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26 April, 2011  ▪  Elaine Lipworth

Circuses for people, water for elephants

Oscar winning actor Christoph Waltz stars opposite Reese Witherspoon and Robert Pattinson in WATER FOR ELEPHANTS, a thrilling tale of adventure and forbidden love, set against the vibrant backdrop of circus life in the 1930s.


Pattinson plays a young veterinary student who gets a job in the circus taking care of the animals and falls for the beautiful star attraction, Marlena.  But she is already married to August, the circus ringmaster, played by Waltz.

Charismatic and charming, August is also dangerous, duplicitous and cruel.

This Depression era drama, directed by Francis Lawrence, is emotional and visually stunning, painting a fascinating picture of life, love and high drama under the Big Top.

CHRISTOPH WALTZ   sits down for an interview on the los angeles set of the riveting ‘water for elephants’. the exciting new film is based on the acclaimed  novel by sara gruen.

Looking every inch the old-fashioned circus star riding an enormous elephant, Reese Witherspoon smiles and waves greetings to the crowds who have come out to watch the colorful procession of clowns, jugglers and showgirls. The actress plays Marlena, the star attraction of the circus. She looks beautiful, dressed in a backless pink leotard and shimmering headdress, her hair blonde and curly. The circus has arrived with pomp and ceremony to this small New Jersey town.  Also present is Jacob, the young man who is in love with Marlena. An idealistic veterinary student, he unwittingly boarded the circus train after the death of his parents. This intelligent and sensitive man needed a job and has found work taking care of the circus animals.


Marlena’s mercurial husband August is the ringmaster; he runs ‘The Benzini Bros. Most Spectacular Show On Earth’. Outwardly all charm and charisma, August (Christoph Waltz) is wildly unpredictable and abusive towards his wife and the animals, including Rosie the graceful and noble elephant who is central to the story. But that side of August’s personality is not visible today. “Cristoph is a great actor,” says producer Gil Netter’, chatting on the set. “He can embrace the very tough and the charming sides of the character. All the actors are wonderful—they are all our first choices—we got lucky.”  

We are on the Twentieth Century Fox lot in Los Angeles, witnessing old-fashioned film-making at its best. The setting is New Jersey in 1931 and the town centre that has been recreated for this key scene in the drama is so authentic that it feels like history has come to life. Men in working clothes carry small children on their shoulders outside a  ‘Luncheon’ cafй as they watch the   caged lion pulled along Main Street in an elaborate horse-drawn carriage. Women  gossiping outside the   grocery store with striped awnings crane their necks, hoping for a glimpse of the dazzling Marlena riding her enormous elephant.     

The mood of the country is bleak at the time in which the movie is set.  It is a tough financial climate and spirits are low. But on this bright sunny day as the colorful acrobats and beautiful animals wend their way through town, there is a ripple of anticipation and a surge of optimism. The circus provides an opportunity for a moment’s respite; it is sheer escapist entertainment.

WATER FOR ELEPHANTS is an exciting love story about two people from vastly different walks of life who find love against the odds, but are thwarted by the man who is intent on keeping them apart.  Both have a special bond with an elephant that draws them closer together.

 Francis Lawrence directed the film; Richard LaGravenese wrote the screenplay.

Cristoph Waltz has had a long and varied career, doing extensive and highly praised work in television and film in Europe. His formidable talent came to the attention of world-wide audiences when director Quentin Tarantino cast him as Colonel Hans Landa in INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (2009).  Waltz won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role in the film, as well as many other awards including the Golden Globe for Best supporting Actor and the BAFTA Best Supporting Actor Award. He recently starred in THE GREEN HORNET and his next film is THE THREE MUSKATEERS.

Handsome and distinguished looking, dressed in a gray polo shirt and dark pants, Waltz sat down for the following interview on the set of WATER FOR ELEPHANTS, where he discussed the film and his own approach to acting. 

U.W.:What was the appeal of the story and film for you?

 “It is not easy to describe what attracts you to a story. The film is about the circus in 1931, you don’t need more than that.  Sometimes it is one  minute detail that can make the difference when deciding what is interesting. August is supposed to be the villain, but for example, looking at the character’s abuse we have to ask:  Is the animal abuse that August engages in enough to make me think of him as a villain? In that one sentence you have already so much material that you could go crazy discussing it.”

U.W.:In what way, can you explain?

 “The question it poses is this: what is a villain? What is that supposed to be? Calling him a villain is an abbreviation to make a conversation easy, but that is not enough for me to play a part. What is abuse? What you think of as abuse might not be the same as what I think abuse is. Now we are discussing 1931, not right now. What entailed animal abuse in 1931? At that time you couldn’t ‘abuse’ an animal, because you were allowed to kick your dog. Today you would get arrested for mistreating animals. Values have changed of course and sometimes these generalities do not get me any further in what I am trying to do as an actor.” 

U.W.:So how do you approach this role, given that attitudes towards abuse and perhaps the idea of ‘villainy’ are ever-changing?

 “Well for example in this story lets take out all the abusive bits. Every time this character hits an elephant, if we take those out, now what’s left? Would August  still be regarded as a villain and how far do we get with our definition of a villain? We have to consider that maybe August has a specific reason for his actions. Have you felt the kind of anger that leads you to actually either hit someone or break something and why was that?   It wasn’t because you were a villain. Maybe it was some form of frustration or helplessness. So that’s already a lot more interesting. When we are talking about the time period of this movie, there were a lot of reasons to be frustrated about things, especially if you ran an enterprise and especially if you ran an enterprise like a circus.”

U.W.:They were very difficult times economically of course.

 “They were and to be on the brink of disaster is already a pretty good reason to be frustrated and I find that more interesting than talking about villains or characters.”

U.W.:The set here looks amazing, is it exciting for you seeing it transformed?

“It is and I wish the Fox lot would be what it was 50 years ago. Now we can see Century City but none of that was there 50 years ago, it was all the Fox lot. I would have loved to have worked on the Fox lot in those days. But it is still fantastic, what beautiful buildings they are. It gives you an idea of what it used to be like in the golden days of movies. Movies are fantastic.”

U.W.:Can you say anymore about you view August?

 “In all seriousness I think it is more important to consider how the audience sees the character, which they cannot do until they see the movie. (laughs) I insist on not talking about the characters I play, very stubbornly and annoyingly I know. (laughs). But I don’t discuss the parts I do, I just do them.”

U.W.:This is a completely different role for you isn’t it?

 “I don’t think I am changing the way audiences see me, it is just now that  it is different because they can actually see me at all. Before INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS  they didn’t see me. And now I am being considered for great roles, this part for example. Two years ago they would have said ‘what, who is he?’ “

U.W.:What did you think of the book? 

“I really liked the depression era setting a lot. I liked the fact that these people had a job when most people didn’t have work. They had to take upon themselves certain hardships that we would consider unbearable today in order to maintain their lives. The responsibility to keep the circus running in the interests of everybody was enormous and that is something that one tends to neglect when considering August. They say ‘oh August is such a villain’ when he throws people off the train and then just leaves them lying there. But sacrifices have to be made individually in order to keep the whole thing going and that is what I found interesting.  Look at Hamlet as a character. You could say Hamlet is a character who can’t act and thinks too much or is in his head all the time, but you can also say Hamlet is someone who takes himself more seriously than the whole and brings down the whole because of that.  I mention Hamlet because it shows that there are diametrically opposed ways of seeing a story. I like that in a story. You know, if you read WATER FOR ELEPHANTS lying on the beach or wherever you read your books, you tend to translate the novel into a movie in your head.  People invariably do that in their heads because nowadays we are all so movie literate and we do the editing in our heads preemptively. Readers make it a great movie themselves.”

U.W.:It sounds as though you have grown to like August, that you are actually speaking from his point of view, justifying why he throws people off the trains if they weren’t of any value to the circus any more, and perhaps were too old or weak or sick. Are you a method actor?

 “Well that is what I get paid for.  But no I don’t really believe in the myth of the actor dissolving and crawling into another personality. There are things that I do in my work that I identify with of course. I watch kids when they play, I wish I could immerse myself like they do, they don’t do character studies. I am not saying that you shouldn’t immerse yourself, but I think the emphasis on character study is a little overdone.”

U.W.:So you do not feel you have to become the character of August to play him?

 “No and I do not think that you have to live half a year in a teepee if you play an Indian. I have an imagination. Also I am never going to be an Indian in a teepee. I am going to be an actor playing an Indian in a teepee, so I have to actually be more concerned and worried with that—I don’t have to become the character. But anyway I would not succeed in doing that because I have no choice to be anyone else but me.  It is interesting to think about where certain character traits or aspects cross. But I don’t concern myself too much with questions like:  ‘Who am I?’ I am an actor.”       

U.W.: Are here any similarities between Francis Lawrence and Quentin Tarantino in their direction?

 “I don’t compare directors. Quentin has his way and Francis has his. I rehearsed longer with Francis than with Quentin because Quentin had his method. I did all my rehearsals with Quentin, just the two of us with no one else. With Francis Lawrence we rehearsed in the usual way just as the others did. But the stories and parts are completely different.”

U.W.:What was it like filming in the desert where some of the movie was shot?

 “It was stunningly beautiful with the Big Top and tents. The production design was extraordinary, all the details with the big posters. The sun was setting with mountains around us and circus flags flying, it was wonderful. It was a fantastically beautiful movie set.”

U.W.:Was there a moment when it all came together? 

 “That is very difficult to say because this kind of experience, when everything flows in unison is wonderful. We have had a few of those moments.”         

U.W.: What was it like working with Reese and Robert?

 “They are both great to work with. We have spent three months of our lives together and get along very well. That is more than most people can say about their spouses (laughs).”                              

U.W.: What is next for you?

 “I am going to do THREE MUSKATEERS in 3D. One ‘D’ per Musketeer (laughs). It’s great, with a real fun script. There is also a Guy Ritchie movie that is not on the table yet, but I’ve spent a few evenings with Guy Ritchie (director) and I think he is fantastic. He is such a sharp guy. From his first movies I thought he was wild, but no, he’s not wild, he is sharp and I love that. And when I see you again (jokes), I promise I will tell you everything about my character in WATER FOR ELEPHANTS. Or …… you can wait until you see the film. ”  

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