And Now, An Intimate Conversation With BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99’s Udo Kier

One of our greatest living character actors talks TWIN PEAKS, gardening, and his terrifying BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99 character.

Pleasure to meet you, sir.


I told people I was interviewing you and they were very excited.

I was here a long time ago, I forget what year. I think that fest showed Frankenstein. Or Dracula. I forget.

Yeah, a friend of mine told me you guys went out to get BBQ. 

That was yesterday. At the famous place, um...

Salt Lick.

Yes! It was amazing.

Where do you live now?

I live in Los Angeles, but basically I spend most of my time at my place in Palm Springs. I like it there, I like the high desert.

So, you can get BBQ out there.

Bah, of course! I can get BBQ wherever I go!

Let's start off with Brawl In Cell Block 99. Your character in the movie is named The Placid Man, but in the script he's called The Bearded Man. Did you just not wanna grow the beard or what?

No, just no one ever told me I should have a beard. Which is strange. The director, Craig (Zahler), was a great director. I've made now two films with him: (Brawl In Cell Block 99) was the first, and then he wrote the script for the next one, which is The Puppet Master.

You're playing Toulon, right?

Yes, Toulon. And now I make a third film with him, and Mel (Gibson) and Vince (Vaughn), called Dragged Across Concrete. I think (Zahler) is an amazing director. He told me yesterday that when he was writing the script there was never another thought of taking another actor. I got the script and I must say I was really amazed with my text. In fifty years in this profession, I think that was the strongest text I ever had to say.

I mean, okay, in vampire films I suppose I say strange text, but (Brawl) was reality. It was very strong. I saw the film for the first time just last week, in Toronto. I like it very much. Vince Vaughn is amazing in the film and I've never seen Don Johnson like that.

He's gotten really interesting in his older years, hasn't he?

Well, it's like people always remember you from the same things. People remember Don Johnson from Miami Vice. I actually worked with him before, when he did Nash Bridges. I did one episode, a guest role. But in this film he's very strong, as you will see.

I've read a few of Craig's screenplays now. They're more like novels than anything else, lots of description and detail. Dialogue's complex, too.

Yeah, the dialogue is very hard to learn. As a foreigner it was very...lamentable when I had to say "lamentable". I didn't even know what "lamentable" means. I went around to the crew and I said, "Do you know this word, 'lamentable'?" and they said no. So I said to Craig, "How do you expect me to use this word that most of your crew doesn't even know?" And he said, "You can do it." And I did, and now, for as long as I live, I will never forget "lamentable".

But, really, I like to work with directors who've written their own scripts. I also just did Downsizing, with Alexander Payne, which I still haven't seen. I didn't see it in Canada, I didn't see it in Venice. But he is also a writer, a very good writer - he has two Oscars for writing! - and as an actor, I prefer that because it's the director's baby. I don't like to work with directors who have taken an adoption from another script writer, because it's too much: one of them writes it and then has to explain it to the other, or maybe the director sees it in a way the writer doesn't want it. But if you have a director who also wrote the script, he has the whole concept, like Lars Von Trier. He writes his own scripts and knows exactly what he wants. 

Is that a guiding principle in how you pick projects? Mostly you just strike me as the kinda dude who always likes to be working.

Well, this year it's extreme because I have ten films coming out.

That's crazy, man.

Yes, but they are good projects! I made one with Gus Van Sant and Joaquin Phoenix, I made a film with Alexander Payne. These are great directors. And my next film, I did The Painted Bird, the Kosinski book written in '65 in New York. I did this in the Czech Republic with Stellan Skarsgård, so that's interesting. For years everyone wanted to film The Painted Bird, but one Czech Republic director got the rights finally, and he wanted me to play the miller. So it's all very interesting.

Right on.

There are many things, as an actor, where you find that a production just wants you for your name. I am not a big, big, big name, but maybe they can sell the movie if I am in it. This I don't like. I (respond more) to the character. I am 73 years old and the internet says I have made 220 films. Mostly I just like to have fun. I don't have (the same) ambition anymore. I don't have to be in every movie.

Do you think there'll come a point where you'd retire?

I think as long as I can walk - and even if I can't walk, if I can still roll in a wheelchair - and as long as my brain is still working, I will make the film. I will make less, maybe. Sometimes I look at magazines or the internet and think, "Wow, I made that film 30 years ago?" For me, it is so clear in my brain. But I love nature. I have become more and more a nature man. I like palm trees and taking care of palm trees. I do not wear gloves when I work. I put my own hand into the earth. I like it. I am happy. And then all of a sudden I get bored from too much nature and I want to go out, so I make a new movie. 

It must get harder to memorize lines as you get older, too.

Bah, of course! It is like this for everybody! 

I definitely couldn't do it, memorizing all those lines. I mean, I couldn't act, period, but--

Anybody can act.



I mean, I've seen a lot of bad movies that might indicate otherwise--

Okay, well, maybe not Shakespeare. But if you play a modern story and a modern character, and if you're not stupid and you have a good director, of course you can read from left to right. But acting-wise, text-wise, I don't think (in my old age) I would want to take on Hamlet or something like that. I played in the theater a few times, but I trained myself for movies and I was very lucky to work with great directors like Lars Von Trier or Wim Wenders or Fassbinder. I was very lucky.

Are there any directors you haven't worked with that you'd be particularly excited to-- 

Oh, of course!

Who's the first that comes to mind?

David Lynch.

Oh, man. Did you watch the new Twin Peaks?

No, not yet. But I was supposed to be in the original (series)! The problem was, I was doing my first American film - My Own Private Idaho, with River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves - and they cast me for Twin Peaks. But one day I was finished, in Portland, and the next day the production said, "No, we can't." 

Who were you gonna play?

Oh, I forgot. I have met David Lynch, but I have never asked a director, "I would like to be working with you." Imagine if I said to David Lynch, "I would like to work with you" and David Lynch said, "Who doesn't?" 

Y'know, I don't think that would be his reaction.

But you never know!

Fair enough. 

I remember when I saw Lost Highway, with Bill Pullman and Robert Blake, and (Blake) is on the phone with the little red lipstick and he says, "I'm at your house!" And I thought, "Ugh! That could have been (my character)!" But, yes, David Lynch would definitely be one.

For what it's worth, I think you'd fit into David Lynch's world very easily.

I think that is why! 

Earlier today, I was looking over your filmography, and there's stuff I've seen that I totally forgot you were in. Like, say, Ace Ventura: Pet Detective.

But that's the one people remember me from!

Mainstream audiences, sure. I probably see more Von Trier than the average moviegoer, so Ace Ventura isn't my go-to.

Or people see me and they say, "Oh! Blade!" Those are the two big movies. Blade was a good one.

You tend to play intense characters. Weirdos. Are people wary of you?

By now, yes. It's like, sometimes I make a movie and women especially will come up to me and say (note: Udo adopts a sensual purr), "Oh, Udo, you are so eeeevil." 

(Hard laugh)

And they say it with so much pleasure! But I am totally different in my private life. I rescue dogs and do my garden or whatever, paint my walls, collect modern art or mid-century furniture. And then when I go out I am asked to play a character like (Brawl In Cell Block 99's Placid Man), and I have fun and do it with pleasure. It's the same how Christoph Waltz was so great in Inglourious Basterds. He was not a shouting Nazi, he was like...

Very gentle.

Yes, gentle. That's the right word. So in this film, also, when I have to say these brutal dialogue with Vince, I had to say it like (note: again, Udo adopts a sensual purr), "My boss knows someone who will (do something horrible) to your pregnant wife." The first time I had to read those lines I said, "Wow! If I deliver these lines well and people follow my way of explaining it, it will kill me." 

The film really kicks up a notch when you enter the picture.

We had a lot of press out of (TIFF), and someone - I think it was the Hollywood Reporter - said, "When Mr. Kier comes onscreen, the film becomes insane" (note: Udo, clearly delighted, laughs long and hard at this). My friends said, "Why did they write that?!", and I said, "No, that's the biggest compliment you can get! If I can make a movie insane with just two scenes, that's good!" 

When you play an evil character, what's your approach? Are you into the method thing, where you end up taking some of this home with you, or--?

Of course not.

Well, some people do. Or they say they do.

Haha, I do not believe in this. I mean, just for fun I went to Lee Strasberg (Theater And Film Institute), and the teacher asked me, "What do you drink in the morning?," and I said, "Coffee." And he said, "Could you drink tea from tomorrow on and think it's coffee?" And I said, "No, I would know that it is tea." So, no, I do not need that. When I get a script, I read first my role. Then I read the whole script with my role. And then, if I find out that the film would (not be better) with me in it, I do not do it. 

On Melancholia, Lars Von Trier asked me a question, and everyone on set had ears like an elephant because they know I am like the godfather of his films. We have made 11 films together. So there is Kirsten Dunst and John Hurt and Stellan Skarsgård, and (Von Trier) said, "Udo, I want that you go into the room, but you do not want to see Kirsten (Dunst's character). What do you do?" And I said, "Hm, I will put my left hand in front of my face," and he said "That's good."

I did this, and then Variety was writing about that moment, because it was the unexpected. Unexpected and at the right moment. See, sometimes it's not the big, big roles. Sometimes, you can also have a big impact in a film just by doing something unexpected.


Brawl In Cell Block 99 arrives in NY/LA theaters on October 6th, and VOD/Digital HD on October 13th. You definitely want to check it out.

(Note: header photo by Jack Plunkett, for Fantastic Fest)