Udo Kier has been many things throughout his long and varied career. He began as a ’70s counterculture heartthrob, known for his roles in transgressive horror films like Paul Morrissey’s Flesh For Frankenstein and Blood For Dracula. He was close with the late auteur Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and often brings up his 30-year friendship with Lars von Trier in interviews. His role in 1991’s My Own Private Idaho made him a prolific Hollywood character actor, and in the 21st century he re-embraced his destiny as an onscreen villain, balancing outrageous turns in B-horror films like Iron Sky with arthouse projects like Bacurau, where he led a team of colonialist tourists hunting humans for sport.
American independent films are not foreign to Kier, either; one of his most memorable roles was in 2000’s Shadow Of The Vampire, where he played Nosferatu art director and producer Albin Grau. But his role in Swan Song is unusual, not only in sheer screen time—there’s nary a moment in the film where Kier, usually a supporting player, doesn’t appear on screen—but in terms of character. One of cinema’s most in-demand villains playing a flamboyant hairdresser from Ohio? It’s unexpected, but with Kier racking up the best reviews of his career for the role (much to the German actor’s surprise, by the way), it clearly works.
“I wish I could tell you that casting Udo was my idea,” Swan Song filmmaker Todd Stephens confesses with a laugh. But the truth is, Kier was not his first choice to play Mr. Pat, a character based on a real man named Pat Pitsenbarger, who the writer/director remembers from his youth in Sandusky, Ohio. A local hairdresser, the late Pitsenbarger was a bon vivant, an unmistakable figure who Stephens now realizes was the first queer person he ever knew. Though the two weren’t close, Mr. Pat left a lasting impact, and even inspired a character in Stephens’ first screenplay, 1998’s queer coming-of-age indie Edge Of Seventeen. The part was ultimately cut from the film, but Stephens still knew he wanted to make a cinematic ode to his childhood hero one day. He had been tinkering with the story of Swan Song for 20 years before it was finally made: “For a long time I wanted Gene Wilder to do it,” he shares, envisioning a sort of late-career renaissance for an actor who could no doubt capture the film’s balance of sweetness and sadness. After Wilder’s death in 2016, Stephens kept at Swan Song, determined to find the perfect man to pay tribute to Mr. Pat.
When his casting director suggested Udo Kier for the role, it came as a shock to Stephens. Kier’s distinctive accentuations are a sharp contrast to the real Mr. Pat’s voice, a softer timbre that seemed to suppress a West Virginia drawl. But the pair had one—or two, rather—things in common: A set of bright blue eyes. So Stephens kept an open mind, revisiting much of Kier’s vast and diverse filmography, including My Own Private Idaho, an early influence on his own work. When Stephens got word that Kier was interested in the script, he flew across the country to visit the actor at his home in Palm Springs, California. “When I arrived, he introduced me to his dog Liza Minnelli—and that’s when I knew he was perfect for Mr. Pat,” the director jokes.
The two formed a quick bond with a mutual fascination in the themes Stephens wanted to explore in Swan Song. In Kier, he saw someone who, like Mr. Pat, had really “lived a life,” and knew what it was like to lose friends and loved ones to AIDS. Kier could bring a real sense of history to the part, while also playing up what made Mr. Pat such a magnetic presence. Suddenly, the sweet Sandusky stylist and the German genre actor didn’t seem all that different. To hear Kier tell it, his initial interest in the part was mostly because it was a lead role, although he does add that “I liked the script very much.” But when asked about the changes he’s seen in his lifetime when it comes to LGBTQ+ culture, he turns a bit more philosophical.
“I was born in Germany, at the end of the war,” he says. “And [when I was] a young man, if two men were living together and the neighbors could hear erotic noises through the wall, they called the police and people went to jail. There was a paragraph in Germany called 175,” he adds, referring to a section of the German penal code banning “unnatural sexual offenses” that wasn’t fully abolished until 1994. And when he first came to the United States, things weren’t all that different. He says “When I came to America for the first time, everybody was very scared. If I would have said, ‘one day, two men or two women [will be able to] get married and adopt children,’ they would have said I was crazy.”
In the film, Mr. Pat has been victimized by the lack of official status for his relationship, losing his home after his partner’s death in the mid-’90s because he had no legal claim to his partner’s estate. Kier underlines this point, saying that, “a lot of people don’t understand that it’s not only about the love between two people, but it’s also health insurance. It’s a lot of things—like when you have a partner and he dies, you get his pension.”
Echoing another line from the film where Mr. Pat comments on how freely young queer couples express affection in public, he goes on: “It’s enormous how things have changed in a relatively short time. People have told me about going to to a gay bar, [and] they had to [stand] in front of the door and look right and left to make sure nobody saw them going in. Today, young people, they’re holding hands at Applebee’s and McDonald’s, and if they go to a straight bar and hold hands and kiss, nobody cares.”
That cultural shift looms large over Swan Song, an intimate story that ponders big questions about one’s legacy—particularly among the LGBTQ+ community, undoubtedly experiencing more widespread acceptance than in Mr. Pat’s heyday. But will they remember those who lived on the fringes, who fought day in and day out to survive, paving the way for a brighter future? (“Why don’t they see me?,” Kier’s Pat wonders in dreamlike voiceover throughout the film.) Mr. Pat’s odyssey through the past is set in motion by the news that an old friend and client, Rita Parker Sloan (Linda Evans), has died, and that her will requests that he style her for the funeral. The two hadn’t spoken in decades—not since the conservative socialite refused to attend Pat’s partner’s funeral—so he’s initially reticent. But with nothing left to lose, he ducks out of the nursing home, and heads to town on foot. Along the way, Mr. Pat makes pit stops at the site where his house once stood, the salon run by his former employee-turned-rival (Jennifer Coolidge), and even the gay bar he used to strut through like a king (or drag queen, rather). Each serves as a stark reminder that time has barreled on without him, that this once-big fish has gone out to sea, with only scant reminders left in this little pond of a town that he was ever there.
Swan Song was shot on location in Sandusky over 18 days and was filmed chronologically, to Kier’s preference. For the actor, this was less about “playing a role” than it was about “living a life,” choosing to eschew any sort of rehearsal in favor of going with his gut, with his heart. After that initial meeting in Palm Springs, Kier says that he and Stephens “agreed on certain terms. I am not going over the top, and I don’t want to act. I mean, an actor is an actor, but I didn’t want people to feel that I’m acting.” To make the performance more realistic, Stephens says that he and Kier met with some of the real Mr. Pat’s friends and family to learn more about what kind of man he was, and the distinct way he held his beloved More cigarettes. Otherwise, Kier was keen on being in the moment, spending two days in his character’s spartan room at a run-down nursing home before filming began because he “wanted to feel everything” that Mr. Pat would feel.
The director recalls being terrified during an early fitting, when Kier first tried on the bright, pistachio-colored suit he’s seen wearing in the film’s promotional materials. As soon as Kier was buttoned up, he wanted out of the suit, and Stephens was certain he hated the look. (He might not have shown it at the time, but Kier says now that he loved the suit, having grown up with the extravagant fashions of Elton John.) But when it came time to film the scene at the thrift store where Mr. Pat is gifted the suit, Kier came bursting out of the fitting room to strut his stuff in the threads. It was clear he wanted to experience the moment “fresh,” to feel the thrill of a killer new look for the first time, just like his character. Similarly, Kier declined to look at a gravestone carved with his character’s name until it was time to shoot the scene where Mr. Pat sees the monument for the first time. And once the character donned that polyester pantsuit, Kier kept it on for the remainder of the shoot, as a reminder that although Mr. Pat’s journey can be humorous and life-affirming, once he leaves the nursing home he’s essentially living on the street. “You never see where Pat sleeps” in Sandusky, as Kier points out.
While it has its flashier moments (Kier lip syncing to Robyn’s “Dancing On My Own” is not to be missed), Swan Song succeeds as an understated affair, a bittersweet ode to the passage of time through Udo Kier’s emotive eyes. Late in the movie, Mr. Pat and an old friend are reminiscing when he remarks, “I don’t even know how to be gay anymore.” It’s tossed off like a joke, but it’s a moment of plainspoken honesty for Pat: Not only does he feel he’s aged out of his community, but that life itself has now passed him by. Kier doesn’t share that feeling, necessarily—he’s in no danger of being forgotten any time soon, for one—but he does empathize with longing for people and places that are now lost. In his interview with The A.V. Club, he wistfully recalls: “I lived in Rome for three years, on top of the Spanish stairs. And I would go in the evening with my wind-up record player and play ‘Let The Sunshine In’ and dance under the stars. If you did that now, they would arrest you! Things change, but that is normal … That’s why it’s good that we have a film industry, where we can escape into stories.” Even famous movie villains can be nostalgic sometimes.
Swan Song is now playing in select theaters and will be available to rent on VOD services beginning August 13.