Posted on | February 3, 2010 | No Comments
There are lots if spooky actors in the world but none more spooky than Christopher Walken. He is enormous with spooky. It informs how he looks, how he acts, what he says, and how he says it. Words avoid him— he speaks in sentences filled with gaps, holes, ellipses, plains, and penumbrae. His eyes never quite meet your eyes. They are sliding to the right, to the left. During the days that Walken creeped me out with this stuff, I once brought it up with him.
His pause before answering was of unnerving length. He filled it with the multiple fracture of a toothpick and various lip gnashings. Finally, leaning forward, he dropped the toothpick bits into an ashtray and said, “I’m not silent at all. I talk like crazy. But if I don’t know somebody I am very silent. Because I am watching them— watching and listening and seeing.”
He paused again. I looked at him expectantly. I felt he was on the verge of revealing to me some fine and pointed insight, an insight which would then issue in much fresh comprehension of his personality and his talent. But he did not go on, and I was left holding a sizable bag of silence.
His biggest moments on film are fabulously dismal moments. Playing Russian roulette in The Deer Hunter, he shoots his head off and wins an Oscar. Gunning for his kids in At Close Range, he’s a dad from hell. In The Comfort Of Strangers he slices open a young man’s throat as a kind of aphrodisiac. In True Romance he seductively terrorizes Dennis Hopper, then terminates him. Over the years, Walken has also been a no-good industrialist, a really scary driver, a reluctant psychic, a drug czar, a loony drill sergeant. Most of these roles are a little surreal; if they aren’t, Walken makes them so. He can’t help it. It’s in him, in the dandelion purr of his voice, in his trousers belted midriff high, in his unfortunate hairline and airy sidle. It’s those eyes, too: sunken, green and swizzled. Mostly, though, it seems to have something to do with the Walken mind.
Batman Returns director, Tim Burton says, “You just look at him and you know there’s a lot going on— yet you don’t have any idea what.”
The Comfort Of Strangers director Paul Schrader says, “You have that sense that there’s a hidden agenda. He is saying one thing while something else is going on inside his head— it makes him seem inhabited.”
Sean Penn, his costar in At Close Range, whispers, “Some people got poetry in their blood and some don’t. Chris’s is difficult to track. It’s hard to figure out whether it;s angelic or satanic. But it certainly is poetic.”
It is precisely this difficulty that has kept Walken from becoming a bigger star. As every movie mogul knows, audiences like their leading man to be understandable in an instant. “Audiences don’t want real, human emotion,” one director told me. “They want simplification of human emotion.” Kevin Costner— now there’s an actor with as much dimension as a roofing tile. Walken, on the other hand, has no unifying personality; he’s all over the place.
“With Christopher Walken,” says At Close Range director James Foley, “you never know what you are going to get.”
Not knowing what I am going to get, I first meet Walken in Maine, where he is shooting the sequel to Sarah, Plain and Tall, the TV movie costarring Glenn Close for which he won an Emmy nomination. In it, he’s cast against type as a stoic widower and farmer who learns to open up. In a restaurant, over tea (two slices of lemon), Walken himself opens up only with difficulty. Every question, no matter how trivial, demands much hawing and staring into space. After a while, a few things become clear, mainly that Walken has fantastic, irresistible diction, and that at all times he reeks of garlic. Also, that he will try to answer any question, no matter how silly, and that his answers, at first, tend to be serenely prosaic.
He jogs two miles a day and doesn’t believe in personal trainers. At his place in Connecticut, he lets his Abyssians run wild; the idea of fixing and declawing cats is abhorrent to him. He doesn’t read newspapers except on Sundays, and then only the arts, book review, and travel sections. Power lines in a vista irritate him. So do houses that smell. (“If a place has a smell, I could not live there.”) He hates driving, this he can’t live in L.A. He occasionally thinks that women should run the world while men do as they do in Greece: “play cards, drink coffee and wine all day, and in the morning put their suits on over their pajamas.” He says he is New York street-smart but was once taken in by a smooth-talking con man in a Ponzi scheme that cost him enough money to hurt.
He also seems to enjoy making the case for how normal he is. He strikes this posture valiantly, declaiming on civic weal, on his love of cooking Italian food, on the fact that he pays his bills on time.
“One of the reasons I can play the people I do is that I have a distance from them,” he says one afternoon, with loftiness. “I’m not neurotic. I don’t have any paranoias. I never imagine something is happening unless it actually is. I’m positive.”
He sips his tea and looks in my direction. Neither of us can think of what to say next. That is the way it is with Walken, often— the gaps. Fiddling with his lemons, he seems to repel conversation. I don’t know whether to believe what he has said or not. How well does anyone know oneself? I look outside. This part of Maine is gorgeous in a kit-built kind of way. I look back at Walken.
He is scanning the room. The lower right quadrant of his Jaw is trembling.
“We’re surrounded, ” he says. Rising from his seat, he gets us out of there.
“I have terrific hearing,” Walken tells me later, as if to explain. “Almost like a radio, I can tune in on a particular thing and cut out other noises. I can isolate conversations. It can be very interesting and it helps me professionally, listening to two people have a domestic discussion, especially if it’s heated and emotional. But it also creates the impression that since I can do it, maybe other people can do it too. That’s why to have a conversation like this in a restaurant is not comfortable. I don’t know if the other people mind other peoples business to that extent. But I do.”
There are other reasons why Chris Walken isn’t a bigger star, One is his looks. He’s handsome, but in a creepy, chemically impacted kind of way. His skin looks like cellophane smeared with canola oil. “I have this kind of Richard Nixon thing working” is how Walken sees it. His face, too, the angles there jut strangely; his upper lip is woozy. His cheekbones sheer off. He would make an excellent Beowulf, and in fact, on stage, where he has assayed major roles (Iago, Hamlet, Coriolanus) and won numerous awards, he is considered one to the great naturalistic actors.
But in his movies, he’s pretty much been cast as big spooky, a circumstance partially brought about by this curse of looking like he does, his talent be damned. “As long as your career is guided by the close-up,” says director Paul Schrader, “you are largely dictated to your physiognomy.” “Hollywood doesn’t know what to do with anything of value,” spits Sean Penn.
Walken yawns and looks off. One of the points of being Walken is being able to do that and return to talking about such matters with a certain smoking jacket languor.
“I am pragmatic,” he says, “I knew when I was a kid that I would never be everybody’s cup of tea; as a consequence, I never tried. Career choices don’t really exist for me. I am an actor. That is what I do, and I do what comes next.” Good movies, not-so-good movies, as long as the money is right, or the people right, or the location interesting, he may do it. At the age of fifty, he sees himself as a commodity.
“The one advantage that I have,” he continues, “is that if you’re looking for a Chris Walken type, you have got to get Chris Walken. There are not many people that can mess with me. I have a place. I own it. This means that I can work— and work for a long time”
Women I know like to imagine Chris Walken in this place that he owns. Maybe it’s a sitting room. He’s oiling around the edges, coming up on these women, putting his fingers to them, smooth as parachute silk. Something like that. This he may in fact do. He once told me about “cruising: the late and anchiently spidered Ruth Gordon, because from the back in toreador pants, she looked like one hot babe.
But hoe he is in movies is not how he is at most social events— say at a star-spangles Radio City benefit for the Actors’ Fund a while ago. Walken was there, along with Placido Domingo, Jack Palance, etc. and, sitting alone in the corner, Linus Pauling. Walken sees Pauling and decides that he will not leave without engaging him in talk. He makes three circles around Pauling while rehearsing a gambit about DNA. Then, arriving before the great man, he suddenly chokes on the chain of life. “You have been here all this time,” he says abruptly.
Pauling looks up at Walken. “Yes.”
Like the rest of the Union, Maine is awash in police activity. A man is arrested for suffocating a girl and then having sex with her. The Bangor Humane Society office is vandalized, fifty-three dollars in donations swiped. A cop points to the crumpled fender of a pickup truck. “This could happen,” he says morosely, “if you have an accident with a moose.”
Under these circumstances, Walken seems right at home, lolling on a sun deck, sunglasses on, in a blue double-breasted sports coat over a sweatshirt covered with what looks like crumbs.
“I am a solitary person, as an animal, ” he tells me at his leisure. “There are animals who live alone and animals who live in groups, there are aggressive ones and the ones that are as the lilies of the field.”
“What kind live alone?” I ask him.
“Do you,” I ask, “have a circle of friends?”
“Who are your three best friends?”
“My wife is my best friend. I don’t know anybody else that well.”
Which means that you won’t find Walken, Sean Penn, Bobby De Niro, and Bill Murray getting hosed together at the Baby Doll Lounge, although together they do own the Tribeca Grill. Acquaintances, however— of them Walken has millions: actors he has acted with, directors who have directed him, agents who have sold him, his dentist. Walken says this is because of the peripatetic life of the actor, which it may very well be.
And yet, on another fine blue-sky day in Maine, Walken and I are in his limo, he looking out of his window and I out of mine, when somehow revenge arrives as a topic of conversation. Walken warms to it quickly.
“I’ll know somebody for a long time and they’re irritating, but it’s the sort of irritating that you can put up with,” he is going on,” Then one day they’ll say something and somewhere in my mind I’ll say ‘Well, that’s it, I’ll never speak to you again.’ A year later they’ll say ‘How come you don’t speak to me anymore?’ I never explain why. That’s my revenge. I say, ‘I would never tell you.'”
“That’s a hideous thing to do,” I say.
Walken laughs, “Yes it is. It is mean. But revenge is nice. It’s very underrated and it gives me pleasure.”
Shifting in my seat, I say “Do you have any other hobbies?”
“Are you handy around the house?”
“A fisherman are you?”
“A sports fan, then?”
“I have never seen a football game or baseball game in my life.”
For the way he is, Walken has a simple explanation. “It comes from the fact that I’ve been in show business all my life. All my references, all my moves, my mind, the way I express myself, it is very reminiscent of the past. I am a foreigner in my own country because I come from another country, the country of show business. I speak that language and I have that way of dressing, of combing my hair, of moving my face. It makes me different. I am a foreigner.”
Talk about being seared by experience. Imagine this: a skinny little kid, a towhead, maybe five, maybe seven, quieter than most, sensitive and shy, reeling into some TV studio and coming face-to-face with a grown woman dressed up as a cigarette package. That’ll unloosen a screw or two. A world in which a monkey can wheel around on a motor scooter and be addressed, solicitously, as J. Fred Muggs, because that’s his name and he’s a star. Wacko but beautiful.
This was Christopher Walken’s childhood. His father owned a bakery in Astoria, Queens, but his mother, in the early ’50s thought her three sons should be on radio and TV. By the time he was ten, he had appeared on Philco TV Playhouse, The Earnie Kovacs Show, The Colgate Comedy Hour. He was a show-biz kid, a performer, the term he prefers over actor even today.
Instead of attending public high school in Queens, he went to Professional Children’s School in Manhattan. Over the years, he learned to tap a mean “Me and My Shadow,” picked up a few gestures in personality class, and met so many beautiful girls that they ceased to impress him. He was a dancer. After graduating, he spent two weeks shy of a year at Hofstra University, then left to dance Off Broadway in Best Foot Forward with Liza Minnelli, which , in 1966, led to his first dramatic role, a leading part in The Lion In Winter.
Movies started coming his way in 1972, just a few roles, most notably that of Diane Keaton’s suicidal brother in 1977’s Annie Hall. “I was called into an office. Woody Allen sat there. I don’t remember that he ever said anything. And then I was in his movie.”
Mostly, though, Walken lead the gypsy life of a stage actor, never making more than $11,000 in any one year.
Then, thirty years after entering the business, somebody called him up to meet Robert De Niro about his new movie, The Deer Hunter. Walken was told, “He will see you.” The two of them met in an office. “We didn’t talk much.” Naturally. But De Niro did want to know whether that was Walken he’d just seen and enjoyed in a certain play. Walken bobbed his said, about to say, “Yeah, that you did.” Instead, he told the truth. He’s auditioned for the part but didn’t get it. De Niro only nodded, but Walken sees it as a turning point in his career. In his mind, telling the truth got him the role of Nick, a $14,000 role that ended up being worth a million to him. (“More than that,” he likes to say, coolly.)
What is it about Walken that is so fascinating? Like lots of people out there, Rob Lowe is a collector of Walken stories and, telling those stories, he tends to speak in the hissing garden-hose Walken way.
One story involves Walken and Grace Jones during the making of A View To A Kill. On a break, they swing open the door to a pub in some grimy East European village. Three toothless peasants turn around. There’s Jones and there’s Walken, in black leather and a spiked, powdered wig. Walken looks at the peasants, drops his jaw, and roars, “Coleslaw for everyone!”
“That kind of sums him up,” says Lowe, chuckling.
Then Lowe starts talking about Walken’s car. I already know about this vehicle; it’s a 1987 Caddy. “I always wanted a Cadillac,” Walken has said. “All my life my father was saying ‘Guy’s got a Cadillac!’ Well, I got one. It’s black. Black outside, black inside. It looks like a bullet. A black bullet. I had all the chrome taken off of it. All the chrome, except the bumpers. All the little nitch-notches, the striping— all that stuff, so it’s nice.”
Lowe is laughing already. “It looks like a hearse, man, but he loves that car. In Williamstown, we’d be taking a break outside, and he’d be sitting in that car with the windows rolled up. Just sitting there. He’s go sit in that car and stare straight ahead. That did a lot to dispel the rumors that he was not of this world.
“I’m a huge fan,” Lowe adds. “Chris is unbelievably funny. You either get him or you never get him, and if you don’t get him, you go, ‘Oh, Chris Walken— isn’t he a weirdo?'”
“I think it’s all an act.”
“An act?” sniffs Walken. “I really don’t think I could be bothered. I don’t really care that much what people think of me.”
A lot of what people think about Walken still rests upon his performance in The Deer Hunter. The Russian roulette scenes, and the scene of him in the hospital room unable to utter his name, blew audiences away. After his mother saw the movie, she called him up to see if he was okay.
On its heels came Heaven’s Gate, Michael Cimino’s disastrous Western epic, and The Dogs Of War, a soldier-of-fortune fiasco. They were followed by Pennies From Heaven, Brainstorm, The Dead Zone, A View To A Kill, and At Close Range. Immediately preceding Batman Returns were King Of New York and McBain, both little seen and ultra violent. The same for True Romance. The unfortunate truth is that while Walken always does well in films, the films themselves rarely do well.
Or maybe it’s fortunate, for one suspects that the limelight might shiver Walken to pieces, as it shivered him following the death of Natalie Wood. He was on the boat with Robert Wagner the night she drowned in 1981. The details surrounding the event were, to the public, murky. There was much lurid speculation; Walken even got some heat. For years he didn’t talk about it. Now he does. But really, barring shocking revelations, such a thing as the death of Natalie Wood is not illuminating, although it is fascinating to watch Walken’s hands weave through the air as he talks about the incident, roughing out the innocuous, speculative shape of the final hours of a human life.
“Laconic,” “haunted,” “colloquial,” a stylist,” “dangerous,” “a certain reserve,” “recessive,” “hovering on the edge of something tremendous,” “widely ranging in fire,” “leopard ease,” “flat-faced,” “cold to the touch,” “patent-leather lounge-lizard,” “greasy magic,” “drained,” “packed in ice,” “an animal pacing in a cage,” “cartooned apathy,” “a feminine delicacy without effeminacy,” “ironic,” “detached,” “menacing vulnerability,” “quirky,” “nobody broods better,” “unblinking stare,” “world-class grin” ­ the actual language of world-class critics, used to describe Walken.
“I don’t really know what the people closest to me are about or what they are thinking,” Walken has told me. “The more I know people, the more surprised I am all the time.”
“I don’t know you, and you don’t know me, and you don’t know him,” his wife has said to me.
Even so, under his sports coats and suit coats, he will never wear a shirt with a tie. “I don’t like neckties, or any kind of strangulating object.” He wears ancient brown Bally loafers that are bursting apart at the bunions and which on another person would seem wretched. To make a point, he sometimes puts his finger to his temple at such an angle that his had appears cocked. He went to a shrink once, at her home office; peeking into her kitchen he saw a mess— “dirty dishes, awful, this, that”— and stopped seeing her. “She said, You’re making a big mistake.’ And, of course, that’s not true.” He likes to think about Leonardo DaVinci writing backward. He has never had a tan. He likes to doze off to The Honeymooners or The Odd Couple. He dreams in Technicolor but cannot remember what about. During the making of Batman Returns, he wrote a one-act comedy about Elvis, and has since become addicted to the tabloid press for its stories about Elvis and UFOs.
For the gala Mann’s Chinese opening of Batman Returns, Walken was the only one to wear a tuxedo; he had taken his dressing cues not from Andrew Dice Clay but from old Hollywood— from Clark Gable, Carole Lombard, and Spencer Tracey.
Some quotes make sense to him:
“I wasn’t born to play this part. I was born to have a nice life and not strain myself too much.” Robert Mitchum, as recalled by Walken.
“I am the author of myself.”— Coriolanous, as recalled by Walken.
Here and there he has done some serious rewriting. He is not a Christopher, for example. He is a Ronnie. Ronnie Walken. Named after Ronald Coleman.
“I wasn’t that comfortable with Ronnie'” Walken tells me one day, uncomfortably. “I don’t know why. I didn’t like the sound. Ronald, Donald, dorky.”
Fortunately, in 1963, the dancer Monique Van Vooren didn’t like the name Ronald either. One night while Ronnie was dancing in her nightclub act, she announced that she was going to call him Christopher. It took. Unfortunately, Walken is not altogether pleased with that name either.
“I don’t really care for it,” he has said. “It doesn’t suit me. I need something more to the point, a little dark. Jack. Nick. Christopher looks strange on the screen. And Chris… I try not to get Chris on the screen— there’s something too happy-face about it.”
“Did you like yourself as a kid?” I ask him.
“I can’t say I disliked myself. But I wasn’t ever crazy about myself. I was sort of… indifferent.”
“So how have you managed to stay married to this guy for twenty-four years?” I ask Georgianne Walken over surf and turf one night.
She laughs melodiously. “It’s fun. Yes. It’s different all the time.”
Georgianne is a blonde, with precise lips, and a face as striking as a new coin. They met on the road, doing West Side Story; she was Graziella, he was Riff.
“It’s very interesting being married to a man who is constantly playing a different person,” she says. “You’re always living with a different person. He never tells me what part he’s playing when he’s getting ready. It just descends on me one day. Very interesting.” she says, smiling.
It all might have been so different. Instead of breaking out in The Deer Hunter, he might have starred in a flick about a law student who falls in love with a working-class girl who eventually comes down with leukemia and dies.
And it’s a hit. He’s now a leading man. He has a couple more hits. He’s taking his dough and investing it in trailer parks for old people, that’s the kind of guy he is. But of course he gets Bianca Jagger. Then the public’s attention wavers, as it so often does with leading men. Soon he’s chucking bottles at the paparazzi, punching out one of his kids, acting in Norman Mailer movies, and shacking up with a ’70s icon who has fabulous hair and 12 million posters of her spread throughout the land. Eventually, the two of them are featured on magazine covers, saying anything to advance their comebacks, as the costars of some TV sitcom…which fails miserably.
It might have been this way for Walken had he won his leading-man tryout for Love Story in 1970. As it was, Ryan O’Neal got that role and that life. There is a curse to looking like Christopher Walken. There is also a blessing.
The last time I see him is in his Manhattan brownstone. It’s simply furnished, with a few expensive paintings, a few cheap paintings, some very expensive chairs (“deceptively strong for how slender they are”), and a mirror screwed to the wall. After talking to him for a while, I find myself on my feet. “Come with me,” I am saying, and I am touching his shoulder.
Walken gets up. “What’re you gonna do?” he says.
Leading him to the mirror, I say, “Describe what you see.”
“Six feet, one sixty five, a lot of hair that I am told is out of control. There’s a theory that my hair grows right out of my brain,” Walken says, and skims away from the mirror into the kitchen.
This business about his hair being out of control “I am told” is classic Walken. It is obviously out of control. It;s Don King hair. He can see it. I can see it. He should just say it: “This hair of mine is out of control.” That he doesn’t… upsets me.
“So you didn’t want to stand in front of that mirror, eh?” I say.
“Well, no, I mean, I felt I was done,” says Walken. Then in a manner of one moderately aggrieved: “What? What? What do you want to know?”
“What? What?” I shoot back, weirdly.
The sentinel Barnardo is standing watch at Elsinore when he hears something he cannot se. “Who’s there?” Barnardo asks. That is the first line of Hamlet and Walken;s favorite line of all time. “Who’s there?”
“I told you what I saw,” Walken says now. He says, “I saw someone dressed all in black.”