Culture

Q&A: Christopher Walken on Playing Troubled Souls and Refusing to Own a Computer

05_20_2QsChristopherWalken_01
05/20/16
In the Magazine
Christopher Walken promoting 'Seven Psychopaths' at the Shangri-La Hotel on September 8, 2012 in Toronto, Ontario. Armando Gallo/Corbis

Christopher Walken knows that he’s known for playing “troubled souls." At 73, he’s at peace with this.

There was the obsessed Vietnam vet returning the gold watch to its rightful heir in Pulp Fiction, the mentally disturbed motorist in Annie Hall, the Hessian Horseman in Sleepy Hollow—or maybe you know his heady dance moves in Fatboy Slim's "Weapon of Choice" video.

The actor's latest role is not an exception: Walken leads a quietly disturbing adaptation of Kevin Wilson’s best-selling 2011 novel The Family Fang, a dysfunctional family mystery. Starring alongside Maryann Plunkett, Walken plays the enigmatic performance artist Caleb Fang, whose defining belief is that great art must be brash and unpredictable and whose cruel devotion to that art scars his grown children (Nicole Kidman and Jason Bateman, who also directs) by making them guinea pigs and props in his work. The role reminds Walken of his upbringing and suits his oft-impersonated but rarely matched intensity.

Surprisingly affable off-screen, Walken chatted from his home in Connecticut about his strangest roles, his roots as a child actor and why he absolutely refuses to own a computer.

I just saw The Family Fang and found it pretty unsettling. What drew you to the role?
As a kid I was in show business. I have two brothers. In the early days of television in New York, everything was live and they used a lot of kids. It wasn't performance art like The Family Fang, but it was show business. So I felt a kind of affinity with that, having been a child performer. You go and you sing a little and dance a little and maybe they give you a word to say.

Growing up, did you experience any anxieties from having artist parents, like the characters in the movie?
No. I was never traumatized. What I did was a much more mild form of that. In the movie, they had a much more intense experience than I ever did.

You play a pretty bizarre and deranged character. Do you go out of your way to seek out these eccentric roles or do they find you?
I think if you're an actor and you're lucky enough to work, especially over a long period of time, you might want to find a place for yourself. Someone suggested that to me early in my movie career. I was in Annie Hall, which was followed almost immediately by The Deer Hunter. That's the first time I got seen by a lot of people. In Annie Hall, I played a suicidal driver; in The Deer Hunter, I shot myself in the head. It could be that very early on in my movie career, I got known for playing troubled souls. It stuck a little bit. I think it makes sense. Movies is a business, and if you do something and it works, then it makes sense that you'd be asked to do something similar repeatedly. It happens with people who play the leading man. It happens with people who play the leading man's best friend. Then there's the funny character. There's the villain. I think I got stuck with—not stuck, but I got familiar with—troubled people, people who are not so wholesome.

Walken Christopher Walken poses at the gala presentation for the film "Seven Psychopaths" at the 37th Toronto International Film Festival September 7, 2012. Brett Gundlock/Reuters

Your character remarks at one point that he was afraid to have kids because it distracts from his art. You've said before that you have much more time to do movies because you're not a parent. Is that something you still feel?
No, no. I just never happened to have children. My wife and I, we never had children. There's a lot of people like that.

Your reason for not having kids wasn't because you wanted to focus on acting full-time?
No, I never had kids because it never happened.

In Fang, Nicole Kidman plays an actress who has a troubled relationship with media attention and her public persona. Is that something you can relate to?
I never had that kind of career.

You've never been fodder for the tabloids.
Not really.

You also keep a very low profile online.
I don't exist online. I don't have a computer. I don't have a cell phone. I don't text.

You don't have a computer?
No, I don't. I don't even have a cell phone. I have a landline in my house—that's how I communicate.

Do you use email?
No, no. Nothing.

Why don't you use a computer?
It's something I missed. I think I'm of a time where I Just kind of skipped over it. Also, it's kind of nice and peaceful not to have it. I live out in the country, I don't see a lot of people. My wife always says to me, because she has a computer—apparently, you can look yourself up. You can do all sorts of masochistic things. I never have that temptation.

Do you ever feel tempted to use social media to communicate with your fans?
No. I don't even know what it's like.

Last month marked the 15th anniversary of that amazing Fatboy Slim video you did. I'm curious what effect that video had on your career.
Well, I did it a long time ago. It was Spike Jonze, and the choreographer was Michael Rooney, who's Mickey Rooney's son. I worked on it for weeks. I rehearsed with him. Then we went in and we shot it in the lobby of a hotel in downtown Los Angeles. We shot it in one night when there weren't a lot of people around. It was a lot of fun to do. People are still watching it. Certainly people mention it to me a lot. At the time, I didn't expect it to last as long as it has. It was a chance to dance, which is what I used to do for a living. I think that if I had been around 30 or 40 years earlier, I might have made a lot of musical movies. 

Would you consider doing another music video?
Well, sure. They better hurry up! You know, I'm getting to be.… There comes a time when you have to hang up your tap shoes.

You're in three or four movies this year alone. Are you planning to slow down any time soon?
As far as slowing down, actors don't really retire. I can't think of ever having an actor say to me that he was going to retire. Famously, I think James Cagney retired. He said, "After this movie, I'm gonna go home and that's it." I think for years they tried to talk him out of it. He said, "No, I've hung up my tap shoes."

What is your daily life like when you're not working?
I live in a nice place in the country. I read. I do those things that actors do. A lot of actors write. A lot of actors paint. I do all that. But it's really just for myself. It's not good enough to show anybody. A lot of actors play tennis and golf and they travel. They race cars and all that. I've never done anything like that. I don't play any sports. I don't particularly like to travel. So going to work is really the most fun thing for me.

Have you seen any great movies lately?
I see movies. There's wonderful movies. Did you see an Argentine movie called Wild Tales?

No, I didn't see that.
Actually it's five short movies. If you get a chance, watch it. It's really amazing. I saw Mad Max in 3-D. I liked it a lot.

It did well at the Academy Awards.
Oh, yeah. There's a very small movie—it couldn't have cost very much, but it's really terrific—called Margin Call, with Kevin Spacey and lots of good actors. Have you seen that?

No, I haven't seen that one.
Watch Margin Call. It's really an example of [how] you can make a really good movie with not a lot of money.

Christopher Walken Christopher Walken as Captain Koons tells the story of the Coolidge family watch in "Pulp Fiction." Miramax Films

Did you see The Hateful Eight?
The Hateful Eight? I enjoyed that, yes.

I have to ask. You endorsed President Obama for re-election four years ago. Do you have an endorsement in this election?
Well, I don't know. It's tricky for actors to talk about that. I almost hesitate to say—maybe they don't want me saying who I like. But of course I do. I voted for President Obama twice. And I hope that Hillary Clinton is the next president.

Have you been pleased with the reception of The Family Fang so far?
Well, I don't know what it is yet. The publicity people—I guess that's who you're talking to—I've asked them to, if they get a bunch of reviews, to send them to me.

You read reviews of your movies?
Oh, absolutely.

You don't have a computer, so do you have someone else print them out for you?
Yes, exactly. I don't have a computer. If I had a computer, I'd know all of that.