FILE - This publicity film image released by Paramount Pictures shows Tom Cruise in a scene from "Jack Reacher." Cruise plays a former military cop investigating a sniper case. Paramount has postponed the premiere of "Jack Reacher" scheduled for Saturday, Dec. 15, in Pittsburgh, due to the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Conn. (AP Photo/Paramount Pictures, File)
FILE - This publicity film image released by Paramount Pictures shows Tom Cruise in a scene from "Jack Reacher." Cruise plays a former military cop investigating a sniper case. Paramount has postponed the premiere of "Jack Reacher" scheduled for Saturday, Dec. 15, in Pittsburgh, due to the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Conn. (AP Photo/Paramount Pictures, File)

When Christopher McQuarrie was searching for an actor to play the key role of a shadowy, dangerous and ruthless presence in Jack Reacher, he turned to Werner Herzog, a man best known for his work behind the camera rather than in front of it.

McQuarrie knew, of course, that Herzog is one of the most innovative directors working today with an impressive list of credits that includes critically acclaimed features Heart of Glass (1976), Fitzcarraldo (1982) and more recently The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans, plus the documentaries Grizzly Man (2005) and Into the Abyss (2011).

But Herzog has also acted in numerous films, including Julien Donkey-Boy and Mister Lonely, both directed by his friend Harmony Korine. And McQuarrie had a hunch that Herzog, the actor, would be perfect for the role.

“I’ve acted in at least a dozen films and I guess Christopher McQuarrie, Tom Cruise and the producers of Jack Reacher have seen some of them and that’s why they wanted me,” says Herzog.

“I like everything to do with cinema, including acting.

“And of course, I’m prudent enough to choose the right roles. If it gets into something where I have to be vile, debased, dysfunctional and hostile, that’s good for me. Although my wife will testify that I’m a fluffy husband.”

The offer to act in Jack Reacher came out of the blue, Herzog says. He was intrigued and immediately read McQuarrie’s script, which is based on author Lee Child’s best-selling novel, One Shot, and loved it.

“I didn’t know Lee Child’s books, but I read the screenplay before I gave my answer. And the screen-play was very well written and very intelligent.

“I sensed there was a major force behind this project, Christopher McQuarrie, who was aiming to take a new step in the genre of film noir. And he has this great focus on style, because film noir has to go into certain types of stylisation. And this is a step further, and I really liked that Christopher was taking on this challenge.”

Herzog hasn’t read any of the 17 novels featuring Jack Reacher, but did get to meet Child. “Very briefly. A month before shooting started, there was a conclave of the actors, director and producers, and the author was there. We didn’t have much time to talk to each other. We all read our parts and Lee was around. He was very interested in seeing it come to life – to movie life.”

The story opens with a gripping sequence when five innocent people are shot dead. It seems to be an open and shut case of random, senseless violence. The police immediately arrest the suspect, and attorney Helen Rodin (played by Rosamund Pike) decides to take the case for the defence. When former military investigator Jack Reacher (Cruise) arrives in town, he reluctantly agrees to help investigate the case, and soon begins to believe that there is much more to the shootings than meets the eye.

For Herzog, all he needed to know about his shadowy character was in the script.

“I don’t need much instruction about what my character’s former life could have been, and I didn’t feel that I had to read the novels that Lee Child has written. Until today I have still not read his books. It’s a part that you can easily understand.

“Parts where you have to be like the chief ideologue of the bad guys, where you come from a harsh background and so forth, that’s all easy to understand for me. And I didn’t find it hard to step into that character.

“There are other bad guys and they are very good and have bigger parts, but they all have weapons and they open fire and they yell.

“But apparently they needed someone who looked dangerous before he even spoke, and that obviously was me.”

Herzog did, however, ask McQuarrie whether he could play the character as a German instead of a Russian.

Herzog was born in Munich and speaks English with an accent – perfect, he reasoned, for a man who has spent time and suffered terribly in a gulag, a forced labour camp in the former Soviet Union.

“The big question was should I have a Russian accent? And I said ‘No’ because he could be an East German who ended up in a Soviet gulag. Then I didn’t have to pretend to speak in a Russian accent, I could speak with my German accent.”

When the cameras were rolling, Herzog was fully engrossed in the role and clearly enjoyed himself.

“It’s a professional thing, it’s an engagement and I tried to do my very, very best for the film and for the director and for the other actors. You can’t let them down, so there had to be a certain intensity and discipline, and I have absolutely no problem following instructions by a director who is not me.

“You forget completely that you are a film-maker yourself – you have a task and mine was to be a badass bad guy.”

But Herzog is also a consummate film-maker, and he says that even when he wasn’t required for a scene, he’d visit the set to watch McQuarrie and his crew at work.

“I observed quite a lot and often I was around when I was not on camera because I was fascinated in seeing a huge apparatus focusing completely during filming. You see, there’s much larger apparatus in a film like Jack Reacher than, for example, some of the bigger films I’ve made.”

Herzog also enjoyed acting alongside Cruise.

“My first impression was that he is a very kind and respectful person. And that’s not just to me, when he talks to an extra in the background, he shows the same respect and professionalism. I really like that.

“And he brings an extraordinary intensity on to the set and on to the screen. When he is in front of the camera he is quite extraordinary. There is a charisma and you cannot hold out in this profession at that level for so long and over so many movies without professionalism and discipline. And he has that.

“I kept looking at Tom when we were doing scenes together and there’s an intensity in his eyes and that’s what counts. It’s what he does in front of the camera.”

Herzog has praise too, for two of his young co-stars, Jai Courtney who plays Charlie, and Rosamund Pike, the English actress who plays lawyer Helen Rodin.

“Jai is a very, very good actor. He’s a real movie actor and there’s a difference. The nuances in him, the timing that he has, it’s hard to describe exactly what it is, but he understands the flow of a scene and how the camera is flowing in space and how he is aware of it. He senses the camera.

“Rosamund is a great real movie actress. And in this film she is in the tradition of the great film noir women of the past – very often you have the blonde femme fatale, but they are also righteous women. And she somehow effortlessly picks up a great tradition. You have to understand cinema to do what she does. There’s more than technicality in what she is doing.

“It’s the same with Tom Cruise – there’s much more than technicality. There is something that distinguishes a movie actor from every other actor.”

At 70 years old, Herzog is as busy as ever. He recently directed a live webcast of The Killers’ concert in The Bronx, New York, to mark the release of the band’s new album, Battle Born.

“It was intense, but it was good and the band was really good. I like the band a lot.

“I didn’t even know of their existence before they approached me. I asked them to send me some of their CDs. It was a nice challenge and I accept challenges if there’s real substance behind them.”

With plans for two feature films, another documentary, work on his art installation at The Whitney Biennial and other projects all vying for his attention, Herzog is typically lyrical and colourful when he describes how he chooses what to do next.

“It’s very simple, it’s like burglars in the night who invade your home and they are in the kitchen. And you wake up at four in the morning and you discover what is happening and there is one of them coming wildly swinging at you and so you had better deal with that one first,” he laughs.

“The films are coming wildly swinging at me and that includes acting in Jack Reacher – that came swinging at me.

“And it was the enthusiasm with which they wanted me to accept this part and the calibre of the screenplay that made me say ‘Yes’.

“You have to deal with the one that’s closest.”