Each European culture had a way to adapt and emulate that Western genre somehow. Because it’s all about the dream of the surge westward into liberty, into the fantasized land of opportunities where you can start from the beginning, where you can be yourself, where you have to defend yourself, you have to test your aptitude and capabilities and be a man, basically. Because women were, unfortunately, just supporting characters in these stories.
Some of your most famous characters, from Hans Landa to Blofeld, are famous for verbal dexterity, for talking through situations. Max Borlund is someone who says as little as possible and speaks very directly. I think he even says at one point, “I don’t usually tell a man twice.” Is one sort of performance easier than the other?
No. I try not to be a brand actor who develops a brand and then sticks to that like, let’s say James Cagney, to be polite. But I try to follow the lead of the writer, and the script, rather, and find what’s in the case at hand and not so much in the generalization of, for example, the genre or the actor’s persona. I really make an effort to stick to the individual character because it serves a very specific purpose. And without the specificity you have more or less nothing.
Walter Hill’s screenplays are famously terse. This film only hints at Max’s past. When you have a situation like that, do you fill in the backstory yourself?
Well, I don’t like to talk about these things… You do that inadvertently. You do that even sitting in the audience watching the movie. You fill it in with whatever you have at your disposal. That’s what it’s all about. Because what I do behind the scenes is utterly irrelevant. Everyone needs to do whatever they do to get themselves going. And if they can generate it out of themselves, that much the better. You’re well advised to consult the sources, and the best source is always the script itself. But if there’s something that you don’t know or you find a sudden interest in or you’re intrigued by, you follow that. […] You can use a backstory of someone completely different or make up a story or you relate it to a different time, to a different gender, to whatever. All of that is your problem. Because in the end, it needs to serve the purpose.
It’s a matter of, what makes it onto the screen is what really matters, then?
No, what makes it off the screen is what matters. What’s on the screen is just there to inspire you in the audience.
How would you rate your skills as an equestrian?
Well, I’ve been doing it for a while, but not on a regular basis. So it should be better than it is. But riding is like singing, you need to do it on a regular basis to do it elegantly and so it is at least sufferable for the other creatures involved, be it your family at home in terms of singing or the poor horse in terms of riding.
You worked for years in films and on TV programs that weren’t widely seen by English-speaking audiences. Are there any projects you’d like to see resurface for audiences to rediscover?
No. I don’t even think about that stuff. I don’t know, maybe it’s something in my brain or maybe it’s something in my personality or both. I don’t know. Once I’ve done it, I’ve done it. And I’ve done a lot of things that I’m not necessarily proud of. And I’ve done quite a few things that I’m lucky and happy to say that pass muster. And both to an equal degree immediately go into oblivion once I’ve done them.
Why do you think that is?
It’s psychological and professional hygiene. It’s not that I’ve forgotten them, but it’s not something that I need to have present at all times. A lot of them I have forgotten, but for good reasons.