Fall 2011

Christopher Walken Talks Tarantino, ET, and How To ‘Walkenize’

Fall 2011

Christopher Walken Talks Tarantino, ET, and How To ‘Walkenize’


The BULLETT crew arrives at his estate, and Walken resists the doorbell. Having forgotten about our appointment, he finally peeks out and mumbles at us angrily, presuming that we are paparazzi. When we remind him about the interview, he relaxes and adopts a friendlier attitude. He invites us in, and we get comfortable by the fireplace. He recounts the good old times when Tarantino was a scrawny teenager, and offers his thoughts on extraterrestrial life and the apocalypse.

BULLETT: There are tons of websites and online campaigns that promote you running for president. What’s the fire behind all of this smoke?

CHRISTOPHER WALKEN: I don’t know. I don’t have a computer, and I don’t really know much about it. I wouldn’t know how to go get information. My wife has a computer. I don’t even have a cell phone. There is some website that claims I eat the most hot dogs. I’m supposed to be a champion at that, and go around to tournaments. I don’t know what that is. The president thing is one of those things. Somebody put that out there, and I don’t know where it came from. It wouldn’t happen, beyond being a joke. Nobody would go for that.

Your voice, your eyes, and even your hair have all become such trademarks that most people can recognize you with their eyes closed. What are some of the advantages to having such recognizable personal traits?

I guess it is an asset. The hard thing about being an actor is getting them to point the camera at you. If you point a camera at something, it is automatically interesting. So I guess getting people to notice you and point the camera at you, those are good things. On the other hand, it is limiting sometimes. There are lots of things I can’t play, like the President of the United States. Nobody is going to ask me to play it. I think a simple reason is that I have show business stamped all over me. I’ve been in show biz since I was a little kid. I think it shows. It is very hard for me to play the guy next door. You know, I don’t get asked to play real people much. Usually I get asked to play some crazy guy who wants to take over the world, or some kind of eccentric guy, and certainly a lot of villains. I regret that. I wish I could get those parts, but I never have. I never played the part of the guy who gets the girl, either. Usually for me, it has been someone who is a little strange. Even though I’m not strange. I’ve been married for 42 years.

I’ve heard that you’re actually very approachable. If you got approached on the street and were handed a script by someone you didn’t know, would you give it a chance? What would you look for in it?

People do send me things a lot—unsolicited scripts and stuff like that. I usually glance at them, but the truth is that an awful lot of people have a script they want to make into a movie. I was in the dentist chair a while ago. My dentist was telling me while he was drilling that he’d written a screenplay.

I hear you write. Are you planning on directing any of the scripts you have?

No. I’m the kind of actor who, if someone asks me, “What’s this about?” or somebody asks me what to do, my response is usually, Do whatever you want. That wouldn’t be good for a director. If I was the director and somebody asked me, “Where should we put the camera?” or, “How do you think I should play this scene—should I find it funny, or is it a terrible thing that’s happening to me?” I would just say, Do whatever you think! That’s not a good way to direct.

If they made a film about your life, who would you want to play you? Who would write the film and who would direct it?

Well, there are all these marvelous directors. Some I’ve never worked with, but if you made a movie, of course you would want Scorsese or Spielberg, Sydney Pollack or Mike Nichols. If you wanted somebody to be in your movie, of course you would want Meryl Streep and Robert De Niro and lots of other terrific actors. You would want the best, but that doesn’t necessarily happen. I certainly know a lot of young, terrific actors. I did a play last year with Sam Rockwell, and I just did a movie with Philip Seymour Hoffman and Catherine Keener. There are great young actors around.

You often appear in memorable cameos rather than the heavy leading roles, and you almost “Walkenize” the film with your presence. Is this an intentional trademark for you or does it just happen this way?

I don’t know. I’ve never really thought of myself as an actor. I started in show business when I was a little kid. You sing a little. You dance a little. You sing in line. I always thought of myself as more of a performer or an entertainer. When I became an actor, it was sort of by accident. I was in the chorus of a Broadway musical, and they were looking for an actor in a play. Somebody said, “Why don’t you go down?” I got the job, and suddenly, I was an actor. I’d been an actor, a singer, and a chorus boy. I really didn’t know what I was doing. I got fired. I took some classes. So when you talk about “Walkenize,” it may just be that I don’t know how to do anything else. When I’m in a movie, it’s kind of like, “That’s Chris!” It always has been. I think I’m lucky to be recognizable in some way, but in a movie, if someone says, “Be in my movie,” sometimes I’ve even said to them, I don’t do a lot of stuff. Whatever the guy’s name is in the script, it’s basically going to be Chris playing whoever it is. There are actors who are like chameleons—they can change. Some can even change their appearance, and they’re very convincing as various people. I’ve never been able to do that.

What did you think of Tarantino when you first met him? Did you foresee Pulp Fiction and True Romance becoming such classics?

Harvey Keitel was instrumental in Quentin’s first movie, Reservoir Dogs. Quentin was very young, and I’ve known Harvey for a long time. I was in California, and he said, “I’ve got this guy, he’s so talented, and he’s got this terrific script.” He brought Quentin over. I don’t know how old he was—I thought he was a teenager. He was kind of goofy, and Harvey was saying, “This guy’s going to be very important!” I thought, Okay, but I really thought he was a very shy teenage kid. A couple of years went by and sure enough, he was this gigantic talent. That’s how I first got to know him. Then he did Reservoir Dogs, and then he wrote a script called True Romance, which he wasn’t in and he didn’t direct, but that was his script. I was in that, and then he asked me to do that wristwatch speech in Pulp Fiction. They had shot the whole movie and everybody had gone home, and the film was wrapped. I came to California. I had this big speech and I knew my lines. There were very few people in the crew. All the other actors had gone home except the little boy I had talked to, and we shot the whole thing in a few hours. I think at lunchtime, everybody went home. So I worked with Quentin in a movie, but really for a couple of hours that day. I still don’t know him very well.

What was your first reaction to Spike Jonze’s offer to dance solo in the music video for the Fatboy Slim song “Weapon of Choice“?

I didn’t know Spike Jonze. He called me and he said he had seen, I think, Pennies From Heaven, which was a musical movie that I had done a long time ago. So he knew that I had been a dancer, and he sent me the DVD of the song, and he said, “We’re going to shoot this in the course of one night in a hotel in downtown LA.” He said, “You’re going to have to learn this number,” so I went. I can’t remember if it was California or here, but I think I spent two weeks with the choreographer.

And the choreographer was Mickey Rooney’s son?

Yes. Michael. He was great. Later I went to the Oscars and his father was there. I got to meet him.

How does your wife feel about your dancing skills?

That’s how my wife and I met. We were in the touring company of West Side Story. I was Riff and she played my girlfriend [Graziella] in the gang. She was a dancer, so we met working together. I guess I was 21 or something like that.

Our Fall issue is called the Cosmic Issue, and I have a few questions about our cosmos. In an infinite universe, what holds greater comfort: truth or myth?

Big questions, you got me! I can tell you something about my own life. Every time I make plans it’s a mistake, because every time I think I know what I’m going to do, something happens and my plans get changed. I guess I stopped doing that. It seems smarter for me to just have a sense or intuition about which direction to go in, but every time I think I know what’s going on, I am pretty soon set straight. So if you talk about the future and cosmic things, I have to admit my ignorance.

Do you believe life exists outside this planet?

How could it not! Someone had an interesting remark about that. They said that infinity—the universe supposedly is infinite—it just means it goes back as far as it goes forward, so consequently, no matter where you are in this universe, no matter what time in its history, a billion years ago or a billion years ahead, you are in the center. If there are no limits, then everything is in the center. They said if you came to planet Earth a mere billion years ago—the Earth is supposed to be eight or nine billion year old—the only life you would find was this bacteria that made grooves in rocks. That was the only thing alive: cell life. That was only a billion years ago. So if these beings from other places came, they might not even notice us. We might be like grooves in rocks. That doesn’t mean that they’re not out there, it just means that the likelihood of us bumping into them, distance aside, is very low. In terms of time, of course. Civilizations come and go. The idea that two would bump into each other is a pretty long shot. Maybe there are lots of beings around, it is just that we don’t bump into each other.

Do you think the world will end in your lifetime?

No. It was supposed to end last week, wasn’t it? I keep thinking, That crazy guy! [Harold Camping] I occasionally watch those religious people. That guy, it is interesting to watch him. He is so powerfully boring. Then I heard that he had predicted the end of the world a few years ago and it didn’t happen, and he said, “Oh! I made a mistake.” I wonder what he said this time.

Can you predict the future in three words?

Most certainly not. I am optimistic. Like many people have said, I do believe that… nature prevails.

That’s two words.

Nature will prevail.