After performing in internationals film for five decades, the German-born character actor Udo Kier is getting rave reviews for a rare Hollywood leading role in “Swan Song.” And at age 76, Kier says he’s hoping the role is no swan song for him: it’s just the beginning of a new phase of his career.
“I am really, really, a little bit surprised but pleasantly surprise that I made 50 years of movies, and now everybody writes: ‘After 50 years, finally Udo Kier is a leading man!’” Kier told Variety on Thursday night at the Los Angeles premiere of the film at iPic Theaters in Westwood. “Which is very nice of you all, the press. But for me, it’s going to be difficult because now in the future, I only want to do leading roles – unless it’s David Lynch or some great director. That’s a different story. I’m very, very, very happily surprised.”
During a chat on a sofa with a glass of wine in the theater lobby, Kier shared memories of being unexpectedly discovered during an airplane flight after being seated by chance next to director Paul Morrisey. He found mainstream attention playing the monster in 1973’s avant garde “Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein,” going on to appear in films helmed by distinctive visionaries including Lars von Trier, Gus van Sant, Werner Herzog, Dario Argento and Alexander Payne.
In “Swan Song,” Kier plays Mr. Pat, a gay hairdresser who dared to live his life out loud in a less enlightened time and place; now grappling with challenging senior years he returns to his former home to honor the last request of a long-estranged client (Linda Evans), who’s asked that he style her hair for her funeral and discovers the unexpected impact he’s had.
Kier was attracted to Mr. Pat’s colorful late-life reflection of the gender-norm-challenging glam of ’70s icons like David Bowie and Elton John, as well as the opportunity to commenting on the changes he’s seen in the country since first arriving in 1991 to shoot “My Own Private Idaho.” “If you would have said then a man or women who love each other can get married and adopt children, they would have said, ‘You’re crazy? In America?’ And that is why I was interested in this film.”
Writer-director Todd Stephens based Mr. Pat on a real man from his own hometown. “He gave me hope, because he was different and I felt different, and when I finally got up the nerve to go to the he local gay bar, I saw him there and I felt like I was home, like I had found my family, my tribe,” said Stephens. “Pat had no clue that he changed anybody’s life, and I’m sure he felt like his life didn’t mean that much, but he had the courage to be himself at a time when that was when that was like changing the world.”
Stephens, who’d admired Kier’s work since “My Own Private Idaho,” said he was completely sold on casting him when he journeyed to the actor’s Palm Springs home, where “he introduced me to his dog Liza Minelli — that was like a done deal. And the real Mr. Pat had really big, beautiful blue eyes just like Udo. So as soon as I met him, I knew he was the one.”
“The thing that’s so cool about this is that he’s a legend that is having a resurgence of being a legend,” said co-star Jennifer Coolidge, who plays Mr. Pat’s former protégé turned bitter rival, of Kier. “He’s done like 250 movies! There’s a reason everyone wants him, and there’s a reason he works so much. Because he has incredible presence – in person, but on-screen too, just this incredible command of energy. I can’t even describe what it is. It’s just a magical thing.”
Coolidge has no shortage of credits herself, and her recent, ambitious turns in “Swan Swong,” “Promising Young Woman” and “The White Lotus” have, she admitted, sparked a bit of an unexpected ‘Jen-aissance’ in Hollywood. “To be honest, it is so weird the timing of them all and them all coming out – it just looks like I did them all in a row,” she revealed. “Then of course, we got all frozen for a year, and now this great moment comes and they’re all like bang, bang, bang. How exciting is that?”
Coolidge said the sudden rush of renewed visibility has, career-wise, “opened some doors – and some things that I probably wouldn’t want to do also! It opens the whole gamut,” she laughed. “If all of this wasn’t happening, maybe I wouldn’t be getting all these calls, but it sort of puts your name out there, for all sorts of interesting things — or not!”
She admitted that she appreciates some downtown in between projects, in contrast to her early days performing in The Groundlings improv troupe, constantly grinding our new comedy sketches and characters, then coming back to square one.
“You could do something and feel like you’ve really scored,” she remembered. “Everything changed every week, so you’d have one show that would just be probably your best, you thought. And then the next week you’d go back to being Cinderella, just really scrubbing the floor.”
“I used all my bad experiences as my Grounding sketches, so I’m like, ‘Oh, I have to find another bad experience, have to put it on stage and get revenge on that horrible restaurant owner that treated me like garbage or something,’” she chuckled. “Because all my best characters, I think, were people that weren’t nice.”