Christopher Walken has made a career of playing it bizarre. The Observer's Sean O'Hagan talks to him about his status as a Hollywood oddball and his latest movie.
It was Mickey Rourke who came closest to capturing Christopher Walken's singular aura. "You were always like this strange being from another place," Rourke told Walken when the two came together recently for a feature in Interview magazine. "There was something 'outer space' about you." Though Walken, now 69, has mellowed somewhat since he first crossed paths with Rourke on Michael Cimino's ill-fated epic, Heaven's Gate in 1980, that description still seems apt. It's to do with his sense of detachment: the odd mix of preternatural calm and underlying menace that he exudes onscreen. Like the late Dennis Hopper, but in a more understated way, Walken has spent the best part of his career playing extreme characters of one kind or another, while also seeming to play himself.
"I can see why people might confuse me with my roles," he says, when I speak to him at his house in rural Connecticut, where he lives with his wife, Georgianne, a casting director. "Early on, I played one or two disturbed people and I guess I must have been good at it, because it stuck. But, you know, I'm a regular guy.
I stay home a lot, I make an effort to keep a distance from the whole social thing, the openings, the parties. I try to live in a calm way."
He sounds, I venture, like a milder version of his onscreen self. Unperturbed, he tells me he also has a fear of horses. "The last time I did a movie that needed a horse, I said: 'If it moves, I'm out of here.' The worst thing is, they know when you're afraid and act up accordingly. I've had them run off on me. Horses I do not like." In Seven Psychopaths, the Martin McDonagh-directed film in which he stars alongside Colin Farrell and Sam Rockwell, there is a dog or two and a bunny rabbit, but no horses. It is a Tarantino-esque film that operates on the edge of absurdity, a place where Walken feels entirely at home. He plays Hans, a charming scammer who makes a lucrative living stealing pet pooches in Los Angeles's richer neighbourhoods, then, after a reward has been posted, returning them to their grateful owners.
"I like Hans," he says, revealingly. "He's an interesting guy. His back story is pretty bumpy and you've got to get that across somehow. He's a watcher, a listener. A lot of the movie, he's listening to the other guys. He's very by himself. Interior. He doesn't relate."
Walken is effusive in his praise for McDonagh, a director who, he says, "is generous enough to write big chunks of dialogue. I come from theatre and I relish that". (The two have worked together before, when Walken starred in his play, A Behanding in Spokane, on Broadway in 2010.)
Walken's oddly unplaceable voice is, of course, another key component of his onscreen otherness. Alongside the stare, it has informed several memorable roles since his breakthrough, Oscar-winning performance as a traumatised American soldier in Cimino's The Deer Hunter in 1978. He has played a psychic in David Cronenberg's The Dead Zone, a Bond villain in A View to a Kill, an utterly amoral father in the criminally overlooked At Close Range, a ruthless drug dealer in Abel Ferrara's King of New York, a mobster opposite Dennis Hopper in True Romance and a headless horseman in Tim Burton's Sleepy Hollow.
"I play disturbed people a lot, but always with a bit of distance or tongue-in-cheek," says Walken. "Most of the villains I play are essentially harmless." One of the exceptions is Robert, the British-Italian bar owner in Paul Schrader's 1990 adaptation of Ian McEwan's novel, The Comfort of Strangers. "That guy got to me. I couldn't put my finger on why, but he did. I didn't want him hanging around and, for a while after the film wrapped, I couldn't get rid of him."
Now, in another soon-to-be-released film, A Late Quartet, Walken finally gets to play a regular guy: a classical cellist diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease. It is a well-mannered film about artistic ambition in which he still manages to look menacing even while playing the quiet bits in a Beethoven sonata.
Recently, when asked how he approached playing the cello in character, he replied: "I'm never in character." Is he, then, playing slight variations on himself every time he makes a film? "In one way, yes. No matter what character I'm playing, it's me. I'm the only person in my life that I can refer to. I have a wife, I have friends, but it's essentially me. There are actors who can transform themselves, famously so, but I'm not one of them. There's a crucial difference between an actor and a performer. I'm essentially a performer. That's where I came from. That's what I know. That's what I do."
How, then, does he actually prepare for a role? "Well, it's not something I could fully articulate," he says, "but basically I prepare in the same way every time. I take the script, I stand in my kitchen and I quietly mumble it to myself. Over and over." Is he being serious? "Oh yes. See, I keep doing that until I hear something in there. I was trained as a dancer and that stuck with me, so I'm essentially looking for a rhythm. For me, acting is all to do with rhythm. When I figure stuff out, it has to do with finding the rhythm. Always."
Walken grew up in Astoria, Queens, New York City, the kind of second-generation, melting-pot neighbourhood that has long since vanished in New York. He once told an interviewer he "grew up listening to people speaking broken English... and I probably speak English almost as a second language." This may be the real key to his strange, almost stilted, delivery, alongside the fact that he made an early decision as an actor to wilfully disregard punctuation when reading his lines, a quirk that he guessed rightly would set him apart.
Alongside his brothers, Kenneth and Glenn, Walken learned how to perform on live television variety shows in the 1950s, appearing regularly on The Colgate Comedy Hour.
"I started performing when I was 5 years old. We weren't child actors - we were used as furniture. But all my education came from that world and it was all good. You learned to conquer nerves. You learned to think on your feet. If you messed up, there was no correcting it. You dealt with the embarrassment. It was a completely unique apprenticeship." As a teenager, he trained as a dancer at the Professional Children's School in New York, which he later described as "being in that movie where the guy gets stranded on a planet of women", and on graduating he was presented with his diploma by the famous stripper Gypsy Rose Lee. (Decades later, he showed off his moves on Fatboy Slim's Weapon of Choice video.) Aged 16, he toured with a travelling circus as a trainee lion-tamer: "It was just too good to pass up." He co-starred in several successful Broadway musicals in the 1960s, including West Side Story and Best Foot Forward, in which he played opposite Liza Minnelli, and in 1966 he landed a supporting role as King Phillip in a Broadway production of The Lion in Winter. The prospect of this made him so fearful he was fired on the first night because of his palpable nervousness; reprieved, he went on to win rave reviews.
Walken, then, was a show business veteran when he was offered the part of Colonel Nick Chevotarevich in The Deer Hunter. "Most of the big things that happened in my life I never saw coming," he says. "The Deer Hunter was like that. I was dancing in a musical and somebody said: 'They're auditioning for a film just down the street, why don't you go along?' So I went along and it changed my life. People often ask me about choices. I don't make choices; I just take the next good thing that comes along. That was another of those terrific accidents." The rest is history, albeit of a singularly offbeat type.
Recently, Walken's name made tabloid headlines when Los Angeles detectives announced they were reopening the case of Natalie Wood's death by drowning some, 30 years ago. Walken was a guest of Wood and her husband, Robert Wagner, on their yacht, Splendour, on the night she fell into the sea. The original verdict of accidental death has been challenged by the boat's captain in a recent memoir and Walken may be called as a witness. He has declined to talk about the tragedy, save for a New York Times interview in 1992, when he said: "For me the only response for years was silence. I just wanted to turn my back on the vulgarity of what was said and printed... I just decided to have some dignity afterward and be quiet." That is still the case.
I ask him if he has any regrets. "No. Things have worked out better than I expected, perhaps because I didn't expect things to be good. I didn't really have any aspirations. I'm lazy. I don't chase stuff. I'm pretty realistic about what my possibilities are and I know my limitations. I'm not much of a panic person, so I don't get too stressed if a job doesn't come along for a while. I try to live in a calm way. It's stopped me from getting an ulcer."
How has he survived in the cut-throat, hyper-ambitious world of Hollywood? "Well, you know, I've always found it to be an honest place. They either want you for a role or they don't. It's pretty simple. People talk about Hollywood being this place where you can never get straight answers, but my experience is the opposite. If they don't want you, it's very clear."
What's the worst thing about his job? "Learning lines, for sure. I don't know how people learn their lines quickly. It's always been a tedious, agonising chore for me. I hate it. It takes me ages to know my lines. I just wish I could do movies with cue cards. That way, it's easy. Not lazy, but easy. You know what? I wish I could live my whole life with cue cards. I really do."
Who: Christopher Walken, oddball veteran of the big screen
What: Seven Psychopaths
When: Opens January 3
- TimeOut / Observer