Gentlemen's Quarterly - March 2000

Christopher Walken Must Die

Christopher Walken, GQ, March 2000
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He must do it again and again.  Because no one else has icy eyes,
Tony Perkins hair and the strangest line delivery in Hollywood.

By Andrew Corsello, GQ Senior Writer

Christopher Walken floats through the world as if through a dream, blissfully unaware that most people are frightened by him, and inexplicably unaware that he is a cult figure.

"Mystique," he repeats, when the word is applied to him - but with a peculiar dead space before the fricative: "Mess-TEE...ka."

He utters the word in the disquietingly neutral tone of a man under hypnosis.  It's a Walken trademark, this tone.  It is very odd and very pleasing.  It takes everyday nouns - doctor, food, shoes - and makes them foreign.  "'Mystique'":  Something in his inspection of it - the way he manages simultaneously to punctuate the word with a period, a question mark and an ellipsis - bewilders both of you.

"People don't think I'm villainous, right?" he continues.  "I mean, obviously, I play a lot of villains...."

"I think the consensus is that you probably have supernatural powers, and that you shouldn't be fucked with," I tell him. 

He responds with a slow, fish-eyed stare, absolutely unreadable.

"Sometimes I read things that say I'm 'creepy.' That - I don't know.  'Creepy' is...something without a skeleton, yes?  That worries me a little.  I don't mind 'strange.'"


"Ah, 'otherworldly,'" he says, relieved.  "And I'm pale, don't you think?" he adds, sounding....contrite?  Delighted?

In any case, Walken, while pooh-poohing the notion of the Walken mess-TEE...ka, chalks it up to the roles he gets - not to his Transylvanian countenance or his shock-treatment hair or anything else intrinsic to his person.  He claims he's just a jolly song-and-dance man who's taken a few spooky roles - acting jobs - that fans have mistaken for the there there.  He may have a point.  The first time most of us saw him, in 1977, was as Diane Keaton's suicidal brother in Annie Hall ("Sometimes... I have this sudden impulse to turn the wheel quickly, head-on into the oncoming car"), which he followed up one year later with his suicidal Nam POW in The Deer Hunter (an Oscar there).  And though in the meantime he's even received an Emmy nomination for such feel-good fare and Hallmark's Sarah, Plain and Tall, we...don't care.  We choose instead to iconize him for his work as Sean Penn's sociopathic father in At Close Range; the cartoon rogues in A View to a Kill and Batman Returns; the dapper, bloodthirsty hoods of True Romance and King of New York; the befanged, head-lopping horseman from Sleepy Hollow (his only line, delivered repeatedly: "ARGHHHHH!!"); and, most disturbing, the sad-eyed Euro-freak in The Comfort of Strangers ("Mascara...").

Yet though it is true that Walken evinces a number of...the characteristics common to all supremely evil people - excellent manners, worship of neatness, fear of bugs and facts - it is also true, perhaps disappointingly so, that he is on balance a sane and gentle man.  He's been happily married for thirty years.  He lives in Connecticut.  He sleeps there - at night, in a bed, and usually for about eight hours.  His days are quiet and routinized.  In the morning, he drinks multiple tureen-size cups of coffee, which he sweetens with molasses.  Then he reads a lot.  Sometimes he paints.  He travels for work, but rarely for pleasure, choosing instead to spend money on things for his house and his Manhattan apartment. 

Additionally, Walken accepts any job offer that isn't "too awful," per a humble work ethic fueled not by love of fame, glory or money (not until age 35 did he earn more than $11,000 in a single year) but by fear of his own capacity to "sit around and eat spaghetti."  He likes people, both generally and specifically, and hates gossip - its messiness, its interfering, littering quality.  On the road, he stays in kitchen-equipped hotel rooms so that he can cook for, and clean up after, himself.  (Walken, a baker's son, is an excellent cook.)

Most important, Walken tends to say sensible and thoughtful things: that "an actor's need to experience great emotion [while performing] is overrated"; that because acting is an essentially "mysterious" art, he is, as both a person and an actor, "least interesting when introspective"; that when as a boy, he was cast in a skit on Jerry Lewis's variety show, "He took my hand for some reason, and I thought, Jerry Lewis has a hand like a doctor - cool, dry, soothing."

Walken's sole venture into vanity: dual, closely linked affections for Elvis and for his own hair.  Walken yank his hair once a day, hard, to loosen the scalp, stimulate blood flow to the follicles and reduce stress - a trick Anthony Perkins taught him - and thinks other men should too.  In fact, Walken once revealed that this subtextual "motive" as the yellow-haired villain Max Zorin in the James Bond film A View to a Kill was "What do you think of my hair?  Do you like what they did to me?   That they made me look like this?"  Harmless, right?   And, per his ideas about acting, wholly unpretentious

Yet there is, ultimately, a reason all those spooky roles have come Walken's way, and a reason he's been so memorable in them.  As easy as he is in person, Walken still carries with him, quietly hums with, that...mysterious element, that unspoken thing (of which we're only peripherally aware) that infects his every role - a queer sense of temporal displacement, of having passed into a galactic wormhole and then reemerged half a second behind the reality the rest of us occupy.  Is this displacement in part the product of growing up the son of immigrants - she from Scotland, he from Germany - in Queens, New York?   Who can say?   What's clear is that Walken's every gesture marks him as a man who's seen things, things that would blow your rabbit ass away, things the awareness of which makes him a man doomed. 

Doomed to what, though? 

"Movies are expensive to make," Walken shrugs.  "And if you've demonstrated you can do something, they'll keep wanting you to do it.  I was in a movie a while back with a guy who's always the hero.  We were getting ready to film the scene I get killed in, and he said, 'Do you always die?'  And I said, 'Pretty much.'  He said, sort of wistfully, "I've never died.'  You could tell he wanted to, sometime."

But he won't.  Just as Walken won't live.  We won't let him.  For no matter how powerful and supernaturally attuned he is, Walken must bow down to "Walken," that incomprehensible, blank-eyed evil, cast in human form, that has taken hold in our collective imagination - and must be destroyed.  Yes, it's now a known cinematic fact, sure as the Devil: Christopher Walken must die.

That said, the most important thing you ought to know about Christopher Walken is that he takes an active disinterest in facts.  "I get easily confused by facts, analysis, too much information," he says.  "That's all there is to it."  Walken's aversion covers not only facts about current events, science and history but also more fundamental and easily overlooked facts.  Like punctuation.  Indeed, Walken's loathing of punctuation is congenital, and therefore delightful and just plain weird.  As a child (commuting via subway to the Professional Children's School in Manhattan), Walken used to attack his school textbooks with a Magic Marker, systematically nullifying all commas, periods, apostrophes and exclamation points.  Sometimes he'd put in commas and exclamation points of his own, next to words he liked them to be next to. 

Eventually, Walken's urge to incinerate punctuation on contact emerged as an indispensable "technique."  Now his first encounter with a script isn't a reading but an obligatory nixing of all punctuation and stage direction.  The idea: to eliminate anything that might interfere with his process of arriving at wholly original line readings.  "Seeing 'he says tearfully' or 'he says fiercely' only makes me want to do the opposite," he says.  "That crap is the end of acting."  (Walken points out that the "great ones" - Shakespeare, Chekhov, Tennessee Williams - rarely offer instructions beyond "enter" and "exit," his favorite exception coming in act 3, scene 3 of the Bard's The Winter's Tale: "Exit, pursued by a bear.")

After properly sanitizing a manuscript, Walken painstakingly listens to it, reading his lines aloud hundreds of times - comically, tragically, in every conceivable ethnic accent, like Woody Allen, like "Marlon," like himself - regardless of their emotional content.  Sometimes he'll record them and then walk around Central Park with a tape player.  "I'm interested in rhythm - if it sounds right, it's right," he says.  "I've known directors who during takes go like this" -- he shuts his eyes and cups a hand to his ear - "because they know that if it sounds right, chances are your face and your body also look honest."

Repeating a line of drama hundreds of times over until the words become hypnotic, lose their meaning and turn into pieces of pure music may be an inside-out approach, but it works beautifully - and perhaps only - for Walken.  His line readings can be startling and even preposterous, but always manage to place quotes around words in ways that feel new - never knowing or superior.  Non-English speakers hearing his halting diction in, say, At Close Range ("How you gonna") or in person ("I was passing through Lincoln Center...people were going in a door...I walked in...a rehearsal...Pavarotti walked out...he was wearing Bermuda shorts...he looked ridiculous") would no doubt conclude they were listening to a man quietly but irritably reciting a list of extremely important groceries.  The effect is most pronounced in Walken's evilest characters, the ones who simply must die.  The subtle disconnect between what he says and how he says it creates a fissure, then a chasm, and then a great cavernous nothingness that he declines to fill in with a readily explained motive.  "I'm the Antichrist," Walken declares in a bored, matter-of-fact, even slightly sad tone in True Romance.  "You get me in a vendetta kind of mood, you will tell the angels in Heaven that you had never seen pure evil so singularly personified as you did in the face of the man who killed you."  As with Robert, the gimlet-eyed sexual predator in Comfort, the chill of the character arises not from the presence but from the absence of something.  Where, say, Robert DeNiro in Cape Fear is a screamer and a reveler, exuberant in his creepiness, Walken's Robert is withdrawn and just a bit sickened by his own sickeningness.  That's because Walken understands the alienation of truly scary people - their vacuum centers, the way they seem to come from nothing and stand for nothing.  How better to convey a sociopathic soul, utterly devoid of allegiance or reason, than with whimsical and even funny line readings?

Only in his adult life did it become clear to Walken that his aversion to concreta didn't necessarily spell career doom.  (How bad were Walken's quantitative skills?   Get this: As a young adult, his application for a Macy's holiday-season clerkship was rejected after he punted a basic adding and subtracting test.) Walken's intelligence, his talent, was surely formidable, but also drifty, associative, quicksilvery - the kind of intelligence that flourished when freed from "effort" and "focus."  "I was once doing a scene for Lee Strasberg, and somebody backstage dropped a big box of dishes.  I kept going.  After, Strasberg said, 'Somebody dropped a big box of dishes in the middle of your scene and you kept going.'  I said, 'Yeah, I was concentrating.' He said, 'You're the only one in the room that didn't jump -- that's not concentrating!' That was a big moment for me.  I realized that concentration isn't about 'focusing.' It's about having 360-degree vision, eyes and ears open, not missing a thing."

What Walken's describing, of course, is what athletes call the Zone - the free-floating, panoramic consciousness that allows a person simultaneously to see north and south, east and west.  "In my twenties, I used to go out and 'study' the kind of people I was portraying onstage - ask then how they did what they did, 'perform research,'" Walken says, rolling his eyes.  "Absolutely fee-yoo-tile."  His attempt to structure characters externally, rather than letting them emerge organically, from within, left Walken feeling humorless, unimaginative.  Too much information damming his inner reserves of weirdness.  No, Walken has never been the kind of actor who succeeds by working himself up into a "state" before taking the stage.  That tack leaves too little to chance, while vapor-locking his emotions, which "become available to me in an acting sense when I'm somewhere removed, a little bored and tired."  The key is drift, flow, a kind of Zen passivity that waits for artistic answers to bubble up from the subconsciousness. 

Walken feels no real division between "life" and "stage" and therefore welcomes into his performances whatever happens to be in his head when the lights go up.  "Life should be integrated - no actus interruptus," he says.  "There are two moments that are enemies of an actor.  One is when that damn thing [the clapper] goes clap! The other is when a director says 'Cut!'  Such violent, violating moments.  But the best directors know that.  They make [the clapper] just a quiet little swipe past the camera, the idea being 'OK, whenever you're ready.' And instead of 'Cut!' they let the camera roll for twenty seconds because somebody might do something interesting."  Walken, who has no children but claims to be liked by ones he encounters, also says that any stage or set that isn't a place of child's play isn't worth spit - precisely the "Who cares?   Let's rock!" attitude that once emboldened him to play Stanley Kowalski for laughs.  "I'm very anarchic in rehearsals," he says, "the kid who suddenly gets interested in that butterfly over there and walks away.

"I think that acting is a leap of faith," he continues.  "There has to be that moment where you go, I give myself to...the spirit."

I ask Walken if he has any religious inclinations.  He gives an incredulous stare, then begins wandering slowly toward the kitchen in search of yet more coffee.

"God is the only thing I fear," he mumbles, fading from the room.  "God is a fact."

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