Christopher Walken: ‘I got a job as a lion tamer. Who’s going to turn that down?’

He started out working with big cats before becoming Hollywood’s go-to guy for menacing oddballs. He talks about The Deer Hunter, the perils of being a world-class dancer – and doing community service with Stephen Merchant

In between his early days as a lion tamer and his latest turn as an old lag doing community service in Bristol, Christopher Walken was Hollywood’s go-to guy for disturbed individuals. He was never quite as deranged as Dennis Hopper, perhaps, but those fixed staring eyes and a rictus smile more mirthless than Robert De Niro’s have helped convey instability and menace for more than half a century in more than 100 films and TV shows. “My whole acting career was a kind of accident,” he tells me down the phone from his home in rural Connecticut. “I guess you can blame Woody Allen. He must have seen something in me.”

In 1977’s Annie Hall, Walken played Duane Hall, Annie’s oddball brother. “Can I confess something?” Duane asks Allen’s character Alvy Singer in a darkened room. “Sometimes when I’m driving on the road at night I see two headlights coming toward me. Fast. I have this sudden impulse to turn the wheel quickly, head-on into the oncoming car … ” “Right,” replies Alvy, sensibly backing away. “Well, I have to go now, Duane, because I’m due back on the planet Earth.”

Walken issues a clarification after I quote this at him. “I’m not disturbed,” he says. “I pay my bills. I’ve been married for 55 years. I live in the country, I exercise and try to take care of myself.” (He maintains that enviably svelte figure by rising at seven every day and running two miles on his treadmill.)

The same year he played Duane Hall, he was considered by George Lucas for the role of Han Solo in Star Wars. “I’m very glad Harrison Ford got it,” he says. “I would have been terrible.” I doubt that, I tell him, but your career would certainly have gone in a different direction. “It’s all about accidents,” he replies. “I’ve had some good accidents.”

Walken on the wild side ... The Deer Hunter.
Walken on the wild side ... The Deer Hunter. Photograph: TCD/Prod DB/Alamy

In Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter, Walken upped the disturbed ante as Nick Chevotarevich, a Pennsylvania steelworker traumatised by his Vietnam tour, and by being forced to play Russian roulette by his Viet Cong captors. “We shot that in the jungle,” recalls Walken. “We were put in bamboo cages. It was all for real. Right down to the slap in the face.” In one scene, De Niro, as Nick’s old deer-hunting chum Mike, encouraged an actor playing a captor to slap Walken without warning to make the scene pop. Years later, near the film’s bitter denouement, Mike finds Nick looking gaunt and raddled in a Saigon gambling den (a look achieved by Walken subsisting for a week on a diet of bananas and rice), playing one last game of Russian roulette. Walken’s character has become a heroin addict and professional gambler – the very emblem of a generation broken by America’s lost war. When Cimino shot that scene, he had only the scantest of instructions for Walken and De Niro. “You put the gun to your head, Chris, you shoot, you fall over and Bobby cradles your head.” The part earned Walken an Oscar.

“Very few actors,” says Walken, “choose their roles. We take them as they come. Early on, I got a thing going playing people who were, let’s say, off-centre – gangsters, suicides and all sorts of things.” Is there a key to playing those parts? “The best lesson I learned in acting was to do as little as possible.”

Walken discards his characters when he gets home from work, he says, with one exception. In Paul Schrader’s 1990 adaptation of Ian McEwan’s The Comfort of Strangers, he played a devilish character embroiled in Venetian S&M and murder. “He was the character who really haunted me for a long time.” Haunted is right: 20 years after the film was released, he turned up to an interview in the Giorgio Armani jacket he wore in the film. “I never buy clothes,” he said at the time. “Whenever I do a movie, all my clothing is from the set. They don’t give me anything. I steal.” When he played Max Shreck in Tim Burton’s Batman Returns, he decided to keep his character’s cufflinks and bow tie. “When I finished the last scene I went back to my dressing room and everything was gone. They saw me coming!”

To be frank ... Walken shows off his moves in The Outlaws.
To be frank ... Walken shows off his moves in The Outlaws. Photograph: James Pardon/BBC/Big Talk/Four Eyes

A light-fingered actor specialising in disturbed characters? No wonder Stephen Merchant felt compelled to cast Walken as Frank, a US career criminal from Stateside sentenced to do community payback in Bristol for his new series The Outlaws. “I liked the idea of this feeling a little alien in Bristol, like he’s a man who fell to Earth,” says Merchant. “There aren’t many actors of that vintage who have that charisma and that audience recognition. What I love about him is that he can do great charm and be very funny, but also menacing at the same time.”

A case in point is Walken’s Saturday Night Live performance in 2000, as a psychopathic record producer who tells a fictionalised version of Blue Öyster Cult that their song (Don’t Fear) the Reaper needs “more cowbell”. “Guess what?” Walken’s character tells the band, fronted by Will Ferrell. “I got a fever and the only prescription is more cowbell.” Never has he been more sinister or more funny.

“Will Ferrell? He ruined my life,” says Walken, recalling this story. And indeed, during theatrical curtain calls ever since, audience members have been known to bang cowbells instead of clapping. A waiter once asked Walken if he wanted more cowbell with his bolognese. I’m guessing he said no.

Such performances made it imperative that Merchant hire Walken. Like Rob Lowe working as a detective in Lincolnshire, Walken playing an American marooned in a Bristol of Banksys and toppled slave trader statues is just bizarre enough to work. But Walken played hard to get. “He doesn’t do phones and doesn’t have a computer, so it was hard to contact him.” (Walken recently did a Zoom interview with Stephen Colbert, but only after someone else set up video conferencing at home.) He has never sent a text message or an email. And he doesn’t see the need for a mobile phone: “A cellphone is a little like a watch. If you need it, someone else has got it.”

Merchant had to drive to Connecticut and convince Walken that, despite his dislike of flying, he should come to the UK to shoot during lockdown. Clearly the character of Frank resonated with him. “He’s been in England since 1971, when he dodged the Vietnam draft. A lot of my contemporaries did, too. Most of them went to Canada. But Frank never integrated.”

While Walken tells me this, I’m thinking about the pair of Muhammad Ali boxing shorts he has in a frame in a little room in his house devoted to memorabilia. Like Frank, Ali dodged the draft. “He was a conscientious objector,” clarifies Walken. “In the early 70s, his [world heavyweight] title was taken away, so he wound up doing Broadway shows and going on tour. His tour passed through Calgary, where I was working. He left his boxing trunks to be auctioned for charity by the theatre.”

Theatre Calgary’s Twitter has an old newspaper photo of Walken in those shorts with the headline “Romeo Leads with a Right”. Walken is wearing the Ali shorts and boxing gloves, squaring up to Tybalt over the bonnet of a Ford Pinto. Both the shorts and the Pinto were later auctioned. “Nobody wanted the shorts, so I got them for $40.”

In Britain, the very idea of Walken as a star-cross’d lover in an Elizabethan puffy shirt seems odd. We’ve been raised on his films and he has never acted on the stage this side of the Atlantic. “I’ve been coming to England for a long time, 40 years really.” But he’s come here to play, not Hamlet, Macbeth or Coriolanus (all of which he has performed on stage), but, say, a cameo in the 2016 film about the underdog skier Eddie the Eagle. Nor did the 1995 play he wrote, directed and starred in called Him, about his idol Elvis Presley, tour in the UK. But it really should, because in it Walken imagined that Elvis faked his own death on the toilet to go to Morocco for a gender reassignment. The New York Times called the play a “most cheering and refreshingly absurd invention”. Elvis has been an obsession ever since he was 15, when his girlfriend showed him a photo of the singer. Walken once told an interviewer he thought Presley looked “like a Greek god”, and modelled his look on him, right down to the still impeccable quiff. “I loved everything about him.”

Ronald Walken was born in Queens, New York in 1943, and named after the actor Ronald Colman. “My parents were first-generation immigrants, both of them fortysomething when I was born. They came to America during the Depression and made a life. My dad was a baker from Germany. My mother was from Glasgow.” His mum pushed him and his two brothers into showbiz: “I was one of those kids who was on TV shows. I was in sketches with Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin. Never got paid a cent!” Is it true you ran away to join the circus? “I didn’t run away, I just got a job as a trainee lion tamer. Who’s going to turn that down?” He was 16 at the time and the job lasted one summer. But working with Sheba was blissful. “I would come into the cage and wave my whip, and she’d lazily get up and sit like a dog and maybe give a little roar. I like cats a lot. I’ve always liked cats. They’re great company.”

Christopher and Georgianne Walken in 1978.
Christopher and Georgianne Walken in 1978. Photograph: Dennis Hart/ANL/Rex/Shutterstock

But the circus couldn’t hold Ronnie Walken for long. He went to university for one year, then dropped out to train professionally at the Washington Dance Studio. “Dancing was something I’d done since the age of three. In those days, working-class people like my parents sent their kids to learn tap, ballet and acrobatics.” By 1964, he was a nightclub dancer and had changed his name to Christopher (a friend thought it sounded more sophisticated). The same year, he was in a touring production of West Side Story, during which he fell in love with another cast member, Georgianne, whom he married in 1969. She went on to become a celebrated casting director (The Sopranos would be very different were it not for her).

His dance moves have frequently encouraged directors to treat him, like John Travolta or James Cagney, as someone who should do at least one crowd-pleasing quickstep per movie. Perhaps the best was his turn in Abel Ferrara’s 1990 King of New York, though the video for Fatboy Slim’s Weapon of Choice runs a close second. “It gets kind of annoying,” he says. “Just because you play violin, you don’t want to do it every time you’re asked.”

Even in The Outlaws, Merchant inveigles Walken into a little soft shoe shuffle. One of Frank’s fellow cons plays Sam Cooke’s Chain Gang as they sweep a derelict building. Walken does a dainty twirl with his broom. “I didn’t mind doing that, because it felt organic.”

We will next see Walken in a workplace thriller called Severance opposite Adam Scott, Patricia Arquette and John Turturro on Apple TV+. How come you’re belatedly doing so much TV? “That’s where the action is. It didn’t used to be.

“I always wanted to be in movies and when they asked I came running. I was part of that generation that came when the Hollywood studio system fell apart and suddenly, instead of shooting on sound stages in Hollywood, we were shooting in the jungle or somewhere crazy in Europe. It was an adventure.”

You were, I suggest, part of that maverick generation of wildly talented easy riders and raging bulls who gave Hollywood a new lease of life. “Perhaps,” whispers a voice 3,400 miles away. “I love to work – that’s one of the reasons we didn’t have children – and I probably won’t ever retire.” That’s good news for Merchant, as a second series of The Outlaws has already been commissioned.

“I’ve never had hobbies,” he says, “just a strong work ethic like my father. Tennis? Swimming? Golf? They never did it for me. Acting is really what I love. I don’t really like to go out of the house unless I’m working.”

The Outlaws starts 25 October at 9pm on BBC One

Contributor

Stuart Jeffries

The GuardianTramp

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