Profile & Interview: Christopher Walken
by Carlo Cavagna
LEFT: Christopher Walken not looking his best in Around the Bend
hristopher Walken is best known for… well… being Christopher Walken. People don't remember great Christopher Walken movies. They don't remember that he won a Supporting Actor Oscar for Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter (1978) or a Screen Actors Guild Award for Steven Spielberg's Catch Me If You Can (2002). They don't remember his subtlety and nuance in lead performances, as a man struggling with psychic abilities after a prolonged coma in David Cronenberg's The Dead Zone (1983), or as Sean Penn's murderous father in James Foley's At Close Range (1986).
No, people remember great Christopher Walken moments. These moments include the wristwatch speech in Pulp Fiction (1994); his confrontation with Dennis Hopper in True Romance (1992); Russian roulette in The Deer Hunter; and his breakthrough moment in Annie Hall (1977)—musing as he drives about plowing his vehicle into oncoming headlights, with a terrified Woody Allen in the passenger seat.
Such moments have made him the baddie of choice for a diverse range of producers and directors, appearing as a Bond villain in A View to a Kill (1985), Matthew Broderick's unbalanced drill sergeant in Mike Nichol's Biloxi Blues (1988), a rich sexual predator in Paul Schrader's The Comfort of Strangers (1990), a Batman villain in Tim Burton's Batman Returns (1992), a fallen angel in Gregory Widen's The Prophecy (1995), Johnny Depp's blackmailer in John Badham's Nick of Time (1995), the ghost in Tim Burton's Sleepy Hollow (1999), and mobsters of all stripes in films like Suicide Kings (1997), Last Man Standing (1996), Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead (1995), King of New York (1990), and True Romance. He is also known for never turning down a role, leading to Razzie nominations in both 2002 and 2003 for Kangaroo Jack, Gigli, and The Country Bears, collectively.
Despite the Razzies, Walken seems to have renewed his interest in more substantial roles, such as his masterful performance in Catch Me with You Can, in which he played Leonardo Dicaprio's father, a broken man left with nothing but his pride. Now, he offers us Around the Bend, the directorial debut of screenwriter Jordan Roberts, who performed uncredited rewrites on The Shawshank Redemption and Road to Perdition. In it Walken plays Turner, a long-absent father who returns home in a shabby state just in time to see his own father, Henry (Michael Caine), die. Turner and his son (Josh Lucas) and grandson (Jonah Bobo) are then forced to take a road trip together to fulfill Henry's last wishes, in which long-simmering resentments come to the fore.
Regardless of the uneven quality of his movies, Walken has always stood out. His intense demeanor, his slightly odd pronunciation, his off-kilter line delivery—these things have made him an American icon and the subject of frequent comic impressions and pop-culture references. Walken himself has joined in the fun, appearing numerous times on Saturday Night Live, where he has poked fun at his persona and showed off his consummate dancing skill—which is the last thing you'd expect a guy like Walken to be able to do. This dancing ability is how Walken made his living as a young man, appearing on stage with Liza Minelli in the musical Best Foot Forward in 1963, and later in a touring production of West Side Story, where he met his wife of thirty-five years, Georgianne Thon, who works today as the casting director for HBO's The Sopranos. Later Walken got to dance on film in Pennies from Heaven (1981), and most recently in, of all things, the Fatboy Slim video “Weapon of Choice.” Next year, we'll see him dance again in John Turturro's musical Romance & Cigarettes.
There is one other thing the sixty-two year old Walken is known for—being a difficult interviewee. He is just as reticent as Sean Penn and Robert De Niro, though without their hostility. He smiles as he gives short, unrevealing answers. He's playing a game with you. Ask the right question, and you'll get a decent answer. In October 2004, AboutFilm and a small group of other reporters attempted to ask the right questions. One of the wrong questions referred to director Peter Bogdonovich's 2004 TV production, The Mystery of Natalie Wood. Walken was, of course, infamously present on the yacht off Catalina Island when his Brainstorm co-star Natalie Wood disappeared and drowned in 1981. While it is likely Walken and Wood were merely close friends, some people believe that they were having an affair. Walken's jaw works back and forth at the mere mention of Wood, and he deflects the question.
Question: The script of Around the Bend calls for you to show up looking like a walking corpse. What's it like playing a walking corpse?
Walken: Right. I had to keep my weight down.
Question: You had to keep your weight down?
Walken: Yeah. I was on a big diet for that movie.
Question: What kind of diet?
Walken: Just to, you know, stay thin.
Question: No Kentucky Fried Chicken?
Question: You didn't eat any on the set?
Walken: Well, there was a lot of it. But they put in a line where I say, “I don't eat that stuff.”
Question: Are you a vegetarian?
Walken: No. But, if you want to be thin, you can't eat breaded [food].
Question: What appealed to you about this character, Turner?
Walken: Well, it's a big fat juicy part. Also, I play a lot of monsters, people who want to take over the world. This was just a guy.
Question: This movie is partly about fathers, and sons yearning for an absent father. What was the relationship you had with your father? Was there anything you could draw from for Around the Bend?
Walken: There's really nothing about this character that has to do with me, except that we look the same and sound the same. But, no, of course, the relationship with your father is vital here, and I did think a lot about that. My own father died a few years ago. He was almost 100 years old. He had a great life. Of course you think about that. I did a movie called Blast from the Past a few years ago, and I had to age 35 years or something. They took hours to put all this stuff on me, and when they were done, I looked exactly like my father. So, you do think about that. I think all men when they get older, they look at the mirror and they probably see their father a little bit.
Question: Was there anything you wanted to do with your father, that you couldn't do?
Walken: Oh, you mean to fix something? No, no. But the man in this movie has a lot more troubles than I do.
Question: Around the Bend is partly about death. Have you imagined your own death like Michael Caine's death?
Walken: Death is wonderful because you can't think about it. How are you gonna think about it? [laughs]
Question: Michael Caine did in this movie.
Walken: I don't know what he did. I don't know what anybody does. But I know that whenever I think about death, I come up against a stone wall.
Question: You play the bad guy so much that people react to you that way. How do you feel about that?
Walken: It's good. In the movies, if you're a movie actor, if they want you, it's good. It doesn't matter what reason. If they want me to be a villain, that's okay. But sometimes you get a chance to do something else that's good. You know, one of the difficult things about being an actor is to stick around.
Question: Are people afraid of you? How do people react to you when they meet you for the first time?
Walken: People say hello. I never get that they have any reaction. In New York City, if I'm in the street, I get a lot of, “Heeeey! Chris!”
Question: Jordan Roberts has said that why he wanted you for the role of Turner, to a degree, was because of your reputation on the screen—the expectation of evil that you bring. Going through the ninety films that you have done, is that something directors say to you often? Do you know that they want that?
Walken: No, I think that that's just true. Everybody knows that. Every time you see a movie, and you see an actor who has made a lot of movies, you see not [just] the character they're playing. You know, actors carry a lot of baggage with them from other things, and sometimes that baggage can be used to advantage. If I show up and they think everybody's gonna be dead in ten minutes, that can be used. If it turns out that I raise puppies, that can be good, because to defy expectations— If you're an actor, like I said, a hard thing is to stick around, to stay viable. I try to do that by taking the opportunity to do something different every once in awhile.
Question: Where do you go to draw upon the evil, in movies like At Close Range and True Romance?
Walken: You know what they say; playing those guys is fun. It's fun. You get to do all sorts of things you couldn't possibly do. I think one of the things about my villains is that the—and I think it's because I come from— I wasn't a trained actor, I was trained in musical comedy theater, and when you do that, the audience is completely part of the thing. It's like Elizabethan theater. You play the scene, and then you turn—the audience is part of it. It was the same for me when I went into the movies. It's impossible for me to play a part without thinking about the audience. So I think that, when I play somebody who wants to blow up the world, I think that the audience knows that that's Chris, and he's having fun.
Question: One of the things about your villains that's effective is that they're not usually tough megalomaniacs. They're more low key, but there's something really nasty about them. There's something about the inflection of your voice, and your eyes, and I was wondering if you're aware of that. Because we all are.
Walken: Yeah. I think you're right, but I think there's a little unacknowledged wink to the audience with these things. It's a movie. Some people don't like the expression, “It's just a movie.” But I think “it's just a movie” is what it's all about. You're watching a movie. And a movie is a very specific thing. It's a thing unto itself. A movie doesn't necessarily have anything to do with life as we know it.
Question: Around the Bend is a family movie. You yourself have been married twenty-five years?
Walken: Thirty-five years.
Question: So what's the secret, when everybody in Hollywood gets divorced?
Walken: Well, I don't live in Hollywood. I live in the country. And you know, I think you have to be lucky.
Question: There's no secret?
Walken: I don't see a secret. I just think you have to have good taste. Also, I'm very easy to get along with. It's true.
AboutFilm: Josh Lucas told us that you don't read any of the other characters' dialogue when you work on a movie. Is that true, and if so, what is your process there?
Walken: I confess, it's true. I look at my own lines. Then, when other people talk, it's a surprise. [laughs]
Question: But, without knowing the rest of the script, don't you sometimes say things a different context than intended?
Walken: [I do], but it's interesting. Very often it fits.
Question: You're known for spontaneity in performance. When it comes in theater it can be very interesting. You wrote and starred in a one-man theatrical production called “Him” back in 1995.
Walken: Well it wasn't— I wrote it, but there were a number of people in it. It was the hardest thing I ever did, because it wasn't very good. It was very, very whimsical. It really depended on what kind of mood I was in when I did it. If I was feeling silly enough, and brave enough, outrageous enough, it usually worked okay. That was usually on a weekend. Again, it had to do with the audience. There was something very silly about it that I think the audience had to share with you.
Question: Winning an Oscar so early in your career—we've heard stories about how difficult that can be. Good, bad, or terrific for you?
Walken: To win an Oscar?
Question: To win an Oscar so early in your career.
Walken: Oh, absolutely terrific. Absolutely terrific.
Question: No worry about then about having to live up to it?
Walken: Well, I never worried about that. You know, winning an Oscar at that point—I had already been in show business for 30 years.
Question: When you did Deer Hunter?
Walken: Yes. You know, I was a child jumping bean.
Question: What do you think about the fact that you were nominated the same year for best supporting actor in Catch Me If You Can and worst supporting actor in The Country Bears?
Walken: Well, I liked The Country Bears. And I thought I was good in The Country Bears. Didn't you think I was funny, with my little shoes? [laughter]
Question: Yes, but what about the reaction? You care about the Oscars, but you don't care about the Razzies?
Walken: I do care. Very much. I care very much. I want to win them. [laughter]
Question: Is it true that you try to work a dance move into every one of your films?
Walken: I don't try, but it does seem to happen.
Question: Talking about dance moves, I also read that you danced with Judy Garland. Is that true?
Walken: That's right. I was in an off-Broadway show called Best Foot Forward with Liza Minnelli. She was sixteen, and her mother gave her a Sweet Sixteen party at a very exclusive New York club. Very elegant. And I danced with Judy Garland. She was beautiful. Very sexy, actually.
Question: Was she a good dancer?
Walken: She was terrific. Very good looking, you know.
Question: Did she compliment you on your dancing?
Walken: She was nice.
Question: What about your name? You were born Ronald Walken; how did it change?
Walken: When I was dancer, I was working in a nightclub act with Monique Van Vooren [in 1965], who was a chanteuse. It was me and two other guys. And we would dance in back of her while she sang. She would introduce us at the end, and one night she said, “You know, Ronnie, I'm going to call you Christopher.” So I said, “Sure, go ahead.”
Question: How many people call you Chris today?
Walken: Everybody calls me Chris, except my wife and my brothers.
Question: What's the story behind the “Weapon of Choice” video?
Walken: The director, Spike Jonze called and asked me to do that. Sent me a tape of the music.
Question: Was it based on his knowledge of your dancing?
Walken: I think he must have— You know, I did a picture called Pennies of Heaven, a musical movie. He must have seen something. You never know how you get these things. But the choreographer was Mickey Rooney's son.
Question: Did you see the Peter Bogdanovich film on Natalie Wood earlier this year?
Walken: No, I never did. No, I'd heard he'd done that. Was it good?
Question: Well, it was okay. He made much ado about nothing, but there it is. Your wife—you've been married a long time—is a rehearsal person, what does she do?
Walken: She's a casting director. She casts The Sopranos and movies.
Question: Does she ask you for advice?
Walken: Sure. Sure, she says to me, “Who do you think?”
Question: So you are behind the casting—
Walken: No, no, just sometimes.
Question: Will you ever do a cameo on The Sopranos?
Walken: You know, it almost happened once. In fact, it was the part that Peter Bogdanovich played. They had several people they were thinking about.
Question: So you're not twisting her arm to get in?
Walken: Nah. You know, it's amazing how many actors say to me, “Put in a word.” It's amazing how many actors would love to be in The Sopranos . But I tell her all the time, “You know, I bumped into so-and-so, and they would love to be on The Sopranos .”
AboutFilm: I'd like to follow up a little bit on expectations. Things about your voice, your diction, the parts you play—these have become almost iconic. Are these things that—particularly in a role like this one—you try to stay away from consciously?
Walken: Sure, there's lots of things I can't play. If they're looking for the King of France, they're probably not gonna pick me. I have limitations, but there are things I can do.
AboutFilm: When did you first become aware that there are things about your performances, or your acting, that are memorable to people?
Walken: You know, I think that one of the things—People have said that I'm strange. Yeah, strange—I get that a lot. But I think that anybody who's been in show business since they were five years old is going to be a little different. My entire education, my background, all my references, all the people that I grew up with—everything that I know comes from show business. Everything. I've always been in show business. So of course I'm strange. I'm from, like, another country.
Question: Can you tell us about The Wedding Crasher?
Walken: You know what I play? I play the Secretary of the Treasury.
Question: It's the King of France role.
Walken: The King of France...No, you're right, who would believe that I would be playing the Secretary of the Treasury? So, you know that this movie is funny.
Question: Did you model your character on anybody?
Walken: I didn't model it on anybody. I mean, I thought it was so bizarre that I thought, “Well, I just won't bother doing anything. I'll just put the suit and tie on.” I don't wear suits and ties a lot in movies. That's really what it was, a suit and tie. We shot in Washington in one day, and there was a little cameo with Senator McCain, and James Carville. So I have a little scene with them, and they're talking to the Secretary of the Treasury. It's sort of funny, in a way.
Question: Were you a Democratic Secretary of the Treasury, or a Republican?
Walken: You know something, I never checked. [laughs]
AboutFilm: When are we going to see you on Saturday Night Live again?
Walken: I don't know. They haven't asked me.
Question: You've got a standing invitation to host any time you want, they say.
Walken: Yeah, that's what they say. That's what they say.
Question: Is it true that you never say no to a movie?
Walken: Well, I do sometimes, but it's hard for me to say no.
Question: Why is that?
Walken: Because it's my favorite thing to do.
Question: Any evil roles coming up?
Walken: I don't have any roles coming up.
Question: There are a lot of B or C-grade movies that would love to use your reputation, use your quality to leverage themselves up a little bit. Are you conscious of that when offers come up?
Walken: Sure. If you do movies that are modestly budgeted, the way they finance them is they figure out how they can sell them. You know, there's a market in Israel that represents a certain amount of money, and then the European—all over the world—South America. They get a little from here, a little from there, and they get a few million dollars together. So I'm sure that an actor's reputation can help a lot. It's what they call Big in Japan I guess.
Question: I was more talking about the idea of being used by people, if you like. Because you said that you rarely say no to anything.
Walken: Use me! I love being used.
Question: Can you tell us about the John Turturro thing, Romance & Cigarettes?
Walken: Yeah. I haven't seen it. It's coming. It's a musical. Susan Sarandon, James Gandolfini, Steve Buscemi.
Question: Because you haven't read the script.
Walken: You know, that's the truth. I'm looking forward to it. It's a musical movie. I do a Tom Jones song, “Delilah.”
[Read the AboutFilm review of Around the Bend]
[Read the AboutFilm profile & interview with Josh Lucas]
Feature and Interview © November 2004 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
AROUND THE BEND images © 2004 Warner Bros. All Rights Reserved. CATCH ME IF YOU CAN image © 2002 Dreamworks LLC. All Rights Reserved. SUICIDE KINGS image © 1998 Live Entertainment. All Rights Reserved. THE COUNTRY BEARS image © 2002 Walt Disney Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
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