Christopher Walken: Walken on air

Hollywood's favourite oddball talks to Tiffany Rose about fathers and shrinks and why he's happy to be normal for once
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The Independent Culture

Walken often responds to questions by giving short, unrevealing answers. For example, when asked if Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter (1978) stands out as a pivotal role in his career, he simply nods, and then monotones: "It was a wonderful movie. Very popular. Many people saw it. Oscar."

Walken's nervous disposition, slightly odd pronunciation and off-kilter, monosyllabic line delivery keep his performances mesmerising. Sean Penn, his co-star in At Close Range (1986), said: "Some people got poetry in their blood and some don't. Chris's is difficult to track. It's hard to figure whether it's angelic or satanic, but whatever it is, it's certainly poetic."

Walken, though, says the biggest misconception about him is that he is intimidating. "I don't think people are intimidated by me," he offers, wryly. "It's just I play a lot of villains and they tend to think that maybe I'm nasty in real life. That's why it's good to sometimes defy expectations.

"I think it'd be interesting for me to play something really different, like that guy on the TV show, Father Knows Best. I'd have sons and they'd come to me and say: 'Dad, what do you think I should do?' And I'd have a pipe and say: 'Well, son, just try and do the right thing.' That would be a good part.

"But what I'd really like to play is a psychiatrist. I think I'd be very good in that role."

Blinking slowly, he starts on an anecdote of how he once went to see a shrink. "I didn't need a psychiatrist, but somebody thought I should go and talk to this person. So I said: 'OK.' And I went and I thought they should go to a psychiatrist themselves. The psychiatrist was so strange that I left. I thought I can't take your advice. You're crazy.

"Needless to say, it was a very strange experience. This psychiatrist saw clients in his apartment in Manhattan and I remember the phone rang in another room and he had a swinging door, and for a minute, I could see into his kitchen. Just for one minute I saw the rest of where he lived. There were all these dirty dishes. He was obviously very dirty, and I immediately thought: 'You can't tell me about my life if you can't wash your dishes!'"

Walken does admit, however, that he once managed to scare himself. "I was filming The Comfort of Strangers," he says of Paul Schrader's 1991 film of Ian McEwan's novel. "That was a particularly hard character to play every day. I was so glad when that was over. But I remember one day, I was sitting in my dressing room, reading a book... just killing time, when I quickly glanced at myself in the mirror. And almost as quickly, I looked away as if I didn't want to see that person. I then remember thinking to myself, I hope he leaves... without saying goodbye."

Born and raised in Queens, Walken began acting on television at 10. He made his Broadway debut by the time he hit puberty, graduating from chorus roles to dramatic leads over the next two decades. He believes these roles contributed to his developing screen persona.

"At that point I was 35, and I had already been in show business for 30-plus years," he says. "In Woody Allen's Annie Hall, I played the strange suicidal brother to Diane Keaton who wanted to drive into oncoming cars, and immediately after that film, I play this nice guy who shoots himself in the head in The Deer Hunter."

He won a Best Supporting Acting Oscar for the latter role. Shaking his head, he ponders: "No wonder I've been labelled as disturbed. I almost believe it myself."

Walken thinks it would be great if actors had tails. "A tail is so expressive. On a cat you can tell if they're annoyed. You can tell whether they're scared. They bush their tail. If I was an actor and I had to play scared in a movie all I'd have to do is bush my tail. I think that if actors had tails it would change everything."

One of his favourite past-times on a film set is to pretend it's his birthday.

"I always do that," his eyes lighting up like a mischievous five-year-old's. "But there's a way to do it. I sit in the make-up trailer very early in the morning and while the lady is patting my face with a brush, I look very sad. And sooner or later she'll ask: 'What's the matter? You look a little down today.' So, I'll say: 'I'm alright.' Then she'll finally ask again: 'Come on. What is it?' Then I reply: 'It's my birthday, and I'm sad, because I'm alone... and I don't have a cake.' I then wait a few beats, and whisper: 'But don't tell anybody!' By lunchtime a cake is wheeled out with bottles of champagne, and we all have a lot of fun." Walken smiles, looking ever so pleased with himself.

With over 90 films on his CV, Walken is renowned for never declining a role. But his subtleties and nuances have survived in parts as diverse as a man struggling with psychic abilities after a coma, in David Cronenberg's The Dead Zone (1983); as Sean Penn's murderous father in James Foley's At Close Range; and as Leonardo DiCaprio's loving father, in Steven Spielberg's Catch Me If You Can (2002). Then there's the infamous "wristwatch" speech in Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction (1994). He recalls: "I'd put aside an hour every day to go over it again and again for months and every time I got to the end, I'd crack up."

Walken attempts to explain his attraction for "psycho" roles. "One of the reasons I can play the people I do is that I have a distance from them," he offers. "I'm not neurotic. I don't have paranoia. I never imagine something is happening unless it actually is. I'm actually very positive."

It's true that no-one presses the baddie button better than this former tap dancer - in a Bond, A View to a Kill (1985); as Matthew Broderick's drill sergeant in Mike Nichol's Biloxi Blues (1988); as the ghost in Tim Burton's Sleepy Hollow (1999); and as mobsters in King of New York (1990) Suicide Kings (1997) and Things to Do In Denver When You're Dead (1995).

His latest role, though, is a comedy. Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson star as a pair who crash weddings in order to pick up women. Walken plays Treasury Secretary William Cleary, who hosts the wedding of the year for his daughter. Vaughn and Wilson infiltrate the event and attempt to win the Secretary's affections after they fall for his two other daughters.

"I took this role because it was different," Walken explains, finishing with the fruit and wiping his hands on a serviette. "I tend to play a lot of villains and here I play a dad. A good guy basically. I've never been asked to play one of our nation's leaders. They don't usually ask me to do that."

Wedding Crashers is out now