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Udo Kier discusses ‘Swan Song’

6 min read
Swan Song

The word cult feels like it was designed to describe . The German actor who made his name working on films for Andy Warhol's factory like Flesh for Frankenstein and Blood for Dracula has gone on to work with some of the greats – Werner Rainer Fassbinder, Gus van Sant, Lars von Trier and Werner Herzog. His filmography is filled with high profile movies – Blade, End of Days and Iron Sky sit among them. His latest film, is an altogether more lowkey affair. Kier is the lead as former hairdresser Pat Pitsenberger haunted by his past, his failures and the loss of his partner who travels across town to give a former client one last makeover for her funeral.

This interview originally appeared in Filmhounds Magazine #11 – Available to order in print here

Swan Song is about a gay man of a certain age, this feels very rare in the world. Is this what drew you to the film, that it was about an older demographic who was comfortable with their sexuality?

Well it was, when the director [Todd Stephens] offered me the part I said I would like to meet him because it was a special kind of story. So he came to Palm Springs, and we talked, I like his way. The way he was explaining the story and why he wanted to make the movie. So, I agreed and I told him right from the beginning that it's not going over the top. In many films which has a gay subject it's too much. This character is such a strong character who was once very famous and then had a heart attack. You know he was a very successful stylist and now he's in a retirement home and everything has changed.

I'm of a generation where AIDs in Germany when I was working with Fassbinder and other good directors, people really died. There was nothing anyone could do, no doctor could prescribe anything. Thank god today if anyone is infected they take one pill a day and they survive. But, back then when the pandemic started a lot of people died. It is, for me, about going backwards and seeing how things have changed. Since Pat the hairdresser was real and I found a lot of his old friends and they told me how he held his cigarette, and how he walked. It was very potent for me to talk to people who really knew him.

The director didn't know him very well, because he was too young, but he knew of him. So for me the interesting part of the film is not acting but being real as much as I could. It was an independent film, I never dreamed that I would get best actor awards in Dublin, Monte Carlo, Wales, all around the world for a little movie. Because, well I don't know why!

Because it's a brilliant performance, that's why.

It's a real performance, if I had been acting by waving my hands in the air, and using a different voice it wouldn't have worked. It only worked because it was real. We were very lucky we shot in a little town in Ohio and it has one big street. The street had the thrift store, it had the theatre, all on one street, so that street became our studio. There was a pub and when I would go into the pub after work the locals would say “hello Pat! How are you today?” So, it was kind of our studio, it was all real. There wasn't anything built, and I like to work with Linda Evans she was so professional, and Jennifer Coolidge. I had a good time.

Swan Song

With the film, you were saying about AIDs, there's a subtle way it plays with gender. You wear a fabulous pink hat throughout the film and you give a gentleman's fedora to a woman, how much do you think the world has changed with regards to what is considered masculine and feminine?

It's changed enormously, I remember when I was a young man in Germany before I went to England. The people were looking left and right before they went into special bars hoping the neighbours wouldn't see them going in. That has all changed, it's what I'm saying in interviews. Young people are giving each other a passionate kiss in MacDonalds and nobody cares! In Germany they had paragraph called 175 and if, for example, two men were living together and neighbours could hear some erotic sounds through the walls they could call the police and the people would be put in jail.

Now it's changed enormously, it's wonderful, people are always trying to criticise transgender “they shouldn't use, they should use” but they should choose which words they want to use. Why put things down, if you would have seen thirty years ago when I came to America – that two men or two women could get married, you'd say “you're crazy!”. But now they have all the same rights to get married, they can adopt children, it's amazing. It's amazing how in a relatively short time how things have changed.

You mentioned earlier that you worked with Fassbinder, over your career you've worked with some of the best directors. Is it the director who determines if you take a part or is it the part itself?

Well it's the part itself, but there are directors like David Lynch or Almodovar I would work with without a doubt because I know they would offer me the right part. I'm a lucky man, I always say I'm a lucky man that I worked with Gus van Sant, I worked for thirty years with Lars von Trier. I've never asked a director to work with them. I had dinner with Isabella Rossilini and David Lynch, imagine if I said “I would like to work with you”. He could have replied “who doesn't?” I would have gone under the table.

I met a man on an airplane, and this American man asked me what I did for a living, so I said I was an actor and I showed him a headshot. He said interesting, and wrote my number on the last page of his passport. I was sceptical so I asked him who he was and he said “I'm Paul Morrissey I make films for Andy Warhol.” Three weeks later I got a call asking if I remembered the guy from the plane. He said “I'm in New York I'm doing Frankenstein in 3D and Dracula, and I might have a little part for you in Frankenstein.” And I said “Oh great what part do I play?” And he said Frankenstein.

So my whole life is like that, I was discovered in London and I didn't know how to act, I wasn't an actor I wanted to learn languages. But I got discovered, then when my first film came out I was called the The New Face of Cinema, and my first big film was with Herbert Lom. I was in Berlin where I met Gus van Sant and he told me about his next film My Own Private Idaho with Keanu Reeves and River Phoenix, and that he wanted me to be in it as this German man, Hans. At first I thought he was joking but no, he got me the work permit to go to America. This was my first American film, then went back to Germany for the premier. That was thirty years ago, and after thirty years of being in movies in America, with Swan Song I got the best reviews of my career.

The New York Times called it the best film I ever did, and “finally Mr Kier is a leading man”. I don't know what that means after this. I always wanted to be a Bond villain because I'm tired of people asking me “why aren't you in a James Bond film?”. But, I have a TV show coming out with Al Pacino called Hunters, season one came out last year and now comes season two and I'm in seven episodes and I play the most evil man who ever lived. From a hairdresser to Adolf Hitler. There you have it. Life is full of surprises. Let's see what's coming. If I wasn't an actor I'd be a gardener.

Swan Song is out June 10th June

This interview originally appeared in Filmhounds Magazine #11 – Available to order in print here