Some actors bury themselves in roles. Christopher Walken defines them. With his oft-imitated delivery and a searing gaze usually in sync with the acerbic characters he plays, Walken is a larger-than-life screen presence appreciated even by those unfamiliar with much of his work. If there was ever an ideal time in recent memory to get familiar with Walken’s talents, it’s now. The actor appeared in three wildly different movies this year, displaying a mixture of familiar qualities and some new directions.
Honor Roll is a daily series running throughout December that features new or previously published interviews, profiles and first-person stories of some of the year’s most notable cinematic voices. Today, we’re running a new interview with Christopher Walken, currently acclaimed for his performance in “A Late Quaret,” now in theaters.
In Todd Solondz’s sad comedy “Dark Horse,” Walken plays the overly demanding father to a hopeless man-child, and appears so lost in his cruelty that he’s blind to it. At the opposite end of the spectrum, “A Late Quartet” finds Walken taking center stage as the wise, cunning mentor figure in a symphony quartet whose decades-long relationship is slowly coming unraveled (and it’s up to Walken’s character to save the day). But before you assume the actor has abandoned the wacky, cartoonish energy that has turned him into a brand, look no further than “Seven Psychopaths,” Martin McDonagh’s violent comedy about writer’s block and stolen pooches, which finds Walken playing a bumbling dog thief alongside Sam Rockwell and Colin Ferrell. It’s one of his funniest roles in years — unless you count his recent appearance in a Funny or Die video cooking chicken. Walken spoke to Indiewire about why he chooses various roles, speaks the way he speaks, and won’t be retiring anytime soon.
In recent years, you have mainly taken on supporting roles, but you’re the mentor figure at the center of “A Late Quartet.” What was it about this material that made you want to take on a bigger presence?
When I first got the script it was something different. People think that actors make a lot of choices, and that’s not true of me. I take what’s there. And of course you choose within that range of things, but I don’t get a lot of scripts like “A Late Quartet,” and when I saw it I thought it’d be something good to do, something new, and I hoped to lead to other scripts like that.
It’s a much quieter performance than what we usually expect from you, particularly when compared to your other significant role this year, in “Seven Psychopaths.” It’s more muted.
When I first showed up in movies 30-something years ago, in the same year was “Annie Hall,” where I was suicidal, driving into traffic, and then came “The Deer Hunter,” where I shoot myself in the head, and I think I got something going in that way, and it stuck for a long time. I played a lot of troubled people, and for a long time I think I looked younger than I was. I’m at an age now where I’m being asked to play fathers and grandfathers and uncles and so on, which is good because it opens up a new territory and maybe other kinds of things that I can do for what’s left of my career — to not have to keep doing the same thing.
“Psychopaths” marked your second collaboration with writer-director Martin McDonagh after you starred in his play “A Behanding in Spokane.” It seems like he really tapped into your finest qualities as an entertaining actor.
I think it’s true that whatever it is that he does and whatever it is that I do mesh well. I also like him a lot. He’s good company. Once in a while in my career I’ve met up with people who I make good partnerships with, and I like to work with Martin a lot. His talent, his sensibilities, his words come easily to me. I guess that’s the way I’d say it.
Do you feel similarly about Todd Solondz, who cast you in “Dark Horse”?
He’s very talented, but I have to tell you I’ve never seen the movie. I don’t know where I was when it came out, but I still have not seen the movie.
You ought to check it out. It’s really good.
Yeah, I read about it. I don’t like to have to say that, but it’s true. I’m gonna have to get a DVD of it now, I guess.
These three movies are very different, but you’re still given room to be distinctively you. I’m sure you’re aware how often people imitate the way you talk. How does it feel to be perceived as a personality beyond your specific performances?
When people do that, it’s fun for me. I have a friend who does me on his answering machine, and when I call him basically I’m talking to myself. The thing about the way I speak is, I come from a part of New York in Queens where at that time in New York, following the second World War, there were whole areas of New York, in the boroughs particularly, where where English was people’s second language. For my parents, in those communities, people didn’t really have to speak English much. They had their groups. My father had a bakery. Everybody spoke German. My father spoke German all day and at night when he was with his friends, and the same for the Italians and the Poles, and people spoke Hebrew, too. When they spoke English, it was a kind of broken English, and I grew up listening to that. The funny thing is that I’m an actor and what I do is public, but there are great batches of people my age from where I come from who talk a lot like me. The fact that I’m an actor makes it out there, but a lot of the people who I still know from that area have a slightly hesitant way of speaking English, and I think that has to do with what they grew up listening to.
In a way, you’re saying you’re literally the voice of a generation.
Yeah, there’s a certain foreign aspect to the rhythms, but my parents lived in America, they came to America, and they lived a long time, but at the end of their lives they still had very strong accents.Is it true that you really take on virtually every role you’re offered?
Well, there are things that I don’t want to do and that happens, but I’m inclined to say “yes.” I don’t have kids, I don’t have hobbies, I don’t like to travel. I’m happiest when I’m in my house getting ready to do a part. It’s a great way to make a living, and a good way to stay busy. I don’t do everything that comes along, but I’m inclined to want to go to work. And I’ve certainly done plenty of things that I don’t think worked out very well, but there’s a certain aspect of just having a go at it and hoping that it works. Sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t. But that’s a chance I take, and sometimes things work better than other times. To me there’s always been an element of luck in what I do.
I wanted to ask you about “Heaven’s Gate” since there’s the new Criterion DVD out with the director’s cut, and it seems to be getting a whole new wave of attention. What do you make of the legacy of that film, and do you think it’s better and a good thing that this new other cut of the film is now being presented to the world?
I wasn’t there, but I was told there was a screening for a big audience in New York a couple of months ago…
Yes, at the New York Film Festival.
…and it’s supposed to have gone really well, and that movie in some sense has been vindicated. I always thought it was good and never really understood the beating that it took at the time. I don’t know how old you are, but that movie seemed disproportionately beat up at the time, including by people in the business. I never understood that. It always seemed extreme. It certainly was always a beautiful movie to look out. Often things are not as bad as they are touted to me and also not as good as they are touted to me. It’s always a little too much one way or the other.
Let me shift gears to bring up something that I know is a much more serious endeavor for you: Your “Cooking with Christopher Walken” show.
The one with Richard Belzer? (laughs) It was earlier in the summer and Will Ferrell has this company “Funny or Die” and I know him a little bit. They called and I had cooked a chicken at my house and somebody videoed it and put it on YouTube, and I think you can still punch that up, and I think it came from that. And then I called Richard Belzer, who is a friend of mine, and I said there’s no script, no preparation, basically all we do is show up. And the idea is we’ll just buy a chicken and cook it and eat it, and they made some additions like having the girls there. It was very improptu, very extremely improvised. We never discussed anything we were gonna do.
You said before you didn’t have any hobbies but I would have listed cooking among them until you said that.
I don’t know if you’d call cooking a hobby. I’m not sure that you eat your hobby, but I suppose it could be called a hobby, yeah. It’s also more just a way of life.
You’ve got a lot of stuff in the pipeline, from the Fisher Stevens film to “Power of the Few” and your upcoming role as Zeus. Is an endgame at this point in your career, or are you still just taking things as they come?
I take things as they come. I hope that I can do a play once in a while, and continue to get different and good parts in movies. As I get older, I don’t feel old. Thirty years ago I would’ve thought where I am now is old, but then I think about actors like Christopher Plummer and Michael Caine and these guys just keep going. That’s what I’d like to do: Take care of myself and live a long time and continue to be an actor until I drop.
And keep cooking.
I hope so.
Watch “Cooking With Christopher Walken” below: