It’s hard to know where to begin with Christopher Walken. The legendary actor has been in over 100 films, some of which are rightfully considered the best of all time. He’s also hosted “Saturday Night Live” seven times and appeared in more than a dozen plays.
In his newest movie, Walken is treading familiar territory, as one of the “psychopaths” in Martin McDonagh’s “Seven Psychopaths,” a film — which premiered this past week at a midnight showing at the Toronto Film Festival — that follows seven murderous lunatics from the Los Angeles criminal underworld.
In person, Walken is far from the foreboding presence that audiences have come to know on screen. Instead, he’s both warm and candid, especially when he looks back fondly on a 50-plus-year career that has been tremendously good to him.
Here, Walken speaks to me about his role as a comedic actor, why the famous “SNL” cowbell skit follows him everywhere, his thoughts on Obama and what it was like working with the late great director Tony Scott.
I was at the midnight TIFF screening for this movie. The crowd really seemed to enjoy it.
Yeah, it’s been a long time since I’ve been at one of those. “Rocky Horror Show,” I guess.
Does that happen often? Having all the stars there watching their film with the general public?
Yeah, but not at that time of the day. And then with the Q+A at 2:30 in the morning, I was like a zombie at that point.
There’s something very dark about laughing along with murdering psychopaths.
Yeah, I did too. I thought it was funny. There is a lot of funny stuff in this movie; sometimes somebody does something and then it’s the way people react, which is not in the script necessarily. This one moment I have when I say to Collin, “No cops!” Then I get up and leave and look at him, and it’s funny because I look at him like How can you even think such a thing? You know? It’s like, if you’re thinking of calling the cops [in this situation], you should be ashamed of yourself. And stuff like that is very funny.
It’s the absurdity of it.
Yeah, the absurdity of it all. The part of the play that I’m in that [director] Martin [McDonough] wrote had a lot of that, too. I said to the director before we started, “How can I do these things and say these things? It’s just so awful.” And he said, “Don’t worry about it, it’s so ridiculous. They’re going to think it’s funny.” And that’s true. It’s so out there that whether or not it’s real isn’t even an issue anymore.
I feel like there’s a fine line between funny-ridiculous and just plain old ridiculous.
There is. Some people can do things and get away with it. Comics are famously like that. Why is it that some guys can say the most horrible things and it’s not offensive, it’s funny? Richard Pryor made a career of that. Comedy Central, I watch it sometimes. I always like to watch comics and it’s interesting that you can tell if someone’s funny in 10 seconds. Do you find that? Some comic you’ve never saw before and all you have to do is listen to them for 15 seconds and you’ll think “He’s funny” or “He’s not funny.” It’s a strange thing. You can tell immediately.
I would say it’s all about stage presence.
And attitude and how smart they are. If somebody says something and you get the feeling that it’s stupid, it’s not funny.
You’ve jumped around from comedies to dramas throughout your career. Do you have a preference at all?
No. Laurence Olivier said in an interview once that when he plays a tragedy he always aims for the funny parts, and the other way around. Because in a comedy you look for what’s serious. I think that’s true. Sometimes things are really funny if you’re absolutely earnest. If you’re really serious, it’s hilarious.
Do you think you’re better at one or the other?
I never know when I am being funny, and the other way too. I don’t think you can think about that. I don’t think you can try to be funny. Some people are just funny. Everybody’s got an uncle who’s funny, and if you say they’re funny, they’ll look at you like What? What’s so funny?
Like Joe Pesci in “Goodfellas.”
Yeah! I am funny? What’s so funny? Well, because you’re funny.
But what about when you’re hosting “SNL” and you have a live audience? Do you know when something is working on there?
Lorne Michaels told me once that I was funny because I was serious.
I can see that. One of the things you’re best known for is the cowbell skit in “SNL,” and you’re being dead serious in that.
I know, it’s very serious. I had no idea [it would be funny]. It follows me around very much so — too much.
Do people shout it at you?
Are you sick of it?
Well no, I just feel like it gets in the way once in awhile.
You’ve played a lot of memorable villains and psychopaths on screen before. In fact, your character in “True Romance” has a deadpan scene with Dennis Hopper that is absolutely funny.
We shot that scene in one day, and in the movie I had another scene that was cut, so I worked on the movie two days.
It’s become a fan favorite since then.
Yeah, it’s one of those things that people reacted to. You never know what’s going to be a highlight. Lots of things that I’ve done that I thought were good, nobody ever saw them.
I made a movie called “Five Dollars a Day.” It’s about a guy who decides to live on five dollars a day [through] coupons, he drives a car that’s basically an ad so he gets free gas; he figures out how to do this. We finished it and then the big [financial] crisis happened in 2009, and we thought, “Wow, what timing.” This guy has got no money and he figured out how to live, because I don’t know if you remember but people [at the time] were really scared. It’s interesting to hear all this debate about Obama not delivering. It’s ridiculous. If you think back three years, the whole country was scared. And I thought people were going to like this, but nobody ever saw it.
Do you support Obama?
I do. I think what [Bill] Clinton said the other night is absolutely true: Nobody could fix this in four years. Obama’s really done remarkably. The Dow Jones — look at how things have come along. The auto companies are back. It’s interesting that nobody gives him credit.
People seem more impatient these days.
Yeah, absolutely. How could he [fix it] when you think about what it was? I remember very clearly because I was worried about it myself. People were scared. Now they’re concerned, but they’re not scared. It could have really been bad. I do believe that everything is getting better now.
That’s true, although it was affecting everything at the time; the box office was in shambles.
Oh yeah, and when that happened, actors — I mean maybe not the big stars — took big pay cuts immediately after. Just don’t expect what to make what you used to make.
What was it like working with the late great Tony Scott?
He was a wonderful man. I made three movies with him. He was a friend of mine. I don’t know what to say. When I heard what happened, it was deeply troubling. I still think about it every day. What could have happened? There were rumors that he was ill. You probably know more than me.
The rumor was that he had brain cancer, but that turned out not to be true.
That was the first thing that I heard. But even so, he had a family, he had little kids. I don’t know if you know this, but he and his brother [Ridley] had that Free Scott company that was hugely successful. They were busy year-round making commercials. He was the producer of “Prometheus.” He had so much going for him. In your life once in awhile, something happens. Somebody said something to me once thirty years ago. I was in a play with a woman who is probably my age, and she got a letter from somebody when we were at rehearsal. She opened the letter than she closed it. She seemed upset. I said, “What’s wrong?” She said “Chris, you’re going to get to be an age when you hear repeatedly that people you know are dying or have died.” And at the time I didn’t understand. But it’s absolutely true. I went to school with Marvin Hamlisch — we were in the same class in high school — and [now] he’s dead and he was my age. It’s the time when people die. Tony was a little younger than me. But it happens, you’ll see… Just make sure to drink your orange juice.
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