Christopher Walken: Greetings from Planet Showbiz
With over 50 films to his credit in a career that's lasted over 50 years, no wonder Christopher Walken claims he comes from another world. Read on to discover which performances Walken considers his best, what he names as the strangest thing he's ever seen, and why playing Elvis as a woman was one of his scariest experiences.
In just the last four years, Christopher Walken has appeared in 15 films, including Pulp Fiction, Search and Destroy, The Prophecy, The Addiction, A Business Affair, Nick of Time, Things To Do in Denver When You're Dead, Basquiat, Last Man Standing, The Funeral, Touch, Suicide Kings, Excess Baggage, Mouse Hunt and Antz, plus several straight-to-video films, including The Prophecy II. He has six others in the can--_Blast From the Past, New Rose Hotel, Illuminata, Kiss Toledo Goodbye, Ballad of the Nightingale_ and Trance. He claims that he's been in the business so long (52 of his 55 years) that he's not from this planet, but from the planet Show Business.
He and his two brothers attended the Professional Children's School in Manhattan and ' worked in commercials and early live TV. Ronald, which is Christopher's real first name, never thought of doing anything else. He worked first in theater, not appearing in a movie until he was 26, when he landed a small part in Me and My Brother. Two years later, in 1971, he got his second film, The Anderson Tapes. This was followed by his first lead role in 1972's The Happiness Cage, 1976's_ Next Stop Greenwich Village_ and 1977's Annie Hall. He wasn't the overnight sensation he seemed when he won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance in 1978's The Deer Hunter. But if he started slow, he picked up extraordinary speed, playing a long string of exotic eccentrics in chillers like The Dead Zone, in outré violent fare like Abel Ferrara's King of New York, in arty films like The Comfort of Strangers, in farces like Batman Returns, and in cult masterpieces like True Romance.
There is no other American actor remotely like Chris Walken. "There's a great line in Don Quixote," he says, "where Dulcinea says to Don Quixote, 'What are you trying to do by behaving in this way?' And he says, 'I hope to add some measure of grace to the world.'" The same could be said of Walken--it's just that he has an odd idea of grace.
LAWRENCE GROBEL: You've done an extraordinary number of movies--over a dozen in just the last three years.
CHRISTOPHER WALKEN: Yeah, I've been averaging four or five a year. Sometimes they're just a few days' job. I'm glad to have these jobs--otherwise I start walking around the house talking to myself.
Q: Your upcoming film Blast From the Past seems like one of the more accessible movies you've appeared in.
A: I play an inventor who builds an elaborate bomb shelter under my house. When the Cuban Missile Crisis starts, I think it's the end of the world and I take my family and lock us down there for 35 years. We live an idyllic life--though my son [Brendan Fraser] grows up without seeing a girl. When we finally come out he meets and falls in love with Alicia Silver-stone. It's a nice story. I don't often read a script and then feel it's wonderful. Usually I think, "How am I gonna figure this out?" This made me laugh.
Q: What kind of ant do you play in the animated film Antz?
A: Gene Hackman plays a Coriolanus ant and I play his sidekick, Col. Cutter.
Q: Will there be a toy based on your ant?
A: I don't know--that would be great if there's money in it. I've made a few bucks on my Max Schreck Batman Returns cards.
Q: What are some of your own favorite performances?
A: I enjoyed myself in At Close Range. I love my dance number in Pennies From Heaven. My performance in The Dead Zone was good. I like King of New York. My bits in True Romance, Pulp Fiction. My performance in Things To Do in Denver When You're Dead was very interesting because it was very focused--I was just a head.
Q: You've played Hamlet. Were you a good Hamlet?
A: I wasn't very good. The good Shakespeare roles for me were Coriolanus, Iago and Antonio in The Tempest. I was pretty good as the dreaded Scotsman. I'd like to play that again. I'd also be better as Romeo now than when I first played him.
Q: Romeo was a teenager.
A: I know, but now I could play it.
Q: What makes an actor great?
A: Talent. Magic. Actors are priests. They are a conduit from something very powerful to the people. That's why when you go to the theater or to the movies you are moved in some way--to laugh, to get a hard-on, to feel compassion. Good acting has a lot to do with the way you were when you were eight years old--you play. It usually has to do with having a good time. Most good actors are very playful.
Q: If actors are priests, who's the Pope?
A: Brando was the boss of American actors in my lifetime. He was a genius. He really did change things. I heard a story about him. Somebody asked him once how he intended to play a part. He said, "I think of this character as a giant tomato." [Laughs] That's a great story. When I think about great actors, I also think of De Niro. In The Deer Hunter there was a big scene, I worked on it for weeks. I came in and had all this stuff prepared, [but] I said to Bob, "I don't know what to do." He said, "Do this," and he walked in the door, made these movements. And that's just what I did. It was terrific. He knew what to do, I didn't.
Q: You've been in some classic movie scenes: the Russian roulette scene in The Deer Hunter, for example, and the scene between you and Dennis Hopper in True Romance.
A: In True Romance, that was something that happened between me and Dennis. People often say we improvised, but not at all. Every word was scripted. That's the way Quentin Tarantino writes, like a play--big speeches. The first take was on Dennis, and he started telling that story and I started to laugh off camera and it made him laugh. Then when they turned it around and shot me and we got to the same place, I started to laugh again and he started to laugh. It was like in school when you can't stop laughing and the teacher's mad at you. It looked pretty serious on the page--him calling me a Sicilian eggplant, I take out a gun and shoot him--but all that laughing and kissing and "what-a-guy" stuff happened out of doing it. I think it's because Dennis is very mischievous.
Q: Did you know you were creating a memorable scene?
A: Yes, absolutely. Dennis invited me to dinner afterwards and we were sitting at the table with a few other people and he looked at me and said, "We did a good scene today" Yeah, you can tell.
Q: You've said that when you pull the trigger of a gun, you always know you're in a movie--is it that you can't imagine ever pulling the trigger for real?
A: Absolutely Impossible.
Q: So if someone came up to you the way you did to Johnny Depp in Nick of Time, and said, Kill the governor or we'll kill your daughter . . . ?
A: I'd have a nervous breakdown. I'd just collapse and they'd realize they shouldn't use me.
Q: And that was the problem with the movie--the premise was silly.
A: Well, I still hoped people would like it. That's my bread and butter. My movies aren't that successful. It's hard to be in a successful movie.