Christopher Walken: ‘I got a job as a lion tamer. Who’s going to turn that down?’

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In betwixt his aboriginal days arsenic a lion tamer and his latest crook arsenic an aged lag doing assemblage work successful Bristol, Christopher Walken was Hollywood’s go-to feline for disturbed individuals. He was ne'er rather arsenic deranged arsenic Dennis Hopper, perhaps, but those fixed staring eyes and a rictus grin much mirthless than Robert De Niro’s person helped convey instability and menace for much than fractional a period successful much than 100 films and TV shows. “My full acting vocation was a benignant of accident,” helium tells maine down the telephone from his location successful agrarian Connecticut. “I conjecture you tin blasted Woody Allen. He indispensable person seen thing successful me.”

In 1977’s Annie Hall, Walken played Duane Hall, Annie’s oddball brother. “Can I confess something?” Duane asks Allen’s quality Alvy Singer successful a darkened room. “Sometimes erstwhile I’m driving connected the roadworthy astatine nighttime I spot 2 headlights coming toward me. Fast. I person this abrupt impulse to crook the instrumentality quickly, head-on into the oncoming car … ” “Right,” replies Alvy, sensibly backing away. “Well, I person to spell now, Duane, due to the fact that I’m owed backmost connected the satellite Earth.”

Walken issues a clarification aft I punctuation this astatine him. “I’m not disturbed,” helium says. “I wage my bills. I’ve been joined for 55 years. I unrecorded successful the country, I workout and effort to instrumentality attraction of myself.” (He maintains that enviably svelte fig by rising astatine 7 each time and moving 2 miles connected his treadmill.)

The aforesaid twelvemonth helium played Duane Hall, helium was considered by George Lucas for the relation of Han Solo successful Star Wars. “I’m precise gladsome Harrison Ford got it,” helium says. “I would person been terrible.” I uncertainty that, I archer him, but your vocation would surely person gone successful a antithetic direction. “It’s each astir accidents,” helium replies. “I’ve had immoderate bully accidents.”

Walken connected  the chaotic  broadside  ... The Deer Hunter.
Walken connected the chaotic broadside ... The Deer Hunter. Photograph: TCD/Prod DB/Alamy

In Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter, Walken upped the disturbed ante arsenic Nick Chevotarevich, a Pennsylvania steelworker traumatised by his Vietnam tour, and by being forced to play Russian roulette by his Viet Cong captors. “We changeable that successful the jungle,” recalls Walken. “We were enactment successful bamboo cages. It was each for real. Right down to the slap successful the face.” In 1 scene, De Niro, arsenic Nick’s aged deer-hunting chum Mike, encouraged an histrion playing a captor to slap Walken without informing to marque the country pop. Years later, adjacent the film’s bitter denouement, Mike finds Nick looking gaunt and raddled successful a Saigon gambling den (a look achieved by Walken subsisting for a week connected a fare of bananas and rice), playing 1 past crippled of Russian roulette. Walken’s quality has go a heroin addict and nonrecreational gambler – the precise emblem of a procreation breached by America’s mislaid war. When Cimino changeable that scene, helium had lone the scantest of instructions for Walken and De Niro. “You enactment the weapon to your head, Chris, you shoot, you autumn implicit and Bobby cradles your head.” The portion earned Walken an Oscar.

“Very fewer actors,” says Walken, “choose their roles. We instrumentality them arsenic they come. Early on, I got a happening going playing radical who were, let’s say, off-centre – gangsters, suicides and each sorts of things.” Is determination a cardinal to playing those parts? “The champion acquisition I learned successful acting was to bash arsenic small arsenic possible.”

Walken discards his characters erstwhile helium gets location from work, helium says, with 1 exception. In Paul Schrader’s 1990 adaptation of Ian McEwan’s The Comfort of Strangers, helium played a devilish quality embroiled successful Venetian S&M and murder. “He was the quality who truly haunted maine for a agelong time.” Haunted is right: 20 years aft the movie was released, helium turned up to an interrogation successful the Giorgio Armani overgarment helium wore successful the film. “I ne'er bargain clothes,” helium said astatine the time. “Whenever I bash a movie, each my covering is from the set. They don’t springiness maine anything. I steal.” When helium played Max Shreck successful Tim Burton’s Batman Returns, helium decided to support his character’s cufflinks and bow tie. “When I finished the past country I went backmost to my dressing country and everything was gone. They saw maine coming!”

To beryllium  frank ... Walken shows disconnected  his moves successful  The Outlaws.
To beryllium frank ... Walken shows disconnected his moves successful The Outlaws. Photograph: James Pardon/BBC/Big Talk/Four Eyes

A light-fingered histrion specialising successful disturbed characters? No wonderment Stephen Merchant felt compelled to formed Walken arsenic Frank, a US vocation transgression from Stateside sentenced to bash assemblage payback successful Bristol for his caller bid The Outlaws. “I liked the thought of this feeling a small alien successful Bristol, similar he’s a antheral who fell to Earth,” says Merchant. “There aren’t galore actors of that vintage who person that charisma and that assemblage recognition. What I emotion astir him is that helium tin bash large charm and beryllium precise funny, but besides menacing astatine the aforesaid time.”

A lawsuit successful constituent is Walken’s Saturday Night Live show successful 2000, arsenic a psychopathic grounds shaper who tells a fictionalised mentation of Blue Öyster Cult that their opus (Don’t Fear) the Reaper needs “more cowbell”. “Guess what?” Walken’s quality tells the band, fronted by Will Ferrell. “I got a fever and the lone medicine is much cowbell.” Never has helium been much sinister oregon much funny.

“Will Ferrell? He ruined my life,” says Walken, recalling this story. And indeed, during theatrical curtain calls ever since, assemblage members person been known to bang cowbells alternatively of clapping. A waiter erstwhile asked Walken if helium wanted much cowbell with his bolognese. I’m guessing helium said no.

Such performances made it imperative that Merchant prosecute Walken. Like Rob Lowe moving arsenic a detective successful Lincolnshire, Walken playing an American marooned successful a Bristol of Banksys and toppled enslaved trader statues is conscionable bizarre capable to work. But Walken played hard to get. “He doesn’t bash phones and doesn’t person a computer, truthful it was hard to interaction him.” (Walken precocious did a Zoom interrogation with Stephen Colbert, but lone aft idiosyncratic other acceptable up video conferencing astatine home.) He has ne'er sent a substance connection oregon an email. And helium doesn’t spot the request for a mobile phone: “A cellphone is simply a small similar a watch. If you request it, idiosyncratic other has got it.”

Merchant had to thrust to Connecticut and person Walken that, contempt his dislike of flying, helium should travel to the UK to sprout during lockdown. Clearly the quality of Frank resonated with him. “He’s been successful England since 1971, erstwhile helium dodged the Vietnam draft. A batch of my contemporaries did, too. Most of them went to Canada. But Frank ne'er integrated.”

While Walken tells maine this, I’m reasoning astir the brace of Muhammad Ali boxing shorts helium has successful a framework successful a small country successful his location devoted to memorabilia. Like Frank, Ali dodged the draft. “He was a conscientious objector,” clarifies Walken. “In the aboriginal 70s, his [world heavyweight] rubric was taken away, truthful helium coiled up doing Broadway shows and going connected tour. His circuit passed done Calgary, wherever I was working. He near his boxing trunks to beryllium auctioned for foundation by the theatre.”

Theatre Calgary’s Twitter has an aged paper photo of Walken successful those shorts with the header “Romeo Leads with a Right”. Walken is wearing the Ali shorts and boxing gloves, squaring up to Tybalt implicit the bonnet of a Ford Pinto. Both the shorts and the Pinto were aboriginal auctioned. “Nobody wanted the shorts, truthful I got them for $40.”

In Britain, the precise thought of Walken arsenic a star-cross’d person successful an Elizabethan puffy garment seems odd. We’ve been raised connected his films and helium has ne'er acted connected the signifier this broadside of the Atlantic. “I’ve been coming to England for a agelong time, 40 years really.” But he’s travel present to play, not Hamlet, Macbeth oregon Coriolanus (all of which helium has performed connected stage), but, say, a cameo successful the 2016 movie astir the underdog skier Eddie the Eagle. Nor did the 1995 play helium wrote, directed and starred successful called Him, astir his idol Elvis Presley, circuit successful the UK. But it truly should, due to the fact that successful it Walken imagined that Elvis faked his ain decease connected the toilet to spell to Morocco for a sex reassignment. The New York Times called the play a “most cheering and refreshingly absurd invention”. Elvis has been an obsession ever since helium was 15, erstwhile his woman showed him a photograph of the singer. Walken erstwhile told an interviewer helium thought Presley looked “like a Greek god”, and modelled his look connected him, close down to the inactive impeccable quiff. “I loved everything astir him.”

Ronald Walken was calved successful Queens, New York successful 1943, and named aft the histrion Ronald Colman. “My parents were first-generation immigrants, some of them fortysomething erstwhile I was born. They came to America during the Depression and made a life. My dada was a baker from Germany. My parent was from Glasgow.” His mum pushed him and his 2 brothers into showbiz: “I was 1 of those kids who was connected TV shows. I was successful sketches with Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin. Never got paid a cent!” Is it existent you ran distant to articulation the circus? “I didn’t tally away, I conscionable got a occupation arsenic a trainee lion tamer. Who’s going to crook that down?” He was 16 astatine the clip and the occupation lasted 1 summer. But moving with Sheba was blissful. “I would travel into the cage and question my whip, and she’d lazily get up and beryllium similar a canine and possibly springiness a small roar. I similar cats a lot. I’ve ever liked cats. They’re large company.”

Christopher and Georgianne Walken successful  1978.
Christopher and Georgianne Walken successful 1978. Photograph: Dennis Hart/ANL/Rex/Shutterstock

But the circus couldn’t clasp Ronnie Walken for long. He went to assemblage for 1 year, past dropped retired to bid professionally astatine the Washington Dance Studio. “Dancing was thing I’d done since the property of three. In those days, working-class radical similar my parents sent their kids to larn tap, ballet and acrobatics.” By 1964, helium was a nightclub dancer and had changed his sanction to Christopher (a person thought it sounded much sophisticated). The aforesaid year, helium was successful a touring accumulation of West Side Story, during which helium fell successful emotion with different formed member, Georgianne, whom helium joined successful 1969. She went connected to go a celebrated casting manager (The Sopranos would beryllium precise antithetic were it not for her).

His creation moves person often encouraged directors to dainty him, similar John Travolta oregon James Cagney, arsenic idiosyncratic who should bash astatine slightest 1 crowd-pleasing quickstep per movie. Perhaps the champion was his crook successful Abel Ferrara’s 1990 King of New York, though the video for Fatboy Slim’s Weapon of Choice runs a adjacent second. “It gets benignant of annoying,” helium says. “Just due to the fact that you play violin, you don’t privation to bash it each clip you’re asked.”

Even successful The Outlaws, Merchant inveigles Walken into a small brushed footwear shuffle. One of Frank’s chap cons plays Sam Cooke’s Chain Gang arsenic they expanse a derelict building. Walken does a dainty twirl with his broom. “I didn’t caput doing that, due to the fact that it felt organic.”

We volition adjacent spot Walken successful a workplace thriller called Severance other Adam Scott, Patricia Arquette and John Turturro connected Apple TV+. How travel you’re belatedly doing truthful overmuch TV? “That’s wherever the enactment is. It didn’t utilized to be.

“I ever wanted to beryllium successful movies and erstwhile they asked I came running. I was portion of that procreation that came erstwhile the Hollywood workplace strategy fell isolated and suddenly, alternatively of shooting connected dependable stages successful Hollywood, we were shooting successful the jungle oregon determination brainsick successful Europe. It was an adventure.”

You were, I suggest, portion of that maverick procreation of wildly talented casual riders and raging bulls who gave Hollywood a caller lease of life. “Perhaps,” whispers a dependable 3,400 miles away. “I emotion to enactment – that’s 1 of the reasons we didn’t person children – and I astir apt won’t ever retire.” That’s bully quality for Merchant, arsenic a 2nd bid of The Outlaws has already been commissioned.

“I’ve ne'er had hobbies,” helium says, “just a beardown enactment ethic similar my father. Tennis? Swimming? Golf? They ne'er did it for me. Acting is truly what I love. I don’t truly similar to spell retired of the location unless I’m working.”

The Outlaws starts 24 October astatine 9pm connected BBC One