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20 Q&As: Udo Kier

In the new 20th Anniversary Issue of Dazed & Confused, we interviewed the German actor while Columbine Goldsmith shot this silent film for us

Udo Kier is the German actor whose piercing stare and decadent persona has made him the muse of some of the leading arthouse film directors of our time – Fassbinder, Lars von Trier (he has appeared in all but two of von Trier’s films), Gus Van Sant, Dario Argento and Guy Maddin have all used him as the go-to guy for something dark and different. The first to spot his unique talents was Warhol, however. His smouldering physical presence may have been what initially caught the eye of Warhol collaborator Paul Morrissey (Trash), who cast a 21-year-old Kier as the lead in Warhol’s Frankenstein and Dracula movies after meeting him on a plane, but it was Kier’s versatility, and his appreciation for both high and lowbrow, that earned him lifelong cult status.

You may not think you know his work, but chances are you’ve seen him as a vaudevillian gay man in My Own Private Idaho, a vampire overlord in Blade, a creepy doctor in Dancing In The Dark, a camp baddie in Barb Wire, or a debonaire mystic in Madonna’s video “Deeper and Deeper” (he was also featured in her erotic photo book Sex). In the last year alone, he has shot seven films, including von Trier’s Melancholia, Guy Maddin’s Keyhole and the upcoming Iron Sky, in which he plays “a Nazi leader who lives on the moon…”

Dazed & Confused: What’s your favourite thing about being an actor?
Udo Kier: The attention. Wouldn’t you love it?

D&C: You have an appreciation for both high art and lowbrow. How do you decide what projects you want to do?

Udo Kier:I’m not very career-driven, never was. I met Paul Morrissey on an airplane. I met Fassbinder in
a bar when he was 15 and I was 16. Gus van Sant I met at the Berlin film festival, and he came up to me. He had a little film in the festival called Mala Noche that he had made for $20,000. He said: ‘You are one of my favourite actors. I’m doing My Own Private Idaho with River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves. You should be in it!’  Then I started working with Gus. I owe Gus my social security number – he sponsored my US visa! Anyway, I’m very grateful to him. After the premiere of Even Cowgirls Get The Blues [also by Gus Van Sant]
I stayed with a girlfriend in Los Angeles and she said, ‘Why don’t you stay here? Why don’t you get a little car and little apartment for $400 a month and just try it?’ I said, ‘No.’ Of course, after three glasses of red wine, I said, ‘Not a bad idea…’  That was 21 years ago.

D&C: Tell me about ‘Sitting On A Bullet’ – the song you perform in My Own Private Idaho while shining a lamp under your face…
Udo Kier: I always wanted to make music but I cannot play any instrument. I told Gus about the time I was performing in Moscow at the Olympic stadium and they forgot to give me a microphone. I had three songs and I didn’t know what to do. I was in front of 20,000 people. So, I just performed with the flashlamp under my face. Gus said to me on the day, ‘Why don’t you sing to the boys like you did in Moscow? We cannot use a flashlamp because it’s like Dennis Hopper in The Railroad.’ He said I should use a very big living room lamp instead. I said: ‘I cannot dance with that big lamp!’ But of course, I did.

D&C: Tell us how you met Madonna...

Udo Kier: I was in New York and my agent said, ‘There’s something secret going on… Steven Meisel, the photographer, wants to see you, he is doing a book – it has to do with Madonna, we don’t know exactly what it is.’ Then I went there. There were bodyguards – you can always tell because their suits are too tight. There was a woman sitting there with no make-up – Madonna. I didn’t recognise her right away.  She said, ‘I liked you in My Own Private Idaho, and then we started talking a little bit. I understood very quickly what she wanted – she wanted me to play her decadent husband. So we did that and then I came back to Los Angeles and her manager called and said: ‘Are you ready for hardcore sex?’ I wanted to see how far I could go and, well, you’ve seen the pictures.

D&C: Then you did her video for ‘Deeper And Deeper’?

Udo Kier: I was in Los Angeles and Debbie Mazar, who is a good friend and an actress, called me. She said Madonna is doing ‘Deeper and Deeper’ and we would like that you be part of it, and I said okay. I play her nightlife guru.

D&C: That sounds like a fun night. What was the most fun day of your life?

Udo Kier: Fun? Well, I know the day I was born was the most important day, not because my mother gave life to me, but how dramatic the story was. I was one hour old and the nurse was collecting all the babies – the newborns – from their mothers and cleaning them. My mother said: ‘Could I hold him a little bit longer?’ and the nurse said yes. Then the wall of the hospital collapsed over her – the building had been bombed. My mother was lucky because her bed was in a corner, so it was architecturally protected. She held me with one arm and with the other she made a hole in the rubble until they freed her, with me. I was two hours old. That is how I was born.

D&C: Indeed, very dramatic. Where did you meet Fassbinder?
Udo Kier: In a working-class bar in Cologne. There were truck drivers and secretaries and the first transvestites and people working on the street – a real bar. It was called Bar Leni. But we never talked about film. We were teenagers. Later, when I went to England, I saw a magazine and there was a double page spread about Fassbinder. I said, ‘I know him!’ Then, of course, I worked with him many times.

D&C: When did you first start moving in glamorous circles?
Udo Kier: Not until I moved to London. When I was in Germany I worked as a clerk and in a Ford car factory. But then I was 21 and I was sitting in a club in London, before I had done anything with film. The waiter came to me and said, ‘Mr Visconti would like to invite you for a glass of champagne’, Luchino Visconti (iconic Italian director). I didn’t know who he was, so I said, ‘Tell the gentleman to come himself.’ Visconti came and said, ‘I have a friend you should meet.’ I went over to the table. It was Rudolf Nureyev, the ballet dancer.
I noticed how he always framed his conversation around his legs: ‘My legs are tired…’ He had the most famous legs in the world! After that, I made the Warhol movies, and that’s when the glamour really started.

D&C: How did you come to be in Warhol’s Dracula and Frankenstein movies?
Udo Kier: I was in an airplane flying from Rome to Munich and there was a man sitting next to me. He said, ‘What do you do?’ and I said, ‘I’m an actor’. I hadn’t even finished the word ‘actor’ and I already had a photo of myself under his nose. He said, ‘Give me your number,’ and wrote my telephone number on the last page of his American passport. He said his name was Paul Morrissey and he worked with Andy Warhol. Then I got a call a couple weeks later and he said, ‘Well, I am doing a little film…’ I asked, ‘What do I play?’ He said, ‘Frankenstein.’

D&C: And how did the role in Dracula come up?
Udo Kier: The last day of shooting Frankenstein I was in the canteen, dressed as Frankenstein, thinking that everything was over – I’d had my three weeks of fame. I had a little bottle of wine for lunch. Paul Morrissey came in and said, ‘Well, I guess we have a German Dracula.’ I said, ‘Who?’ He said, ‘You! But you have to lose at least 10lbs.’ I didn’t eat any more. I just had salad leaves and water.  That’s why I was in a wheelchair for so many of my scenes – I had no power to stand up any more. It’s not only Robert de Niro who prepares himself in this way.

D&C: You’ve been in every single Lars von Trier film, aside from the ones shot in Danish. How did that relationship begin?
Udo Kier: I made a short film that went into competition at the Mannerheim Film Festival in Germany – a very intellectual festival. My short film went in against Lars von Trier’s Elements Of Crime. I knew I wanted to meet whoever made that short film. I expected him to be someone like Kubrick – shy, in a bad mood, dressed in black. But there came a young boy, and we were talking about Fassbinder and Tarkovsky. A few weeks later he called and asked me to be in his film Medea.

D&C: Has time ever slowed down or sped up for you?

Udo Kier: If I was to write an article about myself, the headline would be Time Is The Sin. Time is the real sin. I am 21 years in America. I mean 21 years. That’s definitely a quarter or your life – I’m already here, and I’ve been years in Paris and years in Rome, and now I’m living 21 years here and I think it’s going to be the stage where this is where I am going to stay. When you get older time moves faster – much faster. Now I am 66. That’s why I like it here in Palm Springs. Everyone is older than me. When I go to a restaurant everyone says, ‘Young man, can you pass the salt?’

CAROLINE RYDER is a Los Angeles-based journalist and author
Photography and Film by COLUMBINE GOLDSMITH

Dazed & Confused's October issue, 'Come Together: 20th Anniversary Special', is out now. Click HERE to check out the other, already published, Q&As celebrating the issue