May 30, 2004
Odd Man In
By STEPHEN RODRICK
When in Los Angeles, Christopher Walken stays at the Chateau Marmont, not for the privacy or the cachet but because the rooms come equipped with a full kitchen. For years, the painter and director Julian Schnabel, a longtime friend of Walken's, has urged the actor to be the host of his own cooking show. The proposed format has evolved and devolved but would include him offering advice to a studio audience while preparing his own recipes. "The danger for me is, it could be popular," Walken says. "I've tried to have some prestige as an actor, then I'd be the guy with the cooking show."
On a day off from filming the comedy "The Wedding Crashers," Walken drops orange peels into a frying pan containing garlic and olive oil. "I'm making you scallops a l'orange," he says, expertly shaking the pan. "You will be surprised how much flavor these peels have." For the second day in a row, he's wearing a black shirt and black drawstring pants. He is just back from a trip to a Beverly Hills grocery store. Walken rode there in the back seat of a Town Car provided by the producers. "I won't drive in Los Angeles," says Walken, who lives in Connecticut. "Drivers here are maniacs. I'd be a nervous wreck."
At home, Walken -- who has been married for 35 years to Georgianne Walken, the casting director for "The Sopranos" -- does all the cooking. "I'm not going to eat with you," he says, peering at the blue flame of the burner. "I eat only at night. If I eat now, all I will want to do is take a nap."
Walken has tried to replicate his Connecticut routine here in Los Angeles. He rises early and runs two miles on a treadmill that dominates his small suite. Then he showers and vigorously yanks his hair for 10 minutes. Walken considers his Don King-like mane to be essential to his film success. (When he goes out, though, he keeps his signature shock of hair hidden under what he calls "my Henry Fonda 'On Golden Pond' floppy hat.")
"Tony Perkins taught me to yank it to increase the blood flow," Walken says. "I can't explain it. I've thought about it a lot. It's just a force of nature. It's like animals with the colored feather and tails. If I had a tail, I wouldn't need the hair. They matted it down for 'Catch Me if You Can,' and I felt naked."
After lunch, Walken does the dishes and scrubs the kitchen counter. I ask him why he doesn't let someone else clean up.
"What, do you think I have a gnome in the other room that does the dishes?" he asks with mock belligerence.
How about the hotel staff?
"Oh, no," Walken says. He gives a slight shudder. "The staff here is quite formidable. I am a little afraid of them."
He then drops to one knee and scrubs at a nonexistent stain on the floor. "I think that cleanliness is absolutely essential," he says.
He denies that he is obsessive-compulsive but then tells a story. "Years ago, someone talked me into seeing a shrink," he says, carefully wringing out the dishrag and placing it next to the sink. "It was a lady who did her practice in her apartment. We sat down and talked. The phone rang. She went through the swinging doors, and I could look into the kitchen." Walken makes a sour face. "She had all these pots and pans and dishes piled everywhere. She was dirty, dirty. I thought, How am I going to take advice from someone like that? That was the end of my shrinkage. Maybe if she had been clean and nice I'd still be in therapy."
Christopher Walken has achieved stardom while living in an askew universe of his own making. Now 61, he has made almost a hundred films, yet until last year enjoyed only a single million-dollar payday, meaning he has only just broken into Frankie Muniz territory. There have also been problems down at quality control. Walken has appeared in more stinkers than Gene Hackman. His "Prophecy" trilogy equals John Travolta's "Look Who's Talking" series for pure cheesiness. Somehow, Walken made two sequels, with progressively downwardly mobile co-stars, even though his character, Gabriel, clearly bites the dust in the original.
In the past month, Walken could be seen at the multiplex starring with Denzel Washington in "Man on Fire" and with Ben Stiller and Jack Black in "Envy," and a week from Friday he will appear on-screen with Nicole Kidman, Glenn Close, Matthew Broderick and Bette Midler in "The Stepford Wives." Walken's aura will not be harmed by the fact that "Envy" and "Man on Fire" received mostly lousy reviews and that the buzz on "The Stepford Wives" has not been that promising. He remains the Teflon actor: cinematic crud doesn't stick to him. Critics and actors speak of him in mystical terms. They do not remember the horror films, the bad cable flicks, the computer game ("Ripper").
"Chris is like a poem," rhapsodizes Sean Penn, a longtime friend and admirer. "Trying to define him is like trying to define a cloud."
Walken's get-out-of-jail-free card is his voice. As much as he marches to the beat of his own drum machine, Walken speaks like a man keeping time to a metronome with a wicked sense of humor. The fickle cadence of Walkenese is his calling card. "I get that from my days as a dancer," Walken says. "I'm still counting off dance steps as I cross a room. Two-two four. Three-three four. I'm doing that when I talk."
His bizarro word rhythm and gleeful disregard for punctuation makes even his most banal utterances sound dramatic. At the grocery store, he stared at a plump tomato and then put it back. "I DON'T. Buy the tomatoes with. The stems. On them. They don't. Degrade. They go. Down the sink. And into the WATER. Then. They get lodged in the throats of little. OTTERS."
Armed with the voice and the hair, Walken merrily hoofs his way through the Hollywood minefield with the blissfully oblivious demeanor of someone who doesn't know any better or, more precisely, doesn't know any other way.
And he doesn't. The son of a German father who worked as a baker and a Scottish stay-at-home mother, he has been in show business since the age of 14 months, when he posed with kittens for a calendar shoot. As a child, he would go with his mother and two brothers from his home in Queens to Rockefeller Center for auditions. Walken appeared in hundreds of television's early productions, including a skit with Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin. When he was a teenager, he played the lion tamer's son in a traveling circus. "He must have not been very good," Walken says of the lion tamer. "He had scars all over his back."
After a couple of semesters of college at Hofstra in the early 60's, Walken spent much of his 20's doing Shakespeare and Chekhov under the tutelage of Joseph Papp. Still, most of America didn't meet Walken until he was 33, when he had a small but memorably creepy part as Annie's depressed brother, Duane, in "Annie Hall." "The Deer Hunter" followed, and Walken's oddball on-screen persona was set.
Since then, Walken has played some of the most maladjusted characters in film history. They have included a mascara-wearing European sexual deviant ("The Comfort of Strangers"), an anally probed writer who dances with aliens ("Communion"), a vengeful quadriplegic ("Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead") and a money launderer with a predilection for sodomizing his chauffeur ("Wild Side"). In "The Stepford Wives," Walken plays the lizardly manipulator of robotic women.
Meanwhile, Walken permeates pop culture. A song-and-dance man since childhood, Walken played a Willy-Loman-meets-Fred-Astaire dancer in Fatboy Slim's "Weapon of Choice" video. Spike Jonze directed it, and VH-1 named him best actor in a video for his performance. Last year, Fountains of Wayne dropped Walken's name into their song "Hackensack."
Walken's "Saturday Night Live" role as the suave sleazebag in "The Continental," a parody of an early 50's show Walken watched as a kid, rivals John Belushi's "cheezborger, cheezborger" routine as the funniest skit in the show's 29-year history. "Lorne Michaels should do 'The Continental' as a two-hour movie without a script," Penn says. "It would be the funniest movie of the year." Walken, who performed on the same NBC stage as a child actor, has been the host of "Saturday Night Live" six times. Last Saturday, the show broadcast a "best of Walken" episode, an honor previously bestowed on only cast members and Steve Martin.
Still, even the best-loved act can go the way of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" with too-frequent repetition. To that end, Walken's agents at International Creative Management, Toni Howard and Risa Shapiro, claim he will be much scarcer in the future. "We're trying to be more selective," Howard says.
In reality, Walken already has four more films in the can. Most movie stars pride themselves on their astute role choices almost as much as they do on their acting chops. No one wants to be Burt Reynolds turning down "Terms of Endearment" for "Stroker Ace." But Walken happily admits that he has no judgment, so he has chosen a throw-everything-against-the-wall-and-se
"I'm a terrible analyzer of what will be good," he says. "Whatever I think the outcome is going to be, I'm always wrong."
Walken's long marriage and kitchen skill suggest domestic tranquillity. However, it is normality viewed through the fat end of the telescope. He often speaks as if he's having a Socratic exchange with himself.
"What's funny to him is something the rest of the world doesn't understand," Penn says.
"He's a very private person who lives in his head," Schnabel adds. "When that is interrupted, it interferes with his sanity. I've seen him walking down a New York street holding my son Olmo's hand, and he still looks alone."
A few years ago, Schnabel took Walken, who paints as a hobby, along to Italy for a museum retrospective of Schnabel's work. "He was in the middle of a crowd at the reception, and I felt horrible," Schnabel says. "He looked like he was being tortured. He is very delicate."
That fragility was best captured in "The Deer Hunter," the 1978 Michael Cimino film that won Walken an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. He plays Nick, a psychologically lost American soldier playing Russian roulette just before the fall of Saigon. Paradoxically, as much as critics talk about Walken's verbal mannerisms, Nick is nearly mute for the last half of the film. Walken communicates desolation with just his hollow eyes.
"I remember very clearly in the scenes when I lost my marbles that I remembered as a kid the couple times I went to summer camp," Walken says, as his sometimes boyish face goes lined and veined, only accentuating the Walken thousand-yard stare made famous in the film. "It was just awful. It was in the Poconos. I remember being so miserable. I was really in despair. To me, the end of that movie is just like camp."
His sensitivity was apparent when I went with him to see a matinee screening of "Dawn of the Dead," a remake of the George Romero horror classic. The film choice was his idea. "You can never go wrong with a zombie movie," he reasoned. Still, Walken winced at the violence. "Is she a zombie?" he asked. "Is he a zombie? Wait a minute; they're not going to have a zombie baby. That is too much." After the zombie baby is born, the zombie baby is executed. Walken winced and muttered, "Oh, I don't like that." (Walken recently told Lorne Michaels, executive producer of "S.N.L.," that the torture scenes in "The Passion of the Christ" were too long. "And I know torture scenes," Walken said.)
Walken's delicate nature makes it difficult for him to engage in small talk, a liability in Hollywood. In 1990, the filmmaker Abel Ferrara had his first encounter with Walken in the director's downtown Manhattan loft to discuss casting him as the lead in "King of New York." "He came in, told me he wanted to do the film and that nobody else could play the character as well," recalls Ferrara, who has now directed Walken in four films. "Then he got up and left. It might have been two minutes. I was like, man, was he even here?"
Walken's reluctance to glad-hand nearly cost him one of his best roles. In 2002, Steven Spielberg was interested in casting Walken as Leonardo DiCaprio's father in "Catch Me if You Can." But he wanted to meet with Walken first and see him interact with DiCaprio. "Chris didn't want to do it," Toni Howard says. "I told him there was no way he was going to get the role without a meeting." Walken reluctantly agreed, got the part and received a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination in 2003.
"I think I'm better off not socializing," Walken says with a shy laugh. "I make a better impression if I'm not around. If a director wants to meet me and pulls out a tape recorder, I just clam right up."
Occasionally, Walken allows a glimpse into his internal dialogue. A longtime cat lover, Walken wrote the foreword to the 2001 edition of the Keep It Simple "Guide to Cat Care." While much of the introduction deals with the dignified death of his cat Pookie, the opening paragraph suggests his worldview:
"It seems to me that we humans sometimes forget that we are animals too; in the best sense -- the pure sense of the forest where our first memories were made. And there are as many kinds of us as there are of them: solitary, gregarious, monogamous; the beach master with his harem; those who meet once and move on; the hunters; the vegetarians."
Throughout his career, Walken has humanized his wackos so much that filmgoers cheer rather than hiss when he appears on-screen. One technique is to show off his dancing skill. Often, apropos of nothing, his villains will break into a momentary soft shoe. One of Walken's most memorable bad guys is a dancing pimp in "Pennies From Heaven" (1981), MGM's last musical. (He recently finished filming "Romance and Cigarettes," a musical directed by a fellow indie-film vet, John Turturro.)
Still, the key to Walken's sociopath-with-a-heart-of-gold is the legendary Walken soliloquy. Quentin Tarantino wrote two of his best. In "Pulp Fiction," Walken plays a former Vietnam P.O.W. with an eight-page monologue about a watch kept in his rectum. In "True Romance," directed by Tony Scott and written by Tarantino, Walken is a Sicilian gangster about to execute a hapless security guard played by Dennis Hopper. When Hopper asks who he is, Walken responds: "The Antichrist. You got me in a vendetta kind of mood. You tell the angels in heaven you never seen evil so singularly personified as you did in the face of the man who killed you." The two then have a philosophical conversation touching on the Moorish invasion of Sicily. Hopper calls Walken an eggplant. Walken calls Hopper a cantaloupe. Then Walken blows Hopper's brains out. Somehow, it works.
Hopper says: "You're walking a knife's edge when you're playing these far-out characters. Sometimes you get this great dialogue, but you're, like, man, this is terrific, but how do you make it sound like a real conversation? Our scene could be two bankers conducting business, and it would still work. Chris just has a pureness to his reading that is almost pre-Stanislavski."
When he first started in film, Walken would immerse himself in researching a role, but it didn't take. Instead, he adopted a novel line-reading technique. When he received a script, Walken would immediately cross out all the punctuation. Nowadays, he no longer has to mark up the pages; he just doesn't see periods or commas anymore. "It lets you decide what the important word is," Walken says. "It might be the noun, it might be the verb. It might be a word you never thought of."
Walken also does his lines in various voices. He gives me an example. He pretends he is going to the gas chamber and says, "I don't wanna die." First, he does it straight, then in what he calls his "Mamma mia what a pizza" voice, followed by that of a Gestapo officer and, finally, in one of his favorites, Bugs Bunny.
"That's why I love listening to people with accents," Walken says. "They're always emphasizing the wrong word, and it makes me think."
After lunch in his suite at the Marmont, I persuade Walken to watch his monologue from "The Rundown" on a DVD. In the film, which came out last year, Walken plays an evil diamond-mine owner who has had his precious jewels stolen. Walken's speech centers on his making a comparison between his lost treasure and someone stealing his teeth before the tooth fairy could reward him. His men don't speak English, and the metaphor gets lost in translation. A frustrated Walken then asks: "Do you understand. The CONCEPT. Of the tooth fairy?"
Walken's eyes fill with tears as he laughs along. "I thought that was funny," he says. "That's what I like. I practiced the monologue for 'Pulp Fiction' for eight weeks, and every time I got to the line 'Up my [expletive],' I couldn't stop laughing."
He shrugs at the campiness that sometimes creeps into his characters. "I'm a performer who grew up seeing the audience as a character," Walken says. "I saw Jerry Lewis on Broadway a few years ago, and he practically waved to the audience when he left the stage. I think people go: 'O.K., this is Chris. Chris knows he's in the movie. Chris knows it's not real. Chris is having a good time.'"