For a while, Christopher Walken felt like "troubled guys" were the only types of roles he was being offered, and he knows when it began. "In Annie Hall, I played a suicidal guy who drives his car into traffic," he says in his matter-of-fact, stilted, utterly Walkenesque way. "Then in The Deer Hunter, which came immediately afterward, I shot myself in the head. I was playing these disturbed people. That might have been when that started." When asked if that bothered him, he plainly says, "Listen, I'm lucky."
It's a bright spring day in Manhattan, but Walken is dressed head-to-toe in black right down to his trench coat, which he wears inside. He isn't playing the sort of anxious guy that won him an Oscar in the mid-Seventies; he's just a native New Yorker, seated at a table in a nondescript conference room where he is discussing The Family Fang, the Jason Bateman-directed comedy in which he plays an icy performance-artist patriarch. "I hope this character is entertaining," Walken says, gesticulating broadly as he speaks, "but let's face it: He's not a nice man."
Few entertainers have enjoyed as many second, third and even fourth acts as Walken, who at age 73 maintains a steady schedule. He's even become somewhat of a cult figure, thanks to embracing quirky and intense roles in movies like True Romance and Pulp Fiction; indulging his silly side in Saturday Night Live's now-classic "More Cowbell" sketch; and bouncing around the room in Fatboy Slim's "Weapon of Choice" video. He may be loath to admit it, but there is a one-of-a-kind Walken type and it's something only he can bring to life.
Over the course of an in-depth, entertaining interview, the actor looked back on his varied career and unique life, and he discussed everything that makes Walken so "Walken." To him, it's just doing what feels right. "I think I just I pop into people's heads when they get a script and there's some crazy guy in it, and they say, 'I wonder what Chris Walken is doing,'" he says, smiling. "I avoid that to the extent that I can."
You've said in the past that you typically don't turn down scripts. Why?
To keep engaged and to work. I wouldn't do something if I really didn't like it. But if it's OK, I'll do it.
What appealed to you about your role in The Family Fang?
In this case it had to do with being with Jason [Bateman] and Nicole [Kidman] and Maryann [Plunkett]. I've admired Jason for a long time. He's a terrific actor, and as a director he was very impressive. Also, it reminded me of my show-business family background. I was a child performer. Not like a performance artist, but I had a stage mother. So I was very familiar with that.
Your character is so overbearing, though.
Yeah, he's not a good father. There's been a lot written about the mothers of kids in show business, like Gypsy. But there's such a thing as stage fathers, too. My father wasn't particularly involved in the show business part of it, but I've seen it. It's a real thing.
Did you appreciate having a stage mother?
In retrospect, I think it was a very lucky thing. The way I grew up, with show people and comics and dancers and singers and touring, it was very unusual. I had a very interesting education.
Did you know it was special then?
No, I don't think so. But as I get older, I realized not many people I know had that. Particularly, not many who stayed in the business. There were a lot of those kids, but they went and did other things.
Why did you stay in?
I just had nothing else I could do.
You did at least 60 plays before your film career took off. How did you transition into movies?
I never set out to be an actor. I was in the chorus of a musical called Baker Street and somebody said, "Down the street, they're auditioning for this play," and I went and I got the job. Then I nearly got fired because I didn't know what I was doing. But I kept that job and then I got a job in a movie. It's all a little bit accidental.
Your first major picture was The Anderson Tapes with Sean Connery. But you've said you didn't think you did a great job with that one.
No. And when I did The Anderson Tapes, I never made another movie for five years. That was it. I went back to Off-Broadway and unemployment.
Well, the next big one was Annie Hall. What were your first impressions of Woody Allen?
He was very quiet. I had a meeting with him and the casting director. I walked in and she was sitting behind a desk like, "You are?" And I sat just like this [sits upright]. I'd noticed when I walked in that there was a couch against the back wall, and there was somebody sitting in it. I didn't look, but I was aware of another person in the room. He was obviously checking me out. But I never spoke to him. In fact, when I made the movie, I never spoke to him.
You only spoke to him on camera?
We had the dialogue and between shots, when the camera people were getting ready, he'd be off in a corner, and he had a book. He was there, but we didn't chat.
The next year, you were in The Deer Hunter. Robert De Niro has said that in the final Russian roulette scene, you didn't work directly off a script. Instead you took direction and worked with each other.
The Deer Hunter had a very solid script, but making that movie was a little like making jazz, playing off each other. That's particularly because of the actors involved. Accidents happen while the camera's rolling, so it was spontaneous within a structure.
That's certainly true of the famous scene where, after your characters are captured, the Vietnamese slap you for sport.
The guy who was slapping me was an attorney from Bangkok. I don't think he'd been in a movie before — or after — but he was a Thai lawyer. He smacked me in the face for a couple of hours.
Going back to the Russian roulette scene, how did you feel about using the gun prop?
Anytime you've got guns in a movie, I triple-check everything. People make mistakes.
You won an Oscar for that role. How did things change for you after The Deer Hunter?
Better parts, more opportunities. It was completely different.
You were 36 at the time you won the Oscar. Do you feel you were better prepared for fame then?
I'm not sure I knew how to handle it, but I did get past that. It was a shock to the system.
People recognize you. It was a big difference in how I lived. Suddenly I had money. I bought a house. It was definitely an adjustment, but one I was happy to make.
A couple of years after The Deer Hunter, you worked with director Michael Cimino again on Heaven's Gate. It got a lousy reception. How do you feel about the movie now?
When we were making it, everybody was very optimistic and we were in a very beautiful place, a kind of paradise place. I don't know if you've been to Glacier Park [Montana] but it's one of the places in the world that's so beautiful. The air is so clean, the colors and objects are visible over great distances with great clarity because of the quality of the air. I've only seen that before in Nepal.
So we were all there, and then it came out and there was all that controversy. It's interesting, all the talk about the money spent. That movie cost $36 million to make, which in a way is pretty ordinary.
Some critics seem to have come around to the film in recent years. Does a critical reception matter to you?
Yeah, sure it does. It does to me.
You did an amazing tap-dancing scene the next year in Pennies From Heaven. How did you get into dance?
Boys took tap class a lot when I was a kid. It was like going to baseball practice. My tap teacher, when I was 12 years old, was a guy named Danny Daniels, who was the choreographer for Pennies From Heaven. He told Herb Ross, the director, "Chris Walken, the guy from The Deer Hunter, he can tap dance. I know because I taught him." So the three of us were talking about what kind of a number to do, because we knew the song was "Let's Misbehave," and Herb said to Danny, "Oh, have him do a striptease."
Did you go, "What?!"
Stripping while tapping can't be easy.
It was very strenuous. I had to rehearse that for about six weeks.
In the past you've said you snuck a little dance step into every movie. Is that still true?
Not so much anymore, because people started to comment on it. It started to come into reviews: "There goes Chris Walken with his little dance again." So I stopped.
You're an Elvis fan, and wrote a play about the King in 1995 (Him). What music did you grow up listening to?
I used to go to the Copacabana when I was underage. They weren't very meticulous about checking IDs. I saw Sammy Davis, Jr., Louis Prima and Keely Smith. Also comics like Myron Cohen, Jackie Mason.
At some point you befriended Madonna and made an appearance as a guardian angel in her "Bad Girl" video. How did you meet?
It was when I was making a picture called At Close Range with Sean Penn. They were engaged to be married, so she was around sometimes. Not long after that she asked me to be in the music video. Actually, it was through Sean.
You got along with her well?
I like her very much. She's very strong and interesting. On set, she's formidable but nice.
That was the same year you appeared in True Romance. Quentin Tarantino wrote the screenplay — is that when you met him?
I had met him once very briefly with Harvey Keitel a long time ago, but I never saw him when we did True Romance. I guess him seeing that movie might have been why he asked me to be in Pulp Fiction.
Was that Pulp Fiction monologue done in just one take?
No, but it was very quick. It was the last day of shooting for the movie and there was just a small crew. I got there at seven o'clock in the morning and by lunchtime we were basically finished. I spent a long time learning that monologue; I think it was eight pages long. I had the script for a couple of months and I would spend an hour a day just getting my lines down. Every time I got to the end, it made me laugh.
You began making appearances on Saturday Night Live in the Nineties and in 2000, you played the central role in one of the show's most famous sketches, "More Cowbell." Did that seem like a standout from the beginning?
Oh, I knew it was funny. Yeah. Will Ferrell was hilarious. But it has stuck, I must say.
Do strangers often approach you and say "More cowbell"?
Sure. People talk about it. You never know what people will talk about. I've made so many movies, movies that I've never even seen. It's just as hard to make a movie that doesn't succeed as it is to make one that does. Things just happen a little mysteriously.
Was doing Fatboy Slim's video for "Weapon of Choice" a fun experience?
Yeah. That was Spike Jonze directing, and the choreographer was Mickey Rooney's son, Michael. I rehearsed that number for weeks on that. But we shot it very quickly in the lobby of a hotel in Downtown Los Angeles. I think it was the Bonaventure, maybe? No, no, it wasn't. It was a different hotel. We had to shoot it late at night while people were sleeping. It turned out to be a bigger deal than anybody expected, I think.
Do you feel like it opened up any doors for you into different work?
I don't know about that. My career missed the age of movie musicals. If I'd been born 30, 40 years earlier maybe. I have done an unusual amount of musical movies for the time we live in. By the time I made that, that part of my life was pretty much done. I was getting older and there just isn't that much call for dancing in movies, especially for somebody my age.
You've said that in recent years you've grown annoyed with screenwriters who "Walkenize" roles. What do you mean by that?
I get a script and say, "OK, let's do this," and as the weeks go by the writers custom-tailor it, sometimes going against why I took the part in the first place. They turn it into what they perceive my personality to be. I prefer it when they leave the script alone and let me work it out.
Do you often get scripts that are too quirky or too weird?
Sure. I get a lot of them. I say no to a lot of things like that.
"Actors are like athletes: you don't retire, you get retired."
You've always maintained a hectic work schedule. What keeps you going?
Well, there's really nothing else I can do. I've never had hobbies. I don't particularly like to travel, especially going to the airport and flying. I don't have kids. I don't play tennis or golf. I've tried to write and paint and do those things that actors do, but it's just not good enough. The only thing I can do is try to stay healthy and keep going as long as I can.
My favorite actor is John Gielgud, and I think on his 90th something birthday, the Royal Family wanted to throw him a birthday party. He had to call back and say, "I'm sorry, I can't, I'm on location shooting." I really like that story. I think that that's the way to go.
Have you ever thought of retiring?
No, I'm not sure that actors retire. I certainly have never known an actor that said, "Well, I'm going to retire." Actors are like athletes: you don't retire, you get retired.