Christopher Walken on life and death in Hollywood

In a revealing interview, the Hollywood legend talks to Arifa Akbar about stealing clothes, his love of cooking and his talent for dancing.

Interview,Christopher Walken
Saturday 20 February 2010 01:00 GMT

Seeing him sitting in a shady corner of a hotel suite in Marrakesh, it is difficult to tell where the real Christopher Walken ends and the on-screen persona begins, and today he seems to have set out deliberately to blur the boundaries.

Outside, the sun is blazing. Inside, Walken, whey-faced, lupine, with inscrutable blue eyes and an open-mouthed smile that reveals a pair of shark-like incisors, looks bloodless, like a vampiric creature whose skin hasn't felt the sun in years.

The battered black suit jacket he is wearing is a kleptomaniac's trophy from The Comfort of Strangers, the film adaptation of Ian McEwan's novel. It belonged to his character, Robert, a depraved Italian aristocrat with extreme sexual tastes and murderous tendencies – and Walken has recycled it for real life.

He has been stealing clothes for years, he tells me, all from the dressing-room wardrobes of the cavalcade of sinister characters he has played. His on-screen villains have always dressed well.

"I never buy clothes," he says, tugging at what must have been at the time of filming – in 1990 – a slick new double-breasted jacket. "Whenever I do a movie, all my clothing is from that movie set. They don't give me anything. I steal..."

One wonders if he has, on even less restrained days, donned his "suicidal soldier" look from The Deer Hunter, or the mid-western plaid shirt of the wild-eyed brother from Annie Hall, or even the gothic raiments of his headless horsemen from Sleepy Hollow.

"Well, when I was in Batman Returns, I wore very interesting things. On my last day of shooting, I had already thought of the things I was going to take; there were some very interesting cufflinks, a bow tie... When I finished the last scene I went back to my dressing room and everything was gone. They saw me coming..."

Walken, who is now 66, is at the Marrakesh Film Festival to receive a lifetime achievement award; with more than a hundred film appearances, the honour has set him to reflection. "I feel a hundred years old," he quips, his face widening into that shark-like smile.

Walken is, like Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing before him, a sinister-looking man who has made a living from looking – and acting – sinister. Even his famous, maniacal dance in the video to Fatboy Slim's single, "Weapon of Choice" – which introduced him to a slew of young urban fans who had never seen his films – inspires as many chills as chortles.

So it is hard, perhaps even preposterous, to imagine the Walken of today playing the good guy. Yet as a fresh-faced actor at the start of his career, he was very nearly cast as Han Solo, the intergalactic Everyman and force for good in the Star Wars franchise – although, of course, George Lucas eventually plumped for Harrison Ford.

Walken's career trajectory – starting benignly enough in children's commercials, musicals and dance – took a darker turn two years after his near-miss with Star Wars.

In 1978, he was cast as the emotionally decimated Vietnam veteran in Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter, and was immortalised in the "Russian roulette" scene as a gaunt, bug-eyed madman aiming a shaking revolver to his own head. The role won him an Oscar and led to assembly-line casting in an array of deranged, demonic parts over the next three decades.

He appears unconcerned today with that missed opportunity to star as an inter-stellar good guy, but says he does draw a line in the sand when it comes to playing morally bankrupt villains. "I have always refused to do something that has offended me. I have been offered potential roles that are totally vulgar," he explains.

All except one role. Among the pantheon of psychopaths and suicidal misfits that Walken has played in his time, it is Robert, the depraved and manipulative character in whose threads, ironically, he has come dressed today, who has left him feeling the most compromised. "It was the only time I played someone who affected me. That guy was sick. I was very happy when I finished it," he says.

Walken is full of subtle contradictions and surprises: his face, so terrifying on film, looks delicate in repose with petite "Tweety Pie" lips and unexpectedly kind eyes; he says he's "so easy to get along with" and he has been hailed a comic success on Saturday Night Live in a hosting role he is free to reprise whenever he chooses (he is due to appear on next Monday night's show); his interests are homely – cats, Bugs Bunny, Jerry Lewis, painting – despite being plagued by stories of youthful hell-raising. Then there's the added controversy that surrounded the death of the Hollywood actress Natalie Wood, which hung around him in the years following her fatal accident in 1981. He had been drinking on the yacht Splendour with Wood and her husband, the actor Robert Wagner, when she drowned near Santa Catalina Island, California, while work was not yet completed on her final film, Brainstorm, in which Walken co-starred.

Walken has been asked about that night time and again, and appears to have reached a point of philosophical equanimity, although it haunted him for years afterwards. "It was a terribly sad thing for her and her family," he reflects. "Things happen to people that don't make any sense and yet they happen, just some meaningless accidents."

Perhaps as a result of the turmoil – and the intrusive press coverage – that her death spawned, he has preferred to live at a distance from Hollywood, either in New York or in Connecticut, where Georgianne Walken, his casting-director wife of 34 years, has a home, and where he is a stickler for domestic routine. "I get up at seven o'clock, I exercise, everything is always the same."

There is his well-documented love of cooking, which led him to create, with the artist Julian Schnabel, a show called Cooking with Chris – a combination of comedy and convivial conversation, with a little bit of roasting and frying in between.

"The thing about cooking is it's so interesting to watch. I don't know why, but if you go to somebody's house and they're making something, they usually say interesting things while they're cooking.

"I watch cooking shows a lot. Cooking with Chris was really amusing. Julian and I and this other guy, a friend who has a restaurant in Little Italy, decided to do this cooking show that had to do with buying the food, cooking it, then eating it. Three acts. I thought it was entertaining. I'm not a terrific cook but I'm a good cook. I always buy good stuff. I make a very good chicken and good fish ... There's only one way to cook fish: with steam."

Walken did not, as you might imagine, come into acting circuitously. He was a child performer who was groomed for television success by his Scottish Methodist mother. (His father, Paul, was a baker of German extraction – "He was from Essen, I can understand German more than speak it".) Born in March 1943 as the second of three sons into a no-frills household in New York City, he was pushed by his Glaswegian mother, Rosalie, into the career that had eluded her.

Christopher – then named the liltingly Scottish "Ronnie" – took to it, first appearing on screen as a child extra in numerous variety shows and then landing a regular slot in a 1953 television show, The Wonderful John Acton, at the age of 10. He dropped out of college aged 18, the moment he got his first big break, starring alongside Liza Minnelli in a Broadway Musical, Best Foot Forward, a formative moment in which he broke into the showbiz milieu with all its other-worldly razzle-dazzle – quite an achievement for a kid from Queens.

"Liza was smitten with the stage and the movies. She was a great aficionado. I was in a musical with her when she was only 16 years old. I was two years older than her. Her mother gave her a party on her birthday and I danced with Judy Garland. It's true. She was good looking and sexy. I was interested... I'm telling you, she was foxy."

For years afterwards, Walken worked steadily off-Broadway, hoping to break into films. A few years before his near brush with Star Wars, he landed, in 1971, his first leading role alongside Sean Connery in The Anderson Tapes, and then in 1977 he played Diane Keaton's dangerously unstable brother in Woody Allen's great comedy, Annie Hall (for which he was mis-credited as Christopher Wlaken).

During the early 1970s his performances were mostly well received but the real breakthrough proved elusive. He ploughed on, appearing in musicals and on stage (notching up an impressive repertoire of Shakespearean roles); it was not until he was 35, when he was cast in The Deer Hunter, that he captured the industry's attention.

Over the next four decades, Walken worked with some of the most critically acclaimed independent film-makers of the age, including the likes of David Cronenberg, Abel Ferrara, Tim Burton and Michael Cimino, with whom he followed up the success of The Deer Hunter with an almighty turkey – Heaven's Gate, an American western based on a dispute between land barons and European immigrants in Wyoming in the 1890s that was plagued by time overruns, negative press and rumours about Cimino's allegedly overbearing directorial ways. It was, when it was finished, considered to be one of the biggest box-office bombs of all time.

In the early 1990s, Walken was cast in near-cameo roles in the Quentin Tarantino hits True Romance (directed by Tony Scott) and Pulp Fiction. He stole the show in both, delivering deadpan monologues – first in True Romance, in the "Sicilian scene", hailed by critics as the finest and funniest in the movie (on shooting Dennis Hopper three times in the head, Walken's character Coccotti complains: "I haven't killed anybody since 1974. Goddamn his soul to burn for eternity in fuckin' hell for makin' me spill blood on my hands!"); then a four-minute speech in Pulp Fiction as a Vietnam vet giving his dead comrade's son the family's prized possession – a gold watch. He explains how he hid it from the Vietcong by smuggling it in his rectum, after the boy's father, in whose rectum the watch had previously been concealed, had died of dysentery. "I was talking to the camera. It was great. I had the speech for months. I must say, in that case, every time I went through that long speech, every time I got to the end, it cracked me up. It stayed funny."

long before the acting, and the accolades, there was dancing, an artform that Walken took most seriously as a child when he was enrolled into the Professional Children's School in Manhattan. Over the years, he began inserting impromptu dance sequences into his acting roles – some of these scenes stayed, such as his charismatic, loose-limbed spin'n'shuffle in King of New York (a triumphant jig after his character Frank leaves prison), while others ended up on the cutting-room floor. Despite the heavyweight actor's CV, Walken still clings to his formative training in dance as his "true vocation". "I'm not really an actor, I'm a dancer. I would spend a week studying something but it made no difference. I was never able to use it."

He had already performed a turn – as the angel of death – for Madonna in her video for "Bad Girl" in 1993, when the director Spike Jonze came calling. Jonze had watched a video of the 1981 musical, Pennies from Heaven – in which Walken put on a dance number so memorable that Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire are said to have sent their compliments – and asked the actor to star in the music video he was putting together for Fatboy Slim's techno single, "Weapon of Choice".

An off-piste choice for Jonze perhaps, but the result was astounding: a po-faced Walken dressed in a sharp suit, dancing wildly the wrong way up escalators and cartwheeling across the vast empty interior of Los Angeles' Marriott Hotel.

At the time, even the ageing, increasingly eccentric Marlon Brando was captivated by the way Walken moved – and offered to make a variety show with him. Out comes another of Walken's curious celebrity vignettes: "I was making a movie in Nova Scotia," he recalls. "And I was reading a book in my room when the phone started ringing. A woman said, 'Christopher Walken, are you going to be here in the next 10 minutes? Marlon Brando would like to talk to you.' I hung up thinking, 'It's a joke.' Two minutes later, a man phoned and when he spoke, I knew it was no joke. It was him. He said, 'You did a movie called Pennies from Heaven. I would like to get in touch with your choreographer.' I told Marlon Brando I happened to know the choreographer. He said he wanted to make a musical variety show from his house. He would play the piano and I would dance. He told me that he had lost a hundred pounds eating just Saltines [crackers] and milk. I said I'd get in touch with the choreographer. I called him, he was nearly 80 years old, and I said to him, 'Marlon Brando wants to do a variety show.' He said, 'WHAT?'"

Walken has, remarkably, never experienced a significant slump in his sustained film career, so has never had to stage a John Travolta-style comeback, yet he appears watchful of his celebrity, and the notion of losing it. He tells me a story about a poignant encounter with the boxer Muhammad Ali, whose star had waned for a period in 1972. "I was working in a little town in Canada when Muhammad Ali had his title taken away. He was making his living touring, he was going around little towns in Canada. He came through the town I was staying in and he had three sparring partners. I was fascinated. He would get in the ring with the others guys and would tell some jokes, they'd knock him down and he'd get up again and tell some more jokes. He had a variety act. When he left town, he left his boxing trunks to be auctioned. I said to someone, 'Wow, it's going to be very difficult [to buy them].' I went to the auction and nobody wanted them. The bidding just stopped at $40, and I was that $40. No one went above it, so I now have them in a frame."

Walken runs no risk of having to push his childhood variety act back out on the road, or having to auction off his (pilfered) clothes, but he is all-too-conscious of his flops, especially the recent ones. The Maiden Heist, a comedy about museum security guards who devise a plan to steal their favourite artworks, which he made last year with Morgan Freeman, did not see the light of day. $5 a Day, made the year before and co-starring Sharon Stone, does not yet have a distributor. This year, he is pencilled in to make Citizen Brando, a whimsical-sounding drama about a Tunisian boy in search of the American Dream, featuring Walken alongside archive footage of Brando himself, and there are two more films at the pre-production stage.

"I have made a number of movies that I have never seen. It's not a matter of ego. It's a matter of being disappointed. It's really a shame. It's just as difficult to make a movie that no one cares about as to make a hit."

He likens the act of performing to a short, explosive exertion of energy. His memories of movie-making can all be distilled into concentrated moments of action, alchemical thrills in between hours of waiting for the film to roll. "Acting is a bit like being an athlete," he explains. "You spend all your time getting ready to do something for two minutes. All the things that made my career in the movies happen took two or three minutes, which is the time that it takes for a 'take'. In that time, something happens. That's what people know you for, just like someone running the hundred metres."

Walken pauses, and offers up his shark-smile. He looks limber – and ready for the next 100-metre sprint.

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