Udo Kier Has Always Been Ready for His Close-Up, Mr. DeMille. In Swan Song, He Gets ItMovies Features
Claiming German actor Udo Kier is a legend is probably one of the bigger understatements you’d make in your life. His career spans genres, small-time and big-time directors, and, frankly, space and time itself. He has appeared in a delightful plethora of iconic films including Dario Argento’s Suspiria, Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho and Lars von Trier’s Melancholia—and that’s just naming a few. In my mind, he’s the equivalent of a high-flying trapeze artist at the best (and most humane) circus in the universe: He’s here, he’s there, he’s everywhere and he makes it look like the easiest thing in the world.
When Mr. Kier’s bright and shiny voice greets me on the other end of the phone, his excitement and sheer pride for his new film, Swan Song, is infectious and, of course, he’s (rightfully) pleased with his own performance. The movie follows Pat Pitsenbarger, an aging queen with a vibrant reputation as Sandusky, Ohio’s best hairdresser, who breaks out of the confines of his nursing home facility to journey crosstown to do hair and makeup for a rich former client’s funeral. Finally, he alone is standing center stage—and being handsomely rewarded for taking on the actor’s age-old task of tapping into their vulnerability for all to see.
“I couldn’t believe that, in 50 years working as an actor, I got the best reviews of my life,” he says of the glowing comments about the film, written and directed by Todd Stephens. Yes, Todd Stephens of Another Gay Movie, a film in which I personally find a lot of slapstick joy. The two pictures are wildly different in tone and comedic style, but there is something homegrown and passionate about Stephens aging into creating quiet, yet sweeping dramedies like Swan Song and taking a larger-than-life figure like Kier along for the ride.
It’s clear Kier is grateful to Stephens for the privilege of a leading role like Pat. Even his incredible past as an actor can’t overshadow the thrill of top billing.
“[Movies like] Suspiria, Blade, I never had the leading part. That’s the difference. Ok, in 1973, I was Dracula and Frankenstein, but in 1973,” Kier emphasizes, like those films weren’t directed by Andy Warhol’s longtime pal and Factory collaborator Paul Morrissey. Like they won’t live in an interesting type of arthouse infamy. “Long time ago,” he says.
It was even different when working with Willem Dafoe and John Malkovich on 2000’s Shadow of a Vampire. “I was just one of them. Ensemble work,” he says with a flair of French lilt. “But in Swan Song, it’s Pat. It’s a character from the beginning. It starts with the character and ends with the character. People can follow the character from the beginning to the last shot, and I think that’s the difference.”
Despite his lack of leading material over the years, Kier knows his career is one for the books, and that he doesn’t need to pander to find compelling roles. “I’m a lucky man,” he says with a laugh. “I have never [told] a famous director, ‘I would like to work with you.’ Imagine if I said to David Lynch, ‘I would like to work with you.’ He would say, ‘Who doesn’t?’”
That said, he isn’t afraid to gush over some of his wishlist of future collaborators, or even reveal his most charming tactic when meeting an artist he admires. “I would love to [work with] Terrence Malick. I love Terrence Malick. I love David Lynch. But I never [tell] a director, ‘I would like to work with you.’ I only say the truth: ‘I like your movies,’” he says, sincerity dripping from the phrase. “If they want me, you know, they know how to find me.”
It seems directors aren’t the only ones who know where to discover Kier and his impeccable work. He’s finding a fanbase of young filmheads, which, frankly, leaves me feeling optimistic about the future before us.
“Yesterday, we had a Q&A [in Los Angeles] and there were really young people and some of them said, ‘This is one of my favorite films.’ 20 years old and that age range,” the actor gushes before specifically noting how refreshing it is to see young people bringing the theater experience back in a big way amid COVID-19. “People want to go to the cinema again and see stories like this where they get tears in their eyes and they’re also laughing.”
Kier feels it too; it isn’t just me who sees something vivid and beaming about those in the seats at his Q&A, those growing up in today’s film landscape who see movies like these as quiet gifts. Kier also sees the connection between those twentysomethings in the theater watching Swan Song and the older generation—those who, like Pat, are from an era when things were different.
“There’s a generational difference,” he says. “In the old days, when people wanted to go to a gay bar, they were looking left and right to make sure nobody saw them going in. Today, the new generation are holding hands in McDonald’s and Applebee’s and wherever they want to go. Nobody cares. And that was, of course, hard for Pat to see the difference.”
The change is beautiful and strange to the character and, through this, the film becomes a lesson for the younger generations in the same way reading your Stonewall history is a lesson. A reminder. The audience goes along on Pat’s journey to find it in himself to be as out and proud as he and his peers always wanted to be. There’s always going to be something cathartic about a person finally becoming their full and true self, even if that person, in the moment, isn’t you. For Kier, the humanity of the role and the story was paramount to his decision to do the film.
“[There was] no acting, no big numbers, because the story was strong enough,” he said of his on-screen work. “Somebody in my age group, knowing he’d had a heart attack and wouldn’t live for long, going back in his past.”
It doesn’t take much to see how a story with that much emotional life would resonate, but with the storied actor at the helm it feels like watching a beloved patriarch experience that fabled phenomena that comes when human beings are inches from death. It feels like watching someone truly remember who they are and who they always were.
The iconic actor certainly isn’t the only one in the film who gives a career-best performance. Jennifer Coolidge, whom Kier dubs a “wonderful” performer, stands toe-to-toe with Pat as Dee Dee Dale, his rival hairdresser who started out as his assistant. They have several film-stealing scenes together and, funnily enough, they mostly skew dramatic, at least on Coolidge’s end. She and Kier are a fine match and thread so much history throughout the film that it becomes hard to not be invested in all of the bits of Pat’s deep-seated past.
Speaking of little moments, there was a whole world of them that influenced this film before Kier even arrived to be part of it. The character was, in fact, a real person once, who influenced Stephens as a young gay Sandusky child in a big, positive way. That man became Pat on paper, who became Kier on screen. In order to really get at the essence of the role, and in turn, the film, Kier had to immerse himself in Stephens’ world.
“[Todd] introduced me to friends, the real friends he had [and] the real Pat. How he lived, how he talked. I knew the attitude he had. I just had it in my mind and it just came out. I wasn’t imitating Pat—I was Pat. In my own way, but with the same intention,” he explains. “I just did it.”
He tells me what a great line that would be to end the story on: “I just did it.” The phrase encompasses Kier’s life and career in the same way it does Pat’s. Both move through their respective worlds without apology, yet with the grace and wisdom of a lifetime of lessons, regrets and memories. “I just did it.” Like the bubbly and beautiful hairdresser before him—and frankly, within him—Kier did just do it, his way.
Lex Briscuso is an entertainment, film and culture writer with bylines at Life & Style, In Touch Weekly, Shudder’s The Bite and EUPHORIA. She spends too much time thinking about One Direction and the leftover moments writing poetry, fiction and screenplays. Her horror radio show, YOUR NICHE IS DEAD, is live Mondays 5pm ET only on KPISSFM. She tweets @nikonamerica.