007's latest nemesis on the evils of the internet, being a late-bloomer, and why - like the villain he may or may not be playing - he's happiest in the shadows

In the months-long build-up to the release of SPECTRE, we’ve been given a good look at much of what the 24th Bond film has to offer: director Sam Mendes’s eye-popping Day of the Dead-themed opening action sequence; Bond’s new companions Monica Bellucci and Léa Seydoux; the fire-breathing Aston Martin DB10. One of SPECTRE’s star attractions, however, has been largely kept in the shadows - deliberately so.

On the morning after the first public unveiling of SPECTRE, the James Bond circus has subsumed an entire floor of a central London hotel. Behind the door of room 125, where Christoph Waltz is ensconced, a kind of courtly stillness reigns. As he rises to greet me, a half-smile - part playful, part sardonic - animates his pliable face.

“Have you ever seen so many people with clipboards?” he asks, his voice a familiar, mellifluous mix of American and mittel-European inflections. “Then again, people always have this need to feel that they’re important, don’t they?”

Waltz with Lea Seydoux in SPECTRE Credit: Jonathan Olley/ MGM

There’s no denying Waltz’s own importance to the SPECTRE juggernaut. In SPECTRE, he’s ostensibly playing a character named Franz Oberhauser, Bond’s long-lost foster brother and head of SPECTRE, the standard-issue Shadowy Organisation Bent On World Domination. But, as the action progresses, he morphs from baddie into full-on nemesis, a spectre himself from the darkest recesses of Bond mythology.

Spoiler warnings have been flying thick and fast, but suffice it to say that the character’s penchant for grey mandarin-collared jackets, plus Waltz’s own assertion, in an interview earlier this year, that “it is absolutely untrue that I’m playing a reincarnation of Ernst Stavro Blofeld,” are all gentle hints at his true identity.

Despite the fact that the (white chinchilla Persian) cat is very much out of the bag, Waltz hews to the three-line whip and doesn’t allow the B-word to pass his lips. The furthest he’s prepared to go is an admission that “this character has a shape-shifting quality, which gave me a lot of freedom to take him wherever I wanted.” (In Ian Fleming’s Bond novels, Blofeld is variously described as a 20-stone Mussolini lookalike, and a 12-stone silver-haired sylph with no earlobes.)

As Oberhauser-definitely-not-Blofeld, Waltz displays all the qualities that made him an overnight star when, at 52, he played the alluring, ruthless “Jew hunter” Dr Hans Landa in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. They include silken charm, playful malevolence, a disarming facility with language, and a mercurial ability to flip from joviality to a temperature-lowering froideur, often in the space of a single sentence. It’s there in the first meeting between Oberhauser and Bond, when Waltz undercuts the absurdity of an Austin Powers-esque “evil boardroom” scene by investing the single word “cuckoo” with coltish intimidation.

In Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds, the film that shot him to fame Credit: Allstar/UNIVERSAL

Austrian-born Waltz has been a jobbing actor since his early 20s (his parents were both costume designers, as is his current wife, Judith), and YouTube is littered with his journeyman efforts, from warbling in the new year in a stripy onesie on Austrian kids’ TV to starring alongside an intractable German Shepherd in the police series Komissar Rex. There were many false dawns, including a Channel 4 comedy series called The Gravy Train, an EU satire that yielded an unlikely and enduring friendship with co-star Alexei Sayle.

But it would be another two decades before he went to audition for Tarantino. “I had written this crunchy, twisty dialogue,” the director once said, “and it needed a real master to bring it alive, to make it sing. Christoph got hold of it and played it like a Stradivarius.”

Waltz’s provenance – born to solid bourgeois stock in Vienna, with sojourns in London, Berlin and the US – and his decades at the coalface have lent him both an expansive erudition and a dry, acerbic scepticism. Ask him a question he likes and he launches into a reply that roves around its subject and takes all manner of trenchant diversions. But ask him one he doesn’t – anything, say, about two marriages and four children - and he loftily demurs, or shuts down altogether.

An example of the former: I ask him if the role of Oberhauser was, as claimed, written specially for him. “I don’t know if that’s strictly true,” he says, “but I know that when I came on board, the role grew, evolved, and mutated. It kind of heaved itself out of the primeval swamp and assumed its eventual form as it went along. People were saying to me, wait, isn’t it inevitable that, in a Bond film, you’ll just feel like a cog in a giant machine, and I did hesitate before committing myself to it. I think circumspection is valuable in all things. But I think there’s a lot of merit in being a sprocket that helps this giant mechanism to function. Of course, you have to work hard at being a splendid sprocket,” he grins. “You can’t be the piece of junk that jams the system up.”

Waltz with Jamie Foxx in Django Unchained Credit: Sony

An example of the latter: I ask him how he achieves the sense of serene detachment that all his best characters, from Landa to Oberhauser, display, even in extremis. “I take everything from the parts…” he begins, uncharacteristically hesitant. “Actually,” he continues, “I don’t want to talk too much about it, because I don’t want to let you in.”

Why not?

“Because,” he says brightly, “it’s none of your business.”

One of the surprises of SPECTRE is its apparently pro-Edward Snowden agenda; a chief subplot involves the machinations of a new counter-intelligence chief known as C in attempting to inaugurate a worldwide total surveillance network. Waltz shares the film’s disdain for internet-enabled data harvesting.

“That’s what really drew me into the story,” he says, sitting forward in his chair. “This movie is tackling that question head-on; it’s speaking about relevant social issues in a way that few Bonds have done before.” I wonder if Waltz has read Jonathan Franzen’s novel Purity, in which a Julian Assange-type character asserts that the internet is a much more efficient totalitarian entity than any number of socialist states, because “its competing platforms were united in their ambition to define every term of your existence”?

Sam Mendes, Daniel Craig, Monica Bellucci and Christoph Waltz at the Rome premiere of SPECTRE Credit: Rex Shutterstock

“I haven’t read it yet, but I absolutely agree with that,” he says emphatically. “I recently came across a quote from Voltaire: ‘A man who can present absurdities as believable can convince you to commit atrocities.’ These days, an algorithm can do that. Look at Isis – without the internet they wouldn’t exist in the same form. The internet didn’t create them, but the internet facilitates them. And as we know from history, the facilitation is more dangerous than the cause, because the cause can be dealt with, but the facilitation is elusive.”

It should come as no surprise, given this view, that Waltz isn’t frantically tweeting or posting pictures of sachertorte on Instagram. “I call them all anti-social media,” he says disparagingly. “The fact that Facebook presents facial recognition programmes as a desirable development, well, that in itself is a decisive step toward fascism, as far as I’m concerned.”


Given that, for Waltz, privacy is a red-line issue, isn’t appearing in one of the year’s biggest films likely to prove counter-productive? “No, on the contrary,” he smiles. “Daniel [Craig], for example, he handles it fabulously, masterfully. He has national treasure status almost, right?”

Well, I say, he might be a little too thorny for that…

“Anyway,” continues Waltz, “he steps behind Bond, in public and in private, and so he manages to maintain his sanity, which is very admirable. And for me, it’s easier,” he concludes, waving his arm dismissively. “I cannot imagine any jurisdiction, now or in the future, in which I could ever conceivably be regarded as a national treasure.”

Is he glad fame came later for him?

“Oh yes, absolutely,” he shoots back. “If you get that kind of clamour and attention when you’re young, it hits you like a high-speed train. When you’re a young man, you’re on a conquering quest, you have tunnel vision, you want to see, hear, taste, experience it all. And I’m not even talking about girls and drugs and excess and waste and all of that. I’m talking about painting yourself into a corner and sacrificing your development.”

He lived in London for 15 years from the end of the 1980s with his first wife Jackie, a psychotherapist, and their three school-age children. “We had the Poll Tax riots and we had Thatcher dismantling civic, or at least civil, society,” he says, with a mirthless chuckle. “It was an interesting time”).

Recently, he relocated from Berlin to Los Angeles with Judith and their daughter. Why LA? The shutters again come clanging down. “I find discussions about residence on a global level futile to say the least,” he replies. “There’s a kind of jaded ennui to it – ‘Where should we live? LA, for the weather, but other than that it has no culture, and I’d rather be in New York, oh but those awful winters in New York,’ etc. Actually, you move where you think you can apply yourself, and if you can do the stuff you want to do with the people you want to do it with.”

Given Waltz’s two Best Supporting Actor Oscars (for Basterds and Tarantino’s follow-up Django Unchained, in which he was equally captivating as “dentist” and bounty-hunter Dr King Schulz), plus the clout that comes with Bond, there’ll no doubt be plenty of “stuff” to do, and no shortage of people who’ll want to do it with him.

He directed a production of Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier at the Vlaamse Opera in Antwerp a couple of years ago, and, once his Bond duties are done, he’s set to direct his first film, The Worst Marriage in Georgetown. It’s the strange-but-true story of Albrecht Muth, a con artist who posed as a US army officer, a count, a foreign spy and an Iraqi general before being convicted of the murder of his journalist-socialite wife Viola, 45 years his senior. Waltz will also be playing Muth, and the role seems tailor-made for his slippery charisma.

As our time comes to an end , I ask how much he could he put his success down to…

“Luck?” Waltz pre-empts. “As a percentage, you mean? Mathematically speaking? One hundred. And that’s a conservative estimate.”