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A Retired Hairdresser Revisits His Past In 'Swan Song'

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Pat Pitsenbarger was the Liberace of Sandusky, as a character calls him. But when we meet the retired hairdresser in "Swan Song," a new film from Todd Stephens, Pat's wearing sad, saggy sweatpants at a retirement home and fills his hours refolding napkins he cages from the cafeteria. But a request to do hair one last time for the funeral of an old client sets him on a long walk through the town and through his past.

"Swan Song" stars Udo Kier. The legendary German actor has played over 260 roles in art, horror, erotic films and music videos. Udo Kier joins us now from Los Angeles. Thanks so much for being with us.

UDO KIER: Hello, Scott. How are you?

SIMON: I'm fine. Thank you, sir.

KIER: OK.

SIMON: Pat was a real person, wasn't he?

KIER: Yes. I got a script, and I read it two or three times. And I liked the personality of this retired, old hairdresser. And then I wanted to meet Todd, the director and the writer. I had certain thing I wanted, like shooting chronological, basically, starting in the retirement home. And we started the movie. And the character, for me, was interesting when he was young and famous in Sandusky - and how Sandusky is today because when he was the famous, flamboyant hairdresser and had all these ladies, rich ladies as clients.

And I wanted to do the film for a reason. If somebody from a generation like me - I'm 76 - because, you know, when - I think when he was young and you went to a gay bar, it was like you were looking left and right before you stepped in the bar. And today, the young people, they are holding hands in Applebee or (laughter) everywhere...

SIMON: That's one of my favorite lines in the film.

KIER: So if two boys or two girls who like each other, if they go to any kind of bar, that is OK. Nobody cares what - if they're holding hands or something.

SIMON: Yeah. Mr. Kier, you have played in horror films.

KIER: Yes.

SIMON: But, you know, I've got to tell you, the scenes in the retirement home are also kind of chilling, aren't they?

KIER: Well, it was the whole situation. I mean, one of my favorite scene is where the woman sits always at the same spot. And I talk to her and put her hair in order, and then a little tear runs down her face. And I put a cigarette in her mouth. Even now, thinking about it, my hair are standing up on my arms.

And I believe very much in small things, not big acting things. And I had learned over 30 years from Lars von Trier. His favorite line is don't act. So I try not to act. And I don't think that I, in the role of Pat, that I was acting in the film. I had a long conversation with the old friends of Pat, and they showed me how he smoked and how he was talking. So I adapted that because they lived with him many, many years in a little town.

SIMON: Wow. Can I ask you a question about your childhood?

KIER: Of course you can.

SIMON: I have read you were born in a hospital in Cologne, Germany...

KIER: Yeah.

SIMON: ...In the middle of an Allied bombardment during World War II.

KIER: Yeah.

SIMON: And you and your mother had to be rescued from the rubble.

KIER: OK, let me tell you. So my mother went the 14, October 1944 - so she went to the hospital. And I was born. And then the nurse were collecting all the newborn babies to clean them up. And my mother said, oh, can I have a little bit longer in my arms? And the nurse said, yes. And then the nurse put all the other babies on the table. And then there were an alarm. And my mother told me she saw the wall coming down. And the nurse was jumping over all the babies to protect them. Everybody, of course, was dead. And my mother was lucky that her - and me (laughter) - and then my mother in the darkness, was holding me in her arms. And with the other hand, she went through the gravel. And sometimes I have this vision at night seeing all this gravel, and her hand is waving out of it. So that's what my mother did. They freed us. And I don't know if it was the Americans or the British. But I'm nice to both countries, so (laughter) they saved my life.

SIMON: I've got to ask you...

KIER: Yes, ask me.

SIMON: ...Of all the roles you've done...

KIER: Yes.

SIMON: ...Playing Dracula, Frankenstein, I've got to think that this small film you've made in Sandusky, Ohio, is the role of a lifetime for you.

KIER: Yes. I - that's not - Scott, that's not why I made that film, because I did not know how that film is going to turn out. But it's very important for me now because I cannot disappoint all the press in America. I have to look for my next film - has to be a leading role.

SIMON: (Laughter) At the age of 76.

KIER: Seventy seven by that time.

SIMON: I wonder, when you - you've had such a career after you and your mother were sticking your hands out of rubble...

KIER: Yes.

SIMON: ...And were rescued by U.S. or British troops. Is there a part of you that thinks that, somehow in this universe, you were spared because you had so many important things to do?

KIER: Yes. And sometimes as a joke, I tell the press - I mean, if you be born that dramatic, like I was born, of course I had to be an actor.

SIMON: Udo Kier - he stars in "Swan Song" in select theaters this week - that's usually to qualify for awards - and video on demand August 13. Thank you so much for being with us.

KIER: Thank you, Scott, for giving me the time.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.