Having portrayed some of the most sinister villains on screen, Christopher Walken has become one of the most feared performers, but when I met him in Toronto International Film Festival, where he came to promote his new movie Seven Psychopaths, I sensed nothing but kindness, affability and gregariousness.
“I played a lot of strange, twisted people, but in fact my life is very normal,” he stresses. “I’ve been married for 46 years and I live in a house, where the grass is always cut and I pay my bills and my cat loves me. I go to bed early and get up early. I play psychopaths, but I am not a psychopath,” he laughs.
“You just do it and if they say you’re a psychopath that’s all you need,” he continues. “I once was in a Shakespeare company and I had to play a king, so I said to the director ‘I am a neigbourhood guy from Queens (New York), and I know nothing about kings.’ He said ‘Don’t worry about it, you will be seen by reflection. They will think you’re a king if you get treated like a king.’ so I think that audience will believe I’m a psychopath if people say I am.”
The legendary actor’s foray into the dark world of mad characters began in playing the demented brother of the titular Annie Hall (1977), which he followed with portraying a tormented Vietnam veteran in The Deer Hunter (1978) that garnered him an Academy award for best supporting actor.
“Annie Hall, which was the first time really that anybody saw me in a movie, came rather close with The Deer Hunter, and I was suicidal in both. I think the combination of things happening together maybe gave me a kind of a persona, but if you have a persona as an actor that’s okay,” he laughs.
Indeed Walken’s new persona quickly turned him into the most sought-out actor to play the most outlandish villains ever put on film, including the bleach-blond industrialist Max Zorin in A View To A Kill (1985), the corrupt businessman Max Shreck in Batman Returns (1992) and the sadistic Headless Horseman in Sleepy Hollow (1995). Walken, however, is not perturbed by these offers; to the contrary, he embraces them.
“Most actors don’t work so if they want me because they think I’m crazy, then good,” he laughs. “If I can keep working then I am lucky. It’s difficult to be an actor, because it’s hard to sustain a career.”
So when Oscar-winning writer/director Martin McDonagh approached him to play yet another psychopath in Seven Psychopaths, the 69-year-old actor, who performed in one of McDonagh’s plays 2 years earlier, agreed unhesitatingly.
“Martin is very talented and unique,” he says. “He wrote the play that I did with Sam Rockwell (also in the movie). People who go to theatre consider him one of the top guys and he’s a wonderful director.”
Seven Psychopaths tells the story of a struggling writer Marty (Colin Farrell), who gets sucked into the criminal life of his best friend Billy (Sam Rockwell) and his partner Hans (Christopher Walken) who go on the run after inadvertently kidnaping the beloved dog of a brutal gangster Charlie Costello (Woody Harrelson).
“Hans is a bit of a failure,” Walken explains. “He steals dogs and returns them for money, and I think he’s okay until they kill his wife, and when that happens he kind of cuts loose.”
Before he gained notoriety for playing villains on screen, the son of German and Scottish immigrants, who ran a bakery in Queens, performed mainly in theatre plays and musicals, including as a member of the chorus in Baker Street (1965). He also appeared frequently on TV, landing roles in the innovative pseudo-documentary Me and My Brother (1968) and the soap opera The Guiding Light (1966). In 1970, he made his film debut with a small role opposite Sean Connery in Sidney’s Lumet’s The Anderson Tapes.
“I’ve been in show business since I was 5 years old and I’m still doing what I always did,” he says. “When I got out of high school, I really had nothing else to do but to continue to do what I was doing. My career is always a little bit of an accident, a nice accident,” he laughs.