THE SANEST MAN IN HOLLYWOOD
by Jay S. Jacobs
Mention 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.
It’s 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.
The 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.
His 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 the boy. 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 Headley). Turner breaks out of prison to visit when he learns that Henry is dying.
His 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. He is miserable in his work and in the middle of getting a divorce. The return 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.
With a 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.”
Which 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.”
Still, 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.
“Well, 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 bumpy times.”
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.”
What 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.”
Walken 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.
“I 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.”
By the 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.
“It was 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 people.”
The 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 Chris is 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 other actor 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.”)
He has 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.”
Truth 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.”
About 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.
|#1 © 2004 Neil Jacobs. Courtesy of Warner Independent Pictures. All rights reserved.|
|#2 © 2004 Neil Jacobs. Courtesy of Warner Independent Pictures. All rights reserved.|
|#3 © 2004 Neil Jacobs. Courtesy of Warner Independent Pictures. All rights reserved.|
|#4 © 2004 Neil Jacobs. Courtesy of Warner Independent Pictures. All rights reserved.|
Copyright ©2004 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted October 2, 2004.