No one’s speaking voice and cadence is as iconic, or as often imitated, as Christopher Walken’s. Walken’s voice, his singing voice more specifically, is on display once again in writer-director Robert Edwards’ film “When I Live My Life Over Again,” which premiered this past weekend at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival.
The film co-stars Amber Heard as a young musician named Jude who, after one too many big city problems, heads to the Hamptons home of her father (Walken), an over-the-hill crooner desperately charting his musical comeback. Heard and Walken both sing in the film, and created a charming father-daughter relationship for Edwards’ realistic musical.
Indiewire caught up with Walken right before the premiere to chat about singing, dancing and the project that scared him the most.
It’s wonderful to see you singing in a film again. Before this film were you looking to do some more music?
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No, no it just came by accident.
What inspired you to take the role?
You know, it was a good part and that’s what I do. If I don’t do that I don’t do anything. [laughs]
What about the the music spoke to you?
Well, I’m just on the edge of that. I grew up after the second World War and big bands were very popular. It was the time of the Rat Pack, Frank and Dean and there were lots of other crooners. There are no crooners anymore. Tony Bennett is the only one left. That’s sort of another world, it’s not there any more. You know, you go to a nightclub and listen to a singer, I don’t think people do that anymore. Maybe they do, certain special venues like the St. Regis, but that was a particular time. And I think he’s sort of a remnant of that.
There’s an older clip in the film of you singing, what’s that from?
It’s from another movie that I did about 20 years ago called “Search and Destroy,” and in that I had to sing. The song that they chose for me to sing, the only reason I sang that song was that it was one of only a dozen songs that you can use without paying royalties. It was called “Red River Valley.”
Now you were born in Astoria, in Queens, right?
I live there now, it’s a wonderful neighborhood.
Oh yeah? Yeah, it’s a nice place.
Do you ever go back and check it out?
Well my family was there for a long time. They had a bakery on Broadway and 29th Street, which is now a hardware store — or it was. I haven’t been back for awhile, not since they sold the bakery.
Since you started out in theater and you trained as a dancer, have musicals always attracted you?
Well that’s what I did when I was a kid. I danced in the chorus, I danced in tours of “West Side Story,” lots of musicals.
Were you a Shark or a Jet?
I was a Jet. I was Riff, actually. That’s really my training, not acting. I became an actor by accident, but that’s where I grew up.
Do you still like to dance?
No, no but you never really forget. You slow down and you can’t bend and stuff like that, but it’s interesting. You don’t really forget that. It stays in your bones.
Because one of the most iconic pieces with you dancing in it is the Fatboy Slim video for “Weapon of Choice.”
Right. Which everyone loves. I had a chance to do that, which was very nice. Spike Jonze. I did “Hairspray” since then and — I’ve done actually — considering I don’t make them much — I’ve done a bunch of musical movies. “Pennies from Heaven,” I did a musical movie of “Puss in Boots,” the children’s story, I did a video with Madonna, yeah.
Early in your career you decided to change your name from Ronald to Christopher. Can you tell me about the decision behind that?
I was dancing in a nightclub act with a woman named Monique Van Vooren. She was like a chanteuse, she was very beautiful, Belgian. And she sang in cabaret, and she had an act and she used three dancers. Dancers tend to be kind of smaller, and I was always a tall dancer. She had these tall guys dancing, and she would introduce us at the end. And one night — my name is Ronnie — she said “You know, I’m going to call you Christopher.” And I said “Okay.” And I just kept it.
And how about the people you knew, did they all have to switch over?
No, they just kept going their way. It was about that time when I started getting acting jobs, so the billing would always read Christopher.
And you also worked in the circus as a lion tamer?
When I was 16 I spent a summer taming lions? But, it was fake… Well it was fake in the sense that the real lion tamer who owned the small circus, the gag was that he had a son, which he didn’t. But I had an identical outfit, and he would do this big act with a dozen big cats. And then he would send them all out at the end and just leave this one old girl, and I would come in with my whip and I’d go like that and she’d sit up. But she was really more like a dog. [laughs] It wasn’t really lion taming. She was very sweet.
Do you remember her name?
Sheba. Old girl. Very nice. She’d come and bump your leg. Like a house cat.
How did you get into this?
I got it from a trade paper. That’s where I got most of my work in those days. They had these paper that had all the auditions. Do they still have that?
I think so, but I think most of it’s online now.
Oh right, right.
You’ve had such an iconic career in a lot of classic films like “The Deer Hunter” and “Annie Hall.” How does it feel to look back on your career now and see how those films have lasted?
I’ve never really known what was coming. You know, you make a movie and sometimes it gets paid attention to and sometimes not at all. I’ve made movies — a lot of movies actually — that I’ve never seen. They just don’t appear anywhere, not even on television. Yeah, there is something about the movie business, getting lucky.
I’ve heard that you don’t like to turn down any offers.
No no, not anything, but I do like to keep working. Because I don’t have anything else — I don’t have kids, I don’t have hobbies, I don’t like to travel. So if I don’t do this, I don’t do anything.
Well that’s led you to have such an eclectic career.
Yeah, I’ll just take something — I think I’m probably less careful than a lot of actors.
I mean I’ll just say “I’m probably not going to be good in that but I’ll do it anyway.” [laughs]
What makes you think that you wouldn’t be good in something?
You can sort of tell. [laughs] And then you think “Well, maybe I’ll get away with it.” You all know, everybody knows that you can’t sit around waiting for things to be perfect. You get up in the morning, you don’t really feel like doing it, you go do it anyway right? Because you have to.
Now you have a very iconic speaking voice. Do you ever have people run up to you on the street and do impressions of you?
How does that make you feel?
At first I don’t really know what’s happening but then I catch on. But there are people who are very good. I must be easy.
You’re also a frequent host of “Saturday Night Live.” What about that did you like going back to? Is it the live aspect?
Yeah, and it’s fun, you know, and you’re with really talented people. It’s an intense experience. You start on Tuesday morning, and then on Friday you’re doing dress rehearsals with 10 skits. And luckily they have cue cards which makes it much easier. But still, there is the pressure of–I said to somebody there once, “How do you do this every week?” It’s just every week, brand new show, brand new material, brand new music, sets. I said, “How do you do that?” And he said “Well, everybody involved is afraid to be the one to mess it up.” Nobody wants to be the guy who drops the hammer on them. It’s a kind of self-preservation thing.
Some of the characters that you’ve portrayed are now legendary. The Bruce Dickinson in the “More Cowbell” sketch, The Continental, did you know while you’re doing them that they’re going to become so ubiquitous?
No no, and that’s the thing about television. So many people see it, especially something like “Saturday Night Live.” If I do “Saturday Night Live,” probably in one night more people see me than in all the movies I’ve made my whole life, you know? Millions and millions. So you can do something that’s very popular and it kind of follows you around.
Did you see the Tribeca opening night film? The documentary “Live! From New York”?
Have they done that already?
No, I went to the 40th anniversary though. It was an amazing night, all those people were there. It wasn’t one of those things where you could go and bring 4 or 5 people. It was a very tough ticket. Yeah, it was a great show. I thought it went — it was three-and-a-half hours, it was more than that, but it flew by.
Is enjoying that live aspect what drew you to do “Peter Pan Live!”?
Sure. I just did it like I do everything else. It was eight weeks rehearsal. The hard part, and I didn’t realize it until we got there, was that you really only get one chance. That’s very rare in television, you know, even so-called “live” television, they’ll do multiple takes and then put it together. This was no net.
How long did you rehearse?
8 weeks. Big costumes, big boots, swords, hats…
Hooks, yeah. But, I had a good time. I was lucky, you know, they got through it and it went okay. There was a lot of luck involved with that.
Because a lot of people flying around on wires, there’s a lot of–anything can happen.
Is it much like a Broadway performance?
Not really, because if you do it in the theater, all the stuff can go wrong, but then you get to do it again the next night. And even if the show’s a bomb, you’re probably going to get to do it for a couple or three weeks. But this was one night, you know, 30 million people. Something like that.
That’s a lot of pressure. Did you feel that?
I did very much. I was scared!
More scared than any other project that you’ve done?
Well, yeah! Like I said I’ve done first previews where I’ve forgot all my lines. And then you do it again the next night and then by Saturday it’s getting better. But this was nothing like that.
Would consider doing a Broadway show again?
Sure, I would love to. A musical? Yeah, or anything.
In this film, the way that music is presented, it seems like movie musicals lately are very reality-based and realistic about musicians. People don’t suddenly kind of burst into song.
That’s right, Yeah, I think that, you know, that old musical where you walk and then you start to dance. You’re right, that’s the way we used to do it. But actually, they don’t make movie musicals much anymore. That field is kind of done through music videos. You know, to see Michael Jackson and Madonna and Rihanna. They’re like little musical movies instead of the big ones that they used to make. The big ones are very expensive, I think the studios just don’t want to. The costumes, and they take a long time. Big sets.
The movie’s called “When I Live My Life Over Again.” So if you were going to live your life over again, would you do anything differently?
No, no. I mean I’ve just gone about my business and taken chances and things have worked out very well. No I wouldn’t, but the chance to get to do it again, it’s like in the movies. You know, you do a take, say it’s a long take, and you finish it and the director says “That was pretty good, let’s just move on.” You think “No, I could do that again and I could do that a little better. I could do it a little faster, I could do it a little–could I do it again?” And the guy will say “Yeah, go ahead, do it again.” That’s always a nice thing, to have another crack at it. That’s how I think about that.