Christopher Walken is waiting in the driveway of his home in Connecticut, taciturn, looking at his feet in the gravel. There is a pristine stillness about Walken that makes his every movement, even when he politely reaches to open the door of my taxi, seem mysterious and unsettling. We see it in the parts he plays, the precision with which he speaks and moves, even a facial muscle. Feeling unsettled, and yet excited by the discomfort, is the place that he prompts you to be in, on screen and off.
It's been said that he's not creepy, just shy. It's been said that he's not moody, he's sensitive. He's not brooding or intense, he's private. Other words used to describe him range from "feline" and "delicate" to "cryptic" and "scary". What distinguishes him most is his distance. And it suits him. There is a warmth but it is measured, kept at arm's length. He is clearly a solitary man and he likes it that way. On this sunny autumn morning he is dressed all in black and is, notoriously, very pale. His greying hair - which he tugs at daily, to stimulate the flow of blood to the follicles - is thick and pointy and groomed. He strides with a dancer's agility (he was a dancer, and still dances), he takes shuffled steps and halts and pivots when changing direction.
Inside, he debates with himself where we should talk.The housekeepers are vacuuming the front room, so he leads the way to a quieter room. "Sit where you like," he says and waits before taking his seat on the sofa across from me and perching like a giant owl. He has a sinister, sexy smile and his laid-back nature is hard to navigate. "Enigmatic" is the word that best sums him up: he is cheerful and morose at the same time.
Walken is 61 and lives with wife, Georgianne, who is the casting director for The Sopranos. They have been married for 35 years. Far removed from Hollywood, the house is isolated, even by suburban Connecticut standards. When Walken isn't working on a film, he doesn't like to leave its solitude. "I can be here for weeks," he says. Routine is very important to him. He wakes at 7am every day and exercises on the treadmill or takes a swim. "The good thing about routine is you don't have to spend a lot of time doing... stuff."
Christopher Walken was born Ronald (after the actor Ronald Coleman) to a Scottish mother and a German father, a baker. He grew up in Queens, New York City. As a child he appeared in television's early productions, a veteran performer by the age of 10. He attended a special school that catered for show-business children, where there were regular classes but not very many sports. "I remember there was this concrete place and somebody at one point put a basketball hoop up. I remember standing with my friends, and we stared at it like it was a flying saucer. 'What are we supposed to do?'" He begins to talk about how he was the show-off in school, but he stops and peers down the hallway. "I'll be right back," he says, disappearing to check on housekeepers.
Walken has made almost 100 films. In 1977 his movie career took off after he played Duane, Annie's spooky brother in Woody Allen's Annie Hall. This role paved the way for his characteristic roles as the maladjusted, weird guy. He is happiest when he's working, earning money and being busy. He takes almost every job offered to him, not necessarily on merit. He won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in 1978 for playing Nick, the American prisoner of the Vietcong in The Deer Hunter, and was nominated for Best Supporting Actor last year for his wistful portrayal of Leonardo DiCaprio's father in Catch Me If You Can (for which he won a Bafta).
Many of the roles he gets are characters that are demented or unhinged. But after a while, he says, it's fun to throw a curve ball. "I've been playing villains for a very long time, and then suddenly I get to do something like a Fatboy Slim video."
In Spike Jonze's Weapon of Choice music video, he was mesmerising as a slumped businessman who rises from his chair and gracefully hoofs through the lobby, flying through the air, tap-dancing on tabletops; it was endearing and comical. "And it was a good tune too." But he is primarily known for his outstanding speeches on film. From the eight-page monologue Quentin Tarantino gave him in Pulp Fiction, as the former Vietnam PoW with a watch up his bottom, to another Tarantino-scripted soliloquy going head to head with Dennis Hopper in True Romance, he enjoys getting parts where people have big speeches. He will use a microcassette recorder to repeat the lines over and over again. There does not appear to be a great deal of chaos in his life. Or is there? He contemplates this for a few seconds. "Chaos is out there. Everything is going along nice and then someone jumps the lane and you're in a head-on collision. There's nothing you can do about that. Uh, you can do your best. Wear your seat belt. It's a dangerous world."
It's surprising to discover that cinema's most accomplished villain, who makes his roles compellingly psychotic, merciless yet funny and seductive, is himself a man who is primarily cautious, a man who thrives on the predictable and the routine. He feels every movie or every day could be his last. He avoids taking risks, although there are times when they can't be avoided - like flying. A significant time was during a movie. "Fifty guys on horses and me, and they say, 'I want you to charge down that hill, and there's going to be a lot of dust.' And I thought, 'Wait a minute. First of all, I'm not good with horses. I can barely ride.' And he's saying, 'Charge!' and the dust [was so thick], I couldn't see anything. After it was over, I was really angry with myself for being so stupid. I should have just said, 'Uh-uh. This is when they call the stuntman.' I could have been killed. How fortunate I was, not to have been trampled." Asked what movie it was, he smiles and says: "I'm not going to say." It turns out it was Santa Fe, a movie few people saw.
Now the whir of the vacuuming has reached a crescendo, and as the housekeepers appear, Walken jumps up. We leave the main house and walk to the guest house that his brothers use when they visit. He admits that he often makes the wrong decision. "I've done a lot of mediocre things and I've done some good things."
We leave the guest house and walk back to the house, because he wants to check on the housekeepers again, and they're nearly done. Our time is winding down, and we stand in the spotless kitchen and he calls for the taxi. He puts a kettle on the gas stove; he seems anxious to get back to what he has to do. What? "Oh, stuff. I got stuff." When pressed he says: "I bought a little land and they're doing things with it. They're fixing it up and I have to go over there."
In his latest film, Around the Bend, he plays something of a different role. "Yeah, it was a human being," he says. He took the part because it was good, but also for the chance to work with Michael Caine. In the film, Walken is an estranged father reconnecting with his son, and he won Best Actor at the Montreal Film Festival. One of the most memorable scenes takes place when his character is finally able to let his anger out. But in real life, what causes Walken's temper to flare? "The last time I lost my temper?" He sits blinking for a few seconds. "When I was a kid, I lived out by the beach, and there was a hurricane. And there were all these boats turned upside down and broken loose and floating around. And some little kid said to me, 'You know, there's the law of the sea. The law of salvage. And if you get one of these boats, it belongs to you.' I said, 'Really?' So I jumped off this dock and I swam out to this overturned sailboat. I was about 16. And I claimed it. I said, 'Okay, law of the sea - this is my sailboat.' And the wind changed and I was swept out, and I'm hanging on to this sailboat and I could have been dead or alive. I got home and I didn't tell anybody what I'd done, and got in the bathtub. And I was sitting there thinking, 'You could have been dead.' So, you know, I shouldn't have done that. I wasn't being careful." What makes him angry is when he is not being careful, taking risks. He says he is the worst card player in the world. He watches the professional poker players on TV and can't believe that hundreds and thousands of dollars are bet on a hand. "If I played, I would never place $5 unless I had a royal flush. If somebody saw me bet, they'd say, 'Oh, forget it,' because I'd have, like, four aces or something."
His aversion to risk is intriguing and perhaps, with his instinct for precision, explains his on-screen presence. Not wanting to take risks, he works hard to mould his performance. He attacks words, drawing us in, riveted, even to his silence, his characteristic pauses mid-sentence, mid-flow. He says he loves nothing more than to spend an entire day experimenting with different voices. He likes to have at least two or three scripts tucked away somewhere - "It's like a disease" - because it gives him something to look forward to. "Just to keep looking at it and looking at it. Imitating certain people. An Italian accent. Who knows? Read it like Jerry Lewis. Something starts to happen. And you start to hear something - yeah, that's the way that guy sounds." But he does take risks sometimes. Ten years ago, he wrote and acted in a play he staged in New York. It was inspired while he was in California making Batman Returns. He went to the supermarket, and at the checkout he saw a magazine picture of Elvis in an angora sweater and "great big knockers", claiming he'd had a sex change, lived with a trucker in Morocco and was working as a waitress. "I thought that that was just too good. So I wrote a play about it," he says, grinning. "After I did that play, everything I did seemed easy." He says that the best part of making movies is working with the actors. "Cats from the neighbourhood come over here," he says. "And I've noticed the only thing cats are really interested in are other cats. And sometimes I think that's true with actors."
Walken is forthright when it comes to his fame. "If I'd been an actor for as long as I have been and people didn't recognise me, I'd be in trouble. If I walked down the street and nobody knew who I was, I'd be very depressed. It happens sometimes. I'm walking down the street and nothing, and then, like an angel, somebody will say 'Hey!' and I think, 'Phew, okay. It's not over.'"
Other than acting, he loves to cook, and is very good at it, but he won't eat until the evening. In the morning he has only juice. "Sometimes," he says thoughtfully, "a piece of fruit. But usually I don't eat until it gets dark. Eating makes me sleepy."
Occasionally he will paint. Not in a studio: he works out on the driveway, in spurts. He says he can go for nine months without painting, but then "I'll go crazy for two weeks - go crazy just painting, painting, painting. When I was in LA, I would just open up the garage and paint on the floor of the driveway." Recently there was a show of his work in New York. "They sold most of the paintings. They were cheap." He says that certain people are like animals: ones that travel on their own and ones that travel in big packs. "I'm like a squirrel. I like to keep my nuts for a rainy day. I'm a conservative person. There is an element to my movie acting that says to the audience, 'That's Chris - he knows he's in a movie; he knows that you know that he's in a movie.' I think one element of movie acting that never gets mentioned is that every time an actor walks on, they're playing not only the part they're playing, but everything else that you ever saw them in - plus what you read at the supermarket." Now, with almost all the parts he does in a film, he looks for a place to dance. "You never forget how to dance. Dancing has to do with rhythm, and rhythm has to do with counting. Dancers do what they do in very organised beats, and they're counted differently. And you do start to think that way. When I walk across a room, I'm thinking in eight counts or something. I can't help it." He says he would like to do a musical, but "It's kind of getting late. They better hurry up.
"It's a tricky thing in the theatre these days. People don't only want to come to the show: they want to take it home with them. And it's very easy now. Everyone's got that camera, and they're making a movie of your performance. Tickets are so expensive, they think, 'Hey, this seat cost so much money, I'm taking this home.' I don't enjoy it any more." Just then he looks struck with hope. "But maybe it's different in England. Maybe the theatre is still the way it was." He hasn't been to England lately, though he loves it. "I'm very nervous in England. I'm always looking the wrong way. Even stepping off the kerb, I'm always looking the wrong way. I'm very scared. I walk out of the hotel and think, 'Look that way; look that way,' and I'll do that 20 times, and then I'll get something on my mind and I'll forget it. Not only that, but they drive very fast there."
Talk of theatre in Britain leads to Kevin Spacey, which leads to Spacey's famed spot-on impression of Walken. "He's very good. My wife says Kevin Spacey is the best. Lots of good actors are good at impressions. I'm the worst. I have a friend who does me on his answer machine. So that when I call," he laughs, "I leave a message for myself." He laughs a bit longer and then there is a long pause. "It's flattering, but it means that I must have an odd way of speaking. I don't speak with punctuation. I remember my first encounter with punctuation: I resented it. I would never use commas or periods [he makes a face of disgust], to be told this is where to pause. If I read a script and the sentence ends with a question, I'll almost always immediately make it a statement."
The taxi has arrived. He walks me outside and offers to be available if there's anything more I need. He has been a gracious host, courteous and unfailingly good-natured. But still the distance remains. He has things to do. Stuff. He opens the door of the taxi and I get in. We say goodbye, but then he hesitates and looks suddenly bashful, as if he wants to say something to bridge the gap. He smiles a nervous smile and looks me in the eye. "Wear your seat belt." s