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
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
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
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
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