A few years ago, that national treasure known as Christopher Walken saw something happening. To himself. And he was not pleased.
Every standup comic, from Jay Mohr to Kevin Pollack, had a killer Christopher Walken impression.
His “Saturday Night Live” appearances had become the stuff of legend — and T-shirts.
“Gotta have more Cowbell!”
His image, his halting, mannered way of delivering a line, was overwhelming the actor behind it. His every screen appearance was accompanied by giggles of delicious anticipation.
Walken was fast becoming a punchline. He might be a beloved icon of big and small screen cool, but “icon” in his case, was becoming “baggage.” He’s an Oscar winner, an actor’s actor. And that was becoming a memory.
“Christopher Walken is to his co-stars what he is to me — a god of acting, of the American cinema,” says the Irish playwright-turned-filmmaker Martin McDonagh. “He’s a serious actor. Some people tend to forget that.”
So Walken, now 69, had to “step back…from all that.”
No, he can’t talk without halting, without seeming to consier his words, even when they’re scripted and he committed them to memory months before. In person, in interviews, the effect is exaggerated.
“With television, an actor has to be careful,” Walken says. “So many people will see you doing something, that you become identified with that image, that version of yourself. I suppose… if you do one performance on ‘Saturday Night Live,’ more people will see it than see you in ten different movies. Particularly if you’re doing the sort of small movies that I do a lot of. It’s on the net. It’s all-pervasive.”
And if you poke fun of your image there, and do it more than once, there’s a danger an actor could become a self-parody
“It’s like comics. They do TV, and they can’t use those jokes again,” Walken says. “So I had to stop doing it.
Sometimes, it’s better to be a little mysterious.”
Walken is anything but a mystery this fall. He has three films due out. In “Late Quartet,” he plays the ailing leader of a popular string quartet, a man whose retirement sets off a tug of war over who will replace him. In “Stand-Up Guys,” he teams up with fellow screen legend Al Pacino.
And in “Seven Psychopaths,” he lets writer-director McDonagh turn that recent image on its head, using Walken’s natural charm and funny way with a line in a movie that is like every gonzo Chris Walken movie of yore — on steroids. It’s about a screenwriter (Colin Farrell) writing a script about “seven psychopaths,” and the ways he invents, or meets, characters who match that description.
“He’s such a great actor that the comedy is never funnier than when he’s doing comedy,” McDonagh (“In Bruges”) says. “He can be sinister and menacing just as brilliantly. “Technically,” there’s something kind of psychotic about Hans, his character in the film. But Hans is also the moral center of the film, the one who wants to show Colin Farrell’s character the way — of peace, of pacificism. Hans makes it cool not to have a gun. To not fight violence with violence.”
And real psychopaths, Walken’s character reminds us, “can be tiresome.”
“The entertainment value of psychopaths, of people who are surprising and unpredictable, is hard to beat,” Walken muses. “I’m not really sure what a psychopath is. If I’ve ever met one, I’ll bet…I don’t know…but I’ll BET I left the room pretty quickly.
“When you’re playing one, you cannot let yourself THINK of yourself as one. You just go about your business and let OTHER people say you’re a psychopath.
“Somebody read me a dictionary description of ‘psychopath,’ and it was all about an inability to empathize or have human connections. Whatever that means.”
That’s never been a problem for Walken, who seems to have an innate ability to connect with viewers in all sorts of roles — heroes, lovably vile villains, Working Class Joes and not-so-innocent-bystanders. He works, a lot, but says he’s at a loss when he doesn’t know what his next part will be. He fell in with McDonagh when they mounted the play “A Behanding in Spokane” in New York a couple of years ago. That co-starred Walken’s “Seven Psychopaths” counterpart, Sam Rockwell.
Walken is an actor who loves his speeches. Think of his “your father’s watch” monologue in “True Romance.” He was drawn to “Psychopaths” by the chance to work with Rockwell again, and with Farrell and Woody Harrelson for the first time. And by McDonagh’s speeches.
“He writes great big juicy chunks of dialogue. Movie scripts…don’t usually give you a lot of interesting things to say. He’s one of the rare writers… who sees that he does do that for his actors.”
McDonagh says screenwriters of all stripes should love writing for Walken, famous for going over and over and over a script, and recording and re-recording his lines over and over, changing the emphasis, the rhythm and the music of the words until he can deliver each line with maximum impact.
“You go home, at the end of the day,” McDonagh says. “You close the door, remember every line he said that day, and you go, ‘I cannot BELIEVE I get to have Christopher Walken say my lines!'”