Good acting, according to Christopher Walken, is not all that different from good cooking: Start with the best ingredients and keep it simple. Said the recreational chef of his culinary approach, in his signature Queens, N.Y., accent, "Buy really good stuff and then you cook it simply. If you've got a great piece of fish and you broil it, it's going to be good. That's the kind of cook I am."
Then there is his approach to acting, Walken's first love. Walken arrives on-set armed with five decades of experience and training, but when directors say, "Action," he puts his expertise aside for something more basic and primal—his instincts.
Steven Spielberg, who directed Walken in his Screen Actors Guild Actor Award-winning and Oscar-nominated performance in Catch Me If You Can, noted, "He has some of the best natural instincts of anyone I've worked with. I really think he likes to surprise himself. He comes prepared with some basic ideas of how to play the scene, but after the cameras are rolling his instincts kick in."
Walken's element of surprise, or his "little trick" as he calls it, is to develop a secret about his character that he keeps to himself. Often that means incorporating humor into his work.
He explained, "Because you have to repeat things over and over to keep them fresh sometimes I just play. I'll pretend I'm a space cadet, or Elvis, or any number of things—that I'm a Spanish Sponge Fish. [Walken shrugs and flashes a smile.] It doesn't matter. I play in order to keep things from getting stale."
Perhaps his love of such play stems from his roots as a child performer. Walken can vividly recall the seed that sprouted into his love for performing: as a boy in the early 1950s acting out war movies and Westerns with his buddies in a vacant lot in his Queens neighborhood.
"I don't think it's that different when you get to be older," he said. "There's still the thing of being like a kid."
Born Ronald Walken, Ronnie, as he was called until he later changed his name to Christopher, was raised the middle of three boys. Their father, Paul, owned a bakery in Queens. Walken's mother, Rosalie, once an aspiring actress, passed along her passion for acting to her boys, who all worked as children in commercials and television during the 1950s. During this time Walken fell in love with being in front of the camera.
"There were more than 90 live shows every week," warmly recalled Walken, whose many TV credits as a child include such programs as The Ernie Kovacs Show, Playhouse 90, and Colgate Comedy Hour, on which he got to work with Jerry Lewis, one of Walken's favorite performers.
Lewis, in fact, partly inspired Walken's acclaimed performance as the duplicitous, perpetually optimistic Frank Abagnale Sr., the father of Leonardo DiCaprio's criminally minded character in Catch Me If You Can. Walken told Venice magazine, "I'm a big Jerry Lewis fan. I heard him say once in an interview that his big secret is he's only 9, that all his life he's only been 9 years old, and I thought, Yes, absolutely. He's like a kid. You get that feeling with certain people. Mick Jagger has that. I think that's a wonderful quality, especially as you get older. I did get the feeling that Frank Abagnale Sr. and his son were like a couple of juvenile delinquents."
Walken has fond memories of his childhood, including his schooling at the Professional Children's School in Manhattan, an institution that allowed students to work as performers while getting their education. His focus and training were primarily in dance.
"It never really occurred to me to be in any other business. I didn't know I'd be an actor, but I always thought I'd be someplace doing shows, maybe musical things," noted Walken, who dropped out of college after a year when he was cast alongside Liza Minnelli in the Broadway musical Best Foot Forward and from there went on to dance in a number of musical theatre productions.
He began to move away from dance when he was cast in his first major acting role, in 1966 as King Philip in a stage production of The Lion in Winter. He would continue to do theatre on and Off-Broadway for years. His first film role came in 1971's The Anderson Tapes, starring Sean Connery and directed by Sidney Lumet, but it would be another five years before he would land the role that would make him famous: Nick in The Deer Hunter.
Dance, however, has always been something that Walken has incorporated into his screen work, most memorably as a sexy pimp in the 1980 musical Pennies From Heaven and more recently in the Spike Jonze-directed music video of Fatboy Slim's "Weapon of Choice," but also in scenes in The Deer Hunter and Catch Me If You Can, among other credits. Just a few weeks ago he did a rousing song-and-dance number during his opening monologue on Saturday Night Live, on which he has the distinction of being in the "Five-Timers Club" of celebrities who have hosted the show five times or more. (He's hosted six.)
In Walken's opinion, dance is a purer form of expression than most types of acting. "It's non-verbal and I definitely prefer non-verbal," he said of dance. "I've learned how to deal with words, but I'd much prefer not to have to say anything. It must have been great in the silent movie days. You had to know what [the scene] was about. You had to know that the girl was going to leave the sheik, but you didn't have to say it. I'd love to make a movie where I don't talk.
"There's a famous story about Marcello Mastroianni, who was one of the great actors of all time," he continued. "He lived in Europe, and even though he became a huge star in America I don't think he ever paid much attention to learning how to speak English. [American producers] invited him to come to Hollywood all the time. They'd say, 'Just learn to speak English and we'll give you all these parts.' And he said, 'OK. I want to be in a Western, but I want to play a mute cowboy.' That's what I'd like to play."
This confession may be a surprise to many of Walken's fans, considering how distinctive his voice is. When I brought up his unique vocal quality, Walken's eyes opened widely in disbelief.
He replied, "I come from Queens—a particular part of Queens in New York—and do you know that everybody sounds like me? There's a lot of cops who come from where I come from, and I swear they all talk like me."
Still, there's no one quite like Walken in show business. Like Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, Jimmy Stewart, Katherine Hepburn, and Cary Grant, Walken's one-of-a-kind voice is ingrained in our minds. DreamWorks certainly thought that when they tapped him to perform the voice to Colonel Cutter in the animated feature Antz.
Walken's voice, however, has not always been welcomed, particularly when he tackled Shakespeare in his early years as an actor.
"I talked more or less the way I do, and I was very criticized for it. I never was a big favorite with people who had seen a lot of those plays, and they were probably right," said Walken, who admitted that he's never been good at taking on other accents or dialects besides his own.
Don't Copy His Act
Walken's acting is as distinct as his voice. Along with icons like Brando, De Niro, and Pacino, and younger actors like Sean Penn and Johnny Depp, Walken is considered to be in a league of his own—a level to which many actors aspire. If Walken could offer actors a piece of advice, it is that they forge their own path.
"One thing that everybody can control about their career is that they do it their own way," he said. "If you do it your way people are going to see that. You don't have to be a genius, but you have to do it your own way. Everybody's got heroes and people that they start off emulating, but at some point you kind of break away."
Walken recalled an actor he shared a class with years ago who failed to form his own identity: "There was this guy who was very handsome and he looked really like Marlon Brando, and he decided that since he looked like Brando that he was also going to speak like him. He ended up being an imitation. I don't know if he ever got over it, but that's the sort of thing you want to get rid of immediately."
Still, even Walken, considered to be one of the great supporting actors of modern American cinema, was not such a wonderful actor at one time.
"When I was young, when I started acting, I was really awful," he claimed.
Later, as a member of the Actors Studio, he vividly recalled getting chewed out by Lee Strasberg one day. Walken was performing a scene from Death of a Salesman, and in the middle of his performance someone offstage accidentally dropped a box filled with dishes. Walken kept going as if nothing had happened.
"Afterwards, Strasberg said to me, 'What do you think?' I said I thought it went well. He said, 'You know somebody dropped a big box of dishes when you were performing? Everybody jumped except you. You didn't even react.' I said, 'Yes, I was concentrating.' 'That's not concentrating; that's bad acting.'"
That was a big lesson for Walken.
Said the actor, "You learn your lines. You see that the scene is usually about somebody wanting something. And for most people—I know it's true of me—while I'm talking to people usually there's other stuff going on in my head. I think everybody's like that. It's just like life, you know? You may be talking about something and be preoccupied with something else. There's something you have to do. You have to go to the dentist. People usually have a lot going on besides whatever it is they're talking about. I think the trick in acting is to be able to juggle things in your head."
There is one supposed acting rule, however, that Walken has never adhered to, and that is the concept of the fourth wall in theatre, where the audience is, or in film, the eye of the camera lens, through which the audience views the movie. Walken has sometimes been accused of pandering to audiences, giving a metaphorical wink to those watching and acknowledging their presence. He attributes this to his roots as a kid in musical comedies.
"There is no fourth wall in musical comedy, and a lot of actors get taught there is," he said. "I've never believed that. So there's never been a fourth a wall for me on the stage or in the movies. The camera is the way into the audience. They're sitting there and they're part of the scene."
Walken has unintentionally made a career out of playing predominantly dark characters, but he's found that no matter how gloomy, suicidal, odd, or cruel the role can be, he never forgets that he's in the business of pretending.
"Even if I'm playing somebody who's trying to dominate the world, all I have to do is remember that it's a movie," said the actor. "Everybody who bought a ticket and is sitting there—they all know it's a movie. I hope that's not an excuse. I think there is gratuitous stuff in movies. I hope that I don't do too much of that, or I hope that if I do, people can see that I'm only kidding. I think they can, actually."
Really, He's a Pussycat
Nevertheless, Walken has sometimes been confused with his characters, partly because he's so convincing as a man to be feared in films like The Deer Hunter, At Close Range, The Dead Zone, King of New York, Pulp Fiction, The Funeral, and The Prophecy trilogy. Indeed, it was not until he reached his mid-30s that the film industry and audiences began to view him as someone who could play morose.
"I'm a such a pussycat in real life. I'm a song-and-dance man who played a few scary parts and got mistaken for the characters he plays," said Walken in a 1998 interview. "When I did Annie Hall for Woody [in 1977], that was the first time I heard the words scary or weird. That's what he wanted from me and that's what I gave him."
The next year he won his one and only Academy Award, for his superb performance as a Vietnam vet pushed over the edge in The Deer Hunter. Perhaps he was too convincing.
"The casting people in Hollywood don't have much imagination," said Walken. "I played a few crazies and so they kept offering more of the same. I didn't turn them down, because I'm an actor and actors act. When I'm not acting I'm vegetating."
As a result of rarely turning down work (he averages five films a year because he hates not to be working), his talent has been tarnished at times. As David Thomson wrote in the latest edition of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, "Walken has become the ghost that haunts American film, hired so often to be spooky, pale, staring, eccentric, Satanic, and so on. There's a lot of 'so on' in modern American film. This has nearly buried the brilliant actor from The Deer Hunter and At Close Range; it has forgotten the dancer and the potential comic. And it seems to bore him as much as some of his fans. He is remarkable, but he has turned into a 'type.'"
Perhaps Thomson will update his critique of Walken in a future edition of his popular reference guide. After all, the book was published in October 2002, before the film critic had a chance to see Walken's roles in Catch Me If You Can and the independent film Poolhall Junkies, the latter tapping into his quintessential on-screen ferocity and mixing it with that biting humor we've come to relish in Pulp Fiction and True Romance. But it's Catch Me that depicts Walken in a new light—as the loving but flawed father figure—and which may open up a new chapter for the actor.
Walken told Back Stage West that he had been searching for a character like Catch Me's Frank Abagnale Sr. for a long time: "Ever since I started playing villains and, you know, strange people—which was a long time ago—I've always looked for a chance to play something more normal. Once in a while I do, but I don't get a lot of those. When Frank came, aside from all the other reasons like Steven and Leo and Tom and the script, it was a different kind of person. It was a human being, actually."
He continued, "Very good parts are hard to find. That's not a reason not to work. It doesn't have to be a great part for me to take the job, but once in a while you're lucky. You come across not only a good part but a good part that's good for you."
With a SAG Actor trophy in hand, an Oscar nomination, and a recent ShoWest honor for Supporting Actor of the Year, Hollywood hopefully will tap Walken for further roles that allow him to shine