An illuminating telephone conversation with the star of The Deer Hunter — and a new BBC drama directed by David Hare
Many great men have been floored by Christopher Walken. Take Sean Penn, who worked with him on the 1986 film At Close Range and who doesn’t appear to be a man who’s 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, is known for his composure. Except when talking about Walken, that is. Did Walken, who trained as a dancer and 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 jackknifed. It almost hurt. Chris is really, truly witty.”
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 mother in a large immigrant community in Queens, his voice is as much Naples as it is New York. But his magic is also partly to do with the way he moves, which is 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), talking 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 still look better in suits than Ryan Gosling. They also get their fair share of gorgeous women, too: in this case, Winona Ryder and Helena Bonham Carter. It’s no more than you would expect from the kings of cool.
You don’t travel much, yet you made it to the tropical paradise of Turks & Caicos to work with David Hare. What is it about getting on a plane you don’t like?
“I really 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 these days.”
How aware were you of David Hare’s output? Was he someone you’d always wanted to work with?
“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.”
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?
[The line goes dead at this point and it’s a few minutes before we’re reconnected] “You disappeared there. They must have been listening. Or maybe it’s the weather; it’s colder than I remember here in Connecticut. 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.”
A showbiz guy who always seems to be working. So, what’s an average day like for Christopher Walken?
“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.”
What about a dog?
“No, but I do have a cat called Flapjack.”
How fussy are you about the roles you take on?
“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.”
You began your career in musical theatre. How much has that informed how you approach acting?
“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.”
You even talk like a dancer — two-two four; three-three four. Is there a rhythm in your head when you talk?
“Absolutely! I’m aware of that rhythm. It’s constantly there.”
Your accent is an unusual hybrid, like English is your second language…
“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 disjointed English, who were often searching for a word. My dad always spoke German at the bakery he worked in.”
And your mother never lost her Glaswegian accent…
“That’s 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.”
Would you consider doing a play in London, if asked?
“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.”
Do you ever tire of playing eccentric bad guys?
“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.”
We‘ve found footage of you on The Jonathan Ross Show reading out the lyrics to Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face”…
“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.”
Do you like to cut yourself off from the modern world?
“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.”
Why did you agree to dance in the video to Fatboy Slim’s “Weapon of Choice”?
“I liked everything about it. Spoke Jonze had seen me tap-dance in Dennis Potter’s Pennies from Heaven. I met Norman Cook once. He was very nice, he seemed like a doctor. There was nothing rock’n’roll about him as I recall.”