At this point, Christopher Walken is as much an institution as an actor. From his earliest days as a child performer to his teen years onstage to his breakout role in Woody Allen's 1977 classic Annie Hall, Walken has spent his life in show business, working steadily toward iconic ubiquity.
Walken often stands out in movies that would barely have registered without his presence. His early film success with his Oscar-winning starring role in 1978's The Deer Hunter gave way to mixed but memorable roles in films like the notorious box-office flop Heaven's Gate, the off-kilter Steve Martin musical Pennies From Heaven, the Stephen King adaptation The Dead Zone, the James Bond thriller A View To A Kill, and the aliens-among-us drama Communion. Abel Ferrara's 1990 crime drama King Of New York gave Walken a rare chance to seize center stage in a suitably chilling environment, but smaller roles in the likes of Batman Returns, Pulp Fiction, True Romance, Wayne's World 2, and Suicide Kings were more common, though they all let him build on the creepy character work for which he's best known.
Walken received an odd career boost in 2001, when director Spike Jonze invited him to dance in the video for Fatboy Slim's "Weapon Of Choice." Since then, Walken has been the most recognizable and most promising part of such unpromising movies as Gigli, Kangaroo Jack, The Country Bears, and The Stepford Wives. Currently, Walken stars in Jordan Roberts' feature writing and directing debut Around The Bend, a family drama in which he plays the prodigal, criminal son of Michael Caine and the father of Josh Lucas. While on tour promoting Around The Bend, Walken spoke to The Onion A.V. Club about his childhood work in television, his willingness to take on almost any role, and the dance moves he feels he's overdone.
The Onion: Some reviews of Around The Bend have claimed that you're cast against type in this movie. Do you think of yourself as having a type?
Christopher Walken: I don't know. To me, it was a different kind of part. I play a lot of, maybe a little bit, cartoonish people. I've been a Bond villain, and I play a lot of villains, people who want to take over something. This was not only a guy, but a sort of broken mess of a guy. It's what actors call a big, juicy part, when you're a leading man. I don't get a lot of those. I get a lot of supporting things. So to me, there were a lot of plus aspects. As far as being cast against type, I don't know.
O: Was there anything about this role that called on you to do something unique or challenging, something you felt you hadn't done before?
CW: Well, I'm playing a guy who has a big, terrible secret. Not only that, but I don't have much time to tell my secret. I'm dying. But it's almost like I've got to get something off my chest. To me, it's about somebody who makes a terrible, tragic, life-altering mistake. That's the thing that people can relate to. Anybody, under some circumstances, can do some enormously destructive, stupid, irreversible thing, which they'll be sorry about for the rest of their life. Thank goodness most people don't have to deal with that.
O: You have a background in theater. Do you find that the larger-than-life villain types are easier to play on film, or easier to play on stage?
CW: My background is in musical comedy. I didn't know I was going to be an actor. But all my points of reference have to do with musical comedy, and in being kind of a showoff. So I do enjoy playing those guys. Sure, it's fun. But it's also interesting. If you're an actor, one of the problems is how you can stick around. So it helps to take the opportunities you have to do something a little bit surprising, like this. Or I'll do a dance video, or Saturday Night Live, or an occasional play. Not to wear out your welcome is one of the things that actors have to do.
In England, and all over Europe, and all over the world, actors act until they die. They get old, really old, and they're still working. They just keep doing it. In this country, they don't do it that much. Some do—Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, Peter Falk… [Marlon] Brando showed up as long as he could—but I wish it were more that way. I intend to keep doing it, if I get to be around for a long time. But you have to be careful, because people can get tired of you.
O: Did you ever consciously try to build or maintain an image you could rely on for work?
CW: No, no. It just happened. I did a couple of movies right in the beginning that were wonderful movies and that a lot of people saw, and in both of them, I played very troubled people: Annie Hall and The Deer Hunter. That was right in the beginning. So I may have established something early on, being the guy who has something wrong with him. I guess I was good at playing those kinds of guys, so I got more. I think that in life, there's a lot of stuff you can only attribute to chance. Things just happen, and then you go in some direction. I was in musical comedy, and I got a job in a play. But my life was much more secure staying in musical comedy. To go act was dangerous. When I started acting, I was not good. It was a certain direction that I went in. Who knows why?
O: When you say "when I started acting," do you mean back when you were a child actor?
CW: I was never a child actor. I was a child performer. In those days, a lot of television was live, and it was very family-oriented, nothing like television now. Everything had to do with families. Wholesome entertainment. That's why they had a lot of kids around, particularly on holidays. They'd have a set, and the kids were just there so they'd have kids—they were like flowers or something. We weren't actors.
I grew up in the '50s, in New York City, where television was born. There were 90 live shows every week, and they used a lot of kids. There were schools just for these kids. There was a whole world that doesn't exist anymore. That's how I grew up. I graduated from that to doing chorus stuff in musicals. Then I started to get some parts in shows like West Side Story, when I was 18 years old.
O: When did you decide to make acting a career?
CW: I didn't decide to be an actor; I got a job. I was in a musical called Baker Street, and I auditioned for a part in a play, and I got the part.
O: But you must have had some intent when you auditioned in the first place.
CW: No, it just was, you know, "Let's do that." I used to audition all the time. I'd audition for anything that was there. It's just what I did. I would go from job to job. It didn't really matter to me.
O: You've had a few prominent roles that center on dance, but you also tend to add dance moves to your acting roles. Do you make a point of that these days, as a sort of trademark?
CW: No, I'm starting to notice that maybe I've overdone it. It started as sort of a silly thing, a jig that I do. The thing about movies is that they can cut it out. But I started doing that, and then they'd leave it in, and it became kind of a thing. In Around The Bend, in the script, it says, "middle of the night, [Walken's character] dances by the campfire." That wasn't spontaneous, it was in the script. Maybe I shouldn't have done it. Maybe I've danced once too often. I have to stop now.
O: You've been quoted as saying that you'd give up your entire acting career if you could have been a dancer instead.
CW: No, I never said that. I would never say a thing like that. Maybe they got it mixed up.
O: Judging from your appearances on Saturday Night Live, you seem to have a sense of humor about your public image.
CW: Yeah, sure.
O: Are you comfortable with that image? Is there anything you'd change about it if you could?
CW: You know, there's nothing you can do about your public image. It is what it is. I just try to do things honestly. I guess honesty is what you would call subjective: if you feel good about what you're doing, yourself, if you figure you're doing the right thing. There are certain things in life that you can't do anything about, and I try not to worry about those things.
O: Do you find any particular kind of role more satisfying than others?
CW: No. Mixing it up is how you stay viable. Doing a little of this, a little of that. For me, anyway, life provides the mix, the assortment. Who knew that Spike Jonze was going to call me up and say, "Do a dance video"? I was nearly 60 years old when I did that. Pretty unusual. I suppose if I'd been a more cautious person, I wouldn't have done that. But I'm not.
O: You have a reputation as an actor who loves to work so much that you'll take on any role.
CW: Not anything. But I do take a lot of stuff.
O: Have you ever regretted taking a role?
CW: Not really, no.
O: What makes a given role worth it?
CW: I do like to work. Some jobs are better than others. That's the thing: You really don't know. I've enjoyed making movies for lots of different reasons. Sometimes, it was the other people. Sometimes, it was the fact that I was really good in it. Sometimes, it was the location. Sometimes, it was the paycheck. Sometimes, it can be lots of different things, or a lot of those things. Or there can be reasons why you'd like to avoid it the next time. Like the jungle. I've made a couple of movies in the jungle, and I don't want to go back to the jungle.
O: Speaking of the jungle, when you were doing The Deer Hunter, did it seem like a distinctive role to you? Were you aware that this was a role you'd be recognized and remembered for?
CW: Well, I knew I was in a movie with really superb people. I'd been in show business for a long time, and this was a really nice thing to have happen to me, to be given such a nice part. I never thought that I would get such a thing. It really came out of the blue. And there I was, with these great people, in these exotic places. It was a very amazing experience. The real bonus was that it turned out to be a wonderful movie. But it would have felt like I was doing something wonderful no matter how it turned out.
O: How important is the final product to you, compared to the experience of making the film?
CW: Very important.
O: Do you see all your own movies?
CW: Yeah. Well, I've made one or two movies that I haven't even seen, because they were never released. I have made things that I never even saw. But I will always go see the movie I'm in, sure.
O: What films have you been most pleased with on the screen?
CW: A whole bunch of movies. Nothing in particular, no. I'm pretty happy with how most of the movies turned out.