Udo Kier recently spent a lot of time in a nursing home. Oh, not because the 76-year-old German actor was ill or otherwise infirm, but because that was the home of Pat Pitsenbarger, the retired Sandusky, OH, hairdresser he plays in Todd Stephens’ Swan Song.
“I talked to Todd about shooting [the film] as chronologically as possible,” Kier says in a recent Zoom call from his elegant home in Palm Springs.
“We started in the nursing home and I spent time there on my own, to get a feeling for the room, for the mattress. Where are my cigarettes? I have to know that because it is my room. I’ve lived there for years, so I cannot, just as an actor, come to a set and say, ‘Whare are my cigarettes?’ I have to know.”
In a career that spans 55 years and nearly 300 film and television credits, Kier counts among his collaborators Paul Morrissey (Blood for Dracula, Flesh for Frankenstein), Dario Argento (Suspiria, Mother of Tears), Rainer Werner Fassbinder (The Stationmaster’s Wife, The Third Generation, Lili Marleen), Guy Maddin (Keyhole, The Forbidden Room), and Lars von Trier (Europa, Breaking the Waves, The Kingdom TV series, and many more). He was Dragonetti in the 1998 horror film Blade (“I was the overlord vampire who says, ‘I have lived for thousands of years!,'” Kier recalls 23 years later.) In recent years, he’s played a miller with a visceral taste for vengeance in the 2019 adaptation of Jerzy Kosiński’s World War II novel The Painted Bird and a hunting guide whose wealthy clients seek vulnerable prey in Bacurau.
In short, it is not the resume of someone one would immediately think of when casting a flyover country hairdresser, but Stephens knew Kier was his Pat the moment they met. The filmmaker knew Pitsenbarger, so he had specific memories from which he drew the character.
“Pat was a flamboyant guy, but he was also a quiet. He was kind of like Udo,” Stephens says.
“Also, one of the things was I wanted somebody that could relate to the life that Pat led, and that had known people that were lost, that lost friends to AIDS, and lived through that experience and didn’t have to fake it but be real and that’s Udo.”
The death of Pat’s frenemy, Rita Parker Sloan (Dynasty‘s Linda Evans), sets Swan Song in motion when she leaves instructions that he is to do her hair for the funeral. So, he makes his escape from the home and spends the day visiting old haunts and poking at old memories, all roads leading to the bar where he was once a star drag queen attraction.
Returning to Sandusky where his parents and other family – Stephens’ brother put up Kier for the 18-day shoot – still live was a kind of shock to the filmmaker. He made his first feature, Edge of Seventeen there, 23 years ago and remembers hiding the fact that the film was a gay, autobiographical coming-of-age drama because he felt he couldn’t tell the truth in a small, conservative city. This time out, when he arrived back in town to start production, he was just in time for Sandusky’s third annual Pride celebration.
“There’s Gay Pride flags all up and down Main Street,” Stephens says, “And people knew the real Pat. It was like, ‘Oh my god, my mother went to him or my grandmother went to him,’ and so there was big love for the real guy.”
For Kier, Sandusky helped inform his character. He describes Main Street as his studio. Most of his scenes were shot in various stores and other locations there. He further got to know Pat through the reminiscences of the hairdresser’s old friends that he was able to meet. He became one with his character.
“I had an amazing time, because for me, there wasn’t any difference, I was Pat all the time,” Kier says. “I was the same person, day and night, just like that.”
“It was like 100 degrees half the time,” Stephens adds. “But it was the best experience shooting my life. Watching this guy every day blew my fucking mind.”
So often the character actor who stands out in support, this time Kier is the star, a development not lost on him. He won the best actor prize at the Monte Carlo Comedy Film Festival and his reviews have been stellar. While he jokes he will never star for Steven Spielberg, he senses new opportunities in the independent film realm that has long been his home.
“This film with Todd, it’s very important for me because it changed my attitude for the future,” Kier says. “It also a little changing my life, getting main parts in films. I got a few offers and I’m looking for something where people can follow me, if I play maybe a man I knew very well, William Burroughs. Maybe I’ll play William Burroughs. He was a very interesting man, painting and shooting at his paintings. I knew him quite well. So that’s what I’m looking for.
“And I’m so happy for Todd. This is such a success.” –Pam Grady
Swan Song is playing in theaters.