Christopher Walken is seemingly incapable of being boring. He can carry starring roles, as in the great gangster drama “King of New York” (1990) the sci-fi cult favorite “The Dead Zone” (1983) and the British comedy-thriller series “The Outlaws,” arriving this spring on Amazon Prime Video; spice up a supporting part (see this month’s Apple TV+ limited series thriller “Severance”); and electrify in a cameo, as those of us mesmerized by his classic monologue in “Pulp Fiction” (1994) can attest. But let’s not pretend: Walken, who is 78, endures not simply for what he does but also for the singularity of who he is. No one looks like him, with his thick pompadour, sensuous, downturned lips and doleful eyes. No one talks like him — all those offbeat cadences, delivered in a purr. No one even really performs like him: that blend of intellectual playfulness and physical precision. It’s for those reasons that he is, and will remain, an icon of unorthodoxy. “Somebody said to me once that I was foreign,” says Walken, Queens-born, and a professional entertainer since he was a child. “And I think, Yes, I come from the country of show business.” He pauses, for a long moment, before alighting on the truth: “There aren’t many people like me.”
Even at your age you’re still working all the time.
IMDb lists a hefty 139 film and television acting credits for Walken, who has also frequently performed in theater over the course of his long career. Is there anything left in your life outside acting that you would like to accomplish or experience? I don’t golf or play tennis. I have no kids. I’ve been married for 53 years.
To Georgianne Walken, a casting director for “The Sopranos,” among many other film and television projects. I sometimes think about writing something, but I don’t have much talent for that. You know, all actors have a trunk full of scripts. A lot of people do. Even my dentist at one point, when he was doing my teeth, told me about a script he’d written. I’ve written things. They’re just not good enough. I start with two people sitting in a room talking and invariably it becomes incoherent. There’s nothing I can be other than an actor.
Do you ever consider writing a memoir? I do. I have yellow pads, stacks of them. One of these days I need somebody to help me get it organized. I was thinking of getting a court stenographer and just talking and having them write it down without any punctuation and seeing what would happen. I’ve always resented punctuation.
Why’s that? Because if you’re performing, the writer will put a question mark after something or an exclamation point or even a period. It means that it’s the end of a thought and the beginning of another, whereas in life, conversation gets more schmeary. Sentences overlap. Thoughts overlap. Somebody told me an interesting thing: that the question mark is basically a hieroglyph.
Of a cat’s tail, right? Yes, of a cat walking away. Which is interesting, but dubious. Sometimes when I see a question mark in a script, I’ll deliberately make it a statement. Or if something has an exclamation point, I’ll make it a question just to see what will happen. Punctuation can be a stumbling block, so I take it out.
This seems to me to be the master key to understanding Walken’s highly idiosyncratic line readings.
Christopher Walken (left) with John Cazale, center, and Robert De Niro in “The Deer Hunter” (1978). Universal, via Everett Collection
Is it right that early on Zen was an influence on your acting? In the ’70s when I was young and everybody was meditating, I probably went through my Zen phase. I tried meditating, but I would get into position and breathe and then my cat would walk in the room and run its tail across my face and that would be the end of my meditation. I wasn’t a good meditator. I don’t think I’m very Zen. First of all, I’m not quite sure what Zen is. When people talk about Zen — I’ve read the books: “Zen in the Art of Archery”; “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.” There’s a very interesting book called “The Still Point.”
By William Johnston, published in 1970 and subtitled “Reflections on Zen and Christian Mysticism.” I read all that but like I say, every time I think seriously about it, my cat comes and swipes his tail across my face.
Maybe that’s a sign. Yes, that I’ll never be Zen.
What else do you read? I look forward to The Sunday Times. My friend Geoffrey Holder
The Tony Award-winning stage director, dancer, choreographer and actor, to name just a few of his pursuits. He died in 2014 at 84. used to say that there’s nothing better on Sunday morning: The Times with a cup of coffee, in front of the fireplace. That is beautiful. And of course I read scripts. Even when I was young, it was very difficult for me to learn lines. Some actors pick up a script and seem to know the part. For me, it’s tedious and endless. Laurence Olivier used to call it pounding lines. That’s what it is. You’re pounding them into your head.
This is pure conjecture, but were you ever a big pot smoker? Sure.
Do you still smoke it? Sure.
What do you like to do when you’re high? When I told that story about how my friend used to say Sunday morning, The New York Times and a good cup of coffee sitting in front of the fire, I failed to mention that he also said a couple of puffs on a joint.
Walken with Mary Stuart Masterson and Sean Penn (right) in “At Close Range” (1986).Orion, via Everett Collection
This is something that came up in my research, from an old magazine article:
Speaking to After Dark magazine in 1973, Walken said, “I spent a period of time as a sort of religious fanatic, for instance — a moon worshipper.” He added: “I spent several years with that, and then it passed. I remained very close to the moon, but I don’t make myself miserable about her anymore.”
No, I didn’t worship the moon. [Laughs.] Let’s put that to rest. I do enjoy looking at the moon. The moon is pretty terrific, but not for worshiping.
I’ve been rewatching a bunch of your work, and there’s one scene in particular that I want to ask you about. It’s from a straight-to-video movie called “All-American Murder.” Your character is a cop who shows up to defuse a hostage situation and delivers this over-the-top profane monologue.
If you can stomach the language, the escalating brio of Walken’s delivery in this scene, which you can find on YouTube, is well worth watching. The rest of the movie, not so much. Is this ringing any bells? I never saw that movie. It’s remarkable that you’re talking about it, because I never knew what happened to it. I don’t remember much about that movie.
The reason I’m bringing it up is that, in that scene anyway, it looks as if you’re taking such delight in the performance, and it made me wonder about what you feel you can bring as an actor to a turkey like that. I imagine that it’s easier to know what to do with good material than bad material.
“I’m a terrible analyzer of what will be good,’’ Walken told The Times in 2004. ‘‘Whatever I think the outcome is going to be, I’m always wrong.’’ I know what you mean. I remember making a movie once where they had me dye my hair this completely unnatural color. I argued, but they had their way, and there I was. So in every scene I was in, whomever I was talking to, my subtext was What do you think of my hair? No matter what I was talking about to anybody, I was thinking, What do you think of my hair? Are you looking at my hair? Isn’t my hair horrible? It colored everything that I did, and I ended up being rather amusing but nobody knew why except me. Sometimes I do things just to amuse myself. I’ve played scenes pretending that I was Elvis or Bugs Bunny or a U-boat commander. I just don’t tell anybody.
Is that really true? Somebody said to me once, “The truth is good, but interesting is better.”
Walken in “King of New York” (1990). Seven Arts Entertainment, via Everett Collection
Do you still have a clause in your contract that any changes to your part can’t be made without your approval? It’s not a clause, but I do discuss that because it has to do with how long it takes me to learn lines. Often you take a job, and somewhere in the middle of it, they say, “OK, we’re going to shoot this scene,” and you say: “I never saw that scene before. When am I supposed to learn that?” So I ask people not to surprise me. Also, in my case, sometimes I take a job and then they decide to what I’ve come to call “Walkenize” it. Suddenly I’ll become a little more zany or wild. I prefer to play the part that I prepared for. I don’t like surprises.
What does other people’s urge to “Walkenize” your roles suggest about how they see you? There aren’t many people from that country of show business who have been working since they were a little kid.
Walken worked regularly in early television productions as a child actor, including with Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. His big film breakout didn’t come until much later, with his haunting performance as a suicidal Vietnam War veteran in “The Deer Hunter” (1978), for which he won the Academy Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role. I’m from that place. If you’re foreign, that equates with strange. There’s all sorts of xenophobia about people who are different. I think that has something to do with the parts that I get offered, and that’s fine.
How were you shaped by being from the country of show business? It means you’re from a place that has its own culture and customs and language and cooking; the kind of gypsy troubadour life, traveling around and the show must go on and hey-ho, the actor’s life for me fiddle-dee-dee. There aren’t a lot of people who have been immersed in that since they were children. There’s a saying: “Give me a child at the age of 7 and I will show you the man.” That’s probably true of show business too.
Walken in “Pulp Fiction” (1994). Miramax Films, via Everett Collection
Just to return to writing: The one thing you did write that got produced was a play about Elvis.
“Him,” in which Walken also starred as a mythic version of Presley, was performed at the Public Theater in Manhattan in 1994 and 1995. I also know that his hairstyle was an inspiration for your own. Why was Elvis so formative for you? I remember the first time I heard about him. There was this girl named Janice. I guess I was 15 years old. I was crazy about this girl. I finally worked up the nerve to ask her to a dance. She said to me — my name was Ronnie
Born Ronald Walken, the actor changed his stage name to Christopher in the early 1960s. — she said: “Ronnie, I would love to go with you, but I have this boyfriend. He’s an older guy, and he would not like it if I did.” Then she took out a wallet. Girls used to have these wallets with all these photographs inside. She showed me a picture of this guy. He was unbelievably handsome. I said: “Wait a second. That’s not a photograph. You cut that out of a magazine. I’m asking you to the dance. What is this? You’re giving me this jazz?” She said: “It’s true. He’s this singer. His name is Elvis, and I’m crazy about him.” I said: “Forget that. You don’t even know him. Let’s go to the dance.”
Walken says that Janice ultimately did accompany him to the dance. Anyway, I got a glimpse of Elvis and the hair. That’s where it all started. Elvis was fabulous. I wish I’d known Elvis. I bet he was nice.
What would you want to ask him? I wouldn’t want to ask him anything. I would just sit around with him. I was very upset about his death.
Presley’s official cause of death was cardiac arrhythmia. But a subsequent toxicology report found that his blood contained high levels of Dilaudid, Percodan, Demerol, codeine and Quaaludes. To this day, I go to the doctor and I say I have this or that, and he says, “I’ll give you a pill.” If you’re old and you want pills, you can get them prescribed for just about anything. I always say no thanks. It was too easy for Elvis to get those pills. He didn’t take care of himself — all those cheeseburgers. He should have eaten better. I think Elvis needed a good wife. Somebody to say, “Elvis, enough.” He was special. He was different. Poor old Elvis.
Walken with John Turturro (left) in “Severance.” Apple TV+
This is another question about acting: There are actors who transform and then there are performers, like yourself, who are pretty much always themselves. Can you explain what that distinction means for how you play a role? I’d have to emphasize that when I talk about that, I’m talking strictly about me, that having come to being an actor sort of accidentally through being a dancer, my approach has to do with what I did as a dancer: rhythm, hearing the beat, responding physically — probably different than most actors come at it. I didn’t go to acting class until I was already working as an actor. So I think of myself as a performer. It’s important to entertain. People buy a ticket, and they sit there and they watch you. I hope that it’s interesting, that it’s entertaining, that it’s fun. That word “fun” is banged around, but it’s a rather serious word. It’s important to have fun.
How do you have fun? Working. Most of the time. The car ride home from the set at the end of the day: You get in the car to go back to the hotel, and the best thing is to think, I was good today. A terrible feeling is to sit in the car and think, I could have done that much better. For me, it boils down to things like that: How do you feel when you go home in the car?
Sean Penn Walken’s co-star in the 1986 thriller “At Close Range.” Penn also said about Walken, “What’s funny to him is something the rest of the world doesn’t understand.” once said that trying to define you was like “trying to define a cloud,” and you really do have this ethereal quality. I’m curious to know what’s a solid, concrete thing that matters to you in your day-to-day life? Gee, that’s a hard thing for me to address. Every once in a while — certainly not often — I’ll be looking out the window, and I’ll think, I feel pretty good. My bills are paid, my wife is healthy, the weather’s nice. That’s really all I care about: when, apropos of nothing, I happen to look out the window and think, This is good
Opening illustration: Source photograph by Stephane de Sakutin/Agence France-Presse, via Getty Images