Water for Elephants - Christoph Waltz and Reese Witherspoon
August (Christoph Waltz) and wife Marlena (Reese Witherspoon) enjoy a rare moment of delight © 2011 Twentieth Century Fox, Photo by David James

Christoph Waltz’s career in European television, film and stage spans three decades, but he gained worldwide recognition with his performance in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, for which he won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.

In his new movie Water for Elephants, he portrays August, the dictatorial owner and Ringmaster of the Benzini Bros Circus, married to the star attraction, Marlena (Reese Witherspoon). Jacob, a young veterinary student joins the circus, and his and Marlena’s compassion for a special elephant named Rosie, whom August is mistreating, draws them together, and inspires Jacob to implore Marlena to run away with him.

Christoph Waltz spoke about his contentious character at the press junket for the movie.

This is based on a popular book, do you go into a project like this reading the book or do you go in with just the script?

Water for Elephants - Christoph Waltz
August (Christoph Waltz) reacts to the arrival of an unexpected guest © 2011 Twentieth Century Fox

I read it just because it would have felt kind of silly not to have read it when it’s the basis for everything else. But what I go with is the script, of course. If I go with the novel I have to do this translation into a different medium to make it work, to make it dramatic and to find dialogue, that’s the author’s work, it’s not my work. But it’s inspiring to read the source of everything.

When you play a character that’s not likeable, do you have to look for aspects of him to like?

It doesn’t come from liking or disliking, it doesn’t come from that somewhat self indulgent aspect of I don’t feel like it, or as we say, ‘I love it,’ or, ‘I hate it.’ If you go for that, you go for the end of a process, you go for the result.

What makes our lives so difficult is that we never give anybody a chance. We always have an opinion right away and we act on this opinion, which is not a good idea, because you might be completely different. You might have a reason for being disagreeable in the first second of our encounter. That has nothing to do with anything that concerns us, but I take that for enough reason to dislike you for the rest of our lives.

It’s unfortunate that in our regular, social situation, we tend to go for that, instead of an invested interest in finding out [who the other person is] and I try to do that with the characters. I try to invest my faculties in order to find out what it is and what’s behind it.

What did you do to make sure that August wasn’t two-dimensional, or a simplistic villain?

You’ve got a cardboard [cutout] here with a printed picture on it (referring to the movie’s poster). You turn it around to see what’s on the other side. And it’s kind of straightforward, it’s as flat as you choose it to be, and if you’re not satisfied with the flatness, what are you going to do? You’re looking for the third dimension.

Was it fun to play the Ringmaster and be over-the-top in those scenes? Was that freeing for you?

I don’t usually want to be that big. I want to be small and precise. It’s a big effort for me to do that, but it’s a Ringmaster’s work to do that, so there I find my field of interest. What is a Ringmaster’s work? And that I could do.

I went back to Francis Lawrence (the movie’s director) and said, ‘What do we need, what is it that you need for the movie?’ And then I went back into the ring and tried to do that. So I’m not really trying to be a Ringmaster, I’m trying to be an actor.

Was it easy working with the animals?

Water for Elephants - Robert Pattinson and Reese Witherspoon
Jacob (Robert Pattinson) and Marlena (Reese Witherspoon) come together through their compassion for a special elephant named Rosie © 2011 Twentieth Century Fox

These animals are all trained, so are we, and we always had that mediator between us, the animals’ trainer. Without the animals’ trainer we couldn’t have done it. It’s very simple. The lion would have taken care of that within a split second.

The elephant would have taken a little longer, but would have finished the job more thoroughly. So we were dependent on these various animal trainers, and they all knew how to work in movies, so it was fabulous cooperation that was going on. And the animals were in the end doing what they were told.

What was it like working with Tai the elephant, especially has you have such brutal scenes with her in the movie?

This animal has one relationship with a human being only, one, and that’s her trainer. And the rest of us are just there. I didn’t work with an elephant, I worked next to an elephant. Considering that she could step on your toes, it’s a good idea to keep a certain distance.

It’s also a good idea to befriend the trainer. In this case, it just happens to be that this trainer is one of the most extraordinary people you could meet. So I did what he said, I thought it was a good idea to do exactly what he told me to do and refrain from any further endeavors.

Last year was such a fun ride for you, now that a year has passed, how do you look back on that time and the Oscar?

With a hint of nostalgia!

Judy Sloane

Judy is Film Review Online's regular Los Angeles based reporter.