The Great Pretender: The Tao of Christopher Walken

With no method of choice, the famed actor's mannerisms have created a 40-year career, but still: Words don’t do him justice

Christopher Walken by Philip Burke

Christopher Walken by Philip Burke (Illustration by Philip Burke)

As the sixth season of The Walking Dead wrapped up in early spring, one of the show’s character actors, 34-year-old Ross Marquand (Aaron), showed off his lighter side in a video series for Condé Nast’s The Scene, titled “Impressions of super famous people being super mundane.” Mr. Marquand—who once played Paul Newman on an episode of Mad Men—has that uncanny mimic’s knack not just for nailing the way famous celebrities sound, but, as evidenced in the small absurdities of banal activities—“Michael Caine tries to open a jar for someone,” “Harrison Ford loses a sneeze,” “Al Pacino misses a straw with his mouth,” etc.—how they fill the space around their words. The last of Mr. Marquand’s impressions is one of his shortest: the title card reads, “Christopher Walken realizes he’s on a Jumbotron.” The screen flashes to Mr. Marquand tilting his head quizzically and staring at something offscreen. “Wow…” he enunciates mildly, elongating the vowel. His tongue absently poking out to the top of his lip, his left hand dug deep in his pocket while the other rises and falls at chest level, like a jazz crooner keeping time with the drums. “…Magic.” That’s it. Fade to black. Not much more is needed—even without that title card, we would have known who Mr. Marquand was doing an impression of. Along with Robert De Niro, Jack Nicholson and Al Pacino, Christopher Walken is one of those instantly recognizable impersonations, even when done poorly. You know…the trailing off in the middle…without ever missing a beat…it’s hard to mistake. “I guess I do have a particular way of speaking,” Mr. Walken told me in March, sitting in the solarium of the Connecticut estate he shares with his wife, former Sopranos casting director Georgianne Leigh Walken. “It has to do I think with where I come from in the city, and also the neighborhood. Both my parents had accents, European accents; they were pretty strong. And so did all the people that they knew, and all the people who worked in my father’s bakery.” Mr. Walken’s mother was Scottish and his father was German; both Christopher and his brothers were native New Yorkers, born and raised in Queens, where they would take the elevated train over to the city to audition for Sid Caesar’s Hour. “The neighborhood itself, you didn’t hear a lot of English. Lots of Greek, Italian, Polish, German, Yiddish. I think I grew up listening to people who spoke English in a kind of broken way. I think maybe I talked that way.” On the weekend, he worked at his father’s bakery. Mr. Walken doesn’t have the accent of an immigrant. If anything, his words seem almost too elocuted, the pauses allowing us to project something withheld, left unspoken in the black box of his mind. He’s…careful with his speech, at once casual and over-precise: at a loss for words, or maybe conveying a bigger idea in the space where they normally appear. After all, something may always get lost in translation. “People tell me I end a sentence before it’s finished,” he said, his bright blue gaze direct in a way that his words are not. “And I understand that. But I think it might have to do with growing up around people who spoke English as a second language.” Mr. Walken’s career onscreen—with more than 100 film credits to speak of—has been defined by playing enigmatic characters who happen to resemble no one so much as Christopher Walken. Long before the celebrity cameo was in vogue, Mr. Walken made a career on appearances, rather than roles. His early, scene-stealing moments onscreen, in fact, helped set the tone for the rest of Mr. Walken’s singular (and sometimes sinister) performances. “I play lots of troubled people,” he acknowledged. He has a theory about that, courtesy of a friend. The two were puzzling it out once, how he, Chris Walken—a musical theater geek who made his Broadway debut at age 20, opposite Liza Minnelli in Best Foot Forward—had gotten pegged as a bad guy. The friend explained, “Oh, it’s really very simple. The first time you were in the movies, you did two things back to back. One was Annie Hall, where you were a suicidal driver. And right after that, you shoot yourself in the head in The Deer Hunter. Combined with that, you were identified with somebody who has a lot of problems.” “Which…” Mr. Walken nods his head, “kind of makes sense.”

Walken this way

Walken this way (Photo: Rick Wenner for Observer)

Read a profile of an A-list celebrity and you can usually find the through-line to the effect of “Stars: They’re just like us!” Kate Winslet eating a burger. Ryan Reynolds folding his laundry. Robert Downey Jr. taking his kids to school. All these little details added in to serve the dual purpose of sharing an intimate moment in the rarefied world of fame, while reassuring you that even cover-worthy men and women have to put their pants on one leg at a time. There is no such detail about Christopher Walken I can give you, because Christopher Walken is not like us, which becomes immediately obvious as soon as I set foot in his Connecticut home. Home is actually the wrong word to describe where Mr. Walken lives—it’s an estate, really, with a detached guesthouse and outdoor pool, plus several private acres. Shoes off at the door, I’m lead to a large, glass-walled conservatory, where vines, ferns and shrubs coil inside of oversized bell jars (the whole effect of the room, actually, is that of being in a giant terrarium). Mr. Walken himself seems to clash with the room’s outdoorsy cheeriness: tall, dark and brooding, dressed all in black and with a shirt unbuttoned to show a proud plume of silver chest hair. “I’m a vampire,” he grumbles more than once. The name “Max Schreck” pops into mind when thinking about Walken’s presence, though it’s only later that I realize the association might not just be to the German silent film actor famous for Nosferatu the Vampyre, but the character by the same name played by Mr. Walken in Batman Returns.

The great pretender

The great pretender (Photo: Rick Wenner for Observer)

After nearly 40 years of being a celebrity, Mr. Walken isn’t particularly ingratiating or hospitable; neither warm nor cold, and for most of our hour-long conversation he seemed to be tuned into some higher frequency, his head cocked, listening for a dog whistle audible only to him. At one point, he interrupts a question and asks if I heard a noise. Then he swiftly—very swiftly, for a man who would turn 73 a few weeks later—gets up and rushes out of the room. I sit for several moments in silence until he saunters back in. “Never mind, it was…nothing,” he said, his natural cadence lending the moment a surreal air. (Had it been nothing?) So Christopher Walken is not like us: after all, few people begin their careers as lion tamers, as Mr. Walken did. He was 15 and saw the ad in a newspaper; his job was to play the “son” of an actual lion tamer in Terrell Jacobs’ touring one-tent circus. After the main act, Mr. Walken would enter the ring as his “father” left, dressed in a similar outfit, and tame one lion himself. “It was a gimmick,” Mr. Walken recalled. “There was only this one lion, this very old girl, named Sheba. But I had a hat and a whip and everything. I would say, ‘Up Sheba!’ and she would do that.” Mr. Walken denied any stage- or large-cat fright. “Sheba was like a big dog. She would walk around and bump your leg,” he said. And Mr. Walken’s career arc just got weirder from there. He was trained as a dancer—as anyone who has seen his turn in the Fatboy Slim’s “Weapon of Choice” video would probably intuit—and still identifies as that first and foremost. “The choice to become an actor: that was an accident,” he says, brushing some invisible schmutz off his pants. “I was a dancer, I’m not…an actor. I’m not a singer. “Kevin Spacey,” he continues. “Now he’s a singer.” Here Mr. Walken leans in conspiratorially: “I told him once, ‘Wow, Kevin, you can really sing. But I bet you could always sing, couldn’t you?’ ” He screws up his mouth into a pouty face and raises his arms in a defensive “you got me” gesture; his voice faux-petulant: “Well….yeah.” Mr. Walken leans back smiling, like a detective bragging about a suspect’s confession. It must be said that while Kevin Spacey can do a mean Christopher Walken, Mr. Walken’s “Kevin Spacey” needs a little work. But whaddya want? When asked if he felt like his career, at some point, became playing “Christopher Walken types,” he shrugged. “In fact, I’ve never done much of anything else. It always comes out pretty much like me.” He thinks for a moment, then sums up his technique for getting in character. “I memorize my lines. I show up on set. I talk to the wardrobe people and mostly I get dressed…by somebody.” Sometimes, Mr. Walken says, the choice comes down to “Should he wear a tie?”

“Acting really is, to this day, a matter of ‘O.K., I’ll pretend.’ Like, ‘O.K., you’re a villain and you want to take over the world…O.K., I’ll pretend.’ ”

“Acting really is, to this day, a matter of ‘O.K., I’ll pretend.’ Like, ‘O.K., you’re a villain and you want to take over the world…O.K., I’ll pretend.’ ”

Christopher Walken in repose. (Photo: Rick Wenner for Observer)

Mr. Walken is at a point in his career where he can have his pick of any oddball, eccentric roles, so it’s interesting to note which he chooses. Take last year’s Peter Pan: Live! on NBC, where he played Captain Hook, a clear nod to his musical-theater roots. Though the format was alien: “There’s no audience. There’s a lot of people around, but they’re all working. You know, pulling the cables,” he said. “In traditional theater, if you’re me anyway, you do rehearsals, and then it’s previews and people are in the audience and it’s scary. Things happen. I generally forget a lot of lines.” Mr. Walken points to his Tony-nominated performance in Behanding in Spokane. “In previews, I had a big speech…I think I dropped 10 minutes out of it.” But the Peter Pan thing, “It’s really more akin to some sort of daredevil feat. Like Evel Knievel jumping over the Grand Canyon on his motorcycle.” In addition to this summer’s blockbuster adaptation of The Jungle Book, where Mr. Walken lent his face and mannerisms to the ape King Louie, the actor has turned to more indie fare. In this month’s One More Time, he plays a Frank Sinatra-like crooner, whose larger-than-life shadow eclipses his daughter’s (Amber Heard) own burgeoning music career. Later this month, he plays Jason Bateman’s performance artist father in the actor’s directorial adaptation of Kevin Wilson’s The Family Fang, which is like Gone Girl for your parents. Both roles, I note, are about artists who have peaked, who are consumed with the desire to make one final great piece that will stand as their legacy. I asked if Mr. Walken related to that. “Not really,” he said. “It’s all pretend.” Is it ironic then, that several actors who have played his children in films—Leonardo DiCaprio, Amber Heard—cite him as their inspiration for getting into showbiz at all? Mr. Walken doesn’t respond directly. He shakes his head instead, and, referring to his role in One More Time, answers: “I told them they should get a real singer. But they insisted I use my own voice. Why? You want him to be good.” Well, I posit, a lot of people would watch a movie just for the chance to watch Christopher Walken sing. For the first time, Mr. Walken smiles. “Really? Oooh. That makes me really glad. Because you make so many movies…I’ve made so many movies that I haven’t seen, that aren’t even on DVD or anything.” “You pick up the Sunday paper and there are all these films,” said Christopher Walken, either hopelessly or hopefully or possibly neither. “And it’s just like…wow.” If he has a chance to play more layered or nuanced characters, he doesn’t think that should be chalked up to him getting better, per se. “I was just watching the news, and they’re talking about people who make content…it’s like a bonanza,” he said. “It’s like a mill, just churning out scripts. It’s really a golden age to be in the film business.”

Christopher Walken in the sun.

Christopher Walken in the sun. (Photo: Rick Wenner for Observer)

Movement, not conversation, is Mr. Walken’s method of communication: just watch his saucy, sexy striptease in Steve Martin’s 1981 gem Pennies from Heaven. When I ask Mr. Walken if he considers himself a predecessor to Magic Mike—the Channing Tatum film based on his experiences as a male erotic dancer in Florida—I’m met with a predictably baffled expression. Even though I should know better, I plow on with the description of the film, sounding more and more ridiculous as I watch the minutes of this interview slip by, and when I’m finished, Mr. Walken doesn’t seem to have any more of a clue what I’m talking about. “So,” he finally responds. “Which one is Channing Tatum?” This is not to say Mr. Walken isn’t entertaining to be around because of his hesitations. He’s prone to answer many specific questions about his favorite roles with odd, zen-like koans. I mention a couple of websites I had found where fans had ranked his performances. “I don’t have a computer or cellphone, but I understand that there are all these sites that…” he trails off. “If you’re an actor, I guess it’s dangerous to look yourself up. But lists like that may be pretty interesting. With movies in particular. To go down a list and see a movie that I’ve never heard of. And then you watch it and it’s a great movie.” Also, though, there is Abel Ferrara’s King of New York, a Walken favorite because a lot of the dialogue was made up on the spot and there was no budget for wardrobe. And At Close Range, with Sean Penn, a brutal father-and-son tale based on real events. “The father again is just a terrible villain,” Mr. Walken surmises, before adding that he liked Catch Me If You Can, with Leonardo DiCaprio, because “I played a good dad in that, and also, it was a very good movie.” Now that we’re just free-associating, I mention that he was also an amiable patriarch in the 1999 Brendan Fraser comedy, Blast from the Past.   “Right! That was a great movie, that was crazy!” Mr. Walken is suddenly animated. “Not many people saw it, but what fun. Crazy people living underground!” Despite his plethora of family-man characters, Mr. Walken himself does not have any children. “I don’t think everyone needs to have kids,” he says, before adding, “on the other hand…kids happen.” Mr. Walken has an equally laissez-faire attitude when it comes to his own fate. His career, he feels, has been such a fluke that he keeps no expectations for what the future might hold. He’s just happy to be working. “That’s the way it goes. You show up, you try to be prepared; you try to do the best you can. And you’re reliable; you’re trustworthy. And the rest is just serendipity…or…something.” 

The Great Pretender: The Tao of Christopher Walken