LOS ANGELES -- I mentioned to Christoph Waltz that both of my German great-grandfathers immigrated to America in the late 1840s.
He was as pleased as Hans Landa selling out Hitler in "Inglourious Basterds."
"There you go!" the Austrian actor said with great glee. "You know what I'm talkin' about. Fantastic!"
Mr. Waltz -- who won an Oscar for playing the sophisticated and ruthless Landa in Quentin Tarantino's alternative World War II history epic -- has been trying to convince people that his character in Mr. Tarantino's latest effort, "Django Unchained," makes actual historical sense.
Set in the antebellum South a couple of years before the Civil War, "Django" stars Jamie Foxx as a freed slave turned bounty hunter obsessed with freeing his wife, Broomhilda ("Scandal's" Kerry Washington), from wicked plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio)
Django's liberator and mentor is Mr. Waltz's Dr. King Schultz, a German dentist-cum-bounty-hunter with a dauntingly flowery vocabulary, a matter-of-fact murderous streak and, apparently, a healthy hatred of racism and slavery.
"Dr. King may be the only enlightened being in that whole constellation of English-language films I've made," says Mr. Waltz, who was plucked from relative obscurity in German-language TV and theater by Mr. Tarantino and has played mostly bad guys -- or, as in last year's "Carnage," exemplary jerks -- since "Basterds" made him hot in Hollywood.
"Yet, yeah, he's a bounty hunter, which just means lethal killer, but he still has a view of the world that gives every human being the same chance and the same rights," adds Mr. Waltz, 56.
"The fact that this foreigner and stranger with those convictions is inserted into a world that contradicts his point of view so fundamentally, it makes for fabulous drama." It opens in Pittsburgh theaters today.
As Mr. Waltz likes to point out, Germans -- who still make up the largest ethnic ancestral group in the United States -- were major contributors to the abolition effort. Of course, German-Americans fought for the Confederacy as well, but a whopping 216,000 Bluecoats were born in one German state or another.
"Ten percent of the Union Army's common soldiers were German, and there was a much higher percentage among the officers," Mr. Waltz, who grew up in Vienna but whose father was a German citizen, proudly notes. "Go to one of the old cemeteries in New Orleans. Out of three tombstones, two have German names on them."
That said, Mr. Waltz had a bit of difficulty adjusting to the American cowboy way. He was injured early on in the production, so he spends much of the movie riding in wagons, but after a few months of training he was back in the saddle.
As for Mr. Tarantino's ultraviolent, spaghetti Western take on the most appalling institution in American history, Mr. Waltz is sanguine about the bloody spectacle.
"His approach is, of course, a very difficult one," Mr. Waltz acknowledges. "But why would you want to choose the easy way? Especially with a topic like that. The fact that his views are entertaining does not contradict one bit the gravity of the topic. It just makes it, in a way, approachable.
"First of all, a documentary about slavery, even if it's as accurate as it could be, would attract a very limited amount of viewers. And the audience that would expose itself to it would most probably be the kind that are of that opinion anyway, whatever it is.
"Whereas, if you manage to do the impossible, make that quantum leap -- and that really is the biggest goal of any artist, I should think -- and combine the deep and relevant and important and serious with entertainment, you might be able to attract an audience that sees something under a different light. It might turn a lightbulb on, and that's, actually, a great accomplishment."
For Mr. Waltz, who hails from several generations of Viennese theater folk and studied acting at New York's Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute, the real art of Mr. Tarantino springs from the writer-director's dialogue-heavy scripts -- and Dr. King dominates the first third of "Django Unchained" with his carefully spoken, continental version of fast talk.
"It's really the text that is so exquisite and so tangible and so sensual, in a way," Mr. Waltz explains. "Some of these words are like biting into a beefsteak and others are like a macaroon. It's a sensory experience, saying these words, and it's what adds to the joy of playing this character really tremendously.
"I started in theater, I did years and years of classical theater," he adds when asked if enunciating all of those words is any kind of a challenge. "That's what you do there and that's what you learn there, and that's why I think you have a great advantage, having done that, playing Tarantino."
Sharing that dialogue soapbox in different stretches of the film with the voluble likes of Mr. DiCaprio, Mr. Foxx and Mr. Tarantino regular Samuel L. Jackson was an actor's dream, Mr. Waltz reports.
"We all know the old actors' saying that you can only be as good as your partners," he says. "That was, several times over, true in this case. I'm convinced that it's the ensemble that makes it. Individual performances can only be excellent if the ensemble is right.
"In this case, I'm glad to say, that support for the one who's solo at any given time held firm, because it shifts. Even Jamie, Django, kind of steps back once in a while. Then the constellation changes and somebody else steps into the prime spot, and the others get the opportunity to support him. This dynamic worked in real life as well."
Of all the creative pleasures of making "Django Unchained," though, Mr. Waltz may be fondest of researching how much folks from his background contributed to the evolving character of what became America.
"I did a lot of research beyond Quentin's script," Mr. Waltz, evincing a very Teutonic love of learning, says.
"Anything that gets your imagination going -- and reading usually does, so there. I preferred to take it from history and facts, or as factual as it can get, rather than from other interpretations, fiction and stories and versions, even though that can be inspiring too.
"But in terms of background, there is so much that you can find out and use, that if you don't know you can read up on. Yeah sure, of course; it would be a waste of an opportunity otherwise."
First Published December 25, 2012 5:00 AM