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Playboy Interview: Christoph Waltz

Playboy Interview: Christoph Waltz: Photography by Gavin Bond

Photography by Gavin Bond

Christoph Waltz catches a fruit fly one-handed. The actor, fresh from a photo shoot and dapper in a gray suit, dispatches the pest with a grimly efficient twist of the wrist, flicks it away and wipes his hands while grinning enigmatically. Had he suddenly popped the thing into his mouth and gulped it down like Renfield, the fly-eating loon out of Dracula, it would have seemed perfectly in character. Blame Quentin Tarantino. Ever since Waltz came out of nowhere to win the 2010 best supporting actor Oscar for playing the diabolical, silver-tongued “Jew-hunter” in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, his screen image has been pretty much synonymous with perverse, ruthlessly efficient Continental villainy. Waltz and Tarantino’s follow-up three years later, Django Unchained—for which Waltz won another best supporting actor Oscar playing a bounty hunter disguised as a traveling dentist—only reinforced the public’s perception of his mastery at playing suave, sinister men you love to hate. Or is it hate to love?

Between and since his milestones for Tarantino, Waltz, 59, has played theme and variations on high-style nastiness in The Green Hornet directed by Michel Gondry, Carnage directed by Roman Polanski and Big Eyes directed by Tim Burton. Sure, he waltzed with Sweetums in Muppets Most Wanted, but we’d bet he still managed to creep out more than a few younger viewers, let alone a parent or two. Next up: a role as the villain in SPECTRE, the 24th James Bond spy adventure. He also just signed to direct his first feature, The Worst Marriage in Georgetown, a fact-based thriller in which he’ll play a social-climbing murderer.

Born in Vienna in 1956, he descends from four generations of theater folk. His grandparents were actors, and his Viennese mother and German father designed theatrical sets. A movie-crazed kid, he began acting professionally in his late teens, having studied voice, opera and drama at the Theresianum and the Billrothgymnasium in Vienna. Upon graduating, he studied at the Max Reinhardt Seminar, the drama school at the University of Music and Performing Arts in Vienna. In the late 1970s, Waltz came to New York to study with Method legends Lee Strasberg and Stella Adler. Later, Waltz moved to London and worked steadily in theater. By 1980 he was well on his way to becoming a fixture on European TV series and miniseries, especially detective and crime procedurals. Cast as priests, womanizers, louses and even Jesus, he won attention for breaking the mold by playing an idealistic bureaucrat swimming against a tide of Eastern European corruption in a 1990 Channel 4 British satirical miniseries, The Gravy Train, and its 1991 follow-up, The Gravy Train Goes East. Most of his European work isn’t widely available on home video in the U.S., but this seems to be all right by the actor, who has wryly admitted, “There are a few films I’m not ashamed of.” Then, six years ago, Tarantino threw him a lifeline after what the actor calls “a lot of compromises over the years; I had started to doubt myself.”

Divorced with three grown children, the actor currently shares his life with costume designer Judith Holste and their 10-year-old daughter, traveling between homes in Los Angeles, London and Berlin.

Playboy sent Stephen Rebello, who last interviewed Jeremy Renner, to catch up with Waltz: “Waltz has called himself a ‘grouchy fart’ and ‘an utter snob.’ He doesn’t disappoint. He’s refreshingly opinionated, keenly intelligent, precise in his language and cuttingly funny. We parted with him shaking my hand and telling me I had more than passed muster. I drove home second-guessing myself. Blame Tarantino.”

There’s certainly film history involved in SPECTRE, the new James Bond movie in which you play the villainous Franz Oberhauser. Depending on which script one reads or which rumor one believes, your character may have something to do with Blofeld, the head of the global crime syndicate SPECTRE in six previous 007 films. In such a big machine as a Bond film, can you bring to your role any of the quirky and unique qualities for which you’re known?
It’s an effort I’m quite keen on making, but I’m not sure there’s a lot of room for that. There’s very little I can say about what I play, especially since the script was leaked by the terrible Sony hackers.

There’s such huge machinery involved in making this movie, it’s quite extraordinary, really. This is Bond 24, and even though everything is called iconic nowadays, in a way, the Bond characters are that—just on account of their long history and the repetition in film to film. What you have in a Bond movie is really the continuation of folk theater, like the Grand Guignol in France, the Italian commedia dell’arte or even Punch and Judy, with recurring characters like the Policeman, the Crocodile and Death. In a James Bond movie you have the classical archetypes too, and the so-called Bond villain has his very clear-cut, defined place. It would be a disappointment if all of a sudden you had this greatly different approach to playing a Bond villain. Yet within that, it’s part of your work as an actor that it be interesting and new.

Daniel Craig’s Bond movies are grimmer, more violent and more brooding than any of the previous Bonds. Does his archenemy need to be more serious as well?
Definitely with Daniel’s Bond the villain has changed enormously too. They sapped the fun out of it a bit.

Have you been inspired by any of Bond’s earlier film nemeses?
The directors of those Bond movies changed almost from movie to movie, so things changed constantly. And Bond himself changed—sometimes literally—from movie to movie. There was the coolness of Sean Connery, but often the campiness of the villains ran away with itself in the Roger Moore movies. After Moore quit, they didn’t make a decisive step away from that tendency until Daniel. SPECTRE is more like the Ian Fleming novels. It’s more serious and without much exuberance.

As a kid did you have fantasies of yourself as Bond?
I always thought it was fun for the time being, and of course I played around with it. But it definitely didn’t become an obsession. I was never geekish.

Before 2009, few people outside Europe had seen you in anything, though you had already spent three decades in theater and film and on TV. Two great “bad guy” roles in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained cemented your screen image in the U.S. and beyond. Has anyone confronted you for playing morally shifty or downright evil characters in such complex, funny, scary and almost sympathetic ways?
Sometimes people do confront me, especially about Inglourious Basterds. The undercurrent of the confrontations is different from culture to culture. Here in the United States it’s always very appreciative. It’s not disrespectful in most of Europe either. In Germany or from Germans, though, the questions are always serious—not so much because of the historical connotations. It’s more about the German cultural preoccupation with intellectualizing almost everything. Perhaps sometimes they’re being humorous when they confront me, but the German sense of humor is a form I still don’t quite understand.

This will sound like a non sequitur, but you’re familiar with the 1930s musical film stars Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, right?
Yes, of course. Look, I know you are incredibly well prepared and know all the details about me, so I’ll tell you: Yes, I was a member of the Fred Astaire fan club in Vienna. I was about 16 or so. I had no idea what a fan club actually was. I thought, Well, maybe if I become a member of the fan club I can at least see all of Fred Astaire’s movies or find some way to learn about tap dancing.

That’s interesting, weird and random, but the question was actually heading in a different direction.
[Laughs] Is that true?

Completely. There’s a Katharine Hepburn quote about Astaire and Rogers: “He gives her class and she gives him sex appeal.” What do you give Quentin Tarantino, and what does he give you?
How funny. I can tell you exactly what Quentin does for me. I’m not so sure what I do for him. He is a very important friend who opens up a whole universe and invites me in. I’m talking about the quality and intensity of his work and his encyclopedic knowledge of film history. What’s also important are his characters and his text, because there is nothing else that comes close. Quentin can write a sentence of seven words and the whole character is condensed into this sentence. Sometimes an endless series of actions result from that sentence. That’s drama. His characters do one thing and say another, just like we all do. I could go on for a long time talking about this without even remotely touching on the subject of the kind of exposure he’s given me, the career and all of that.

You once called Tarantino movies “operas without singing.” Didn’t you take him to an opera with lots and lots of singing, Wagner’s Ring cycle performed by the Los Angeles Opera in 2010?
I don’t know how much experience he had with opera before. I think we went to Die Walküre or Siegfried together. He didn’t seem out of place. He even seemed to enjoy the experience more than I did. He’s a fabulously sensitive artist. He takes everything in, like a sponge.

What’s the most memorable experience Tarantino has shared with you recently?
Apart from movies I otherwise wouldn’t have seen, one of the most interesting things he showed me was a compilation of trailers he put together of teenage-rebel movies of the 1950s. It was like a cultural history of teenage rebellion and rock-and-roll culture. It was fascinating. It was probably better than watching the entire movies because you get the big highlights without having to experience the scenes in between—in which nothing happens anyway.

During your several decades of working in Europe, you must have auditioned hundreds of times. How different was your first encounter with Tarantino?
Recently I’ve had the experience of receiving screenplays that they’ve gone through all this effort to keep secret. They tell you, “Every page will be watermarked with your name!” I’ve even had trouble reading them because my name is written so big across the page that it almost blocks out the text. Finally, you read these top-secret pages and say, “Well, who would want to spread this around?” Quentin is not precious about handing out scripts, so I had the whole script before the Basterds audition, and I read Django Unchained in stages at his house as he was writing it. He is very confident in his writing, and rightly so. When he meets with actors, cinematographers and production designers he may want to work with, he lets them read the script beforehand to know his intentions. That’s as opposed to directors who take the position “Well, let’s see whether you’re the right person for the job, but I’m not telling you what the job really is because I’ll be the judge of that.” Well, he will be the judge anyway, won’t he?

When you accepted the best actor award at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival, you choked up when you told Tarantino, “You gave me my vocation back.” But do you sometimes feel typecast in villain roles now?
Typecasting is not in itself a bad thing. But it can be regrettable banking on the known as a form of security for the investment being made in you. It comes from either lack of imagination or worry about the investment. It’s infinitely trickier to go against the grain.

Other kinds of parts are out there; they’re just more difficult to come by. But even if you’re cast against type, against the grain, you’re still adhering to the principles of typecasting. I’m not complaining, though.

How is a Tarantino movie set different from others?
Quentin has this strict rule, wholeheartedly, with emphasis and vehemently, and I totally subscribe to it: No cell phones on the set. As you enter the soundstage or location, a person collects them. If you can’t live without your gadget, don’t enter the set. If you have to be reachable for your day-to-day professional proceedings, don’t enter the set. It’s either/or. People actually have to sign a paper that they agree to—what to call it? I’ll call it Lex Quentini.

What happens to violators of Lex Quentini?
You get fired. When somebody booted up a computer on set and it made that sound, Quentin got up and left without a word. It’s all part of a larger discussion, though. Our attention spans diminish more and more as we go on. Why does that happen? Because of constant distractions, that’s why.

Distractions that aren’t exclusive to film sets, though.
Oh no. It’s everywhere, especially in the theater and at the movies. In the past let’s say 30 years, I’ve watched the decline of people’s willingness to engage and to give themselves over to an experience. At the movies, I disagree with people munching nachos with some cheesy goo on top. Why would you spread a stink like that? I wonder whether it’s not an educational problem. Nobody tells these people that they’re not at home watching television. They think they’ve paid for the right to do what they do. If these people are texting, the objectionable thing is they’re depriving themselves of the experience of the movie. The entertainment industry, the electronics industry, the fashion industry are all battling for your attention on these handheld devices.

So you’re saying the entertainment industry is undercutting itself?
I think the so-called entertainment industry inflicted great damage on itself when it “broke the magic.” Now it’s all about behind-the-scenes comments, with every actor being asked to comment on what he’s playing. I flatly refuse to do that. I don’t talk about my characters because I’d be pulling the rug out from underneath myself. Why would I give people instructions on how to see and experience what I did? If you need these instructions, it’s because you were involved on your cell phone instead of what’s happening on the screen or the stage. If you put away your cell phone, you would actually get what you came to the theater for in the first place.

Tarantino once said he had seen so many actors audition to play the SS agent in Inglourious Basterds without finding the right one that he considered not making the movie. Do you run into actors who tell you they auditioned before you did or that Tarantino wanted them for the role you eventually won?

What percentage of them are telling the truth?
Easily 20 percent. Some of them may be joking. Some even say they were supposed to play it. But who am I to say that’s not true? I wasn’t there, you know?

Who’s your biggest competition for roles these days?
I don’t want to know. I’m not saying I’m not competitive. In fact, I’m pretty much an old dog. Every dog snarls and growls when he sees another dog. I once ran into Dustin Hoffman at a basketball game. My daughter knows his son. His son introduced me, saying, “Dad, this is Christoph, you know, he played in Inglourious Basterds.” Hoffman looked at me and said, “Yeah, I haven’t seen that. That’s strange, because usually I check out the other short guys.”

Tarantino doesn’t write and direct as often as many other directors do. You’re not in his upcoming The Hateful Eight,, but when you heard he was making his first movie in three years, did you prick up your ears?
I didn’t only prick up my ears, I sat up straight because working with him is something I really desire. My relationship with him—at least, I see it like that—is that he will ask me if it’s right. And if he didn’t ask me, then it must not have been right.

How did you gel with Roman Polanski on Carnage and with Tim Burton on Big Eyes?
I spent three fabulous months with Roman. I like his directness and sharp, sarcastic sense of humor. His precision in moviemaking is beyond words. He’s a grand master, even though he is one of the short guys. My view of him is tolerant and understanding of the man he is today. I’m not interested in opinions and preoccupation about what happened 35 years ago. I’m a moral person who despises moralistic judgments because they’re made at the expense of morals.

The critics roughed you up a bit on Big Eyes.
It needled me. I think about it a lot. I had run-ins with a few journalists because the movie was based on a true story and some critics found my character over-the-top. I told them, “I’m not an anthropologist. I’m not a historian. I’m just an actor who depends on the script and the director.” Was it over-the-top? Yes, it was. Was the man I was playing over-the-top? Yes, he was, much further than I could possibly play him. I was happy with the work and not unhappy with the result.

You mentioned how fascinated you were watching Tarantino’s compilation of trailers of teenage-rebel movies. Growing up in Austria, how rebellious were you?
I was not an excellent student but not bad. I got through at a leisurely pace, but sometimes I think it wouldn’t have been the worst thing to work a little harder. I was certainly not an attention seeker or the class clown. Usually the class clowns rather got on my nerves.

Did you rebel at all against following four generations of your family into show business?
I never made the responsibly deliberate choice to enter that profession. Call it lack of resistance, lack of stamina or lack of imagination. It was definitely a lack of something that made me kind of slip under the door. Through that door was traditional grand theater, done in a big Austrian state theater in Vienna where my great-grandfather and my grandparents were actors. Everything circled around that institution. My mother and father were designers there. When my father died, I was a very young kid, and when my mother remarried, my stepfather was the musical director there.

Did your family ride a financial roller coaster the way some show business families did and, of course, still do?
No, if you’re in the Austrian state theater it’s really like aristocracy. There’s nothing like that here in America. When my grandparents started at the same theater, my grandmother was younger than the legal age, 21, and her father had to go with her to collect her pay in gold coins that came from the emperor’s private coffers. They didn’t have curtain calls until, I think, the 1980s, because the emperor said, “I pay these actors from my private funds. I don’t expose them to public critique.” A curtain call would have been seen as a critique of the emperor.

Was there much theater talk around the dinner table?
It was nothing but theater from all different aspects. It was unbearable. It would have been interesting had the conversation at least been more selective now and then.

Did any of your siblings follow the family tradition?
I have a brother who is a director and a theater manager. I was kind of in the middle age-wise with my brothers and sisters. Very good relationships and we speak with each other frequently.

Were you sports-minded?
Not particularly. I was a fencer for a few years before I went into acting. I competed in tournaments. I wasn’t especially good, but I had fun with it. In those days, particularly in Europe, success wasn’t the driving force. You could still do something in peace just for the enjoyment of doing it. Excelling and competing, as a sort of institutionalized sublimation of testosterone and aggression on a national level, is something I observe with disquiet, to say the least.

Were you a big music fan?
When I was growing up, you were either a Beatles fan or a Rolling Stones fan. You couldn’t be both. I liked the Beatles, though I never had anything against the Rolling Stones. I listened more to stuff like Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention. His music always spoke to me. Only later did I find out he was such a devoted fan of Edgard Varèse that he went to Vienna to study the atonal Viennese School. Frank Zappa damn well knew what he was doing. I always had the radio playing as a kid, but I soon questioned the noise factor. Nowadays it really bothers me that so-called music plays in restaurants, everywhere. If the music is good, then I don’t want to continue the conversation; I just want to listen. If it’s bad, it’s like pollution and it disturbs the conversation.

Growing up in the 1970s, did you experiment with drugs?
A few, some more pleasant than others, but in general I was not too much into drugs. They didn’t do it for me. I come from a wine country, so that’s something we did more of. But yeah, I did drugs, just not to the extent others have done them, not at all.

What jobs did you have before going to acting school?
I was 18 or 19 when I went to acting school, but before that I worked in television studios as a runner and a sort of 15th camera person. I was interested in movies. I wanted to become a cinematographer for a while. In the early 1970s I often went to see films at the extraordinary Austrian Film Museum, where they did retrospectives of great directors but also these far-out, wild and crazy experimental filmmakers, some of whom still exist to this day. When I was a young actor I had a kind of Fantasy Football ideal where I thought it would be worthwhile having become an actor if I got to work with Billy Wilder, John Huston and Akira Kurosawa. Occasionally today I’ll see a role in an older movie made by one of these directors or others I like, and I’ll trip out a little bit, thinking, If only.…

What did you get out of drama school?
I hated and was repulsed by it. It was the 1970s and everything was intellectualized. I’m not an egregious person. I had friends there. I got along. But I didn’t like the courses. They had well-known working actors giving classes, but I didn’t like a single one of them. I understood what they were after, but it always felt arbitrary and restrictive to me, with teachers telling me what to do, how it’s done and why.

At least acting schools tend to attract great-looking, crazy, creative people. The possibilities for sexual intrigue must have been fun, right?
I didn’t need acting school for that. Europe seems to be a little more open in that respect than some other countries. We have a much freer exchange between the sexes much sooner.

How old were you when you first became aware of members of the opposite sex looking at you appreciatively?
Five, maybe earlier. At least I deluded myself that they were looking at me appreciatively because I looked at them appreciatively. That appreciation changes at puberty of course, and after that, it changes from day to day. That doesn’t mean there is a declining trajectory to it—in fact, quite the opposite. And as you get older, the appreciation morphs into something much more interesting.

How old were you when you had your first girlfriend?
About 15 or 16. It lasted about a year. I liked her a lot. We got along well, did things together, and it was very pleasant. I liked girls who were lively, funny and approachable, girls who played along with me and with everybody and were kind of team players. To this day, I don’t like capricious behavior. I have strong adverse reactions to princesses.

Did that first romantic relationship result in “free exchange between the sexes”?
I don’t want to talk about that. I’m slightly obsessed with privacy. It’s one of the few principles I cling to. I draw a line so as to define the difference between the outside and the inside. Part of our problem in the world and our society is that the line between inside and outside is totally blurred. You don’t know where you are anymore. You lose your framework. How do you move with confidence and a feeling of identity if you don’t have a clearly defined contour?

Should we read the book Sex Perfection and Marital Happiness by your maternal grandfather, Rudolf von Urban, M.D.?
I don’t think you have to. I looked into the book. It’s interesting from a historical point of view. It’s not particularly scientific. He was a physician and analyst who immigrated to America in 1937. I saw him once in my life for about an hour. He was into sex and sort of took Freud’s concept of the harmful effects of sexual repression to a popular level. It’s kind of an early self-help book.

Have you ever been in therapy?
Sure, yeah, it’s a really good thing to do if you find the right person. I don’t think there’s anything heroic in trying to cope all by yourself with things you suffer from. A perfect argument for therapy is Einstein’s quote “You can’t solve a problem by the same thinking that produced it.”

You’ve been a working actor since 1976. Much of your early work isn’t easy to find in the U.S., but thanks to YouTube and other online sources, people can view clips of you as a singing and dancing Anabaptist minister who also seduces a married woman in a bathtub. Then there’s your 1977 song and dance on a kids’ TV show in which you sport a non-G-rated bulge in your multicolored tights.
What does American TV do about male ballet dancers on children’s shows? Social convention does not alter human anatomy. Yet somehow there’s no problem showing somebody’s head getting blown to smithereens and splattering his brains all over the wall. That you can’t do in Europe on a children’s TV show. That’s how cultures are different. In François Mitterrand’s funeral cortege, right behind the hearse was his widow and children, and right behind them was his mistress with the child they had together. They were together mourning for the person, not displaying some misconstructed edifice of social hypocrisy. Yet in America, the government breaks down if a politician has an affair. That people would have to apologize to the populace for having an affair? That’s a private matter.

After you’d been working in Europe, you came to New York to study. How did the U.S. measure up to the idea you had of it?
The U.S. was better than my idea of it. I’d quit school prematurely—or overduely—and felt I needed more training to widen my scope a bit. So I came here and trained with Lee Strasberg, who was great, and also with Stella Adler, which was the one crucial, eye-opening, pivotal experience in all my training. With Stella a world opened up for me. Even then in New York, though, I had the feeling I was witnessing the beginning of the end of an era, of a culture, of a city. When you go to New York today, there’s almost nothing of that world left.

Did you visit Los Angeles back then?
Once, briefly. I wanted to see the movie capital of the world. On the flight over I was running a high fever and was sick as a dog, but I refused to lie in some hotel room bed. I drifted along to Disneyland. If I hadn’t been sick before I went, I would have been after that. Seeing the merchandising side of entertainment taken to such an extreme impressed me. My sensitive European nerves couldn’t take it.

What would have happened to your sensitive European nerves if your big successes had started in your 20s or 30s instead of in your 50s?
I’d like to believe it would not have affected me too negatively, but how could it not? I would like to believe it would’ve given me great opportunities early on and facilitated development that is only possible in your 20s and 30s, but it is what it is. In a way I’m quite grateful to experience this at my age because I have a critical distance. That helps me maintain my sanity, because what has happened is all quite insane and hard to believe. It is something that needs to be dealt with maturely and responsibly and with circumspection. To consume success like an alcoholic drink is pleasurable for the duration of the party, but the next morning the hangover most likely leaves you inoperable for the rest of the day. Fame and success can leave you dealing with a hangover where maturity is required. If you don’t have that, then you have a problem.

Have you experienced your fame as an aphrodisiac to strangers or even to old friends?
I’m impermeable to stuff like that, which doesn’t mean I don’t notice it. I still have the initiative in a way, so I deal with it by taking a step back. There’s another reaction, though, which is a very German thing, where people take the attitude “Well, I’m not going to be one of those people sucking up to him.” All of a sudden, you’ll be confronted or challenged. I am confrontational only when it seems appropriate. I resent when old friends shift the tone and topic of conversation to their own career success in terms of competition. I’m not quite prepared to completely break off the contact or the friendship, but I am prepared to sort of let it lie.

You now have a star on Hollywood Boulevard. L.A. and Hollywood being all about the status of zip codes and locations, do you get to choose the other stars around you?
Years ago I walked along that stretch of Hollywood Boulevard and apologized out loud because I’d stepped on Buster Keaton’s star. I’m a big admirer of Keaton’s, apart from the fact that we share the same birthday. I saw that the star next to Buster Keaton’s was empty, and I noticed that on the other side of Keaton’s star was Peter Lorre’s. I jokingly said, “Oh, that one between Keaton and Lorre, that’s got to be my star.” I don’t really walk down Hollywood Boulevard every day, you know, but the next time I came across it, the star was taken. That was my star.

At least the star you eventually got is in front of Hollywood’s oldest restaurant.
Musso & Frank Grill is my favorite restaurant in L.A., so I’m quite happy with that. Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks would race there on their horses from opposite directions, and whoever lost the race picked up the tab. Chaplin and Fairbanks sat at the only window table because they needed to keep an eye on their horses outside. You feel that history there.

In the grand tradition of Hollywood restaurants naming sandwiches and entrées after film stars, what should the Christoph Waltz Special be?
Chopped liver—maybe with onions on the side to bring tears to your eyes.

Your upcoming Tarzan movie has up-and-comers Alexander Skarsgård and Margot Robbie. You’re also in a period romance, Tulip Fever, that co-stars Dane DeHaan and Alicia Vikander. Did any of the younger actors with whom you’ve been working lately particularly impress you?
In SPECTRE, Andrew Scott.

He’s best known in the U.S. for playing Moriarty to Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes on the BBC’s Sherlock.
Unfortunately I have no real scenes with him, but even at the read-through of the script, I picked up something from him and thought, Wow. Tarzan was an interesting experience. They do so much in visual effects that I always had the feeling I was doing only half my job.

Adding it up, how do you like being Christoph Waltz these days?
I have my crises. That’s all a part of it. I enjoy real work. I don’t like horsing around. I’m happiest when the work is tough and hard at times. I’m fighting myself through it, trying to grapple with all of it. But I hate nothing more than feeling I could have phoned that one in, whether it’s a movie or life.

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