Walken on the wild side: He's just having fun

Catching Up With ... Christopher Walken

Workhorse actor, known for playing crazies, lately finds mellower roles

October 17, 2004|By Glenn Lovell | Glenn Lovell,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

SAN FRANCISCO - Christopher Walken works a lot. As best he can figure, he has made "about a hundred movies" since appearing in Annie Hall and The Deer Hunter in the late '70s.

That's an astounding number, given that the average Hollywood star makes one film, possibly two, every 18 months or so.

"Work? It's my favorite thing to do, and I don't really have anything else that I do," says Walken, 61, during a stopover to talk up Around the Bend, an oddball reunion picture in which, for the first time, he plays a grandfather - with an unsavory past, of course.

"I don't have kids, I don't have hobbies," continues the actor, who commutes between movie sets and homes in New York and Connecticut. "And I don't play golf. A lot of actors play golf. It's amazing how many actors play golf."

Here, Walken's voice trails off, as it does frequently during our conversation. Is this an affectation - that studied insouciance that has caused him to be typed as dangerous crazies (At Close Range, True Romance) and comic crazies (Mouse Hunt, The Stepford Wives)? Or is it something more, a hint of wistfulness for the road not taken?

Before you start feeling sorry for the guy, consider this: He's having a blast. He loves the monetary rewards and adoration that come with being Hollywood's most in-demand character actor. This afternoon he shares a story about an airport baggage handler who turned out to be a huge fan.

Of Walken's psychologically damaged Vietnam vet in The Deer Hunter, which brought the supporting-actor Oscar in 1978? Or maybe of his broken father in Catch Me if You Can, which brought another Oscar nomination in 2002?

`A loaded gun'

Walken smiles that slow, mischievous smile. (Fans of The Continental, his serial seducer on Saturday Night Live, will know it only too well.)

"No, no - this guy was shouting, `Frank White! Frank White!' " Walken recalls. "That's the character I played in King of New York. They don't talk about Deer Hunter; they talk about this little crime movie, and it was really off-the-cuff stuff where we literally said, `What are you going to say next? All right, then I'll say this.' That usually doesn't work, but we had Laurence Fishburne, Wesley Snipes and David Caruso, and it was good."

Memorably quirky Walken performances fuel Pulp Fiction, At Close Range, Batman Returns, The Dead Zone and, of course, True Romance, where his sadistic crime boss shares the screen with another great scene-stealer, Dennis Hopper. The pair went to dinner after work. Hopper: "We did a good scene today." Walken: "Yes, I know."

Walken felt the same way after the kitchen face-off in At Close Range, where Sean Penn as the son puts a gun to his father's head. Just before shooting the scene, Penn said, "Excuse me for one second," and left the room. "He knew how scared I am of guns, and he made me think he had returned with a loaded gun. You can see the fear in my face."

It ranks as one of the most intense father-son confrontations ever shot.

Adds Walken now: "That was a very generous thing for Sean to do. Actors help each other like that. When I saw the scene, I knew we had nailed it. That's a great feeling - exhilarating."

But to have the kind of career that Walken has had (he went from character roles to leads in Dead Zone and Dogs of War, then back to character parts), you have to love what you do.

"I do enjoy my work - I tend to be someone who enjoys himself," he says. "The fact is, when you get to be my age and you've been around as long as I have, if people don't recognize you, come up and say hello, you start to worry."

Then, too, he worries about working too much, not being selective enough in his roles.

"There's something to be said for being selective. There are actors who believe in that: They wait for the material and the director. ... They want all the elements to be as copacetic as possible. But I have never been that way."

Looks for possibilities

Walken sees potential where others see problems. That means you work more, but you're also in a higher percentage of dogs. (Walken's filmography includes Joe Dirt and Gigli.)

"I look for good possibilities in movies. I don't look for perfection. And a lot of movies I do get fixed as they go along."

Walken attributes his work ethic to his father, who was a baker in Queens, N.Y. They were close, unlike two generations of fathers and sons in Around the Bend, which finds Michael Caine playing Walken's dad.

"I'm probably the way I am because of my father," the actor says. "He went to his bakery seven days a week. He loved baking; he couldn't get enough of it."

Despite an ornery, antisocial streak, Walken's character in the new film (scheduled to open later this month in Baltimore) turns out to be a relatively nice guy. Ditto his characters in Man on Fire and Catch Me if You Can. Is this the dawning of a kinder, gentler Walken?

"Could be," he replies. "But it also has something to do with age. I'm now at the place where I'm starting to play fathers and uncles - and, in this case, a grandfather."

Worse, a grandfather who's dying of kidney failure. Hence, the gray-green cast to his skin.

"I saw the movie and I thought, `Geez, you look terrible.' "

He pauses, beams, then concedes, "But it's a big juicy part. It's a leading part. And I don't do that a lot."

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