Christopher Walken: Walken Tall

Christopher Walken has been doing it his way since he started in show business at the age of three. Now he's inspiring a new generation of actors.


Christopher Walken is not fond of the label creepy. "Creepy is not a mammal. Creepy is like an insect," he protests. "Spooky is OK." Walken's been spooking audiences since playing Diane Keaton's demented brother in Woody Allen's Annie Hall. His career spans over 80 movies, including his Academy Award-winning turn as a Russian roulette-playing Vietnam vet in The Deer Hunter. He was Sean Penn's crazed father in At Close Range, the wickedly evil mobster who took out a taunting Dennis Hopper in True Romance, the crime boss in Abel Ferrara's King of New York, a villain in the Bond film A View to a Kill and sleazy businessman Max Shreck in Batman Returns.

Between the spring and fall of 2004 Walken will appear in four new films: Envy, directed by Barry Levinson; Man on Fire with Denzel Washington; The Stepford Wives, as Glenn Close's husband; and Around the Bend, with Michael Caine and Josh Lucas. He put a week's work into John Turturro's Romance & Cigarettes, with Susan Sarandon and James Gandolfini. And he will be playing the father of the bride in The Wedding Crashers.

Though he's now 61, his appeal to the young has never wavered. He has guest-hosted Saturday Night Live a half-dozen times, and his hilariously tacky character The Continental has become a classic. He was the star of one of the most downloaded videos on the Internet, dancing on tables and up walls à la Fred Astaire in Fatboy Slim's "Weapon of Choice," directed by Spike Jonze. Like Marlon Brando before him, he is probably the most parodied actor of his generation. Everyone has a Walken impression they like to perform at parties.

What unsettles Walken today? Young actors who are "a little too young, a little too good-looking, a little too sure of themselves."

LAWRENCE GROBEL: Since this is the Young Hollywood issue, do you feel like an elder statesman?

CHRISTOPHER WALKEN: Well, I play a grandfather in Around the Bend. I don't feel like one, but I have been around a long time. I've been in show business since I was a kid. So if young actors are watching my performances, that's great. When I was a kid there were actors I always went to see, and they certainly had an influence on me.

Q: Who were they and what were the movies that made an impression on you?

A: As a kid in the '50s, I went to the movies a lot. The action movie then was usually in reference to the Second World War or Korea, like The Bridges at Toko-Ri with William Holden. My father took me to see Ben-Hur. In those days you would see three features and 27 cartoons, so going to the movies was an entire day. I remember seeing Richard Burton in Alexander the Great. Brando in On the Waterfront. Katharine Hepburn, Peter O'Toole, Christopher Plummer, my God. The first time I ever wrote an actor a letter was to Ian McKellen, just telling him I thought The Promise was great. So yes, I do have actor heroes. Lots of them.

Q: How different is it being a young actor today than it was when you were young and upcoming?

A: I came out of a variety-review background--singing, dancing. That was useful, because I had decades to make a lot of mistakes and not really be seen. I don't think anybody noticed my presence until I was well into my thirties and did The Deer Hunter. So I had a lot of time to do it wrong and try to get it right. Today, with TV, the exposure is so enormous, it might be difficult to make a big splash and then have something not work out; it's much more public than it was for me when I was starting out.

Q: What auditioning stories do you have that might offer some hope for young actors?

A: What I used to do was, I'd get the script and see who the character was--a spy, a lumberjack, whatever--then I'd try to dress the part for the audition, to give the impression that I was tough or funny or whatever the part seemed to call for. That was always a disaster. I would never get the job. If I learned anything it's not to do anything like that. Now if they want to look at me, I go in and let them look at me. Let them figure out their own reasons for why they'd want to hire me.

Q: Has another actor ever given you helpful advice?

A: I was in the original stage production of The Lion in Winter with Rosemary Harris and Robert Preston. I had terrible stage fright and I thought the producers were going to fire me. Robert Preston was very helpful. He would say kind things to calm me down. He used to say, "Don't stand in the wings and go over your lines. You're getting yourself all wound up." He was right. I used to go over my lines before walking out on stage, and when I went out I didn't know what I was doing. You get your head all crammed with stuff and it's impossible to be spontaneous. It wasn't until after I was 50 that I could stand in the wings and look forward to going on stage and not have a sense of dread.

Q: Before you became successful, how often did you stand on unemployment lines?

A: There were years when I didn't do anything but collect unemployment. I worked a lot, but I worked for nothing. I worked for 15 years as a kind of janitor at the Actors Studio. I would do manual things. I did lots of plays, theater workshops, for nothing.

Q: Once you started making films, what was the low point for you?

A: The first movie I made was The Anderson Tapes. Sidney Lumet directed, Sean Connery was in it. Then [after 1972's The Happiness Cage] I didn't make another movie for several years. I just went back to the theater. I never knew the reasons for that. But when the phone doesn't ring and they don't want you--that's tough.

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