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October 2004
Around the Bend: An Interview with Christopher Walken

Around the Bend: An Interview with Christopher Walken

By Todd Gilchrist

Christopher Walken may be one of the most familiar faces and distinctive voices in modern movies, but seldom is he heard or seen responding to questions that normal folks like us want answered, such as "who does the best impression of you?" Walken, who stars in the upcoming film "Around the Bend", about a young man who is forced to reconcile with his father when his grandfather passes away, recently spoke to backfilm.com his many imitators, as well as his thirty year relationship with moviemaking and creating a compelling father-son conflict in the forthcoming dramedy.

So what about this project initially appealed to you?

CW: What appealed to me? Well, it was a big, fat, juicy part.

How did your relationship with your father go? This talks about bonds with fathers.

CW: Yes, fathers and sons.

What was yours like?

CW: Mind was very good. My father passed away a couple of years ago, but he was very old. He was almost a 100 years old. And, you know, he had a very good life. He came to America and he had a good life. There's not much about this story that has to do with me.

How do you prepare for this character?

CW: I go by the script. It's pretty much everything. I'm not much of an analyzer or a psychologist. I don't really understand much about anything, so I use the words.

He's such a tortured soul.

CW: He is. But he's done... My life has been wonderful. Everybody has to be a little lucky, I think. Here's a guy who did not have such... He didn't not only have very good luck, but he didn't make himself very good luck either, you know, obviously behaved very badly. And he wasn't very clever about how he conducted himself. When you see him in the beginning, he's dying. And his father's dying and he comes back to see his family. I assume to touch base with his family before he dies, and he finds out that his father is also dying. There's a scene in the beginning, Michael Caine says to me, 'You're not ready,' and he means you're not ready to die. So the movie becomes a little bit about that. Michael Cain, in a way, he makes a treasure map that the rest of the family follows in order to find out something, which is what I did with my son. And to make some kind of peace.

Does a movie like this make you think about your own mortality?

CW: Yes, the grim reaper is a very big character in this movie, sure. I try not to worry about things I can't do anything about.

You said you have a good life, is it easy for you to slip out of these emotionally weighty characters.

CW: Yeah. Everybody has experiences in life. It's all very subtle. The minute I start to talk about acting, I realize that I can't. You know, it's an abstract thing, a little bit mysterious even if you do it for a living. Obviously an actor draws on his own experience. Acting has to do with saying it as if you meant it, so for me the words are always very important. It's very important for me to know my lines, know them so well that I don't have to think about them. That's why if I'm in a movie and they come to me in the morning and say, 'Here's a new page of dialogue,' I just don't know what to do. I say, 'Please. Get me the cue cards.' Because if I don't know my lines, I really don't know what I'm doing.

Do you find that people expect you to improvise because of your stature?

CW: No, improvising is wonderful. But, the thing is that you cannot improvise unless you know exactly what you're doing. That's a kind of paradoxical thing about improvising. Improvisation is wonderful and in fact, in the movies, those are the things that you remember most, little accidents, something happens that's spontaneous and the camera's rolling and it's wonderful, you know, it's like life. Some actors are very good at it, and I'm good at it too, but only when I know exactly what I'm doing. When I know that, if I have no inspiration whatsoever, when I come and I just feel empty, I have nothing, I know that I can still play the scene.

Did you have any trepidation about doing a dance sequence, especially after the popularity of the Fatboy Slim video?

CW: No, but way before that, I've been doing little dances in movies for years. Yeah, that was an amazing chance. You know, at my age to be able to do a music dance video, very unusual. But no, this in the script, it said, 'He's in the middle of the desert in the middle of the night and the campfire and he starts to do this tribal dance,' and that's exactly what it was. It was very cold. Very, very cold. They took a boombox and put it in the sand. And I'm not dancing, if you look at it again, I'm just jumping up and down.

With so many high profile roles, are there things you haven't done that you want to do?

CW: Oh sure, lots of things. One thing that's happened to me is I've been around a long time and I've played a lot of villains and so forth. I think it had to do with, well one thing is that I looked younger than I was for a long time. Now I think I'm suddenly starting to play people's father. In this movie I play a grandfather this first time. So maybe it's a whole new career for me, to do, you know, to start playing... It's interesting, I've played so many villains, and maybe now I'll play good guys. Do you think that because of all the villains you've played, that people are intimidated by you or afraid to approach you?

CW: No. No, not that I know of.

You're Mr. Continental.

CW: That's right, I am the Continental.

You've always had an undertone of good humor and (the key word here is undertone)?

CW: Yeah, well I've always played comedy. My background is musical comedy theatre and that's really where my training is. As an actor, that's my training. I never trained as an actor. I trained as, you know, musical comedy. You know, where the audience is part of the show. And I think that when I play these villains, maybe what is different is that the audience sees me play these and they know that that's Chris and he's having fun and he knows that and he knows that and you know that and everybody knows that.

You work a lot. I'm a fan. Why do you do crap like Kangaroo Jack?

CW: Everybody loves Kangaroos. No, people say that to me a lot. They say, 'Why did you do that?' Because I was sitting home and the phone rang. And I don't think that, I can't figure it out. I've made movies that we're very successful that we're a complete surprise, and I've made movies that I thought we're going to be very successful that, you know... To make a little movie like "The King of New York", I think it took a month to make it. Very low budget. Twenty years ago, and to this day, when I go to an airport, all the cops, that's the one they know. So who can tell?

Are you proud of Gigli?

CW: Well, see, that's another example. We were making "Gigli" and I thought it was gonna be good. Also, I think there are huge reactions sometimes, which are also mysterious. The press on "Gigli". I remember, I was on "The Stepford Wives" shooting at the time, and we were in the makeup trailer in the morning, seven o' clock, and all these actors are sitting and getting ready and everybody's a little sleepy. And one of these guys comes into the trailer with a big stack of newspapers and started to read the reviews. I'm sitting there thinking, 'How did that happen?' Nobody had any idea. (Laughs) But, you know, frankly, that had a lot to do with all the publicity before it. It's very difficult to talk too much beforehand. You know, to have too much buzz about something. It happened with "Heaven's Gate". I think that it would not have been so big a deal if people hadn't talked about it so much beforehand. There were very big expectations and it's better to be modest.

Q. You have great chemistry with the actor who plays the grandson.

CW: The little boy? He was a brilliant little boy. And, really interesting, he did so many things that aren't in the movie. And he also, what I noticed first is my own father, with his grandkids, you know we had a tremendous rap ore, and me and that little boy did too.

Did you have time to develop a relationship with him in such a short shoot?

CW: I don't know. He had a lot of fun.

What are some of your favorite characters to play?

CW: My favorite characters are the ones that are the most successful movies.

Is there a real life person you'd like to portray?

CW: That's a good question. I'd have to think about that. Maybe some historical character. Nastrodamous.

With your distinctive speech pattern and all the impressions of you, is there one that you think is the best?

CW: My wife says that Kevin Spacey's the best one. But I have a friend who does me on his answering machine. I call him and it says, 'Hi, it's Chris Walken, I'm not here right now, please wait for the beep.' (Laughs)

He actually says it to your name?

CW: Yeah. Well, he thinks it's funny. It is sort of.

Do you hesitate to take the villainous roles at this point?

CW: No. You know, in the movies, if you're a movie actor, if they want you, it doesn't matter what their reason is, it's okay.

So you're not tired of playing the villain or wanting to play more comedy.

CW: No, not at all. Well, I would but, you know, things come up. But no, I don't mind.

What do you like to do to relax?

CW: I live sort of in the country and I like that. It's very quiet, it's beautiful. The best thing for me is, when I'm not working, is to be at home and to have a script or two scripts is better, and to be just walking around the house and just thinking about the lines. Really almost everything I do is by myself. When I come to work, usually I just come to work. I never ask anybody anything. I get confused when people tell me things. Information can be very confusing.

What else do you have coming up?

CW: I don't know, I'm doing this sort of thing for a while.

You say you consider yourself a lucky person. Do you believe in fate or destiny or carry lucky charms?

CW: You bet. I don't carry lucky charms, but I believe in those things.

Lucas says you two kept a distance on set?

CW: I think that's probably true, but it had to do with our characters. You try, although that's not necessarily so, but I think it's naturally, it's like rehearsing, you just try to stay in the mood.

You're character was actually a hippie in the 60's. Do you have favorite movies from then or favorite music?

CW: I am definitely of that exact same generation. He would have been of that, his heyday would have been the 70's. Certainly that was a big time for me. I wore those kinds of clothes and bellbottoms. So all that is, I can relate to that.

Any possibility of working with Quentin any time soon?

CW: You know, hope so. I did two movies of his, but only one's with him. He wrote "T rue Romance", but I never saw him. On "Pulp Fiction", in fact, I only worked with him for half a day. That whole thing took half a day.

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