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Would you leave the Wachowski’s in charge of your children?
The studios hope you do just that this weekend.
In one of the most visually blended mash-up of what every kid would want to see on the screen, think loud lights and enough flashing yellow, blue and reds that you would swear was done by a DOP who wanted to bring a Grateful Dead LSD experience into full Technicolor, SPEED RACER is bringing a decades old comic property to a whole new generation. And if there’s two guys out there who at least know what it would take to bring a cartoon out of Saturday morning and into more relevance it would be Larry and Andy.
Even though this marks the brothers’ return to the directorial lens, some would take contention with that and point out V FOR VENDETTA as a possible return to form, it is SPEED RACER which is wholly theirs. One of those who are in the thick with the brothers Wachowski, Christian Oliver, stars as Snake Oiler, a rival racer who has his own eye on winning the Casa Cristo Classic cross-country road rally.
Christian is an international actor who doesn’t limit his experience with just acting jobs in the United States. He has starred in the excellently titled, long running series “Alarm für Cobra 11 - Die Autobahnpolizei” in his German home country and it was that very land which played host to SPEED RACER’s production. Further, Christian will also be seen next year in Bryan Singer’s VALKYRIE. A busy working actor, to be sure, Christian also takes time to spend his talents evenly across multiple disciplines and locations, mixing in his television work in Germany with film work in America with theater work in Chicago.
Good looking to be sure, talented being a given, possessing multi-lingual abilities being a marketable asset, by the time I was given the interview I wanted to be completely jealous of the guy.
I couldn’t be.
By the time you’re done reading the interview you’ll see why Christian is one of those guys who you are just rooting for at the end of the day because he is completely without ego and is very realistic about those things which he has been given. His international credentials make him more than a reliable authority on what it means to be a working actor but it’s really his perspective which has catapulted him to the top of my list of the most entertaining celebrities I’ve talked to this year.
SPEED RACER opens today.
CHRISTOPHER STIPP: One of the first questions I have is regarding your role in SPEED RACER. How did that opportunity present itself?
CHRISTIAN OLIVER: ‘Present itself’ sounds so great but I had to really fight for it and go after it. Do an audition, do the casting process like everyone else and at the end of the day I was excited to finally get in the room with the brothers, get to play with them, and that was it. That was the whole casting process and that’s the process that we as actors (I can’t say that people like it) but for me that’s the hardest part and the most unpleasant part. As soon as you have the part it’s all good. You get to play. You have fun and all your insecurities go out the door – usually. This was just something I heard of, something I really wanted to be involved in and something I really went for.
CS: What kind of part are you playing in the movie?
OLIVER: His name is Snake Oiler. And like the name already says, he is a whack job. A fun, fun snake oiler kind of guy who is head of the Hydra-Cell team. In the original cartoon he was the head of the Acrobatic team. So basically, I have my own little crew and want to be the best racer in the world, I think of myself as the best racer in the world and I want to take down anybody who gets in my way. That’s exactly what I do and I do it well.
CS: Tell me this, the trailers came out and it’s a mess of color and action and quick cuts, when you were acting against it – I take it there was a lot of green screen - how did you visualize, how did the brothers tell you what they wanted the movie to look like?
OLIVER: I don’t think anyone really knew, the brothers are such geniuses in their own world that nobody could imagine what they were imagining. It was amazing that they kind of already had this digital world created and we did get a peek at some animated stuff but it was way far, far, away from what it would ever look like. When I see it today, I am amazed like anybody else.
I see it as just unreal and very exciting.
We were, like you said, in front of a green screen. My cockpit was all snake wheels, steering wheel of snakes, gear shift – it was just the inside of the cockpit – I didn’t even know what the car was going to look like because the car wasn’t built. Every driver had a different cockpit. But it was amazing to see already – when I realized what an imaginary world it was going to be – when I went to costume fitting and put on my costume; it was all snake skin and snake boots and snake buckles and snake tattoos and my hair – I literally became like Snake Oiler little by little. It was great to just jump in there and play and have fun with this character.
CS: And that idea – this idea that this production was going to be a big summer movie - was every day punctuated with the idea that this was going to be larger than anything you’ve worked on…. That it’s supposed to be loud, look loud….did you feel that when you were on the set?
OLIVER: On set I’ve never felt the freedom like I felt before. It’s an amazing cast and I felt that everybody knew they were working on something very special and unique.
Sometimes you go to a job and you just dial it in collect your paycheck and meet some interesting people. This is the opposite. You realize that everybody that was there was there because they want to be a part of something special – something unique - something that hasn’t been done before. I think that was the excitement every day at work. And the way the brothers worked with the actors was amazing - so hands on – giving me and pushing me to go for it and be over the top and be crazy. I literally felt like I was jumping off a cliff just hoping that somebody was going to catch me. For an actor that’s an amazing freedom but it’s also scary. There was nothing safe. Playing it safe, we actors like to call it – we know how to play it safe – it’s boring. And this was really exciting because it was just fun. Let’s play ball. It’s what it should be all about.
I would love to work with them again it was exciting to see how enthusiastic they were at work and how well they work together, it was amazing. And then you have Christina Ricci – you drive home with her after her day and she’s like, “I think this is the most amazing movie I’ve ever worked on.” And you are like, “Holy shit, this girl – ” You look over her resume and how can she say that? You know? So I think for everybody it was really special and unique.
CS: Did you have any preconceptions? I mean, the Wachowski’s are very private – they are not out there at all to be studied on a personal, human level. Were you at least intimidated or have any preconceived notions about who they were or what they would be like to work with on set?
OLIVER: To be completely honest, I didn’t know what to expect and I didn’t know what to expect with Speed Racer in my character so I just prepared the hell out of it, you know, did my homework, did all the research and played like this Snake Oiler thing in every possible way you could. And the way it turned out is nothing that I had imagined. So it’s a beauty that it doesn’t matter what my preconceived notions were as long as you are open minded enough to go and be directed and guided – it was amazing. And they are amazing to work with.
Like you said, they are very private. They are very much all about the work. And I love that. I respect that. I think they don’t need to be in the limelight – they don’t want to be in the limelight. They are like kids. They want to play. They want to have fun. They want to push the envelope. It’s fun when you get to be a part of that – it’s very exciting. And then you want to do whatever you can to bring something to the game. So, it was fun.
CS: It seems that the opportunity really presented itself at the right time. You are going to be in two really big films this year, the second one being VALKYRIE with Tom Cruise. It seems like it is going to be a real banner year, professionally, for you.
OLIVER: Hopefully. All these things present themselves. They all look good on paper, they all look good when you are doing it. The beautiful thing about the movie industry, and the not so beautiful, you have no control. And wherever the waves may take you, they take you. You usually end up on the beach anyway. And it’s about paddling out again and take the next great wave out there - finding the right wave. And now I am very fortunate and happy that I get to ride this wave but I’m sure I’ll be paddling out again trying to find the next one.
It’s constantly trying to look for other work. I started working with a production company trying to create my own waves so to speak, working with friends that do what these people do with hundreds of million dollar budgets do it in a small, confined independent way. It’s fun. It’s great to do both. I’m very excited about that.
CS: Looking over your resume, you have been doing this for quite a while – almost 15 years now as an actor, just working, what has the experience taught you, just from a working point of view, about what it takes to be a working actor?
OLIVER: It’s tough. Like you said, 15 years it sounds like a lifetime and I’m very fortunate in the way I’ve been able to work in different countries. I shot a movie in Ireland over Christmas for the BBC, I shot a TV show in Germany for two years, so it’s great to be able to leave this town as well and come back and not get stuck in a rut. I felt stuck in it from time to time. Just keep on treading water and keep on going forward – even if it’s a little tiny step and if someone makes you go five steps back you have to keep fighting for it and keep going and keep going. I’m in waist deep too.
I love this. I love what I’m doing. I love the business and I love the people that are involved in it. It doesn’t mean all of them – there are a lot of egos and a lot of negativity – but I’ve been fortunate to work with those few highlights that has showed me it can be amazing even on a level with the George Clooney’s and people that are keeping it real and keeping it fun and keeping it passionate and are in it for the right reasons and I want to be in it for the right reasons. Hopefully just create some more opportunities and inspire others to do the same. It’s a team sport. You can’t fight this by yourself. You have to fight it with everyone around you.
CS: You were obviously born in Germany – the movie VALKYRIE – were you able to get back to your home country? And were you able to break out some of your native tongue in the movie?
OLIVER: Actually – no it was all in English. But the beautiful thing is SPEED RACER was shot in Berlin so I got to spend the whole summer – it was back to back – it overlapped which was fortunate because I was up for a couple other parts in VALKYRIE and at the end of the day I was just excited to be part of that cast at all. I would do anything and really the casting director had me in mind for some other roles and at the end of the day he invited me to come, while I was shooting SPEED RACER, to come to the set and meet Tom Cruise and Bryan Singer basically I got cast right on the set for a role they still hadn’t cast so I was excited to be a part of that. So, it was amazing that I got to stay another two months in Berlin and really after so many years I was able to combine those two worlds. Big Hollywood blockbusters and my hometown Berlin family, friends, my sister had a baby…it was amazing. It was great.
CS: I definitely have to ask about that show you were on for two years in Germany. I’m going to butcher this but I’m going to try and get it right – Alarm fur Cobra 11?
CS: What a sweet ass show just by name. You’ve got umlauts, you’ve got cobra, you got a prime number in there…
OLIVER: It’s a badass show. It’s really fun. I would do anything to have that kind of show on NBC. It’s still on. It’s the longest running show in Europe in Germany. Over 10 years – sold all over the world. It’s like Chips on the Autobahn. It’s two cops chasing bad people – drug dealer, pusher anything and I was one of the cops taking them all down.
OLIVER: It was amazing. It was really fun. A lot of stunts. A lot of explosions. It was like 24.
CS: And you did it for 2 years?
OLIVER: Oh yeah, it was great.
CS: Then did you just cycle out of it, did they write you out of it?
OLIVER: I think I was cast on a Thursday here and I had to be at work in Cologne, Germany on Monday and commit for 2 years. So, to leave LA on that short notice and to leave everything behind – it was amazing experience but for me it was always clear that I wanted to come back to LA and wanted to live her and pursue what I was doing here so they replaced me with another guy and he was actually on it before. I actually replaced him. They had one main cop that’s been on there for 10 years and the other guys only last for 2 years before they go on. Yeah, it was perfect. It couldn’t have been better. Literally, I could still be on the show and make some really, really nice money but I would have missed out on the opportunity to work on the Good German and all these movies – SPEED RACER. I just want to mix it up. I’m still at the point in my career where I dare to fail gloriously. I want to put myself out there and don’t play it safe yet. If I get on a TV show here I would love to ride that wave as well.
CS: And certainly it shouldn’t pass without notice that you are a theater buff and I’m very impressed with the kind of credentials and one of my favorite stories, Candide, a brilliant story. I’m utterly fascinated and I want to know how the playwright was able to translate such a big story into a theater length show.
OLIVER: Are you talking about Candide?
OLIVER: Oh, beautiful. I haven’t spoken about this for years. That was my introduction – not really introduction - but I would say my acting bug originates from. That play was done in Frankfurt where I grew up. It was a huge production at the new playhouse in Frankfurt and it was done for students by professionals. Theater professionals. Professional director….. It was done at the main theater in Frankfurt and that was the reason I think I became an actor. It was such a wonderful experience. It was an amazing run, up for a year, and sold out the whole year and I got to play the small Candide, the little Candide – literally there were 4 different Candide’s. He grew up during the show. It was his whole lifetime. I got to play 5 other parts. It was great. A lot of people from the theater group went on and become quite well known actors in Germany. The guy that played grown up Candide – I followed his career for years and years. He was always an inspiration to me because I started acting with him. So it’s great to have that as a background. Theater is something that I will always go back to. I love it. Your hometown Chicago was probably one of my most surreal and most amazing theatrical experience when I got to be in an opera. The Chicago Opera Theater. Millineum Park, 1500 people and I was shitting in my pants.
It was with some of the greatest voices in Chicago. It was great.
CS: Did you get to sing in that one?
OLIVER: No, that’s the beauty or I never would have been in an opera.
Mozart, the abduction from the Seraglio, one of the lead guys, he only speaks. And when you see the opera no one really realizes that he only speaks. After the show people would compliment me on my beautiful voice. People just assume that you sing. But he speaks in these small little amazing scenes. The opera singer loves it when an actor takes those parts because they get to play a little bit as well so it was my first introduction into that world. I had a great time. Just an unbelievable time.
CS: How many times – was it just once – how long did it run?
OLIVER: No, I was there for the whole season. Three months. It was great. I loved it.
CS: You have been around – it’s obscene how many cities and countries you have been in doing acting. I know a lot of actors just go to LA and just hope to God they can spend their life in LA but you have obviously spread yourself around all over the world and one of my questions is I don’t know if it has played but the BBC mini-series coming up –
OLIVER: Yes, that’s the one I just shot in Dublin, Ireland.
CS: I would like to know – you would be the resident expert in the differences in the way Americans run their productions and people internationally run their productions. Is it pretty same across the board or are the nuances?
OLIVER: Definitely differences. Definitely the best of both worlds and it would be great to have a happy medium. Obviously everybody wants to come here and work here and infatuated with the whole Hollywood scenario. That’s the way it is – that’s a fact. So right off the bat, if you come from here people don’t know how to deal with you because they have their pre-conceived notions about Hollywood. With that being said it’s great – amazing how taken care of you really are – how protected you really are in this country with the unions and stuff. We keep forgetting that. Especially with the strike and then another strike and everyone is freaking out but I’ve seen it and I’ve been on the other side and on a TV show that’s been sold to over 100 countries and I’ve never seen a dime for any of the countries. So it’s great what’s happening here, it’s great being protected, but it’s also limiting because people get to do it cheaper and without the other hassles in the other countries. So I’m essentially a pro American way it’s all done but there is also freedom in Europe that sometimes I wish they had here on productions.
I’m so happy that I’m able to work both worlds and I’m so happy Europe – the world – China, India – all these great movies that we finally get to see over here. And more and more we get to see them. And foreign actors are recognizable here – it’s great. The melting of the best of both worlds. It’s very exciting to see that.
CS: How do you choose – take for example the BBC series you just shot in Ireland – how do you come upon this kind of work? Do you actively look for this or do you have people looking for you?
OLIVER: No, I wish. Tell everybody to look for me.
Tell them – tell them – ask that question all over. Unfortunately I am not at that point. I have to go out there and people just think you sit by the phone waiting for it to ring and your agent sends you for auditions. I go after these things. And when I find them, I go after them and really commit. Exactly what happened with the BBC thing. It never would have happened. I was in Germany with SPEED RACER and VALKYRIE and had a lot of time on my hands because of scheduling issues and people were freaking out and decided to call my agent and said I’m going to London and want to meet with agents in London. I want to meet with anyone you can set me up with and meet with. I want to meet with cast directors and be there whenever they want me to be there and pay my flight. So I do that. Just hop on a plane and go for it. I met with the director, the cast director and I auditioned for it. The same thing with the Chicago Opera. I put myself on tape, sent the tape into them, and said I want to play this guy. So it’s things that I find – or they find me – makes me happy that they find me sometimes. I just did an interesting project for a student film for AFI. I did a graduate film for them – short film – in Uganda and that’s the same thing. The movie found me. I never would have come up with the idea to go to AFI and ask if you have any great graduate movies this year?
But it found me in a sense that I heard about this project about the Northern Uganda civil war that’s been going on for the last 20 years – about the LRA (Lord’s Resistance Army) and these kids that have been abducted and become child soldiers. There was story that was very close to my heart – years ago I went to Uganda to visit and see the country and it struck me that I was so upset and shaken that this thing in the north – the horror and can’t always pay attention to all of them – but I never understood why nobody paid attention to Uganda and what has gone on for 20 years. Luckily now it’s getting a little bit more under control. The other project, the same thing. It found me. I don’t know. I guess you have to be open in that sense. I’m open to anything. Anything that comes my way I will not close the door and look what’s behind it. You know?
Then I started my own production company and started producing with my friends. Got an HD camera, went up an Aspen mountain, 12,000 feet high in the middle of winter, shot a movie, got very lucky, got invited to Sundance Film Festival, sold it there to First Look. So these are all things I’m just like, you know, keep trying to keep myself creative and not sit by the phone and go crazy.
CS: Just one more question – when you are looking for work and it’s something you are willing to go and do, what do you really look for when you weigh whether or not to get into the production?
OLIVER: For me, personally, I always need to be challenged. In the sense, that if I get to play like – I don’t even want to go there – but if you put me in a typecast clean machine – I can dial it in anytime but make sure you pay me. Other than that I’m looking for something to be challenged.
It doesn’t matter what it pays, who is involved, I want to work with people that are all very passionate about what they are doing and that passion comes for me when I’m putting a foot into territory that I’m not familiar with – that I’m not really secure. I get a little insecure, I get scared and I like that. I like to explore – you have to. If you don’t take any risks, not just in this business in life I think, where are you going to get all your kicks and thrills? I want to grow as an actor and I want to grow as a person and all these parts and projects have not only done something for my career but also as a human being and I’ve met amazing people.
That’s all that matters.
Going from Steven Soderberg, the Wachowski’s, Bryan Singer, the last two movies were people who have never been behind a camera before – never directed anything before. So it doesn’t matter in that sense. I want to feel the heat. I want feel the passion. I want to be a part of it. I want to be challenged.
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