Udo Kier: Germany’s movie maestro on making the jump to Hollywood leading man

After five decades and 275 credits, the 'Swan Song' star is racking up awards for a rare Hollywood lead role

Udo Kier is a talker. This is something that quickly becomes apparent in our phone conversation when NME chats with him from his Palm Springs home. Each question put to the German actor, inevitably spawns a long, highly entertaining answer as he recounts one of his many stories from five decades in the industry, during which he’s established himself as one of the most versatile character actors of his generation.

With Swan Song, Kier finally graduates to leading man status (in an American movie). He stars as Mr Pat Pitsenbarger, a retired hairdresser who escapes his Ohio nursing home in order to fulfil one last request: styling the hair of a former client for her funeral. It’s a tender performance that’s been deservedly winning plaudits at each festival the film has played at. And on the eve of its UK release (June 10), Kier is still on cloud nine.

Hi Udo, how did this film come to you?

“I got a script from Todd Stevens [the writer and director], and I read it twice. I liked the story of somebody who goes back to his past. We spent an afternoon together, and then I even did a little crowdfunding. That was the beginning of the movie. And when I got to Ohio to start filming, I said I would like to live in the retirement home for a couple of days on my own. I just wanted to enjoy my bed and the room and get used to it.“

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You shot this movie in chronological order. How helpful was that in crafting your performance?

“I would like to do that [more in the future], but it is not possible. When you make a big movie, there is one location and that location has been shown about four or five times. I have made movies in my life where I started with the end of the movie, and then when we finished filming I’d ask if we could shoot the ending again, because now I know how to get there. When you build a house, you can’t start with the roof! You have to have a strong foundation first.”

How else did Swan Song differ from your other movies?

“As an actor, when you work like me for 60 years, you know exactly how to look a certain way to get the right effect, but I didn’t do that on this film. Our whole street became our working place. So there was the thrift store where I get my green suit in the movie, and across the thrift store there was the theatre where I’m on stage. And the bar shows up in the movie too. I went there when we weren’t filming to have some Chardonnay and the barman called me Pat! I hadn’t done a movie in that way. [The director] Lars Von Trier’s favourite line is “try not to act”. And on this movie I became real.“

Swan Song is a love letter to a generation of gay men, like yourself, who weren’t afraid to be out at a time when it was dangerous to be so. What do you make of where we are currently with gay people in cinema?

“People asked me when I started doing interviews, don’t you think only gay actors should play gay parts? I said you must be joking. When you see the film Brokeback Mountain, the actors are not gay. But the performances are so amazing that I believed them. And that is important. I think that the sexuality of an actor doesn’t have anything to do with the quality of acting.”

Udo Kier
Udo Kier in ‘Swan Song’. CREDIT: Peccadillo Pictures

Swan Song is also a film about legacy. Did it make you reflect on your own legacy at all?

“I’ve made around 220 films. And I always say that 100 films are bad, 50 films you can enjoy with some good wine, and 50 films are good. Films aren’t good because of me as an actor. It’s the lighting, the director, the music, the script. There’s so many elements that all need to come together. That’s why I have more fun in independent films with [filmmakers like] Lars Von Trier and Gus Van Sant.”

How did you come to work with Gus Van Sant?

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“Gus discovered me for America. I met him in Berlin and the young man came and said, ‘Hello, my name is Gus. I have made a film for $20,000, which is here at the film festival in Berlin. But my next film is with Keanu Reeves and River Phoenix, and it’s called My Own Private Idaho. I want you to be in it.’ I thought he was joking, but he wasn’t. He got me the work permit and everything for America. And I made my first American film, came back for the premiere, and I stayed. That was 30 years ago.”

What’s next for Udo Kier then?

“I have made films I’ve never even seen, because sometimes I didn’t have a good time making the movie. I couldn’t even count down most of my films. But I have a good life. And after Swan Song, I’ve gotten many offers. But I don’t want to work at the moment. I have a lot of things to do in my garden. There’s a range 22 minutes away from my house. And I continue to collect art, which I’ve done all my life. So everything is fine.”

‘Swan Song’ is out in UK cinemas today (June 10)

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