Noah Taylor may have landed the best, and most dangerous, role of his career—that of a young Adolf Hilter in the soon-to-be-released film Max, which mixes fact (Hitler was a downtrodden war veteran and artist before choosing the path of fascist politics) and fiction (as a struggling artist, Hitler was befriended by a wealthy Jewish German art dealer, played in the film by John Cusack). The movie is a historical fable about a major turning point in history, when Hitler discovered his true creative talent: shaping public opinion through propaganda.
"It's the role of a lifetime in way," said the 33-year-old Taylor, best known for his Oscar-nominated portrayal of adolescent pianist David Helfgott in the 1996 Oscar-winning Shine. "But I didn't want to do it just for the sake of playing Hitler. I really believed that this film had something interesting and worthwhile to say. And if you feel scared of doing a role, then you should do it. I thought, I'm not starving at the moment. I can afford to take a bit of a risk."
Still, Taylor realized that this is also the kind of part that could haunt him for a long time to come. His portrayal of Hitler is that of a charmless, angry, quite human character, and though Taylor doesn't necessarily look like Hitler and is not depicted in the film with Hitler's signature mustache, the actor is entirely convincing as a monster in the making.
"I was conscious of feeling like, You know? Maybe people are going to look at me and only see Hitler for the rest of my life," shared Taylor during a recent visit to Los Angeles from his home in London.
The actor recalled getting a call from his agent the day after Christmas last year about the job. "These people want to meet you for the role of Hitler," said his agent. Coincidentally, Taylor was about to finish reading Ian Kershaw's definitive biography on Hitler's youth and rise to power when he got the call about this project. Taylor read the script for Max and was intrigued but fearful of taking the part. However, he agreed to meet with Max's writer/director, Menno Meyjes (Oscar nominated for his screenplay adaptation of The Color Purple).
Continued the actor: "I knew Menno was a first-time director, and I thought, This is the last project you want to get involved with if you feel that the director's not going to be up to it in some way or you can't trust him. But I was immediately struck by his intelligence, his confidence, and his passion for the film. And I was scared about doing it, but I thought, Well, this is why I got into acting in the first place—to be excited by a project."
Life After 30
Taylor began acting in his native Australia at age 13. He didn't "choose" to become an actor, but, at the suggestion of his father's second wife, he joined a youth theatre company in Melbourne, "probably to get me out of the house on the weekends."
At 15, Taylor was cast in the lead role in the well-received Australian film The Year My Voice Broke. That was followed by numerous Aussie film and TV roles, including the feature Flirting, in which he starred opposite Nicole Kidman and Thandie Newton. After breaking through to American audiences with his superb performance in Shine, Taylor was cast as band manager Dick Roswell in Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous and in Crowe's follow-up, Vanilla Sky.
While you'd think Taylor would feel like an old pro by now—confident in his acting abilities—that hasn't been his experience.
He said, "In a way I feel a lot more insecure now about getting work than I ever did when I was young, because I didn't really think about it one way or the other. For a good 10 years I always saw acting as something I was doing until I could figure out what I really wanted to do. It wasn't until my mid- to late 20s that I said, 'I guess this is what I do for a living.' Then all of a sudden I started worrying."
Until recently he also hasn't been all that excited about most of the parts he's played. "I guess it's taken until now to really start to get roles that kind of interest me," said Taylor, who can next be seen in the British film The Sleeping Dictionary with Bob Hoskins and Brenda Blethyn. "A lot of actors think that when they turn 30 there isn't going to be a lot of work for them, but really, those roles for people over 30 are potentially the much more interesting ones. Now I try to do some stuff to pay the bills [like Lara Croft: Tomb Raider and the upcoming sequel] and then something to stimulate me, and it usually works out that the parts that are interesting to me don't really pay anything. So you have to strike a balance."
As much as he savored the challenge of portraying Adolf Hitler, it was not a particularly enjoyable experience during shooting. He often starved himself, wore scant clothing shooting outdoors in the winter, and, above all, was psychologically affected. "It was like having a horror mask sewn on to your own head," Taylor succinctly noted.
The key to successfully playing this role, according to Taylor, was to find the humanity in such a notoriously despised figure. "I tried to imagine what he's like having a cup of tea or brushing his teeth—what he's like when the camera's not there and nobody else is there."
Besides doing extensive research into Hitler's life, he also did what he would do for any part. He said, "Generally, with all the characters I play, I try to find the one or two defining essences of that character. I find in life you don't really ever get to know people—even your own family—so well that you know what motivates their behavior. You just have a sense of, Dad doesn't talk much, or whatever. In real life we tend to reduce people to describing them in two or three adjectives. And so I tried to find the sort of things that other people see in a person, and I thought, from what I could see, Hitler is somebody who is just incredibly angry all the time about everything."
In the end, Taylor accomplished the unthinkable—he made Hitler human, albeit not likeable. It's a dangerous choice, and, hopefully, this fine actor won't be typed or attacked for taking such a risk. BSW