Christopher Walken has become one of our most idiosyncratic and unpredictable actors, onstage, on-screen, and in person. Few people know that Walken was a child actor who got his professional start as a song-and-dance man in musicals like
Baker Street, Best Foot Forward, and High Spirits
Ė so it was shocking when he turned up in the middle of the Steve Martin-Bernadette Peters movie
Pennies from Heaven kicking up his heels to the tune of ďLetís Misbehave.Ē Likewise, after having established himself as a movie star in
Next Stop, Greenwich Village, The Deer Hunter (for which he won an Oscar), and
Brainstorm, Walken confounded expectations by taking a cameo role in the 1986 Lincoln Center revival of John Guareís
House of Blue Leaves, for which he was onstage only for the last ten minutes of the play.
Walken has crazy eyes Ė darting and secretive like a Lily Tomlin character. He combs his hair in four different directions and speaks in the oddly deliberate cadences of a Yiddish Theater veteran.
Did you always want to be an actor?
I come from a show-business family, so wanting to become an actor never crossed my mind. It was just a part of my life. My two brothers and I were child actors. In those days there was a lot of live television in New York. All the shows came from Rockefeller Center, and they used a lot of kids. There were agencies devoted to child actors.
What did your father do?
My fatherís a baker. He had his own bakery in Queens. Curiously, my brothers worked much more than I did. Itís ironic that they went into other things, and I didnít work much but stayed in the business.
When did you start thinking seriously about making it a career?
When I was about twenty. I was at Hofstra, in a psychology class, and I was looking out the window. It was a very nice day. I got up, went to my car, and I never went back to school. I started working. I got a job in a musical.
Did you ever study acting?
Yeah, with different people. Wynn Handman, he was good. I became a member of the Actors Studio some years ago and listened to Lee Strasberg and Kazan. The best studying Iíve done is working with Irene Worth, Rosemary Harris, Robert Preston. Or Bill Hurt, Harvey Keitel, and Jerry Stiller. Thatís an education. When youíre onstage with Irene Worth and Rosemary Harris, you better be on your toes, because they can kick ass.
Were you always good as an actor?
No. Only recently.
What made the difference?
Just time. I was able to control it to some extent about the time I did
Pennies from Heaven. Something in your biological clock tells you ďYou better get on the stick.Ē Thereís a point at which I stopped being naÔve about myself. Sometimes a certain innocence is good, but not about yourself. Itís come and gone since then, but I know what it is now. Iíve got my eye on what it is Iím for in show business.
When you started acting, did you think you would do movies?
I always hoped to. Iíve been very fortunate, because Iíve been involved in things that very often lead to obscurity. I was in some pictures that were not successful whatsoever. I think people admire persistence. People notice that Iím still there.
My first movie was The Anderson Tapes, the Sidney Lumet movie. I played the Kid. I was already pushing twenty-eight. By that time, people were already saying ďHow come you never made a movie?Ē I had gone up on commercials, which I was perfectly willing to do. But it was like going for jury duty and never getting picked for a jury.
I never made more than $11,000 Ďtil I was almost thirty-five years old. I used to get unemployment quite a lot. Iíve been married for almost twenty years and my wife and I always did nicely. She was a dancer. As a matter of fact, we met doing a summer tour of
West Side Story. I was Riff, the head of the Jets, and she was Graciela, his girlfriend.
Did you find acting in movies different from stage acting?
In the beginning, very much so. I never could get over the absence of the audience. When I did
Pennies from Heaven Ė this is why I equate that with a kind of turning point in my life Ė my dance number was lying there like a pancake. I said, ďHow are you supposed to do this when nobodyís looking? This is a performance for an audience.Ē The great thing about Fred Astaire was that he always knew the audience was there, in his mind. You can see it in his dancing. So I said to the grips, all the young guys with hammers hanging off their belts Ė in a Hollywood production, there are many people standing around the set, many, many friends and their mothers Ė I said, ďAll you people, will you come down when we do this shot and give me some encouragement? Whistle, yell, let me know youíre there.Ē The whole number just took off.
Ever since then, the basis of my technique is to remember that the people standing on the set there are your audience. Instead of looking at their watches, I ask them to look at me. Itís amazing how people want to help if you ask them. Itís not like the guy running the lights doesnít want to look at you Ė he feels like he has to look away. An audience never does that. An audience is the most dangerous thing in the world, because they paid, and theyíre looking at you. And they paid! And thereís a lot of them! And they cast a cold eye,
because they paid. To be on the stage, you have to be very secure.
Do you like being looked at?
Very much, when I feel good. Then I feel like my mind is as strong as all theirs put together, and theyíre happy to be with me. Otherwise, itís a disaster because you can feel their resentment coming, and it makes you shaky. Thatís what they call stage fright. A good actor is like a racehorse or a Ferrari. If a cylinder is missing on a Chevy, itís doesnít matter that much. But if somethingís not working right on a Ferrari, it makes a big difference. Itís the three percent that makes the difference between good and great. Itís a fine line. If youíre not there, itís very painful.
In House of Blue Leaves, you just sit there looking out at the audience Ė itís one of the weirdest, most Brechtian performances Iíve ever seen.
Iím looking at them and theyíre looking at me. Thatís what Iím here for. Thatís what I meant before when I said Iím starting to know what Iím for. A lot of critics object to that, but I do it on purpose. I believe thatís what God wants me to do.
God wants you to look at the audience?
I know, you say something like that and people think you sound like the Ayatollah Khomeini. But I look around as an intelligent person and see so many wonderful actors doing the other thing Ė why would I want to enter than arena? I believe as a performer you have to create your own arena so that in a sense there is no competition.
Whatís it like to do something like Hurlyburly, where youíre onstage with a constellation of actors like Bill Hurt, Harvey Keitel, Jerry Stiller, Sigourney Weaver, and Judith Ivey?
Absolutely fabulous. Itís one of the best things that can happen. Itís a ball game of a very special and exquisite, exotic sort. If youíre on your toes and theyíre on their toes, you can cook. Itís as exciting as sports. When you work with people like that, thereís an element of unpredictability to it which might be called danger. You canít take anything for granted. They throw you curves, you throw them curves. The watching and the listening, the constant reversing of those roles, is fascinating both to the actors and the audience. If Iím not sure what Iím going to do, they sense it, the audience Ė whatís he going to do? It makes
them not take anything for granted. They donít go to sleep.
from Caught in the Act: New York Actors Face to Face, a
collaboration with photograph Susan