Thursday October 11, 2012

ORLANDO, Fla. -- A few years ago, that national treasure known as Christopher Walken saw something happening. To himself. And he was not pleased.

Every standup comic had a killer Christopher Walken impression.

His "Saturday Night Live" appearances had become the stuff of legend -- and T-shirts. ("Gotta have more cowbell!")

His image, his halting, mannered way of delivering a line, was overwhelming the actor behind it. His every screen appearance was accompanied by giggles of delicious anticipation.

Walken was fast becoming a punch line. He might be a beloved icon of big and small screen cool, but "icon" in his case was becoming "baggage." He's an Oscar winner, an actor's actor. And that was becoming a memory.

"Christopher Walken is to his co-stars what he is to me -- a god of acting, of the American cinema," says the Irish playwright-turned-filmmaker Martin McDonagh. "He's a serious actor. Some people tend to forget that." So Walken, now 69, had to "step back from all that."

No, he can't talk without halting, without seeming to consider his words, even when they're scripted and he committed them to memory months before. In person,
in interviews, the effect is exaggerated.

But he can control how often you hear it.

"With television, an actor has to be careful," Walken says. "So many people will see you doing something, that you become identified with that image, that version of yourself. I suppose if you do one performance on ‘Saturday Night Live,' more people will see it than see you in 10 different movies. Particularly if you're doing the sort of small movies that I do. It's all-pervasive."

And if you poke fun of
your image on "SNL" and elsewhere, there's a danger an actor could become a
self-parody.

"It's like comics. They do TV, and they can't use those jokes again," Walken says. "So I had to stop doing it. Sometimes, it's better to be a little mysterious."

Walken is anything but a mystery this fall. He has three films due out. In "Late Quartet," he plays the ailing leader of a popular string quartet, a man whose retirement sets off a tug of war over who will replace him. In "Stand-Up Guys," he teams up with fellow screen legend Al Pacino.

And in "Seven Psychopaths," he lets writer-director McDonagh turn that recent image on its head, using Walken's natural charm and funny way with a line in a movie that is like every gonzo Chris Walken movie of yore. It's about a screenwriter (Colin Farrell) writing a script about "seven psychopaths," and the ways he invents, or meets, characters who match that description.

"He's such a great actor that the comedy is never funnier than when he's doing comedy," McDonagh ("In Bruges") says. "He can be sinister and menacing just as brilliantly.

"Technically," there's something kind of psychotic about Hans, his character in the film. But Hans is also the moral center of the film, the one who wants to show Colin Farrell's character the way -- of peace, of pacifism. Hans makes it cool not to have a gun. To not fight violence with violence." And real psychopaths, as Walken's character in the film reminds us, "can be tiresome."

"The entertainment value of psychopaths, of people who are surprising and unpredictable, is hard to beat," Walken muses. "I'm not really sure what a psychopath is. If I've ever met one, I'll bet I don't know but I'll bet I left the room pretty quickly.

"When you're playing one, you cannot let yourself think of yourself as one. You just go about your business and let other people say you're a psychopath."

He considers another thought.

"Somebody read me a dictionary description of ‘psychopath,' and it was all about an inability to empathize or have human connections. Whatever that means."

That's never been a problem for Walken, who seems to have an innate ability to connect with viewers in all sorts of roles -- heroes, lovably vile villains, working-class Joes and not-so-innocent-bystanders.

He fell in with McDonagh's writing when they mounted the play "A Behanding in Spokane" in New York a couple years ago. That co-starred Walken's "Seven Psychopaths" counterpart, Sam Rockwell.

He was drawn to "Psychopaths" by the chance to work with Rockwell again, and with Farrell and Woody Harrelson for the first time. And by McDonagh's speeches.

"He writes great big juicy chunks of dialogue. Movie scripts don't usually give you a lot of interesting things to say. He's one of the rare writers who sees that he does do that for his actors."