NEW YORK — With two Academy Awards already gracing his mantel, Christoph Waltz can pretty much pick and choose the films he wants to make. As for “Big Eyes” (opening Wednesday), in which he portrays Walter Keane, the man who took credit for artwork that his wife, Margaret Keane, actually created, the Austrian actor said, “It came from Tim Burton, so that already, actually, was reason enough.”
But beyond the actor’s huge respect for the “Alice in Wonderland” and “Sweeney Todd” director, Waltz was intrigued by the way Burton asked him to play the role.
“He said, ‘Would you mind reading the script and then tell me about it — tell me what you think?’
“After I read the script, I had a long conversation — really an outrageously long conversation — with Tim about this project. We didn’t immediately agree on the approach to take.
“I remember these faces. I remember these images. I didn’t realize they were paintings at first. I thought they were merely postcards, calendar art, cheap posters. I referred to them as kitsch.”
Burton did not contradict him for using the term “kitsch” but wanted the actor to delve a bit deeper into what the paintings represented. “People either love them or hate them,” Burton told Waltz.
More than the art, what intrigued Waltz as a performer was the relationship between Walter and Margaret Keane and what led him to insist she allow him to lie for more than a decade — making people think he, not she, was the artist. The actor and the director settled on a film that touched on both elements.
Waltz stressed that what Walter Keane began — popularizing expensive paintings by making them affordable to the average person — relates directly to life in America in 2014, a half-century after the Keanes were on the scene.
One has to recognize his marketing genius, even if it was built on a massive untruth.
“Today everything has become what I call ‘commodified,’ ” said Waltz. “Everything is a brand, a commodity. This is exactly what is happening in our world today. We commodify relationships and invert the public and the private. Everything we do in private — much of which should remain private — is seen in public, and there is very little we can do about it.”
For Waltz, who has infrequently portrayed real-life people — and “certainly never before someone as close to contemporary as Walter Keane” — the endeavor is something he’s uncomfortable handling.
“With fictional characters I can work more with my imagination. With a real person, I inevitably feel a responsibility toward the personality, the integrity of that other person.”
Waltz’s co-star, Amy Adams, who plays Margaret Keane, didn’t seem to have the same degree of discomfort in portraying someone who she knows has seen the finished film.
“It was her willingness to allow her story to be told that made me comfortable,” said Adams. “She had trust in the filmmakers and myself, that we would tell her truth the proper way and with respect.”
As for the art that Margaret Keane created — and continues to create in her mid-80s — Adams is a fan. Those “big eyes” appeal to her.
“I really love this aesthetic,” Adams said. “I know to some people, that says something about me, but we discuss that in the movie: what is art, and what dictates good taste and all of that. It’s nice to ask those questions. But I’m in an industry that is constantly asking, ‘Is that good?’ or ‘Is that bad?’ People are constantly telling me that’s good or that’s bad.
“So I’m pretty comfortable with it all.”