When the all-star cast ascended onto the stage to present Seven Psychopaths as the opening film of the 2012 Toronto Film Festival Midnight Madness program, it wasn't for Colin Farrell or Woody Harrelson that the young crowd screamed in appreciation. It was for the iconic Christopher Walken, who in the movie proved himself cooler than any of the younger actors.
I have always had good hair
Even if he only appeared in supporting roles in Pulp Fiction and True Romance, Walken is remembered for playing tough, wry-humoured men. It may go back to Abel Ferrara's 1990 classic King of New York, where Walken danced as well. Few of the young Toronto audience members would, however, have seen his bar-top dance scene in 1981's Pennies From Heaven, though they surely recall his sharp moves in the Spike Jonze-directed 2001 video for Fatboy Slim's 'Weapon of Choice' and his music videos for other artists including Journey, PIL, Run–D.M.C., The Left Rights and Madonna.
As he is quick to point out, Walken drew on his early days in Broadway musicals, and for Pennies from Heaven, he has even claimed he received compliments from Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly for his dancing skills.
Turning 70 later this month, the acting veteran of more than 100 movies (including 1978's The Deer Hunter where he won the best supporting actor Oscar) remains strong. He attributes this partly to routine and to never having given in to excess. He couldn't be happier that he is currently experiencing a career resurgence. He has always been a great raconteur and you have the impression he has nothing to lose by speaking his mind.
In Toronto, besides meeting a bitter end in Martin McDonagh's Seven Psychopaths, Walken also appeared in Yaron Zilberman's Performance (formerly A Late Quartet), where the question of his own mortality likewise raises its head, as his cellist in a world famous string quartet is diagnosed with Parkinson's.
“I felt like I didn't have to make a big deal about it,” he says of portraying a man with the disease. “If you play a king, it's better if everybody treats you like a king. I feel like you are this or that because other people say so. I wouldn't know how to play a psychopath. I don't think about it that way. You think about playing the scene but if the other people say that guy is crazy, then you are.”
In Performance, he didn't feel as though he had to learn the cello either. He plays alongside first violinist Daniel (Mark Avanir) and second violinist Robert (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who is married to viola player Juliette (Catherine Keener). The story follows the fall-out of the four musicians who have travelled the world for 25 years and now realise the quartet as they know it is coming to an end.
“It was a shock to me to be asked to play this part really,” admits Walken, who cannot play any instrument. “It would have been easier to play some other kind of instrument. You can pretend to play the piano but with these string things you have to actually learn them. Catherine and Phil Hoffman, everybody but me really got to be pretty good. I never did because I refused to practice. My teacher would come over and stay for about five minutes… Ah, bullshit!”
Walken had previously worked with Hoffman on stage in The Seagull. “I'd also seen him around in New York so it was great to work with him again. More than anyone, Phil really got quite good at the violin but that was his character. Robert is really intense.”
Is Hoffman intense like that? “He's a sweet, good guy, but he is intense. The guy's intense.”
So Mr. Walken isn't intense?
“I'm not intense. I'm fake intense.”
It's not only what Walken says, but how he says it that makes him so much fun to meet and ultimately to watch as an actor. There's the nasal tone, the unusual delivery, the deep dark-eyed glare. And there's the hair. Aging men usually don't have much of it, but way before it was at risk of falling out Walken had cultivated it as a large part of his tall, imposing persona. Indeed, it's part of what keeps him youthful-looking. In previous interviews, he'd always loved to talk about it, and it's funny how it comes up today.
What's the secret of having a youthful attitude Mr. Walken?
Well, just trying. Sometimes it comes and goes.
How do you respond to watching a movie you're in?
The first time, I don't know what it is. It's always the same way. You see it but it's kind of a blur. I really want to see it again so I go buy a ticket.
Do you see a lot of movies?
I belong to the Academy [of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences] and they send you all these movies on DVD because they want you to vote. So I see a lot of movies that way, but when I am making a movie, that's when I go to the movies, on my day off. I always go to the movies. I like movies. I almost always like movies.
I remember I was here in Toronto and I went to the movies and there was a young girl at the counter and she automatically gave me the senior discount and that hadn't really happened before. They will ask you sometimes but she didn't even ask – she just automatically did it. And I thought, that's it, it's over.
But you have such great hair. Nobody of your age has such great hair.
That's funny you say that because then I was in New York and the lady who sold the tickets said to me, “You've got great hair!” It's funny to have some stranger say, “Here is your ticket, oh, you've got great hair!”
But you've always been into your hair though.
Yeah, and I have always had good hair.
It's part of your insignia.
Sam Rockwell was explaining how you were with Michael Pitt last night and how he looks a bit like a young version of you.
My hair is better though. When he is my age he won't have my hair.
What is it like being your age?
It's true, I wish I was young.
But you swear like a trooper in the Seven Psychopaths trailer. You did better than all the young'ens in that way.
Yeah, but I'd still rather be young again.
Both of your parents grew to be quite old so you'd expect to live.
Very. Really old.
So you have at least another 30 years?
It's true, both my parents [lived long] and they were both very hardy. It was almost like the switch went off. My father was fine and then boom! But they were in their hundreds.
I don't have kids. Maybe that's kept me young. I have a wife for almost 50 years and she looks after me a little bit like I was seven years-old.
Your wife, Georgianne Walken, is a dynamic casting agent.
Yes, she is. She put on all the people on The Sopranos. She knows all the gangster guys.
Did she ever ask you for advice?
Oh yeah, cause I know all those guys.
I hear there's a Christopher Walken King of New York gangster doll?
There is. And they did that without asking me.
Do you like it?
It's about this big [1/6 of his size], it's got a gun and you can move the arms. I don't know what anybody would do with it. Maybe put it at the back of the car.
Can you still dance?
You never forget how to dance. It's just a matter of your bones working and things like that.
What do you do to keep fit?
I have a treadmill and I do that seven days a week. I do two miles and I watch Charlie Rose. I have a friend with a bad back and I have a bad back and I said to him get a treadmill, it really works.
Performance arrives in cinemas March 14.