpretentious. There's none of that superfluous sideways motion that sometimes gets in the way, you know, because people are 'stars.' "