How Swan Song star Udo Kier became a leading man after 50 years in the business

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Chris Stephens/Magnolia Pictures Udo Kier in 'Swan Song'

EW only has 20 minutes to chat over Zoom with legendary actor Udo Kier. Frankly, that's not much time for a conversation with a man whose remarkable filmography spans from the 1966 short Road to Saint Tropez (directed by future Myra Breckinridge filmmaker Mike Sarne) to 2019's acclaimed thriller Bacurau, which won the Jury Prize at Cannes. Kier is surely the only actor to have been directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Dario Argento, Lars von Trier, Gus Van Sant, and Wim Wenders — and definitely the sole actor who has worked with them and also appeared in movies like Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, Johnny Mnemonic, Barb Wire, Blade, and Armageddon.

Twenty minutes is, however, more time than Kier, 76, usually appears in a movie, the German actor having been cast in supporting roles for nearly his entire professional life. Now, Kier finally has the lead role, playing a gay, Sandusky, Ohio–dwelling hairdresser named Pat Pitsenbarger who is lured out of retirement to attend to the corpse of a former client in the low-budget comedy-drama Swan Song (out Aug. 6).

After 200-odd films, the actor was very much ready for his extended close-up. "That was one reason why I took the film," says Kier. "I have been in so many movies, but I wasn't the lead. So you couldn't follow me. There's not three or four minutes in [Swan Song] going by when I'm not on screen."

Chris Stephens/Magnolia Pictures Udo Kier in 'Swan Song'

The critical reaction that has greeted the film suggests directors may have missed a big trick by not elevating Kier out of small parts earlier. In June, he won Best Actor for his portrayal of Pitsenbarger at the Monte-Carlo Comedy Film Festival, where the movie also took away the event's Audience Award. At the time of this writing, Swan Song has a 97 percent ranking on Rotten Tomatoes.

"I couldn't believe that I really got the best reviews in my life," says Kier, who still speaks in a thick German accent despite having lived mostly in the U.S. for the past 40 years. "I couldn't believe when the critics said it's the best film I ever did. I said, 'What? I did with Lars von Trier 10 movies and that's the best film I ever did?'"

It's something of a miracle Kier ever made a film at all. He was born in Cologne close to the end of the Second World War. According to Kier family legend, the hospital where his mother gave birth was bombed by Allied forces shortly after the blessed event and she and her newborn had to be dug from the rubble.

As a teenager, Kier hung around Cologne bars, often in the company of Fassbinder (who would later cast him in his famed 1980 TV miniseries Berlin Alexanderplatz), before he was sent to the U.K. to further his academic studies. "I went to St Giles School on Oxford Street to learn English," he says. "And then I was discovered by Mike Sarne for a film in the south of France. I said, 'I have no knowledge how to do that.' They said, 'Leave it up to us.'"

Kier's big break came when he was cast as a witch hunter in 1970's Mark of the Devil, the first of the actor's many forays into the horror genre. "My first real film and first main role was Mark of the Devil with Herbert Lom," he says. "I mean, he was the star, but I was his assistant." Kier had found his calling. "To be honest, I liked the attention I got as a poor boy from Germany," he says. "I became an actor and then came one film after another."

Courtesy Everett Collection Udo Kier in 'Andy Warhol's Frankenstein'

Kier was a staple of European cinema during the '70s, lending his angelic (but also devilish) features to everything from Argento's horror classic Suspiria to 1976's much-less-revered Spermula, an erotic sci-fi tale. The actor is happy to admit that good fortune contributed to his success. Take Kier's recollection of how he came to appear in the 1973 horror film Andy Warhol's Frankenstein, which was directed by Warhol collaborator Paul Morrissey.

"I met Paul Morrissey in an airplane flying from Rome to Munich," the actor remembers. "He wanted to ask me what I was doing. I said, 'I'm an actor.' Couple of months later, he said, 'I'm doing Andy Warhol's Frankenstein and I have a little role for you.' I said, 'Great, what do I play?' He said, 'Frankenstein'! So every meeting with all the directors I worked with, most of them came by luck. That's why I always say I am a lucky man. I have never asked a director, 'Could I work with you?' Because, imagine, you would ask David Lynch, 'I would like to work with you,' and he would answer, 'Who doesn't?' [Laughs] I would be under the table!"

One director Kier did seek out was Lars von Trier after seeing his 1984 film The Element of Crime at a film festival. "I said to the director of the festival, there's one person I want to meet," Kier recalls. "So I met him, and I expected somebody dressed in black, like Kubrick or Fassbinder, being in a bad mood. And there was this young man, and we exchanged numbers. A few weeks later I got a call and he said, 'I'm doing Medea and I want that you play Jason, the husband of Medea.' He said, 'Don't shave anymore, don't wash your hair, and come in three weeks.' So I looked very rough. I got there, I got the job, and that was the beginning of our friendship. I became right away the godfather of his newborn daughter, and then we made a lot of films."

The pair's many collaborations include the '90s TV show The Kingdom, a bizarre phantasmagoria set at a Danish hospital. "I was very proud I was the first actor in the world who was born on screen, because they built this big woman model and I was in her stomach, and when I heard the word 'action!,' my head came out and I just went like, 'Argh!'"

Kier says von Trier gave him a succinct but hugely important piece of advice during the production of 2003's Nicole Kidman–starring Dogville. "We had dinner with Lauren Bacall, Ben Gazzara, James Caan, Nicole Kidman, and Chloë Sevigny," Kier says. "He says, 'Don't act!'" The instruction to be rather than perform has stayed with the German thespian. "I mean, of course, when you're a vampire you have to act," he says. "But in modern stories, I don't act."

Warner Brothers Courteney Cox and Udo Kier in 'Ace Ventura: Pet Detective'

By the time of Dogville, Kier had become a familiar face to U.S. cinemagoers thanks in large part to the patronage of Gus Van Sant, who cast him in 1991's My Own Private Idaho. "I met Gus Van Sant in Berlin," says Kier. "He said, 'Hello, I made a little film, Mala Noche, for $20,000, but I make a film My Own Private Idaho with River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves. I want you to play in it.'" The movie not only led to a string of high-profile U.S. projects like Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and Barb Wire but prompted the actor to relocate to America, ultimately settling in Palm Springs. "I live here in a wonderful former library," he says. "I collect furniture and I collect modern art — Andy Warhol to David Hockney."

Swan Song is written and directed by Sandusky native Todd Stephens (Another Gay Movie), who based Kier's character on an inspirational local he knew growing up. "Pat Pitsenbarger was a real-life person from my hometown," says the filmmaker. "He was this outrageous, flamboyant hairdresser who was very out, loud, and proud long before that was acceptable in my conservative small town. I always idolized Pat because he was different and I felt like I was different, so he kind of helped give me the courage to be me."

Stephens struggled to determine who could play such a distinctive character, until one of his casting directors suggested Kier. "I would have never thought of it because the real Mr. Pat was American, so casting someone with a German accent was not what I expected," says the director. "But as soon as she said it, I kind of knew it was right. I loved Udo from My Own Private Idaho and from Suspiria and from so many things."

Kier liked the script but asked Stephens to visit him in Palm Springs before signing on. "I wanted to meet him to see if I could work with him," says the actor. "Todd came and it was very pleasant, and then I stayed on board and even did a little crowdfunding. We got some money and then we started the movie in Sandusky."

Chris Stephens/Magnolia Pictures Udo Kier in 'Swan Song'

It is a little hard to imagine the cosmopolitan Kier walking the streets of small-town Ohio, but the actor claims to have thoroughly enjoyed his sojourn in Sandusky. "I wanted to shoot chronologically and we did," he says of making the film, whose cast also includes Jennifer Coolidge, Michael Urie, and Dynasty star Linda Evans. "So I started my first day of shooting in the retirement home in the bed. I demanded that I be there a day on my own, with no camera, to get used to the room. So that's what we did. We filmed everything in the retirement home and then we went on the street where I hitchhike to the town."

He continues, "In Sandusky, [they had] one street and on that one street they had a secondhand store where I filmed, and across the street was the theater where I filmed. So the whole street became a set. It was not the kind of film where the actors had trailers and all that, so it became a very normal situation, which I like."

"He's really easy to work with," says Stephens of his star. "He's a big motivator, like, 'Let's go, let's shoot.' It was hot, he was in this heavy sweatpants outfit, and Udo was just always there on the frontlines. I think he really liked being able to show his full range, to develop a character and give it an arc, and not just have to make that impact in five minutes. I think the film finally shows what Udo can truly do."

Over the past decade, Kier has averaged around half a dozen projects annually. Fans of violent thrillers may be familiar with him through his appearances in filmmaker S. Craig Zahler's Dragged Across Concrete and Brawl in Cell Block 99; younger pop culture consumers might at least know Kier's voice from his portrayal of Professor Pericles on Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated. That heavy work schedule was interrupted by the pandemic and, although Kier reveals he did recently reteam with von Trier to shoot a continuation of The Kingdom saga, he hopes we see more of him in fewer projects going forward.

"I'm looking to get main parts, even in independent film," he says. "Hopefully something will come this year — something really interesting, like playing William S. Burroughs. I met him. I went to visit him in Kansas and it was amazing. I didn't like the movie they did with Naked Lunch. That's another story. But you know what I mean? I want to play somebody from the beginning until the end."

Swan Song opens in limited theaters Aug. 6 and is available on demand Aug. 13.

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