The Walken Shtick, Creepy . . . and Cool

By Alona Wartofsky

Special to The Washington Post
August 5, 2001; Page G1

NEW YORK - A middle-aged businessman sits wearily in a hotel lobby, waiting. Music starts, his head begins to twitch to the rhythm, and suddenly he leaps into a jaunty, old-Hollywood dance number. He bounds through the lobby, prances down an escalator and briefly partners with a luggage cart. He tap-dances on a table, literally flies across the lobby -- and then, as the music begins to fade, calmly returns to his seat.

This four-minute fantasy is the brilliantly funny music video for Fatboy Slim's Weapon of Choice, and its star -- the only performer onscreen -- is Christopher Walken. Walken is a graceful dancer, and the choreography bears the insidiously silly stamp of director Spike Jonze. What makes the video even better, though, is that it plays off Walken's well-established sinister screen persona. The veteran actor specializes in deranged villains and psychotics, and there's something particularly unsettling about a creepy guy who breaks out a little soft-shoe now and then.

The video comes as no surprise to inveterate Walken watchers. The actor belongs to a tradition of New York song-and-dance men -- think James Cagney or George Raft -- who portrayed tough-guy gangsters in the movies. And perhaps even more than Cagney, Walken possesses remarkable range: He's a gifted comedian, a prodigiously talented stage and screen actor and an expert dancer. He is also ineffably cool. It's hard to imagine any other aging film actor being asked to solo in a hipster music video.

And he's as busy as he's ever been. He has eight films scheduled for release this year, including the current romantic comedy America's Sweethearts, in which he plays a small but pivotal role as a film director whose inspiration seems to come partly from the Unabomber. Onstage, he's doing Chekhov, portraying a creaky Sorin in the all-star production of The Seagull that the New York Shakespeare Festival is mounting in Central Park. And then there's the Weapon of Choice video, a staple on MTV and MTV2 since its premiere last spring and recently nominated for a record nine MTV Video Music Awards.

Walken, 58, is planning to attend the awards next month, and he says he may even perform. "At my age, to be nominated for a dance video, I mean, come on! It's great," he says. "They don't make musical movies much these days. I wish they did. I love musicals."

Jonze, whose videos suggest his own affinity for Hollywood musicals, devised the concept for Weapon of Choice with Walken in mind. "I always sort of wanted to film him dancing," Jonze explains. "I just love his face . . . the way it's deadpan. I wrote the treatment around that.

"There's something about him. Sometimes he's very hard to read. He's got such his own style about him. . . . When you watch him it's like watching no one else. He's got a very sharp sense of humor. Everything he did was funny."

In the past few years, Walken's funniest performances have been on Saturday Night Live, where many of his skits tap into the unsavoriness of his screen villains. "He brings all his other castings and roles to his comedy," says SNL executive producer Lorne Michaels, who counts Walken as one of the show's most prized guest hosts. "You see that face, and you associate it with lots of other things. So when he's playing light, he's that much more powerful. . . . He's very funny.

"He's a truly gifted comedian. He's just a natural," adds Michaels. "He speaks in a voice that could only be him. His sense of timing is so unique. So much comedy is about timing, and he's just endlessly surprising."

Sipping tea between rehearsals for The Seagull at the Public Theater, Walken looks like if he sat next to you on the subway, you'd probably move to another seat. His longish brown hair is slicked back, and he wears a scraggly beard. His pale blue irises have an eerie intensity, and he seems to have trouble maintaining eye contact. There's a halting rhythm to his speech that has inspired countless impersonators, including, famously, Kevin Spacey and comedian Jay Mohr. Walken paces his words like this: It's as, if, he's . . . following. The punctuation rules, of another . . . galaxy.

As he speaks, he repeatedly squeezes his tea bag between his fingers. Then he folds it precisely in half and ties the Tetley string around its center as if he's gift-wrapping it. "I'm neat," he explains. And like nearly everything else he says, this seems both perfectly pleasant and, well, disquieting.

Walken started in show business as a child actor in '50s television series like The Ernie Kovacs Show and The Colgate Comedy Hour, but the first time most people noticed him was in Woody Allen's 1977 Annie Hall. He made a brief but memorable appearance as Annie's unhinged Midwestern brother, Duane, who fantasized about swerving into the lane of an oncoming car while driving late at night.

The following year brought his Academy Award-winning portrayal of a traumatized soldier in Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter. It was a riveting performance: By the film's end, the gaunt face and hollow expression of his Russian-roulette junkie seemed to represent an America that not only had lost the ability to distinguish between right and wrong, but had lost its very soul.

Over the years, people have suggested to Walken that these two roles set the tone for his movie career, but he's not so sure about that. "I don't know -- you never know. What's that theory? They say a butterfly flutters in the rain forest and it affects the weather in Northern California," he says. "It could be that I've got some sort of self-destructive" -- he interrupts himself with a convulsive laugh -- "thing happening. . . . If I made some sort of an impression early on, it was in two things where the guy didn't quite have all his marbles."

In lesser-known films, Walken has provided some of contemporary cinema's most vivid maniacs and oddballs. The charming white-suited Italian in The Comfort of Strangers, who draws a young couple into a sadistic sexual fantasy. The psychopath who rapes his driver in Wild Side. So many mobsters! The Sicilian in True Romance, who introduces himself to his victim with "I am the Antichrist and you got me in a vendetta kinda mood." The ambitious King of New York, a drug lord who lives in the Plaza Hotel and dispatches his rivals with graceful malevolence. And in The Funeral, the oldest of three brothers linked together by family business, blood and insanity.

In a role that belongs to a Walken subset that's been described as Sympathetic Weirdos, the actor played a schoolteacher who awakens from a coma to find himself beset by paranormal visions in the film version of Stephen King's The Dead Zone. Few films have made better use of Walken's otherworldly countenance. "That's the subject of the movie; that's what the movie was about. All the things that are in his face," wrote director David Cronenberg.

Walken's archangel Gabriel of The Prophecy horror series divides his time between terrorizing the humans he calls "talking monkeys" and perching gargoylelike on roofs. "I'm an angel," he snarls between yanking out his victims' still-pulsating hearts. "I kill firstborns while their mamas watch. I turn cities into salt. I even, when I feel like it, rip the souls from little girls -- and from now till kingdom come, the only thing you can count on in your existence is never understanding why."

As an actor, Walken can inhabit the misery of lunatics, but he can mock them, too, and at times he seems to be sending up his own screen psychotics. In Pulp Fiction, he spoofed the wigged-out POW, while his fanatical exterminator in Mouse Hunt seemed to riff off every homicidal maniac he's ever played. And his regular Saturday Night Live character, The Continental, is so pathologically lecherous that Walken can barely keep a straight face during the skits.

It might seem natural to assume that Walken plays deranged characters because he is in fact deranged, but he dismisses that notion. "There's confusion often [between] actors and the parts they play," he says. "I play a lot of villains for the same reason this guy plays a lot of lovers, the same reason that this guy plays a lot of funny guys, or this guy plays a lot of heroes. I play a lot of villains because I've played them before and they work. Movies are very expensive. . . . People who make movies, they're putting down a very heavy bet.

"It's sort of like if there was something wrong with your kidney, you'd go to a kidney doctor. If there was something wrong with your eye, you'd go to an eye doctor."

But why he's so good at playing bad is something he says he hasn't quite figured out. "Who knows? The Elizabethans called the profession of acting 'the mystery,'" he says. "There are actors who thrive on research and getting it all right and all that. I highly approve; I've just found that it doesn't work for me.

"Information, almost you could say, confuses me.... I just make it up."

Gonzo filmmaker Abel Ferrara, who directed Walken in King of New York, The Addiction and The Funeral, considers him one of the great actors of our time. "He's got everything: God-given talent, dedication to the work. His mind -- he's a brilliant cat. He's got it all going," says Ferrara.

"I don't think he plays psychotics, and that's why he's so good," Ferrara adds. "As much as these actors are very adamant that the script is there and the direction is there, the performance you see is coming from his imagination.

Chris Walken, Washington Post - Aug 3, 2001
Christopher Walken

He's all those characters.  "In Tim Burton's Batman Returns, Walken played evil Beethoven-haired tycoon Max Schreck. And in the director's Sleepy Hollow, Walken portrayed a different kind of monster in the wordless role of the Headless Horseman. Nobody else "can just sit there and stare at you and give you so many different feelings all at once," says Burton. "He's one of the most amazing actors. And he keeps that thing which I wish movies kept overall, which is a mystery. He's got mystery, and that's beautiful in films."

Ronnie Walken -- he later changed his name to Christopher -- grew up in Astoria, Queens, where his father owned a German bakery. His mother was a member of an organization called the Stage Mothers' Society who shepherded her three sons to tap-dancing lessons and television auditions. Though she never explicitly said so, Walken is convinced she named him after actor Ronald Coleman. Ronnie attended Professional Children's School in Manhattan; after school, if he wasn't performing, he'd help out in the bakery, washing dishes and delivering cakes.

When he was 16, instead of doing summer stock, he spent a few months working for a traveling one-ring circus. He wore a red and blue lion tamer's outfit, and after the real lion tamer finished his act, Walken would do his bit. "There was this very old lioness named Sheba, and she was completely very friendly, like a dog. I had a whip and a hat, and I'd go into the cage and Sheba would jump up on this box and I'd wave the whip at her, and she'd get up and go, 'Whraaah!' Everybody would applaud and that was it."

He attended Hofstra University as an English major, but quit after two semesters when he was offered a part in the off-Broadway musical Best Foot Forward. During the early '60s, he performed mostly in musical theater. It was during this time that he acquired the name "Christopher" (a cabaret singer he was working with thought it sounded better). He met his wife, Georgianne, while both were performing in a touring production of West Side Story; now she's a casting agent for The Sopranos.

When he turned to dramatic roles in his early twenties, he was stricken with severe stage fright. "You get over it by doing it 10,000 times. Then one day you just get over it," he says obtusely. "But that doesn't mean you do. You just keep going."

He began acting in films a few years later, and was 36 when he won the Academy Award for The Deer Hunter. In the ensuing years, he appeared in projects ranging from Cimino's epic flop Heaven's Gate to Who Am I This Time?, a poignant 1981 film for television directed by Jonathan Demme. That same year, he provided Dennis Potter's musical Pennies From Heaven with a brief tour de force: a song-and-dance striptease in which he played a smooth nightclub hustler luring a young woman into prostitution. He tippy-tapped on the bar and stripped down to his boxers, demonstrating both a lanky grace and an enviable flair for sliding along a bar the same way a child might slide down a staircase banister. For those who had become Walken fans through The Deer Hunter or Annie Hall, it was a jaw-dropping performance: These days, we rarely see actors who really can dance.

He landed the job after director Herbert Ross hired Danny Daniels, a veteran Broadway hoofer, to choreograph the dance numbers. "Danny Daniels was my tap teacher when I was 12 years old at a school called Jack Stanley's in Manhattan," Walken says. "And he said to Herb Ross, 'Did you know that Christopher Walken can tap-dance?' Because who would know a thing like that?"

"Pennies From Heaven was the last of the MGM musicals," Walken notes. "I was very lucky, being born when I was, to actually be in a big musical movie."

He continues: "I made another musical that's obscure, but it's also a very good movie, called Puss in Boots. It was the children's story, and I played the cat," he says. "It's one of my better roles. It's out on video." If you can find Puss in Boots at your local video store, you'll be treated to the spectacle of Walken licking his whiskers, wagging his tail, answering to "Puss" and, naturally, dancing on a table, which has become a signature move.

Walken has appeared in nearly 80 films, two music videos (the other was Madonna's Bad Girl) and dozens of live theater productions. He and his wife divide their time between their home in Connecticut and a brownstone on New York's Upper West Side.

When he's not working, Walken pursues his hobbies. He likes to paint "big schmear paintings," which he says are abstract because he can't draw. "Big, splash, colorful. Like flowers, my paintings are like flowers. I have a whole bunch of them. . . . They're sort of cheery."

A while back, he visited a friend, artist and filmmaker Julian Schnabel, who directed him in Basquiat. Schnabel laid down a large canvas on the floor. "He threw a lot of paint down, and I danced around on it. It was sort of interesting. It was red and green and blue and all that. It was a big mess, but it was an interesting mess."

Another favorite pastime is cooking, which is convenient because Walken prefers to avoid restaurants. "It's weird. I'm really very finicky about what I eat," he explains. "I sort of have to know what it is. I have to know what they did to it, you know? That's why I eat a lot of my own food, because I know."

He is an avid collector of Tupperware.

Walken also dabbles in playwriting. His most successful so far is Him, a satiric look at the afterlife of Elvis Presley that was produced at the Public Theater in 1994 with Walken in the title role. "Elvis was a big influence.  He appeared in my formative, very impressionable years," he explains. "He was so sexy, you know, he was really one of a kind."

Another major influence he claims is Bugs Bunny. "He's so smart, he's so funny, he's got such a great attitude. Bugs Bunny is the spirit of New York."

Oh, really?

"Well, yes. You can't fool Bugs Bunny. That's all I have to say. He's on to everybody."

Deadpan.

There's some dialogue in Him that paraphrases these famous words by the gloomy 19th-century French poet Charles Baudelaire: "Today I felt it pass over me, a breath of wind, from the wings of madness."

Walken thinks he first learned that line in The Addiction, when he played an improbably philosophical vampire, and since then, he has often revisited it. Just the other day, he says, the Baudelaire passage came up during rehearsals for The Seagull, when the cast discussed the suicide of Konstantin. "I think it's a great line because it doesn't mean you're nuts. It means that you suddenly have a feeling of what it is, which is very scary. You don't have to be crazy. You just have to have a little brush with it, and it reminds you."

For an actor, perhaps, an occasional breeze of madness might not be such a bad thing. "Everything is useful in a way . . . because it gives you some sort of reference point about lots of things," he explains. "Maybe it's something that you feel you have to do in order to broaden your horizon or to become a better actor."

Walken admits to his own "sort of a midlife crisis. I don't know what it was about. But that's pretty typical," he says. "I went through a time where I . . ." -- he pauses, searching -- "I got nervous. But I got over it."

Yet it would be a mistake, he cautions, to assume that an actor can experience emotions in his own life and then merely re-create those feelings in performance. "That's not true. It's not that easy. It's not that simple. But it does give you maybe just a little bit more of a groove," he explains.

"I do I think that as an actor, you become a bit clinical about things necessarily. I notice things," he says. "I saw a fascinating thing this morning coming here. There was a guy in the street, he was a homeless guy, and he was that thing that you see in New York too often, he was walking down Ninth Avenue . . . and he was screaming. . . . He was very upset about something. And people were walking by him like in New York they do, just sort of looking."

"Then we drove about 20 blocks and we got into a better neighborhood, and there's this guy in a suit and tie, he's got an attache case and a cell phone. He was walking down the street and he is screaming into the cell phone, obviously having some big thing with somebody. . . . And it was exactly the same thing, except one guy had a cell phone and was talking to somebody.

"But the other guy without the cell phone was also talking to somebody. You just don't know who."