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Veteran actor Udo Kier on the best performance of his career in Swan Song

Udo Kier is the legendary, openly gay actor you may never have heard of.

By Emily Maskell

Words; David McGillivary; pictures: Greg Gorman and Swan Song

For the past few months, a low-budget, crowd-funded film called Swan Song has created quite the buzz. It’s about a real-life gay hairdresser Pat Pitsenbarger (1943-2012), whom writer-director Todd Stephens knew when he was growing up in Sandusky, Ohio.

Played in the film by veteran actor Udo Kier, Pat, who is retired, ill and in a care home, reluctantly agrees to travel to a funeral parlour to dress the hair of a recently deceased former customer.


Udo Keir (Photo: Greg Gorman)

But the journey to this appointment is less sentimental and more thoughtful than you might expect, given Stephens’s CV (Another Gay Movie, Another Gay Sequel).

Most of the praise for the picture, however, has been reserved for Kier, who delivers a late-life tour-de-force as an old-school queen.

Now 77, Kier has forged an extraordinary career working with some of the world’s greatest directors — and appearing in a lot of trash besides. But we haven’t seen him do anything quite like this before.

The depth of emotion he brings to what could have been an embarrassing stereotype will surprise you. I caught up with him to find out more. 

Born in Cologne, Kier speaks his own, charming version of English. I’d been warned not to ask him personal questions but, when I call him, he begins by telling me where he’s living.

“I’m in my house in Palm Springs, a former library which was built in 1965 by a famous architect, Albert Frey,” he reveals.

“I collect mid-20th century furniture, and the art work of my friends — David Hockney, Andy Warhol, Robert Mapplethorpe, Keith Haring — is on the walls,” he says, dropping a quantity of names that’s allowable when you’ve been in more than 250 films.

“No, I don’t count them,” he confirms, referring to his past work. “But when I do interviews, like I’m doing now with you, people know more about the movies than I do.”

“I did a video saying, ‘I want to do this film. Send me the money’”

Kier is delighted to hear that I’m calling from London. “England is very, very important,” he assures me, before he goes on to recount why.

“I went to London when I was 19 and I went to St Giles School in Oxford Street to learn English. One day a man came to me, his name was Mike Sarne, he was a singer, he said to me, ‘I’m doing my first movie and I would like that you be in my movie.’

“I said, ‘I don’t know how to do that, I have no intention of being an actor.’ He convinced me that they would take care of me, so I made the movie and it was very funny.

“The film was called Road to St Tropez. When it came out, they wrote, ‘the new face of cinema’ and ‘the most beautiful man in the world’ and I got a contract with William Morris, the biggest agency in the world. I liked the attention I got so I became an actor.”

After 56 years in the business, Kier is back in the spotlight thanks to his role in Swan Song. He is amused that he suddenly has the best reviews of his career.

“I have in Monte Carlo best actor, in Dublin best actor, everywhere,” he shares. As such, he’s resolutely proud of the film. “I put all my heart into that character,” he admits.

“You know if you do this [for] 50 years, you know what side of the camera is the best for your face. I forgot all this.”

I ask what attracted him to the part.

“When Todd Stephens sent me the script, I read it twice and I liked the idea of an old man going back in his past and I called Todd and I said, ‘Why don’t you come to Palm Springs and we spend the afternoon together?’”

Kier even had a hand in helping Stephens secure financing for the film via crowdfunding site Kickstarter. “I did a video saying, ‘I want to do this film. Send me the money.’ People gave Todd $100,000. So I went to Sandusky [where the film was shot].”

I ask Kier why Stephens wanted to make a film about Mr Pat, who was the first gay man he had met in his home town.

“When Todd was young and growing up in Sandusky, everybody was talking about Mr Pat and they liked him,” explains Kier. I am also curious to know how much of the film is true.

“He had a salon, he had all the rich girls having their hair done by him, that is the truth.” But did he dress the hair of a corpse? “I don’t think he did. But there’s no question that, if they asked him, he would have reacted exactly as I did, ‘Bury her with bad hair!’”, he says, repeating one of the film’s memorable lines.

One of the reasons Mr Pat was popular was apparently the way he dressed. In the film, Kier wears a particularly striking suit which he sourced himself. “I went to the thrift store to find some clothes. They came with the green suit. I liked it.”

Fashion aside, the film is full of moving scenes, one of which is when, on his way to the funeral home, Mr Pat stops at a cemetery and visits the grave of his former partner, who died of Aids-related causes.

I ask Kier if he can recall what he was thinking about when that scene was shot.

“Of course I can remember,” he says. “I was thinking about so many people I really, really loved, who died of Aids. I didn’t need eye drops to have tears.” The scene was done in one take.

During his long career, Kier has crossed paths with some of cinema’s great film-makers. He recalls how he knew Rainer Werner Fassbinder when the film auteur was 15 and he was 16.

But a particularly pivotal meeting took place at a Berlin film festival when he was approached by Gus van Sant about a part in My Own Private Idaho.

“I owe him everything,” states Kier, “I came to America. A friend said, ‘Why don’t you stay?’ I said ‘No.’ Then, after a few glasses of wine, I said, ‘Not a bad idea.’ That was 30 years ago.”

Kier is still very happy in his work and in his homes (he has a few). “It’s a wonderful day today,” he says with enthusiasm. “It’s too cold for the swimming pool but it is very, very sunshine.”

Given the film’s reception, I suggest that he might welcome more parts like Mr Pat. But Kier dismisses the idea: instead, he prefers to always try something different.

So what would he like to do next? I enquire. “I would like to play William Burroughs,” is his reply. Needless to say, Kier knew him, too.

Swan Song is now available to stream.

The Attitude July/August issue is out now.