Says two-time Oscar winner Christoph Waltz on not sharing a single frame with Samuel L Jackson in the latest adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ immortal hero, Tarzan, and why he doesn’t like to talk about his on-screen characters
Q. How much exposure did you have to Tarzan before becoming involved in this film? What are your earliest memories of the character?
A. It was all about Johnny Weissmuller (American actor best known for playing 'Tarzan' in films of the '30s and '40s). Tarzan, to me, in my little world, was always a black and white movie from the '30s.
As a kid, I thought it was incredibly fascinating, and later on, I thought it was hysterically funny. And that was about that. When they redid Tarzan in the '80s, I thought they didn't quite pull it off, but it was still interesting to have this other Tarzan perspective.
Q. You have created so many characters for the screen. Did director David Yates welcome your collaboration in shaping Leon Rom, whom you play in 'The Legend of Tarzan'?
A. He was immensely open to my suggestions, and that was one of the lures for me. It was originally going into a different direction and they generously let me participate in it. And I can do that responsibly; I always put story first. So, it was gratifying to be able to participate to a certain degree and have the feeling of being heard.
Q. You don't like to talk about the characters you play.
A. I think the very purpose of a story — especially a story like this, which is half-fantasy, half-real, half-folk tale — is that it ties into some form of the collective subconscious. It's known all over. It's very close to some form of mythology already. Mythology and stories of that kind — and stories altogether — create meaning. They are designed for the listener or viewer to make sense of the world. I just want to assist in facilitating that on screen for the spectator to project himself into. That's why I don't talk about the characters I play.
Q. You have worked with Samuel L Jackson in the past. Did you get to spend time together in this film?
A. That was one major regret — I didn't have any scenes with him. I want to play a whole movie with Sam. He's a true actor. When you watch his performance in this film, there are a lot of heavy situations, but never once does he get even remotely close to heavy-handedness. He has the swing, the feel, the rhythm and the right touch.
Q. What was it like working with Alexander Skarsgard as John Clayton/Tarzan?
A. I am always trying to be discreet, to say the least. When an actor is working more or less every day, like Alex is in this film, you want to only touch him with kid gloves because he's got so much on his shoulders. And we didn't really have that many scenes together either; we had a few scenes, a few crucial ones. But I usually try to adapt and be supportive. If you are just one of the day players — when you are coming in and leaving again and then coming in at a later time again — that is a different mode than the leading actor, who has the whole thing to carry. So, that defined my relationship with Alexander a little bit. Not so much with Margot (Robbie).
Q. How's Margot to work with?
A. I have infinitely more scenes with her than with Alexander. Margot is just one of the loveliest creatures on earth, and she's just lovely to work with.
Q. What qualities do you think Yates brings to this film as a director?
A. It's his movie, so everything is subject to his vision. And his vision is developing in the months and weeks before, so you have to find out what that is all about. And I like doing that. On the first day, he took me around the studio and showed me the extent of the operation, I thought, 'Hmm.'
Q. The huge sets, all the moving parts…
A. Immense! And he has to connect all the loose ends and bring all the strands and strings together and tie them into a beautiful knot. So, I do everything I can within my limited possibilities to support that. And, at the same time, I happily support my own work as well. So that's kind of a negotiation. But, as the captain of a ship of that size, David is so considerate, soft-spoken, the sweetest, most sensitive and circumspect person that you could ever imagine.