The Total Film Interview - Christopher Walken

Terrifying. Shocking. Bizarre. But enough about the hair. Christopher Walken, America's greatest screen villain, teaches Total Film all about the art of the bad guy...

People are staring. This being New York, where the locals have perfected the rude gawp into something of an art form, it's hardly a surprise. But the eyes. You can feel them every time somebody walks past our table at the Soho Café. They're odd stares, quizzical, then narrowing, then widening in an unsteady balance of recognition and intimidation. That's the strength of Christopher Walken's icy, diamond-tough screen persona. When he's out and about, people stare. Problem is, they're not sure they're allowed to. In spite of the comedies, the musicals, the kids' films, the Broadway shows, Walken is forever burned into moviegoers' minds as Mr Scary.

A veteran of over 80 movies, you could argue it's always been that way. Walken's first identifiable screen role was in 1977's Annie Hall, playing Diane Keaton's younger brother, a jittery loon with a compulsion for driving head-on into oncoming traffic. A year later, Walken won an Oscar for playing Nick, The Deer Hunter's intense, deranged Vietnam vet. From then on, if a casting director needed a screen rogue with a glacial aura and menacing burn, Walken was the go-to guy.

Digging into a plate of lasagne and drinking cappuccino, the really disturbing thing about meeting the man who so memorably threatened Dennis Hopper with his "vendetta kind of mood" in True Romance is that he's not intimidating in the slightest. He's witty. Intelligent. Quite the charmer, in fact. He also absolutely loves the movies: watching them, talking about them but, mostly, making them. "It's my favourite thing," he says, smiling. "I don't have any kids, I don't have any hobbies, I don't play any sports, I don't socialise much. I love to go to work."

He's also a lot more versatile than his rogue reputation suggests. When you see Walken's name billboarded alongside Denzel Washington's in this month's vigilante thriller Man On Fire, your expectations mark Walken out as the film's twitchy villain. Not the case. Although his character Rayburn is a former CIA assassin, he plays a key role as Washington's best buddy. In other words, a good guy. Not a whiff of malice. The screen time's brief but, as per usual, as per Walken, any screen time he has is delivered with maximum impact. "I think I've had success because I know how to create an edge or aura to a performance - that's always been the key to what I do," he says. "Because I rarely get to play lead roles, I try to give my characters something that will make them distinct and memorable." And, it has to be said, bloody scary. Speaking of which…

Are you really as scary as people think you are?
I'm a pussycat! [Laughs] I would make a very bad killer in real life because I don't think I could even pick up a gun, much less actually shoot one. Guns make me very nervous. They're dangerous. I'm more of a pacifist than anyone could imagine.

So it doesn't bother you that people think of you as a scary guy?
In a way. I understand that because 90 percent of the characters I get to play are bad guys. I don't have to worry too much about people approaching me on the street or in restaurants asking for my autograph. I think people respect me, but they're always wondering if there's something innately mean inside me. But I take it as a compliment that audiences get caught up with the characters I play. When I play a villain, I want people to be scared and gripped by the character. That's the art, that's the desired effect. You want people to believe that you're one horrible motherfucker!

Still, you have a unique gift for conveying menace. Any idea where it comes from?
I'm a great observer of people. Growing up in New York is like living in a horror museum because there are so many strange people walking the streets and riding the subways. You learn to develop a tough front if you live here, just in case you get into any kind of trouble and you need to talk your way out of it. When I was studying acting, I learned how to harness what other people tell me is a very cold and frightening look that I have when I'm serious. But in real life I think I smile and laugh more than most people, and in a lot of my films I think you'll see that even the most evil characters I play are usually laughing half the time, even if it's just before they're about to kill someone.

Is there anything you find scary?
I really don't like to get on horses. When I did Sleepy Hollow, I was the Headless Horseman and I said to them, "I not only can't ride a horse but I'm also sort of scared of them." So I rode a mechanical horse - I believe it was the same horse that was used in National Velvet with Elizabeth Taylor.

In your latest movie, Man On Fire, you're not on screen for long but you still make a strong impression...
It's not necessarily how many minutes you're on screen, it's the material you have. A lot of the time I have really good things to say. It's more important what it is you have to do than the amount of time you're there. I read in the wake of Marlon Brando's passing, that in The Godfather he was only on screen for eight minutes...

You play Denzel Washington's best buddy. You seem very natural together...
Oh, I've known Denzel for a long time over the years, just to say hello. I like him very much personally and I thought our relationship in the movie, of being close friends, was very believable for the audience. People who've known each other for a long time and liked each other. The guy I play is someone who has found the good life in Mexico and had got out of the killing business. He's willing to help Denzel's character get back on his feet and get him a job as a bodyguard because he knows he's a good man. But like the line in the film says, "I'm finished with killing people." He's put that part of his life behind him, and so I played it very casual in that sense and I hope I upset people's expectations in that way because I know I carry a certain amount of villainous baggage when it comes to these kinds of characters. This time, it felt much more interesting to be the good guy.

Wouldn't you rather play a good old American hero for once?
It depends on the role. Usually, if you're categorised as a character actor like I am, the best roles are the mean ones. Leading men like Harrison Ford play the same part over and over again, with only a few variations. But if you're the bad guy, you have a lot more freedom to create a truly hateful, miserable character that can do almost anything and not worry about protecting your image. Most leading actors are trapped playing within a certain range. I'm happy to be in my position. I never play a villain the same way twice. There are always different shades and angles that you learn to explore.

Do you think your image as a villain makes it more difficult for audiences to appreciate you as a good guy?
I think there's always something in the back of the audience's mind that even if I'm playing a priest or a school teacher, they expect me to take out a knife and start slicing up the choirboys or the kid who asks too many questions in class! [Laughs] But after a few minutes, I think the character and the film takes over and people forget how many times they've seen you play a killer.

Yet, weirdly enough, you've been making a lot of comedies recently...
Yeah! Suddenly in the last few years I've been doing a lot. My background is in musical comedy theatre, but when I started to make movies I suppose the first two things I did happened rather close together and both involved people who were strange. One was the brother in Annie Hall and the other one was when I was suicidal in The Deer Hunter. I think somehow I got a strange thing going in the movies. I look forward to the day when I'll start playing people's fathers and uncles…

Or sons, even. In the upcoming Around The Bend, Michael Caine plays your father...
Michael had to have prosthetic things to make him look older. He looks fabulous in person. Hey, and I look pretty good for my age, too! He did have to age-up while I play someone in the movie who's very ill; I am supposed to be younger in the movie but the fact that I'm gravely ill can excuse my being older.

Let's talk about some of your past roles. King Of New York is one of the few films where you've enjoyed the lead. Would you say playing Frank White represents some of your best work?
No, I don't think so. It should have been my best work, but I fucked up. I've only seen the film twice and I felt that I didn't give Frank enough complexity and perspective. You don't see enough anguish in his face and the things that drive him to do what he does. I wish I had another chance to play him because I would have completely altered my performance. I'm flattered that you and other people enjoy the film and my character, but I'm not satisfied that I did justice to him. Both myself and the director, Abel Ferrara, worked hard at creating a mysterious edge to Frank's personality but we lost his motivation and a sense of where he was coming from. So I'm disappointed by what comes off on the screen.

We've heard Abel Ferrara can be a bit, er, "difficult" to work with...
Not for me. I know him well so I understand him when he gets very pumped up and frantic and goes off on a rampage on the set. That's part of the energy that he needs to bring to his work. He's made a choice to live on the edge and that's part of what makes all of his films so interesting. He goes through a lot of pain and angst - you appreciate how he's struggling to get a certain kind of emotional tension up there on the screen.

You and Abel Ferrara used to party very hard. Was that a form of release, too?
At a certain point, too much of anything - vodka, in my case - starts making you sick. One day I felt so sick that my wife asked me why I was doing that to myself. I didn't have a good answer, so I stopped. I don't drink hard liquor any more. Long ago I discovered the virtues of great red wine…

Your role in Biloxi Blues was a big hit. Was your drill sergeant based on a real person?
Mike Nichols had a military advisor to the movie who was a real drill sergeant - a professional soldier to tell us what the proper procedure was. Drill sergeants in movies tend to be always yelling but he was a very soft-spoken man, very nice to us. Mike chose him for a very good reason: he wanted us to see a different kind of drill sergeant in action. I certainly did.

Your character acts like a villain, but there's a real avuncular side to him...
I think that sometimes it's interesting to defy expectations. It's interesting for a person who plays villains all the time to suddenly play somebody who's avuncular. I have a friend, I won't say who, who always plays heroes, and I said to him once, "Have you ever played a villain?" He said, "I'd love to but nobody ever asks me." I think it's interesting to mix it up sometimes.

Famously, you got an Oscar for your work in The Deer Hunter. What was it like working with an actor like Robert De Niro?
When we were shooting The Deer Hunter, I had been working on this very difficult scene for two or three weeks, and then when the day came to shoot it I started to get real worried and I realised that my preparation was all wrong. I spoke to Bob about it, told him I was confused and he didn't even take time to think about it. He went out a door, came back through it and started moving through the room. It was the perfect solution - I did what he suggested and the scene turned out to be one of the best in the film. That's the mark of a genius like Robert De Niro, as opposed to a good craftsman like myself. But that's okay. We can learn so much from watching geniuses at work even though we might never reach their level.

Do you think you've had your moments of genius as an actor?
I think there are some scenes over the years where I really delivered the goods. I liked my work in The Deer Hunter and in The Dead Zone. I liked a lot of my dancing in Pennies From Heaven. And my scene with Dennis Hopper in Tarantino's True Romance was about as interesting as it gets between two actors…

What's interesting about that scene is that for much of the conversation you and Dennis Hopper are laughing at each other...
What happened was that when Dennis starts telling the story about the Moors and how Italians are half-nigger, I started to laugh off-camera and that made Dennis laugh too. Of course, the laughter is very eerie because he's trying to provoke me and my character is laughing as a way of disguising a lot of anger that's building up. The laughter and the grinning that's going on is a way of diluting the tension at the same time as adding to it. So when I finally shoot Dennis, it's a way of bringing that laughter to a very brutal stop. None of the laughter was in the script but it made Tarantino's dialogue work even better. Those are the moments every actor likes to find in his work. They don't come that often.

Another sinister character of yours is The Man With The Plan from Things To Do In Denver When You're Dead. It must have been a challenge playing a quadriplegic...
In a way, that was difficult, but in another way it frees you from having to make a lot of choices. I think in the original script he was physically more incapacitated than I was. I think I was a little bit more physical than the original character had been. I think it worked out fine, though.

In terms of indie movies, that was a pretty big hit. But since you've made so many films, not all your movies have been so well-received...
I've made movies that I've never seen, and the reason I haven't seen them is that nobody else has either! That's not good. On the other hand, I made the movie, I had fun, I made some money. Sometimes things work out, sometimes they don't. I never know how successful a movie is going to be - when you make a movie you're always hoping for the best.

So what about the films you wish people had seen?
There are movies I've made which I think are fun and probably nobody's seen them! I made a movie of the children's story Puss In Boots years ago. I thought it was one of my better efforts but I'm not sure if anyone ever saw it. In fact, I'm not even sure anybody could locate a video of it!

People definitely didn't see Gigli...
When Gigli came out, I was making The Stepford Wives. I was going to work every day and I think it was only in the theatres for less than a week. So I have never seen Gigli either. I read the reviews - not only of things I'm in but everything else. I think they're important. Some of them are excellent, and it's wonderful when you pick up a paper and it says, you know, "Chris was terrific!" And then sometimes they don't. I always love to get great reviews and hear that people are going to my movies in droves.

Does that mean you take bad reviews to heart?
Of course. I get a bit blue about it, but then something else comes along and I get distracted.

It's probably even worse when you get bad press before the movie even comes out. The Stepford Wives, for instance...
There were rumours of problems on The Stepford Wives set, a lot of talk about people not getting along, which is mysterious to me because that's absolutely not true. It was really like a playground every day, all those terrific actors. We played and got paid for it. I would love to make another movie with that whole bunch of people. Glenn Close, who played my wife, can be very intimidating when she wants to be. But she's a brilliant actress and we had a great time on the set. Nicole Kidman, too: she's got a very good sense of humour and she enjoys the camaraderie on a set. I would describe her as a natural actress because she has this way of slipping into a character that leaves no traces. She also has a fearless quality to her approach to acting - she takes the kind of risks an actor needs to take if they're going to take their work to the next level. It's kind of an intangible thing, but she has it.

Finally: you're a man who mixes his indie films with more standard Hollywood fare. Is there anything that bothers you about Hollywood today?
Too many young actors are strutting about and doing films without having developed some of the depth you need to bring off certain kinds of roles. I think that's the problem with today's system, where a lot of younger actors who haven't had a chance to develop suddenly become stars. It took me 20 years before I felt that I really mastered what acting was about. I was working as a janitor at the Actor's Studio in New York for 15 years simply because I needed the extra money. So I look at some of the younger guys out there and I don't have the sense that they have enough substance to their work. But that's why I do so many independent movies. I will never be a star in the way Tom Hanks or Brad Pitt are. I'm a character actor. I have to find work in good movies where I can make something of my role. I'm a very lucky guy to be in that kind of position. It's like a kid who dreams of becoming a baseball player and then he gets to play for the Yankees...

Join the Discussion
Add a comment (HTML tags are not allowed.)
Characters remaining: 5000