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THE SANEST MAN IN HOLLYWOOD
by Jay S.
Copyright ©2004 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved.
Posted October 2, 2004.
the name Christopher Walken, and anyone you’re talking to will have a very
strong, concrete image. There
are very few actors in the world who spur such strong name recognition, such
certainty on the part of an audience that we get
what he’s all about. He’s a hard, tough guy
who is maybe more than just a little off-balance. He is this far from snapping
at any moment. A Walken character is brilliant, but living in a personal
hell that would scare the pants off of most of us.
kind of funny to think that this is coming from a guy that cut his teeth as
a child performer (under the name Ronnie Walken on
the 50s TV series The Wonderful Johnny Acton)
and a player in theatrical musical comedy. However, unless you were off-Broadway in
the 60s to early 70s, this lightness is pretty much forgotten, occasionally
popping up in odd places. For example, he has guest hosted on Saturday
Night Live six times, and he was terrifically funny in his deadpan dance
on Fatboy Slim’s offbeat music video for “Weapon of Choice.” He’s a man
unafraid of risks, after all a few years ago he did perform in a Broadway
musical version of James Joyce’s famously downbeat novel The Dead.
Sadly, he is occasionally willing to take a dumb role just for the paycheck
(The Country Bears or Joe Dirt, anyone?) However, for the
most part, he has put together a spectacularly edgy body of work.
first time the public at large really noticed Walken was probably in his
small but indelible part as Diane Keaton’s possibly suicidal brother in
1977’s Best Picture winner, Annie Hall. Within two years, he was
winning an Oscar of his own, as Best Supporting Actor for his searing
performance as Nick in The Deer Hunter. In the years since that
defining role, he has played parts in nearly a hundred films, including Pulp Fiction, Catch Me If You Can (for
which he was again nominated for Best Supporting Actor), The Dead Zone,
At Close Range, A View To A Kill, Batman Returns, Modern Romance,
Sleepy Hollow, Biloxi Blues,
The Rundown, The Suicide Kings and The
King of New York. In 2004 alone, he has had significant roles in the
Denzel Washington revenge drama Man in Fire, and he was one of the
few bright spots in the somewhat misguided remake of The Stepford Wives.
newest film is one of his best roles in years.
Walken co-stars with Josh Lucas
and Michael Caine in Around the Bend, a comedy-drama about four
generations of men in a family trying to find closure after years of
estrangement. It is the directorial debut of
The Road to Perdition screenwriter Jordan Roberts. Walken plays Turner Lair, a former addict, small-time
musician and even smaller-time crook that abandoned his son Jason (Josh
Lucas) after a mysterious childhood accident that partially crippled
Years later, Jason is a banker living in a tiny Los Angeles apartment with
his son Zach (Jonah Bobo), his grandfather Henry (Caine) and Henry’s nurse (Glenne
breaks out of prison to visit when he learns that Henry is dying.
return delights the old man, who starts planning on one final trip for the
four Lair men. Jason is a little more cool to the return of his father.
is miserable in his work and in the middle of getting a divorce.
of Hunter seems like just one more hassle in his life that is not needed.
Hunter really has no need for a tortured reconciliation either, he plans to
spend the night and then disappear to Mexico. Therefore, Henry goes to
extreme measures to ensure that the family will take this scavenger hunt
through their past. So four generations of Lair men pile into an old VW van
and start a tour of their history, starting in Los Angeles and eventually
climaxing in Albuquerque.
quirky script, a strong cast and a surprisingly off-beat view of male family
bonds, the role was an attractive one to Walken. “It was a good part," he
says. “Big part. Big, juicy part. Is that what they say? I do a lot of
parts where I am kind of in the movie a little bit. Here’s a part that I’m
in almost all of it… It was a good job for a lot of reasons. Different
kind of part. A father and grandfather. And of course, Mike Caine.”
brings up an interesting point. After years of playing tortured loners, the
two best roles he has gotten in the past few years were as dads. (He also
played Leonardo DiCaprio’s father in Steven Spielberg’s Catch Me If You
Can.) “For a long time I never played fathers and uncles and stuff like
that,” he acknowledges. “I guess I’m getting older.”
Walken insists that even though he was able to embody Turner with such
conviction, it does not mean that he necessarily related to him any more
than he did any other character that he has played. However, they did have
a similar background. “He’s of the 70s. Rock ‘n’ roll. I lived through
all that. I had the bell-bottom pants,” Walken laughs. “There was a
scene in the movie that was cut. That van is established in another version
as mine. That was my car. When I showed up and went into the van, it was
full of all these old clothes, including my wife’s. There was a lot of
going through stuff and remembering and so forth. That didn’t end up in the
movie. But the clothing that I wear when I show up, I get back into my old
70s stuff, which still sort of fits. A little tight.
you know, acting is pretending,” Walken says. “I studied the script. I try
to make it sound like I mean it. And, he had been a musician. Well, there
were certain parallels to my life. I was in musical comedy when I was a
kid. I was there. I used to go to rock concerts and Studio 54. I was very
much a part of that. I saw Woodstock. As a matter of fact, I used to go to
Woodstock before Woodstock was famous. So, all of that was quite familiar
to me, the idea that he was a musician. For him, things didn’t work out.
As a matter of fact, he escapes from jail… jail hospital… so he’s had some
Walken’s strong persona was a terrific asset to the film, as far as director
Jordan Roberts was concerned. “Chris made me nervous just because from the
outside, he looked like a person who would, you know, devour me on my first
film,” Roberts laughs. “But, what he brings with him, which is so fantastic
is this half-life of evil. So when you see him on screen, you recognize him
as a person who has done terrible things. And they remain in your psyche as
an audience member. That’s a wonderful gift in this film, because the
character he portrays, I think, is a character who has perpetrated evil.
Yet, when we meet him, he’s on the other side of that. Or, he’s attempting
to get on the other side of that. So, if we could get Chris Walken,
who again carries these evil resonances with him, and have him present
himself in a way that is new or more broken,
that would be great.”
Roberts didn’t know was that Walken believed in his
script so much that he extended
a courtesy that he normally doesn’t. “This was his first movie,” Walken
says. “My agent sent me the script. A lot of people in this movie are from
the same agency. Then Jordan came to my house, actually. That’s pretty
unusual. Sometimes I make movies and I never meet the director before.”
was also thrilled with the opportunity to finally work with Caine, whom he
had met a few times over the years socially, but never worked with. He was
also very impressed with how Josh Lucas kept what is
perhaps the most normal
(or perhaps repressed) character in the film on an even keel. Some of Walken’s best scenes were with six-year-old Jonah Bobo, who plays his
grandson. There is a playfulness to the performance that
he doesn't always get to tap in his more serious
roles. The characters are able to connect in a way that Hunter just can’t
with his own son. However, Walken thinks that
relationship is only natural.
think [it’s a thing about] grandfathers and grandsons,” he says. “I’ve
noticed this with my own father and his grandkids. Maybe also, we get
older, they say that you get back into your childhood a little. But I must
say, I’ve never had kids. Really fun times. That little boy thought I was
hilarious. It was very, very funny. You couldn’t be mad at him. He was so
spontaneous and he’d get absolutely wild sometimes. And calm down. His
mother was there. He would sometimes get hysterically laughing. Very funny
kid. He’s not in the movie as much as he’d like to be.”
Writer-director Roberts was particularly happy about this connection, which
he felt was vital to the story. “One of the most electric relationships in
the film is between Chris Walken and the boy,” Roberts explains. “That is
imperative, because the boy is the carrying on of the tradition. They just
lit up when they were in the room with each other.”
time we do get to Albuquerque and find out the big secret of the Lair men,
it is handled with restraint and realism. Instead of the men hashing it out
over and over like they would in normal formulaic Hollywood fare, when
Hunter finally admits what he had done it is allowed to just lie there.
Simmer a bit. Allow the characters and the audience to digest what had
happened and then move on.
a big issue,” Walken explains. “We talked about it a long time in meetings
and rehearsals and so forth. That was a big problem. How do we explain
what I did to him? We finally decided there was no explanation. He
was having a bad time and he did something terrible. That happens to
film has now been released to universal acclaim. “I took the film
to the Montreal Film Festival and we won two prizes,” Roberts says, shaking
his head in surprise. “Chris
won the jury prize as best actor and the
film won one for best film. That was a total shock. I think
amazing in the movie. I think he’s worthy of an Oscar, absolutely.
Because he’s doing something he’s never done before.”
Speaking of things he’s never done before, unlike nearly every
in Hollywood, Walken has no interest in becoming a director. (“I don’t
think I’d be good at it. I can’t articulate things.”) He does
admit to being a bit of a frustrated writer. (“All actors write.
I’ve never met an actor who didn’t have a play.”) He does leave
the idea of an autobiography as a possibility. (“I would do that, but
I don’t think yet. In a way, I think when you write the memoirs, it’s
some sort of moment [where you are at the end of the line.] Unless you
intend to write a series. Somebody said, yeah, I’d write my memoirs,
except I can’t remember them.”)
even become a bit of a sex symbol, an idea that Walken finds flattering but
just a little hard to accept.
He says he certainly hasn't seen much evidence of it. “I just want to say that’s okay. I’ve been
married for 35 years. I have to be careful,” he laughs. “Not only that, I
live in the country. To tell you the truth, I don’t see people much. When
you make a movie, the days are really long. I get up and it’s dark. You
know the days I was talking about, rock and roll and Studio 54, I was very
social. I think I maybe exhausted myself.”
is, though, Christopher Walken knows he is none of those things. He is an
actor. That is his craft. That is his skill. As a performer, one of the
things Walken is most proud of is his longevity. “You know, I was in show
business as a kid,” Walken says. “I’ve done a lot of things. Musicals
occupied me for a long time. I became an actor. Then I was a stage
actor. Started making movies. I still do a play once in a while. One of
the hardest things about being an actor is to stick around. To stay
viable. You can easily kind of get lost.”
fifty years into a consistently surprising career, Christopher Walken is in
no danger of disappearing from the map. In the meantime, I have a secret
fantasy of the most disturbing character that Christopher Walken could ever
play. A normal, well-meaning father.
A family guy with no skeletons in the
closet and no murderous impulses. “I would love to do that,” Walken
enthuses. “Like a dad and have a dog? I would love that. You know, a
house, kids. Have the kids say, ‘Yo, dad, what should I do?’ And I’d say,
‘well, you know son, just do the right thing.’”
Okay, there you have
it, casting directors. The next stop-the-presses
idea. Christopher Walken in an
average, everyday role. Just
do the right thing.
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