I Die With Open Eyes: Udo Kier on Iron Sky
Whether you know his name or not, you’ve likely seen Udo Kier. The striking German actor has performed in over 200 film projects since the 1960s, and has worked with such famous directors as Lars Von Trier, Rainer Fassbinder, Werner Herzog, Andy Warhol, and even Michael Bay. He has played cartoon voices, made commercials, and worked on stage. He has played a vampire many times. His most recent role is as a Nazi commander living on the moon in the campy sci-fi action film Iron Sky, which is to be released on home video on Tuesday.
The talkative Kier was kind enough to sit down with CraveOnline and shoot the breeze about Iron Sky, about his love of indie films, about his early career with Fassbinder, his utter hatred of the audition process, and his habit of playing vampires in films like Blade and Dracula. Herr Kier also kindly reveals a few details about his unfinished directorial debut Broken Cookies.
CraveOnline: Many of my friends have been looking forward to Iron Sky. In many ways this is the most “mainstream” film you’ve done it a while. Melancholia was a big hit, but you haven’t done a big action film for a while. Have you turned your back on the Hollywood “establishment” to do smaller movies?
Udo Kier: The thing is that Iron Sky – I like the way you say it: “big film.” It is a big film, and it’s a modern film, and it has a lot to do with the internet. I went to see the movie in America. The premiere was in Berlin, and it sold out in three cinemas, and I was laughing a lot because I hadn’t seen the film. I don’t like the word “independent,” but I like the films, I like to work in the smaller productions because you have more creative freedom. Not like when you have in a studio films, like your Blades or you Armageddons, it’s so big, there’s no room for being creative. You have your script, you have your textbook villain, okay, goodbye! But in a film with Lars [Von Trier, director of Melancholia], I’m doing also his next film, I’m going to Europe soon to do Nymphomania with a great cast, it’s more fun! It’s like – imagine this. A lot of actors like this very much. When we did Dogville, we were set up in a little hotel – a nice hotel – in the evening and have dinner with Lauren Bacall, Ben Gazzara, James Caan, Nicole Kidman, Chloë Sevigny, Stellan Skarsgård, myself and all nice conversations. We all have the same trailer. We all get the same money. We all get the same car. Nicole Kidman doesn’t get more money than me! And that makes people – all of a sudden – what they really are. Real actors. Doing what they really want to do.
And, of course I like Hollywood, because a film is shadows and light, and shadows are longer in Hollywood. I like the whole thing. To become a part of this machinery. But still, I live in America now – I guess since My Own Private Idaho, Gus Van Sant discovered me for America – and I stayed ‘til now. And now I think I’m here 24 years; I don’t remember when I did My Own Private Idaho. And I’m still going. I’m doing a lot of films. Like last year I did seven films! I played the pope in The Borgias, I played Béla Bartók in a Turkish film, I played in a Chinese film, I made a film with Isabella Rosellini and James Patrick for Guy Maddin. And this year, I was in Paris, and Guy Maddin wants to make 100 short films. We started in Paris, we made 12 – the whole project is called Lost Films – and every day I was a different character.
You’re in all 100 shorts?
I don’t know how many I’ll be. I know the next section is in Canada. Then New York, the Museum of Modern Art. And then, I sing Los Angeles. And they will be for the internet, for everybody. Basically, four minute films. And for an actor, for me, it was an amazing exercise, because being a different character every day! I was one day a Japanese man with a long, long thin mustache, or I was a pimp. Every day a different character. And lost films. There are lots of German lost films, because of the Nazis, and there were stories still there, so Guy Maddin recreated four minute films out of the stories. They’re like long trailers of four minutes, and that’s what I did this year. Great great co-stars. My favorite was Geraldine Chaplin. And Charlotte Rampling. And we had a great time doing all these films with a lot of French actors.
When you get older, and you lose the ambition of being everywhere at the same time, then you become more concentrated, and you see better. You see better your surroundings, and you prefer to work with others. Like Guy Maddin in Paris, or you go to a premiere, or you sit on a jury; I was in Munich and sat on a jury at a film fest. I like to be on a jury because you see films more intensive. Because you have to. Because you have to judge them. And secondly, you see films from India or Taiwan that you will never see them otherwise, if you weren’t at a festival.
So I’m enjoying life at the moment! I live in Palm Springs. I bought a farm 45 minutes away from here. I’m the happiest person. And they’re planting trees, and I get to watch the animals which are there. There are rabbits and birds and things moving around. And people offer me films, and if I like it, I do it. Even though I get offered films sometimes where they offer me a lot of money, and then I have to do it, and I think about another property. But every actor does this (I will not mention any names). There is no formula to make good movies, otherwise there would be only good movies. I’m a lucky person. I’m very lucky to have worked with people like Lars Von Trier, or Fassbinder, or Gus, just to name a few, and now Timo [Vuorensola, the director of Iron Sky] I’m sure I will do with Timo many films, because I really like his sense of humor. I have a very black, dry sense of humor.
You mentioned people offered you films. I’ve heard that you hate auditioning. Are you offered all your parts, or do you still have to audition?
I did audition when I came to America 22 years ago. For example, I saw in IMDb just last week there are 132 clips of mine. So there’s all the film there already. Modern technology makes it possible… Auditions, I… no… I think I cannot describe what you feel. I did my last audition, because I really wanted the part, I didn’t want to do it but they forced me, for Batman, the Christopher Nolan one. And I regret that I went there, because – it was horrible. Horrible! Just horrible! You say hello, you meet with somebody there, and then you read a scene. And, they must have something in their mind of what they want, obviously. And they got what [they] want, because Batman was a big success. And I haven’t seen it, and I don’t know what I could have played in that film. But audition in general is something I don’t like. I did an audition, and I start going in a room, and I start reading, and I looked at the people and said “You know what? I think I’m wrong for the role. Bye bye. Good luck for your film.” It’s like audition is something that – no, no. And actors have to do it! For me, it’s like I’m 67 now. I’ve made many movies. Many bad movies, but also some very good ones. If I go to do an audition, it’s an insult. If somebody wants to see me for coffee and see how I look, talk to me, see how I think, that’s fine. But to play something? Of course I know how to play something. So audition is horrible.
Now it’s like, you see people I’ve worked with for so many years like Lars Von Trier, of course I get to comment on the script. Or now I have to read a script tonight, for a director I’ve worked with before like Robert [Parigi], if I read it, I like it and we start talking. Or if I get a script and they want my input, I might have an idea. Because it’s such a process. I like to do interesting films, and the most important thing is I want to have a good time. I mean not a party time. I want to feel good. I want to go home in the evening after filming all day, and I want to feel good. And I want to eat with the actors and the director, be together and talk about the next day. That’s it! In America, I don’t like that word Hollywood. I’ve lived in Los Angeles, I lived in Echo Park, I don’t live in Hollywood. When you say “Hollywood,” people think you have training sessions with Arnold Schwarzenegger, and you have tea with John Collins. When you say “I live in Hollywood!” I live in Los Angeles, and yeah.
I like – don’t get me wrong, I like big Hollywood productions! I regret that I was not in the film Interview with the Vampire. And I regret that I wasn’t in Mulholland Drive playing Mr. Black’s part. I like big productions! But my heart is really with films where you have creative freedom.
Not to start any gossip, but did you have any bad experiences that put you off larger productions?
No. No. Like Armageddon was wonderful. Michael Bay called me. We made two commercials together before. And he said, you play the psychiatrist, and I’ll give you all my stars for one hour. One hour with Udo Kier, all improvisation, and you have to decide whether they go to the meteor or not. In the big film, I always had a good time. On Blade. Even on End of Days with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Gabriel Byrne, I had a good time playing opposite the Devil. No I never had a bad experience. I don’t even know how I would react!
You’ve played many, many different kinds of roles, but many people seem to know you as either a vampire, or perhaps a Nazi…
No, no, no. Wait. Wait. I was only a Nazi in Rob Zombie’s film Werewolf Women of the SS. Not before that.
I was referring to Iron Sky.
I know you like playing a vampire, but do you mind being typecast as a vampire?
No. When I did my first two films, Frankenstein and Dracula, I got a lot of offers after that, and I said no, because I didn’t want to be the new Christopher Lee or something. So I did not do this. But I like it! Like I said, I would have loved to have been in Interview with the Vampire, but it’s fun. Because it’s fantasy people. Fantasy people, Dracula. A friend of mine gave me a script where we’re all flying around – not in 3D – and you can let your fantasy totally run wild if you play Dracula. Because your presence alone is already very strange. As for Nazis, I never played a role with serious and real evil intentions. I never played a Nazi, but only in comedies. Black comedies. And also Iron Sky. I have no… maybe it has an ironical political message. If you want to see a message, you see a message everywhere. But if you just relax and see this as a kind of bunch of crazy people, like a crazy professor, who works in the Götterdammerung [the central spacecraft in Iron Sky], and you have the rival, you have the fraulein, the beautiful fraulein. I had so much fun when I saw the movie. Not only where we shot the movie – because it was all a greenscreen in a studio in Australia. And the director, I’m sure he will make a couple of very wonderful movies because… if ten million people knock on his trailer, he will answer ten million times. He has a fan club all over the world. And I’m happy to be part of that. We’ll be doing his next film together. But I’m not playing a Nazi! I play a scientist. But not a Nazi.
You mentioned politics. Iron Sky is, perhaps broadly, a political movie. Did you discuss the film’s politics at all? Was it something you saw going in?
Of course! I mean the title alone! “Nazis on the moon. We come in peace.” [laugh] You know already, when the uniforms, there’s power play involved, there is an attack involved on America to destroy. But it is kind of… it’s like a game! I made a game years ago many years ago that was very successful called Red Alert 2. It’s a video game. Yuri’s Revenge. It was a video game, and all these things flying through the air – of course it’s about power! It’s about power and uniforms. But it’s not political. They don’t say “we are better. We are going to rule the world.” They say it, but with kind of a little smile. I get asked this question many times, and people react just I like react. They say “You play a Nazi leader on the moon,” I would say “What?” Let’s say there’s no political influential message. No one is saying, with their finger in the air, “You have to do that. We are better,” and all that. That’s not there. I was laughing at the premiere, from the beginning to the end. And I did not feel ashamed that I was the leader on the moon.
When I saw the movie – I saw the movie in Los Angeles five days ago – the only thought I had was that I should have lived a little bit longer. But that’s always. You have to die sometimes in a film to make room for the next people who want the power and to lead. Where did you see the movie?
[Embarrassed] I just saw it at home.
You should see it on the big screen! Because the sound effects and all that is really overwhelming. The special effects. If you think about the special effect being done in a studio in Finland, and it doesn’t look any less good than Steven Spielberg or George Lucas. It looks just amazing.
I prefer to see movies in theaters, of course. I was looking around online, and I found that you had directed a film called Broken Cookies, but I couldn’t find any information on it. Could you tell me about it?
Of course there isn’t any information about it. I wanted one day to do something, and, as I have played so many kind of strange characters, I decided to do Broken Cookies: Lola Stein. I started shooting, that was the condition, 2000 New Year’s Eve, I was in a wheelchair in front of the Hollywood sign. That was when we started shooting. And the idea was about playing a transsexual in a wheelchair who lives from telephone sex. I cast all transsexuals in wheelchairs – real transsexual in real wheelchairs – in Hollywood from the streets, and I was the leader of a club called "Outsiders on Wheels." And then I started shooting the movie, and after one week I realized I had too much on my shoulders, being the producer, the director, the actor, the costumes. Everything. And I stopped. Otherwise, it would have ruined me financially. Because it was all my doing. So I had to stop. But I had that experience. I have a trailer of it. Maybe I should put it the internet. A very funny trailer. With all the girls. And, yeah. That was my kind of director’s debut. And I stopped after a week. The title Broken Cookies came from when I was a young boy. My mother went with her friend on a motorbike, and they gave me one German mark, and for one German mark, I could – instead of buying some little perfect cookies, I bought a big bag of broken cookies. Because I got much more if they were in little pieces! That’s where the title came from.
Do you think you’ll ever finish it?
I don’t know. Maybe when I really have to sit in a wheelchair. [laugh] If reality runs after me, then maybe. Maybe then I’ll have somebody shoot it, and I’ll use the old material as a flashback. I have no idea. I never have any idea. I don’t program things a long time ahead. I don’t live in the past either. I live now. And tomorrow, and what’s going on on my next film. My next film is Nymphomania, we’ll see what that brings. Then we’re shooting in Cologne, where I was born, see a few friends. And that’s it.
You famously worked in his early years with the famous German filmmaker Rainer Wernrer Fassbinder, but it took you many years before you worked with his equally famous peer Werner Herzog, who started making movies at about the same time in Germany. Why didn’t you work with Herzog earlier?
I tell you. There was in Germany at that period called “Film Falag de Autoren,” which means "Club for Authors of Films." There was Wim Wenders, Herzog, Alexander Kluge, and Fassbinder. And I belonged to the group of Fassbinder. I knew Fassbinder when he was 15, and I was 15 ½. And I met him in Cologne, in the working-class part, so we went back a long time. But we didn’t work right from the beginning, he did a lot of theater work. And then he made his first films. And I came later to it. So I belong to Fassbinder. And the Fassbinder group could never go to Herzog. Because Herzog had Klaus Kinski and other actors, and the Fassbinder group has Bruno Ganz, so we could not exchange. Because we would have been spies. If I had been with Fassbinder, and I went to work with Herzog, and then came back in the evening to our place where all the actors for Fassbinder were, they would ask “How was it?? How does he direct??” So we couldn’t do that. And not the other way around. Fassbinder never took anybody from Herzog. He never worked with Klaus Kinski. And then when Fassbinder unfortunately died very young, then I worked with Wim Wenders. Then I worked with Herzog. Twice. The last time was My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? in San Diego. And that was the reason why. Because we would have been spies. That’s why Fassbinder never used any from Herzog or Wim Wenders.
You were separated into camps.
Exactly. I don’t like to use the word “family” because I never had one. But we were a group. I was in the Fassbinder group. Sometimes I was the director’s assistant. Sometimes, for Lola, I did the sets when there wasn’t a role for me in there.
You’ve been in many horror movies. You’ve died many times. What was your favorite on-screen death?
My favorite death… My favorite death was in Dracula when Joe Dallesandro put the wooden stake through my heart. First he cut my legs off, then my arms off, and I’m just kind of a legless, armless body. [Laughs] And he puts a stake in, and there’s blood on my face. I think that was the most romantic one. I make sure to always talk to the director, so that I die with open eyes. Otherwise, I’m just boring. But at least I’m still there with open eyes when I’m dead.
Greet death with open eyes. I like that.
What was the first record you bought with your own money?
With my own money? The first one was "Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band" by The Beatles. It was the first I bought because I love the cover, which was really a great cover. And I was 20 or 19. That was the first music that came. The Rolling Stones was the second. I mean, I had music before, but none I bought myself. I had a record player, but that was the first record.