Article

Christopher Walken

HOW WEIRD IS CHRISTOPHER WALKEN ?

“Most of the characters I play are a little, erm, un¬usual. And I think that’s the kind of person I would have to be in order to do it. I tell you, I don’t consider myself a person who’s in control, but I do consider myself a person with assurance. And in a sense the assurance comes from not being in control. I’m not unstable, no, not at all. I don’t feel, er, unpredictable. There’s just something about my personality that’s a bit off… I don’t play regular guys… I’m not a very regular guy. I don’t know what a regular guy is.”
How weird is Christopher Walken ? Isn’t that the only question ? You might think you know by looking at his face; that should be enough. That face. The scary hair. The dead eyes that tell you nothing. The strange skin stretched around strained eyes. Above all there’s that smile, the smile that is unnerved and unnerving, disturbed and disturbing. Walken’s smile, in films and in person, comes out of nowhere, out loud, in a private meaning. It’s totally un-reassuring and unique. Dennis Hopper’s is close, but Hopper’s is much, much sweeter. An angel by comparison. When Walken smiles, you don’t know what’s coming next — a punch to the stomach, a gun to the temple, a kiss to the lips. It’s unpredictable, erratic, excitable. Every time it’s mentioned here, it’s a moment that throws me, like a threat, an unstable threat
If you thought Walken was weird from watching The Deer Hunter or At Close Range or A View to a Kill, you didn’t see Communion recently, where Walken — looking weirder in make-up than The Man Who Fell to Earth — was playing a man abducted by aliens and given an anal probe. Walken was more alien than the aliens. In this month’s The Comfort of Strangers and next year’s King of New York he plays psychotically weird men and does it impeccably.

At his home in New York, you realize how deep it goes, how genuine his strangeness is; that the films don’t capture it. You might leave thinking, finally, you know. But it’s all just surface. You have no idea.
It began strangely and finished stranger still. Rarely inter¬viewed, very rarely photographed, employing no publicity agent, Walken told me to turn up in New York, ring him and he’d do the interview. It was so straightforward and simple, no one believed him and he became rightly, irked. He gave me time, at home, and seemed to relish talking and thinking about his work, his character. Then after I saw King of New York for the second time, I phoned to ask a couple of questions only to receive the next day messages from his agents to “leave him alone.” He had done no other interviews and turned down nation¬wide shows such as The Tonight Show, David Letterman and Arsenio Hall. He was friendly but very firm. There were limits. Something of the ruthlessness seemed to be lurking nearby.
There seem to be four theories about Walken’s face/soul — that it’s been damaged by drugs, grief, illness or surgery. Only the second seems likely to me, but still rumours circulate. Something, however, is not right. The hair is fuzzy, bizarre, like fur from a fairground toy. He has a shocked expression, as if the hair is shrieking. As he talks — he is casual but not really ‘relaxed’ — he stares past me, his hands twitching on his legs. When he says, “I’ve been in prisons, for work. I’ve seen the jailhouse stare. It’s a look which is not hostile, not menacing, just so cold. Completely objective” I know what he means. I’ve seen it too.
Asked why he’s so weird and Walken doesn’t flinch, just considers it carefully and blames it on… show business. Walken is the acting world’s Michael Jackson, a native product of show business. The son of a baker, born in Queens, New York, he was tap-dancing and performing live on television with his two brothers at the age of 10.
“There’s a whole generation of kids where I come from that tap-dance ! “ he grins. “Enormous classes of little kids.”
Walken would later steal Pennies From Heaven with a five-minute cameo/strip-tap-dance; in King of New York when he dances to Schoolly D and, famously tap-dancing in the Fatboy Slim music video for Weapon Of Choice which won 6 awards at the 2001 MTV Video Music Awards.
Walken spent much of his childhood attending a school for performing children.
“The child performer is a very peculiar breed. Even the ones that stopped, which is most of them, the minute you’re with them, you sense it. So that’s why I seem, erm, exotic. I don’t feel exotic, no. I just feel like a native of show business.”
He made his Broadway debut by the age of 17, studied English Lit briefly before returning to musicals, theatre and touring where he met his wife, Georgianna. He would probably have become a choreographer.
“I couldn’t say that I always wanted to be an actor. I got into it in an accidental way. I’m very comfortable acting, yes, but I couldn’t say I come naturally to me. I was pretty lousy at it for long periods. Always terrible panic [laughs]. The first time I played Romeo, when I was 22, it was just a disaster.”
Despite numerous stage awards, acclaim for performances in such early films as Annie Hall, Dogs of War and Heaven’s Gate and an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his shattering performance as Nick in The Deer Hunter, Walken says he still doesn’t understand acting.
“For me, acting is the accumulation of, erm, impressions. I couldn’t really clarify myself more than that. The more I think about it, the more frazzled I get by it.”
He smiles, and actually looks frazzled. Most of what he says makes him look concerned by what he’s saying — either by the possibility that what he is saying is not true. Or indeed true.
“I’m not good enough at acting to switch off. I torture myself over it. I suppose my approach is rather like a kid. ‘I’ll be a space ranger and you be a Martian’. I used to do that.”
Walken is sitting un¬der an almost-funny, almost-scary picture of three ghost-wolves, appropriately. Walken has generally played wolves, mavericks, outsiders, weirdoes, fully-fledged psychopaths. Per¬haps he’s done it too well. It’s been said Walken is too weird even for Hollywood: his career since winning the Oscar for The Deerhunter has not flour¬ished. His choices are often rather quirky.
He carried minor films like Communion, Brainstorm, The Dead Zone, even Biloxi Blues; and A View to a Kill, even Homeboy (which he says was ruined in editing) are worth watching for him alone.
“The Deer Hunter gave me my career — I was already in my thirties. I’ve had my ups and downs. I was hard to cast. Physically, I was never the leading man. Now I’ll start getting more interesting parts, I think. I can play people’s fathers… I like to work. Working is good for me, for my mental health. My father is the same. Eighty-five, he still can’t sit still. All you can do is keep going. Look at Michael Caine ! He’s always good. He just does it. He really knows what he’s doing. Sean Connery: he’s a hero. What are they taking, these guys ?”
Abel Ferrara, the director of King of New York and a Walken fanatic, says Walken’s attitude is pure show business.
“It’s ‘the show must go on’. You could call him up and say, ‘Hey Chris, we’re shooting, come down’, he’d be there.”
“I don’t wish to overstate it,” Walken says later, “but I think there has to be something with the person that you play that you really have to involve yourself with — it’s almost like a person in your family, or a person you care about. No matter how awful they may be.”
What Walken excels at is characters with a kind of brutal intelligence, an imbalance somewhere. He is superb at confusion, paranoia, the clash of fear and violence in the same individual. He makes utterly ruthless characters quirky and convincing. In Pennies From Heaven he tells the girl, “You’re not a tease are ya ? ‘Cause I’d cut your face.” It’s chilling, utterly real.
In Homeboy, and At Close Range, he laughs out loud to himself, with horribly sinister menace, something only he or Hopper could get away with. At Close Range — where his hair is truly bizarre, likes a Samurai Hell’s Angel — he has a Little Richard Tennessee accent, rapes his son’s girlfriend and murders his son. It is terrifyingly real.
Walken laughs, that excitable, erratic-looking laugh.
“At Close Range is a hard movie. It’s not a movie you can get in the car and take the kids to ! I always told them they should have released it on ‘Father’s Day. Hahaha !”
Again in King of New York, as another suave villain, he says to a cop, “See this woman ? Nice woman. I could blow her away. Could you do that ?”
Yet Walken squirms at the idea of being intimidating.
“I’m not ruthless at all. I find life too comfortable. I’m not a violent person at all. Some people just have that authority. When they talk, people listen. They command respect. I don’t feel like that, no. I have that clarity only when I’m acting. I know an actor, a famous one and a good one, who won’t play these parts — bad people. But if it bothered me, I couldn’t be an actor. To me, if they’re out there, they should be in movies.”
Walken’s performance in Paul Shrader’s film of Ian McEwan’s disturbing novella of sexual possession and murder, The Comfort of Strangers, is extraordinary, his best since The Deer Hunter. Walken plays Robert, a calculating, malevolent Venetian aristocrat obsessed with a couple of beautiful English tourists (Rupert Everett and Natasha Richardson). Walken captures the gestures, manners and mannerisms of the English-educated Italian gentleman impeccably. But Walken confesses that Robert’s “connection between sex and death eludes me totally. I always thought that was ironic — ‘Oh I’m dying ! You’re killing me !’ Haha,” he laughs. He even states, “I haven’t spent much time in Italy. I didn’t meet many Italians. I don’t know people like Robert.”
(Abel Ferrara jokes that “Walken is people like Robert !” roaring “How else could he play him ?!”)
“I couldn’t even think about it. Like the guy in At Close Range, Robert is criminally insane, but totally functional. He’s nuts. He’s not just cold-blooded.”
He pauses, just stares ahead and looks almost surprised by what he’s about to say.
“Robert affected my life a lot. I didn’t want to think about it, but I figured, if I was gonna play him, I’d have to know something about him. Baudelaire wrote ‘I have felt the winds of the wings of madness’. There’s just no way to think about the things these people must think without, um… [smiles] getting depressed !”
He breaks into that smile, that disquieting smile, laughs excitably. (He looks totally unstable).
“If I met anyone like Robert, I would run away.”
Not unless Robert ran away first, you might think.
Walken says, uneasily, “When I watch Robert, I don’t see too much of myself.” But he can’t be that certain.
“One day I was sitting in the dressing room — we’d been shooting for a while and, erm, I looked up and I’d forgotten the mirror was there and I saw myself as Robert and I looked away – the way I would from a person I didn’t want to see. I didn’t want to look at it. He surprised me. He was looking at me.”
Again, he seems to grapple with the exact significance of it.
“I thought to myself, I had to remember that reaction, because it’ll be important to me one day. It was a really interesting experience with the person I was playing. I think it was at that point [starts to smile], I realized what a disturbed person he was.”
If you’d seen Walken laugh, you might wonder who was more disturbed.
“The implications of that ? That there is a sense of possession that goes with acting. It’s really un-nameable as far as I’m concerned. It’s sort of, erm, grace.”
How did he become that well-aligned with the character ?
“I have no idea. I just went about it in my usual oblique way.”
Robert’s skill at, and obsession with, manipulation extends to plan¬ning his conversations. But there is no method in Walken’s madness.
“It’s natural to start saying, ‘Let me think about planning my next conversation’, but that’s nuts ! That’s what the imagination is for. I haven’t done half the things I’ve done in movies. I’ve never been in a war. I certainly didn’t Method-act the anal probe. Can you imagine it ?!”
Walken is revered by Method advocates such as Penn and Oldman, but his talent seems to be purely instinctive.
“Talking to Vietnam vets before The Deer Hunter wouldn’t have been any use to me. I have no point of reference other than my own. I sometimes try to imagine what other people think. It always leads me nowhere. I think Method acting or anything that makes you believ¬able and truthful, on stage or screen, even if it’s rolling bones in your dressing room, is good. But to me there’s no way of speaking about it or teaching it, that emotional power that an actor needs…I once had a director say to me, ‘When you say that line, just put the cup here’. And there was no cup. He frightened me. I thought if he knows that, he’s just not interested in anything I’m going to do. I wouldn’t want that — knowing. It’s good to arrive at something you never thought about.”
Abel Ferrara confirms that as Frank White, an utterly ruthless gang leader and drug dealer in King of New York, he gave Walken next to no direction. Apart, that is, from the hair. Ferrara, like many of us, is a devotee of Walken’s hairdos, and in King of New York his hair is scarier than anything he does in the movie.
Ferrara: “The hair ! He came up with that. He actually said, ‘I’m gonna get a haircut because all my friends are saying, ‘What’s with the hair Chris ?'” laughs Ferrara. “We thought it was so outrageous we wouldn’t dare say anything. I don’t know what he does to it. Blow-dries it with airtight gravity shoes on, I don’t know.”
Walken’s hair in every movie is always remarkable.
Frank White, according to Walken, is “far more sympathetic than Robert.” At the start of the film he emerges from a five-year stretch inside, in the back of a limo looking like only Walken can look; dead eyes, dead skin, dead hair. “I’m back from the dead,” he says.
Abel Ferrara laughs, “One review said he looked as if he’d come out of a psychiatric ward, not a prison !”
Upon his return, White, his two beautiful (female) bodyguards and his gang of coke-tooting, gun-toting homeboys set about wiping out the competition with glorious style and ultraviolent enthusiasm, partly to finance White’s dream of “putting something back”, namely saving a children’s ward in the Bronx from closure. White provides almost the only morality in an amoral, fantastically violent film that views like a Miami Vice version of Dirty Harry and The French Connection.
Ferrara says of Walken, “He is Frank White. When Frank White says, ‘I’ve done things you haven’t even thought about’, it’s only good because it’s coming out of Walken’s mouth. He’s been through some heavy-duty shit. That’s how he does it. He opens up and just gives you the whole deal.”
The performance has something of Cagney to it, possibly for the way Walken, again, makes the character quirky, and convincing, even when playing the gang-leader genre. When White makes a speech about not wanting to make his money pimping 13-year-olds, and laments the way “the other gangs have run the city into the ground”, there are suddenly tears in Walken’s eyes, reminiscent of The Deer Hunter when Nick can’t remember his parents’ dates of birth.
“What did I think about ? Oh, you know, erm, the time I thought I was going to get something and I didn’t. It was a very good moment. I was surprised. I didn’t know it was going to happen, no. Frank is dealing cocaine, killing people. He’s breaking some eggs to make an omelette really. You can’t justify his actions. You can only say, ‘That’s the kinda guy he is’, haha.”
Again, Walken looks brilliantly disturbed. White’s justification — “I’m not the problem. I’m a businessman” — might be construed as advocating legalization; certainly the guns and drugs in the film look sensationally glamorous, wildly appealing.
Walken shrugs. “Isn’t that what gangster movies have always done ? I’m not really sure how much influence these movies have. It’s supposed to be fun ! You know the expression, ‘It’s just a movie’ ? Well, it is.”
Walken shrugs when I mention the possibility of his own involve-ment with drugs — “Oh sure” — but remains cautious about committing himself. Rumours still circulate. As one member of the cast of King of New York puts it, “It’s impossible to tell. It wouldn’t actually make much difference.” Drugs are an altogether too conven-ient explanation for Walken’s strangeness.
“I was involved, sure, during the Sixties and Seventies. I just saw that you die sooner than you have to and that’s not interesting to me. These drugs like crack, they drive people insane !” he says with distaste. “I can remember when to smoke a joint, you’d put a towel under the door. With cocaine, I remember thinking, ‘Wow that guy must be crazy. We don’t know each other — there could be a cop in the room.’ Now it’s everywhere. To me, these people that sell drugs to kids should be dealt with.”
The ruthlessness of the phrase “dealt with” is not to be under–estimated. “These guys they can’t extradite, just get rid of them. Just remove them. Without capital punishment, I don’t think justice is going to be served. A person who’s been arrested twelve times, finally does something so atrocious, he gets twenty-five years. . . What are they saving him for ?”
It’s the laugh again. It’s chilling. He can’t help it.
“It costs millions of dollars to keep that person locked up.”
At times like this, Walken seem like your average, street-tough New York citizen. An average guy. Like the way he says, “People watch too much television” or “I don’t keep a gun in the house, no way, if I ever took one out, I’d probably shoot myself in the foot.” Talking about Pol Pot he says, “The guy musta been nuts,” like any cab driver would.
Then he says, “I just recently played a man with two chil¬dren, hard-working, who falls in love and it was a perfectly nice experience ! I would just go home at night and eat dinner. I felt terrific ! All the time ! He was such a healthy person, he made me feel good !”
For a moment it sounds convincing: Walken is just a regular guy. It doesn’t last long. Abel Ferrara has heard stories of Walken’s Shakespeare performances where he’d improvise parts of A Midsum-mer Night’s Dream during Richard III. New York is still talking about his performance as Coriolanus, even though every line, seven nights a week, was spot on.
Larry Fishburne, a huge, hard-looking man who plays Walken’s head homeboy in King of New York, just describes Walken as “scary. I was hanging out with him for one night. . . I’m like, ‘Keep that away from me’. He is the edge man.”
Ferrara is obsessed with and adores Walken, but even he talks about doing his next movie “with normal people.” He calls those of us interested in Walken the “society of psychos”. Walken reflects on this again.
“I just don’t think I would survive very well in an office. Even in my business I can meet people and not quite know what to say, even for a job. They say, ‘Well, how do you feel about this ?’ I can honestly say to them, ‘You know,.. I don’t know. I get the feeling that I could probably do this.’ If I did that in an office, as a businessman, they’d say ‘Well, Chris, we need something a little more clear. Because there’s a lot of money involved !”
Walken smiles at the whole idea.
“The guy would say, ‘You know Chris, there’s something a little strange about your sense of humour !”
He laughs. Strangely.
“I don’t feel uncomfortable no, in fact my life is extremely ordered. I’m not capricious at all. Very conservative as a matter of fact. I’ve been married for twenty-five years. I get very upset if my bills aren’t paid immediately.”
What about therapy, I suggest rather ungallantly.
“There was a time some years ago, somebody actually convinced me to do it. I went to three of them. The last one, I said to him, ‘You know, I come here and tell you these things, which I think are interesting [laughs hesitantly, quirkily], what do you think ?’ He was extremely elusive, which I suspect is part of it, because it’s a very strange thing. . . I would rather have it shown me what it is, than I know what it is and then pursue that, because deciding something and then acting on it is dangerous to me, a mistake.”
A subsequent meeting with Abel Ferrara revealed that Walken has written a script on John Holmes, the porn industry’s most powerful, most notorious, best-hung, now-deceased star. Ferrara told me, “Walken’s obsessed with him ! Of all the characters he wants to play, he wants to play John Holmes the most. It’s really bizarre. What’s incredible is that he didn’t know him, never met him; never even saw any of his movies. So, exactly why ? The script actually has nothing to do with Holmes ! It’s his idea of him, exactly.”
Ferrara is delighted about this.
“All the scenes are written on different pages, none are numbered. He said it was so you could either switch them around or throw them away ! John Holmes was an awesome actor. Made Willem Dafoe look like a choirboy ! His story is incredible. He was an ambulance man, his wife was a nurse. A normal guy from the Midwest, didn’t know he had this enormous dick, gets discovered in some urinal by a film producer who just sees this dick. Holmes ends up — he’s fucked 10,000 people, still married to the same girl, wanted for murder, a junkie, AIDS victim, king of the porn industry… Walken relates to this. That’s what Hollywood does to you man. Thirty-five years in show business does that to you.”
The good news is, “we’ve got the money to make it,” and Ferrara is going to direct. “Who the fuck else is gonna direct it ?”
Hold your breath.

ends