Christopher Walken On Dancing, Detachment And Dark Roles

An illuminating tour of the brain (and world) of our favourite movie pyscho – who'll be gracing your TV screen very soon 

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Many great men have been floored by Christopher Walken.

Take Sean Penn, who worked with Walken on the 1986 film At Close Range and who doesn't appear to be easily impressed.

A decade ago he told the New York Times, “Chris is like a poem. Trying to define him is like trying to define a cloud.”

Bill Nighy, who stars as MI5 agent Johnny Worricker opposite Walken in Turks & Caicos, David Hare's sequel to the 2011 BBC spy thriller Page Eight, and the second part of a of films, is known for his composure.

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Except when talking about Walken, that is.

Did Walken, who trained as a dancer and who shimmied his way gracefully through Spike Jonze's video for Fatboy Slim's “Weapon of Choice”, dance for him on set?

Nighy almost blushes. “I didn't know him well enough to ask,” he says.

“I suspect he might have done had I asked. He was hilarious and marvellous. Funny as fuck. Funny like being-kicked-in-the-stomach funny, like you were just jack-knifed. It almost hurt. Chris is really, truly witty.”

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Now approaching his 71st birthday, Walken is an actor, much like the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, who has the ability to elevate a film by his mere presence.

It's partly the way he talks: brought up by a German father and a Glaswegian nother in a large immigrant community in Queens, his voice is as much Naples as New York.

But his magic is also partly because of the way he moves, with the ease of a dancer.

Mostly, though, it's the way he wanders onto the screen like he owns it.

Like any great actor, Walken's choice of films has not been perfect.

But most would agree that, when he’s good, he is utterly compelling; whether playing a suicidal Duane in Annie Hall or, a year later, in The Deer Hunter (which won him an Oscar), making a speech about hiding a watch up his ass in Pulp Fiction or, more recently, casually acting Sam Rockwell and Colin Farrell off the screen in Seven Psychopaths.

Walken is no longer boyishly pretty, but he has grown into his face better than anyone of his generation.

In Turks & Caicos he and Nighy show off their great hair and prove they look better in suits than Ryan Gosling.

Plus they still get their fair share of gorgeous women: in this case, Winona Ryder and Helena Bonham Carter.

It’s just as you would expect from Christopher Walken, the king of cool.

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ESQ: Rumour has it you don't travel much, yet you made it to the tropical paradise of Turks and Caicos to work with David Hare…

CW: “I don't like travelling. I've never liked flying. I especially nowadays don't like to go to the airport. When I was a kid, flying was fun. Now it's a chore. Endless queues and all the stuff you can't take with you on the plane. I only take carry on luggage, even if I'm away for six months. I always used to travel with a Swiss Army Knife because I like to cook for myself. I'm rather lost without it.”

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ESQ: How aware were you of David Hare's work?

CW: “I'd seen The Designated Mourner, the marvellous film he adapted and that David Nicholls directed. And I saw him perform his monologue, Berlin/Wall. The script for Turks & Caicos was unusually good. Plus I love Bill Nighy's acting and we had a hilarious time sitting around between takes.

ESQ: In Turks & Caicos, Nighy plays a spy on the run while you play a CIA agent. Did you talk to Hare about NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden and the issue of surveillance?

CW: [The line, rather spookily, goes dead at this precise point and it's a few minutes before we are reconnected] "You disappeared there. They must have been listening. Or maybe it's the weather; it's colder than I remember here in Connecticut. Anyway, David and I never talked about spying. We spent time working on the scenes. I'm somewhat ignorant when it comes to the news. I don't pay attention. I'm a showbiz guy."

ESQ: A showbiz guy who always seems to be working, it seems. What’s an average day for Christopher Walken?

CW: “Hopefully I'm getting ready for a part. But being an actor is always precarious. I was prepping for a film towards the end of last year and around Christmas they announced the money hadn't turned up. It's particularly frustrating for a guy like me who takes so long to learn lines. I'm best when I'm getting ready to do something. Particularly since I have no hobbies. I don't play golf or tennis. I don't have kids. I don't like to travel.”

ESQ: What about a dog?

CW: “No, but I do have a cat called Flapjack.”

ESQ: How fussy are you about the roles you take on?

CW: “Only to the extent that I don't want to play a character I've done too many times already. Or if I don't think I'd be very good in that part. But otherwise I like to say yes.”

ESQ: You began your career in musical theatre. How much has that informed how you approach acting?

CW: “Musical theatre includes the audience more. For me the audience is another character in the film or play. I'm always aware of it. I suppose I have an unusual approach to acting: I never paid attention to punctuation in school and I ignore it in scripts. I've been confronted by writers for turning a statement into a question – and for passing stage directions by. Instead I ask myself what my character wants in each scene.”

ESQ: You even talk like a dancer – two-two four; three-three four. Is there a rhythm in your head when you talk?

CW: “Absolutely! I'm very aware of that rhythm. It's constantly there.”

ESQ: Your accent is an unusual hybrid, almost as though English is your second language…

CW: “That's a good point. When I was growing up in Queens almost all the kids were first generation – their parents came from Italy, Germany, Poland. I grew up listening to people who spoke English in a disjointed way, who were often searching for a word. My dad always spoke German at the bakery he worked in.”

ESQ: And your mother never lost her Glaswegian accent...

CW: “That is true also. I love Scotland. This is a predictable thing to say, but when I go there it feels like coming home. I could settle down there and be quite comfortable. I've always liked the rain.”

ESQ: Would you consider doing a play in London, if asked?

CW: “Sure. I'd always get on a plane to work. I did a play in New York a few years ago by the Irish playwright Martin McDonagh. It was called A Behanding in Spokane. There was talk of it coming to London, but the idea just evaporated."

ESQ: Do you ever tire of playing eccentric bad guys?

CW: “I play a lot of villains, but mostly with detachment. You can't take those roles too seriously. But you do have to be careful not to wear out your welcome and be repetitive. I'd like to play a granddad. Somebody the kids come to for advice. I'd like to play a good guy.”

ESQ: I‘ve found footage of you in Hawaii Five-0 in 1970 and on The Jonathan Ross Show reading out the lyrics to Lady Gaga's “Poker Face” a deadpan voice…

CW: You're talking about the internet, I suppose? I don't have a computer, or a cell phone. I'm a Luddite. As for “Poker Face”: I went on that show to do an interview and was handed a sheet of paper. I didn't even know what I was reading. I read it like a menu. As a matter of fact I didn't even know who Lady Gaga was.

ESQ: Would it be fair to say you feel cut off from the modern world?

CW: “I live in a place that's a bit isolated. When you get older you're not aware of all sorts of things, like new music. There's lots of stuff that just doesn't come under my radar.”

ESQ: Why did you agree to dance in the video to Fatboy Slim’s “Weapon of Choice”?

CW: “I liked everything about it. I think Spoke Jonze had seen me tap dance in Dennis Potter's film Pennies from Heaven. I met Norman Cook once and he was very nice. He seemed like a doctor. There was nothing rock & roll about him as I recall.”


Page Eight will be repeated at 9pm on BBC Two on 15 March. Turks & Caicos will be shown on BBC Two at 9pm on 20 March, followed by Salting the Battlefield, the finale of the Worricker trilogy, on 27 March
 

 

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