His job description is simple: get call from Quentin Tarantino, turn up, steal film, collect Academy Award. OK, there’s a little bit more to it than that, but when this little-known actor leapt from the world of German TV films to make Brad Pitt look like an extra in Inglourious Basterds, he made the acting lark appear rather easy. And he’s done it again, this time walking away with his second supporting actor Oscar for his role as bounty-hunting ex-dentist King Schultz in Django Unchained. We went in search of a masterclass.
Did you have to audition for the part of Schultz?
No I didn’t. I think Quentin now knows me very well, and unless he wants to find out something that he doesn’t know, he wouldn’t have me audition.
Did you have any concerns about the film’s subject matter? Because there were one or two dissenting voices…
I don’t think it was dissenting. Everybody fails to mention the fact that Spike Lee said he didn’t see the movie. So how important is his statement?
Were any of the scenes hard to film?
I’m less romantic about these things. They are hard to shoot, but they are hard to shoot, in my modest opinion, for technical reasons. The hardest thing about a whipping is not to hurt anybody. Yes, the emotional impact, that’s in a way what an actor does. The connotations – they’re up to you.
When you first came to the US as a young man, did you encounter prejudice because of your nationality?
I was introduced to Paul Kohner years ago, who was the most powerful agent in the Thirties. He was at the end of his career and I was at the beginning of my career – he actually knew my grandfather. He said, “Of course I can do something for you in Hollywood, that’s not the problem. You have to ask yourself, do you want to spend the rest of your life walking through the background yelling ‘Heil Hitler’?” And that was probably the most valuable thing he said to me. I said no, thank you, and went back to Europe.
You went to the Lee Strasberg Theatre And Film Institute where you learned ‘the method’. Do you still utilise that?
It’s like, do you still make goulash with red onions or have you moved on to white onions? It’s not like that. It’s more media, something to talk about because somehow we all want to be experts in everything. On the contrary – you should exercise the right not to be an expert because you’re the audience, it’s made for you. You don’t have to claim to understand, so we don’t have to talk about method or Lee Strasberg. Come on, it’s all academic.
So that’s a yes, then.
Yes, it’s important when you start out to learn a tangible craft and you do start at one specific end of it. Painters have done it throughout history. They became apprentices with routines, and then they moved into the workshop and they did all the leaves and then they did all the animals and then sooner or later they did their own. So that school business, the method, what is it?
On a less academic front, how did you get on with the horse in the film?
I didn’t get on with the first one at all, or he with me. And the getting off was the thing that was rather dramatic. But then I had two others and they were lovely. They were both playing Fritz, but they had completely different temperaments. One was very quiet – you could sit on him for a day and he wouldn’t move. The other was more lovely but he had a nicer gait, so you used them for whatever is necessary.
What happened when you tried to get off the first one?
I didn’t get off, he got rid of me.
Django Unchained is released on DVD and Blu-ray on 20 May
(Image: Rex Features)