Arthouse icon Udo Kier and co-star Michael Urie on their moving, queer cross-generational bond in Swan Song
German character actor Udo Kier is on camera holding old prints of press photos from his previous films over his face like a Halloween mask. He jokes that if a journalist dare asks a terrible question that he considers daft, the photos, not Kier himself, will answer back. Luckily those prints never made their way back onto camera during our conversation, which also included his Swan Song co-star Michael Urie.
Swan Song, the new film from openly gay Edge of Seventeen director Todd Stephens (Another Gay Movie, Another Gay Movie 2: Gays Gone Wild), wouldn’t be the film it is without Kier’s brilliant performance at the heart of it. He’s a leading man for the first time, rightly earning him some of the biggest buzz of his 50-year career. But there’s no question the film’s bittersweet coda, a scene that serves as an elegiac tribute that Kier shares with Urie (Ugly Betty), is something special in its own right.
Poignantly, it honors older generations of unapologetically queer elders who enriched the lives of younger LGBTQ populations, demonstrating that queer life now wouldn’t be the same without them.
Though Kier, also openly gay, has appeared in more than 220 films over the span of five decades (among them: almost all of Lars von Trier’s films, as well as Dario Argento’s Suspiria and Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho), he’s never played a character as proudly gay as Pat Pitsenberger, a legendary Ohio hairstylist known as the “Liberace of Sandusky.” Women loved Mr. Pat, as he’s called, for making them look, and consequently feel, beautiful.
Now in his advanced years and living in a nursing home, retired from doing hair, he’s more than earned the right to be a bitter old queen. Mr. Pat survived the AIDS epidemic, lost friends, was at the forefront of gay liberation. In this new gay world, he’s an outsider all over again, his glory days behind him. But when one of his former clients dies, and he’s asked to do her hair, he has an opportunity to reclaim the history that made him who he is.
Kier, speaking from Los Angeles, and Urie, at home in New York, recently chatted about shooting their powerful scene, what attracted them to the film, and the legacies they hope to leave behind.
What made you agree to do this project?
Udo Kier: For me, I got the script, and I liked it. I said, “I want to meet Todd because I want to see if I can work with him.” If I wouldn’t have liked him, I wouldn’t have made the film. But I liked him.
He came to Palm Springs, and we talked about it. His script was very strong. And I wanted to shoot as chronologically as we could. I wanted to start in the retirement home, which we did. I stayed there a single day on my own with no camera because I wanted to feel the bed, I wanted to see where everything was. And then we went into town.
For me, the importance (of) this film is the different generation—my generation—and going back (to Ohio), and people don’t recognize me anymore. You see, I’m from Germany, and in Germany … if two men lived together, and the neighbors were hearing some erotic noises, they could call the police, and the people were arrested and put in jail. Now they’re holding hands at Applebee’s.
So I think it’s so, so wonderful (that) in (a) relatively short time, two men or two women can get married and adopt children. It’s amazing. It’s amazing that, after 50 years in the business working with genius directors like Lars von Trier and Gus Van Sant, the critics now write that it is my best film.
Michael Urie: It was Udo from the beginning. When I was offered the job, he was already on board. That was very exciting to me ’cause I’ve been a longtime fan of both the filmmaker, Todd, and Udo. But it’s this quiet observation that we as queer people have when we’re younger. Most queer people do not grow up in households with other queer people, and so we look elsewhere to find ourselves to see what we could be.
Michael, your character Dustin acknowledges that Pat, even though they had never met, made it easier for him to be openly gay. Who are the queer people you never personally knew who paved the way for you to be openly gay?
Urie: I’m from Texas, and I grew up in a suburb of Dallas called Plano, Texas. I was in drama in high school, and I was reading great queer literature and (there was) theater: Angels in America and Terrence McNally plays. I was exposed to this stuff, and I was aware of it and titillated by it. But there was a guy in my high school who was tall, strapping, extremely well dressed, very attractive, and pretty obviously gay. When I picture him in my head, he’s 30, even though he was, of course, 17 at the time. I looked to him and his strength and his power and his beauty. He was, in many ways, my Mr. Pat. I still think back on him. I still think about how awesome he was.
As gay men, do either of you see parts of yourself reflected in Pat?
Kier: I think, first of all, Michael, you did amazing, good work. (Our) scene on the couch works so well because I don’t move one inch. If I would have had a conversation, that would have been not good. But just having the cigarettes with the ashes, and listening, listening, listening made it stronger than if I would have answered you.
I’m more like an actor who likes to underplay (the character). That’s why, also, I never rehearsed with Todd because Todd is a director who likes to rehearse. I learned from Lars von Trier, (whose) favorite line is, “Don’t act.” I always think about, especially if you’re in a movie like Swan Song, when you have a strong story, a strong situation, which is funny at times, and sad at times, there’s no need to do acting numbers. A lot of actors, they’ll start with their back to the camera, by the chimney, and then they’ll turn around, and they’ll talk to the floor, and finally, they’ll come up to the camera. No, no, no, no.
Yesterday I saw 20 minutes (of Swan Song), and today I will see the whole film at Outfest, and it’s a strong film. I hope a lot of people will see it. I showed it before to a few friends. Not many. I don’t have many friends. But I showed it to a few friends, and they all said, “Oh, I cried and cried. And I laughed.” So that is good. If you’re able to tell a story where people laugh and cry, that’s good.
It’s amazing how many really young people liked the movie. You know, I was afraid that (they’d say), “There’s an old man.” But it’s not true. There were young, young people. And one girl, yesterday, said to Todd, “This is one of my favorite films ever.” And I said, “Wow. Maybe she only goes once a year to the cinema.”
I got choked up throughout the movie, thinking a lot about my older self and what I might be like when I’m Pat’s age, how I might look back on my life. Do you feel like you share something in common with Pat when it comes to being gay and aging?
Kier: That’s why I accepted the role. Todd told me a lot about Pat, and when I got there (to Sandusky), I talked to Pat’s friends and (they) told me how he was smoking and things like that. It’s definitely the generation, and we’re very lucky that in Sandusky, the main street became our set. So in that green suit, I went to have a glass of chardonnay, and they all know me. There was the secondhand store, and across the street was the theater, so it became all real. It was not a film where you have trailers. No, no, no, no. It was a real film. It was all from my heart. It wasn’t calculated. I never in the whole film calculated a situation. When I come out and say, “I’m back!,” that was a copy of Liberace. Because when Liberace was performing in Las Vegas, he ran through the stage with all (his) rings and said, “You paid for them.”
Because this movie says a lot about the legacies we leave behind, how do both of you hope others will remember you?
Kier: Well, in my case, because Mike is so much younger, doing it for 50 years, being Andy Warhol’s Dracula, Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein, people will, I guess, remember me (for those roles). But, for me, it’s really amazing that Variety and all the critics write that (Swan Song is) my best film. I feel a little bit strange about that. Making so many films with great directors, like My Own Private Idaho with Gus, and now they write it’s my best film. I know why. You know why? Because I have the leading part, and you follow the character. If you have a guest part in a film, people say, “He’s very good. He’s a good villain, yeah, yeah, yeah.” But they cannot follow you through the story, from folding napkins to wearing wonderful shoes when he’s dead (laughs).
Urie: I guess I want my legacy to be: “He was part of cool things. And he was always himself.” I’ve been in a lot of queer movies and queer theater and…
Kier: Strange movies.
Urie: (Laughs.) I’ve been in a lot of strange movies. And there was a point when I was first on TV, and I was playing a very flamboyant gay character, and I was told, “Don’t do this again. Don’t do any more of these. Don’t get pigeonholed.” And I thought, “There’s so many different kinds of gay people.” And I do play gay parts all the time, and they are different. We have so many different ways of being LGBTQ, and there are so many stories to tell.
I’m so proud to be part of this one, which I saw with a group at the Rooftop Film Festival in Brooklyn (with) a group of predominantly heterosexual people who loved it. That is a really exciting thing, too, to be a part of a movie that you would maybe call a gay movie because the protagonist is gay, and the central conflict has to do with his homosexuality, but this is a straight person’s gay movie. Straight people love it. I think that’s a testament to Udo and a performance at the center that can compel and delight and break your heart. It’s a piece of life, watching it. And working on it felt like walking into the movie.
As Udo said, we took over that town—or they took over that town, and I showed up. I showed up at a certain point in the shoot, and I felt like I was walking into a movie—not onto a film set, but into a movie. There he was in his green suit, and we didn’t talk much before we started shooting. He wanted our first interaction to be our first interaction. I’m used to going on stage and making people laugh, and here I am in this movie, reacting to a person. This is a guy walking into my space, and it was actually very easy because he was bringing so much over to me.
Michael, what do you think this film says about aging, in particular regarding the queer demographic?
Urie: That’s very interesting because now the way queer people navigate the world—marriage, parenting—there is a more traditional society-based way of getting older. An older person gets taken care of (by) family and loved ones. But I think all of us, as queer people, we’re not going to have a life that society deems as normal. That is one of the things that we fear: that we will grow old alone or have no one to take care of us. Certainly, it’s a fear that I have, and I think about.
But what’s so beautiful about Mr. Pat and the way in which I relate to Mr. Pat is that even though now it’s 2021 and queer people are accepted—I can walk down the street holding hands with my partner, and I don’t feel any shame anymore or any danger, and I actually feel proud to do that; we’re legal, we’re allowed to marry, we’re allowed to have kids, we have full protections under the law, for the most part, I can blend in, I can assimilate—I don’t want to.
I think that is something that the older generation, when marriage equality became a thing and when people started getting married, thought, “Why would we need that? We’ve been fine without that. We don’t wanna be like straight people; we don’t wanna get married.” It’s two different things. It’s the right to be married versus the need to be married. Also, I’m proud of who I am, and I’m proud to be different, and I don’t need to assimilate. I can be someone else. I think that I want to always have a little bit of Mr. Pat. I don’t wanna walk down the street and have people think, “That’s a straight person.”
Kier: (Laughs.) You have to get a green suit! Get a green suit and just smoke like (him).
Yesterday I looked up because I hear (it) now so many times the word “queer.” I wanted to look in the dictionary (to see) what it means. And queer means, actually, strange. If you go on the dictionary, it says queer means strange. Um, (I) definitely did a strange performance. (Laughs.)
So you might call your performance queer?
Kier: Not me. It’s just a performance. It’s not my swan song. I have made already four films after that. And so it’s not my swan song. That was the danger of it: I thought, “Oh my god, Swan Song. I’m 77 years old soon, so is that maybe my last movie?” No, no, no. I had to go to Lars von Trier and quickly make a movie. And that’ll be my swan song.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.