Christopher Walken in "Seven Psychopaths."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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"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.
"I have a friend who does me on his answering machine, and when I call him basically I'm talking to myself."
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.