The eyes. The hair. The voice. Christopher Walken is every man’s favourite cinematic maniac. ShortList’s Andrew Dickens, granted a rare audience, tries not to rile him
This guy, he said, ‘Penguins are like cats, they’re very hard to control.’ They would let them go and they would run in all different directions, but that’s not their fault; it’s just the way they are. Penguins do whatever they want.”
Christopher Walken is talking to ShortList. The fact that he’s talking about penguins – in this case the ones on the set of Batman Returns – is a bonus because, the truth is, he could be reading the letters on an optician’s eye-test and it’d still be the coolest thing you’ve ever heard.
Everything about Walken is cool. His pompadour hairstyle is cool; his deadpan delivery – which can, in equal measure, be funny or fearsome – is cool; his ability to make dozens of films – with as many clunkers as crackers – and yet emerge unscathed, is cool. But most of all, his voice is cool; New York, but with its own rules of emphasis and tone that almost make him sound as if he’s speaking backwards. It’s one of the most impersonated on the planet (you should check out Saturday Night Live sketch ‘The Walkens’), and getting that voice in your head now will infinitely enhance your enjoyment of this article.
The fact that Walken is so cool (the last ‘cool’ for a while, promise) is the reason he’s on this week’s cover. Considering his co-stars in his latest film, Seven Psychopaths, it’s no mean feat. Writer-director Martin McDonagh’s long-awaited follow-up to cult hitman thriller In Bruges sees Walken line up alongside Colin Farrell, Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson and Tom Waits. It’s an ensemble – and film – that has already drawn comparisons to the work of Quentin Tarantino. And there’s one man who’s in a position to judge.
“Well, first of all, they’re both so talented, but I think that screenwriters who write big, juicy chunks of dialogue are unusual,” says Walken. “There’s Quentin, Martin and David Mamet [who do that]. Films aren’t usually that much about the words, but in the case of those guys, they are. Although I’ve met Quentin a few times, I’ve only worked with him once and that was for a couple of hours. In Pulp Fiction, that speech [you know, the one with the watch], we got there in the morning, and by lunchtime I was finished. Whereas with Martin, I got to know him by osmosis [Walken starred in McDonagh’s Broadway play A Behanding In Spokane in 2010]. I like him a lot and I liked him a lot making the movie.”
Watch the film, which centres around Farrell’s struggling screenwriter who has the title Seven Psychopaths but nothing else, and you will go, “Ooh, this is a bit Tarantino” before the end of the opening scene. There are gangsters (Harrelson), small-time crooks (Rockwell and Walken, who play a pair of dog-napping fraudsters), more than a hint of surrealism, and guns. Lots of guns. However, it’s to McDonagh’s credit that it isn’t damned by comparison and, if you’ve seen In Bruges, you’ll also go, “Ooh, this is very McDonagh.”
It’s stylish, funny, provocative and prompts spotless performances from its gilded cast. So spotless, in fact, that it’s been suggested the likes of Walken and Rockwell could become even more gilded (with awards).
For 69-year-old Walken, who won his only Oscar in 1978 for his role as a Russian roulette-playing Vietnam vet in The Deer Hunter, a lack of industry recognition hasn’t been for the want of trying. He’s been in more than 100 films and the last year he didn’t have a film out was 1984. It’s a career that’s ticked every acting box. He’s been a Batman villain, a Bond villain (in A View To A Kill – “Grace Jones’s boyfriend at the time was Dolph Lundgren. They used to have karate sessions in their hotel room,” says Walken), he’s worked with Steven Spielberg (Catch Me If You Can), Tim Burton (Sleepy Hollow, Batman Returns), Woody Allen (Annie Hall) and, of course, Tarantino. In fact, the only noticeable gap on his CV is a good sci-fi film, and he only just missed out on that after auditioning for the role of Han Solo in Star Wars (“I remember I screen-tested with this beautiful little girl called Jodie Foster. She was testing for Princess Leia, I think. Neither of us got the job.”) It’s a tireless work ethic that’s led to rumours that Walken never turns a film down if he can physically do it.
It’s something he denies. In fact, when it comes to his job, Walken prefers a walk down Easy Street.
“What’s difficult about being an actor, for me, has to do with some sort of physical situation,” he says. ”I hope I never make another movie in the jungle again. If I never go into the jungle again for the rest of my life, it’ll be perfectly fine. Have you ever been in the jungle? Well it’s everything they say it is. Hot, sweaty and your hair doesn’t stay combed. There are bugs all over the place. Or you’re on top of an icy mountain. I wish that I was making movies in the old days when everything was done on sound stages.”
Life’s a circus
Walken hasn’t always been so reluctant to get his paws dirty. Growing up in Queens in the Fifties, young Ronald (as he was then known) Walken, the son of a German father and Scottish mother, took what is possibly the greatest summer job of all time when he joined the local circus.
“It was owned by this man, Carol Jacobs, who was a professional lion-tamer,” he recalls. “The main act was him lion-taming with all these big cats, and he decided as a kind of publicity gimmick that I’d dress up just like him, and it would be announced that I was his son. When he was done with his act, he’d chase his big cats out and he left one little lioness, her name was Sheba, and I would come into the cage and wave the whip around and Sheba would do some tricks. But Sheba was like a big, nice, old dog."
While Walken’s later dealings with wild animals have been limited to coping with a few errant penguins, it was during those childhood years that he caught the showbiz bug, with small TV roles leading to a successful stage career and his eventual 40-plus years on the screen. It was also a childhood that developed his most potent tool in his chosen profession: that voice.
“It is curious, but I think I know why I speak that way. Where I come from in New York is a very multi-ethnic neighbourhood and both my parents came to America from Europe as adults. There were whole enclaves of people in my neighbourhood – from Germany, Italy, Poland, Greece – who came to America and pretty much kept their culture intact. My father had a bakery, everybody spoke German. My mother was in America for 60, 70 years, and she never lost her Scottish accent. I grew up with people who had accents and I probably learned to speak English with those kind of rhythms. The rhythms are different when English is your second language. When I was starting out, I had people advising me to go to speech class, and I suppose I tried that for a while, but then I thought, “Well, what the hell, I’ll just be myself.”
As established, Walken is cool. And, as established, it’s not just the voice and the hair, combed or otherwise. Part of it lies in the answer to this question: away from his films, what do you really know about Christopher Walken? Apart from the bit about lion-taming, that is. The answer, in most cases, is not a lot. (And, when you’re researching an interview, that’s not an answer you want to hear.)
It’s a modern day miracle that an actor whose career overlapped with Charlie Chaplin’s has managed to veil his private life so well. The result, of course, when a celebrity leaves room for postulation, is that the public will fill it. And, in the case of actors, that filling is going to come from one source: their characters. If you’re Christopher Walken and you’ve done such unsavoury things as torture and murder Dennis Hopper in True Romance, shot yourself in the head in The Deer Hunter, and tried to steal Tia Carrere from Mike Myers in Wayne’s World 2, that’s going to produce an image of a man Walken might describe as a ‘whackjob’.
The man behind the myths
“I don’t have a computer, I don’t have a cellphone,” say Walken. “There’s a lot of that information out there on these various venues which I’m completely unaware of. I suppose if I looked myself up on the internet I’d be shocked. Obviously, I play a lot of strange, twisted, disturbed people and I have done for decades, so it could be that whatever perception people have of me, some of that’s gotta rub off, but the truth is my life is very quiet and conservative. I’m a pretty solid citizen.
“I live kind of out in the country [in Connecticut] and I have done for a long time. I live in a very pleasant place, with trees and animals, and I don’t go out much. I don’t have children, I don’t have any hobbies. I’ve been married for 47 years and we just sort of stay there.
I never see anybody. I go to the store and the people I see are always the same people. In fact, if I don’t leave the house I don’t really see anybody except the guy who cuts the grass.”
Does it help being away from LA?
“I love LA. I love to go there. I’m not a good driver and I don’t like to drive, but when you’re in LA making a movie, someone drives you, so that’s OK. I think if I lived there I’d have a nice time, but I’d probably do what I do now: I’d have a nice house and stay there.”
So what next for Walken? Take a guess. That’s right, more films. Next year sees him star alongside Philip Seymour Hoffman in A Late Quartet and Al Pacino in Stand Up Guys. And the good news is that, even as he approaches 70, he won’t be stopping there. In fact, if he has his way, he’ll continue being cool on screen for decades to come.
“I’m very grateful to have gotten along as I have, and I’m in good health, I take good care of myself and I hope that I can keep going. My favourite actor story is about John Gielgud. Apparently, when he was 96 or something, they were going to throw an enormous party for him, but he had to decline because he was on location making a movie. And I always think, ‘That’s what I want.’ I want to be very old, in good health and working.”
Just as long as it’s not in the jungle, of course.
Seven Psychopaths is at cinemas nationwide from 5 December
(Image: Rex Features)