(Interviewer: Michael Wechsler)
You were at the Actors Studio. You studied under Lee Strasberg. What was that experience like for you?
I had apprenticed at the Actors Studio for a long time. For years. It was an interesting place to go. A regular thing to do. And sometimes the moderators would be fascinating. Every Christmas, Kazan would do a session. He was great. They had people who were very interesting moderators: Ellen Burstyn, occasionally Al Pacino. And I worked there. I helped them do sets and stuff. At one point I auditioned and got in. Strasberg was there a lot when I was there.
To be frank, there's something about the method that I've never understood. I'm not sure what it is, even now. There was one single thing at the Actors Studio that made something clear to me that I've carried with me my whole life. After I'd been a member, I was doing a scene from "Death of a Salesman" with another actor. There's a famous scene where two brothers are talking in the bedroom. Somebody in the middle of my scene dropped a cardboard box full of dishes and it made a tremendous noise. I noticed the whole audience go like this [shifts his head] and I went on. Afterwards, Strasberg said to me, “What do you think?” I said I thought it went well. He said, “You know somebody dropped a big box of dishes when you were performing. Everyone jumped except you. You didn't even react.” I said, ‘Yes, I was concentrating.' “That's not concentrating, that's bad acting.” [laughs]
You can't exclude life from what you're doing. You bring it with you. You make it your own. You use it. If I don't feel well one day, that's going to affect the scene and it should. If I'm mad at somebody, that's going to affect the scene and it should. And it's a good thing because it's real.
There are things about movies that don't make sense to me like the notion of ‘Action' and ‘Cut.' It's funny. Movies still are the same as they were with D.W. Griffith. They go from reel to reel. The scene starts with ‘Action' and ends with ‘Cut.' The best directors are aware of the fact that things segue; that what you bring onto the set with you should be part of the scene; that the scene begins way before ‘Action' and is over way after ‘Cut.' I've worked with directors that don't say ‘Cut.' You run out of lines and the scene is over and nobody says ‘Cut.' Sometimes very interesting things happen. Actors keep ripping it. It's like jazz. Sometimes you get your best stuff from accidental scenes.
Good directors know that. Interesting movies are full of stuff that nobody knew was there. Abel Ferrara does that a lot. I think it's true that you can look at a script and say, ‘That's my big scene,' when that's not your big scene. The big scene isn't something in the script.
It hasn't happened.
It hasn't happened. You can't surprise anybody if you can't surprise yourself. Surprise is a big thing. There are so many great things. Dancers have a great mentality about what they do. They say great things. A choreographer used to say to me, “Show me something I never saw before. I don't care what it is. Just do something original.”
Speaking on the subject of dance, with the Fat Boy Slim music video “Weapon of Choice,” that was the first time I became aware that you started out as a dancer.
I danced from the time I was a little kid when I was a chorus boy until I was about thirty-something.
Is it true you try to incorporate a dance move into every one of your roles?
I do that a lot. Lots of times they've kept it in.
Can you give some examples?
King of New York, At Close Range. I dance for a minute in Catch Me If You Can.
Talk a little bit about doing “Weapon of Choice.”
It's a very catchy tune. The big thing about that for me was to work with Spike Jonze. He's terrific. And young. He asked me to do that based on my work on a movie twenty years ago, Pennies from Heaven. The best thing about that for me was I'm going to be 84 years old [kidding] and at this point [it's nifty] to be able to be in a music video and actually have kids think it's cool. I suppose musicals have always been my favorite thing— I'm talking about movie musicals. If somebody asks me if I want to go see a show, my choice is almost always musicals. I think if I was in the movies at an earlier time, I might have been in a lot of musical movies. But certainly MTV and music videos, some are brilliantly done, little movies.
Who or what had the single greatest impact on you as an artist?
I think certainly my movie-going as a kid. I was a religious moviegoer. In those days, going to the movies was different. You never went to see a movie. You always went to see at least two movies and on Saturday, usually three features, 27 cartoons. Wasn't any particular movie or actors but it was that whole experience of going to the movies. When I was growing up, there were a lot of movies influenced by the Second World War and then the Korean War. Also a lot of great westerns.
Would you say that's how you caught the acting bug? Going to the movies?
It was typical of that time. My friends and I would go to the movies, go to some vacant lot, and then act it out. Particularly war movies. It was the thing that kids did. Also kids in those days went to dancing school. Parents would send their kids on Saturday to dancing school. This was a working-class neighborhood. It was a typical thing for kids to go to tap class, girls to go to ballet or acrobatic class.
Touch on how you got involved in TV as a child actor.
It sounds odd but it wasn't at all. It was the late forties to late fifities. The so-called Golden Age of TV was born to the world. Came from NYC. Came from a six-block radius from Rockefeller Center. Three networks had their facilities in that small area which was connected to suburbs by subways. Ninety live shows every week; some were only 15 minutes, some 30 minutes. And they used a lot of kids. They weren't child actors necessarily. They were put there as set dressing. I didn't often have a lot to do. I would occasionally have a line. I did that and my brothers did that. The thing those days was to be a “triple threat.” My brother did a TV show which had a radio show connected to it, a soap opera called "The Guiding Light." Sometimes he would be too busy doing other things and I would do the radio show because we had a similar voice, and the thing was to be a triple threat, which meant you could sing, dance and remember a few lines. That made you eminently hireable. I remember my older brother went to an audition once. They said, “We're looking for a young man who can play an accordian.” My brother raised his hand. He didn't even know what an accordion was. He rented one, had a few lessons, played “Home on the Range,” and got the job.
Let's talk about the short film you directed, “Popcorn Shrimp.”
The same people who did the cooking show came to me. They were doing five-minute shorts. They had a bunch of actors do their own pieces and they asked me. I hung up the phone and wrote it. The story is about a case of mistaken identity. The police had seen these people who were suspicious. They thought they were dangerous looking. Whenever we cut to them they are talking about food. The experience demonstrated that I'd be a lousy director.
So directing is not something you're interesting in doing?
My weakness as a director was if somebody would ask me something I'd say, ‘Just do whatever you want.' [laughs] My impression is that a director must be a little like a general. You'd hate me to be running a war because I wouldn't know what anybody is doing. [laughs]
Let's talk about some of your movies that are out now. Catch Me If You Can was a much different role for you.
Oh yeah. It's really important. One of the reviewers really hit it on the head. They said I finally got a part where I play a human being.
Not a monster.
Somebody who doesn't want to take over the world with radon [laughs].
You weren't the headless horseman.
Playing the part of the father, I was a person, and a person who was struggling.
I don't know much about a movie until I see it. There were a couple things I thought immediately after reading the script. I'm a big Jerry Lewis fan. I heard him say once in an interview that his big secret is he's only nine. That all his life he's only been nine years old, and I thought, yes, absolutely. He's like a kid. You get that feeling with certain people. Mick Jagger has that. I think that's a wonderful quality, especially as you get older. I did get the feeling that Frank Abagnale, Sr. and his son were like a couple of juvenile delinquents.
What was it like working with Spielberg?
It was wonderful. I know because of watching his films, among the many things that's amazing about his movies is how good the actors come off. Every actor in every movie he's made is good. I figured he cast me for his own reasons. There's a physical believability between me and Leo. I never discussed it with him and we never discussed it while we were making the movie. It was very efficiently done. There wasn't a lot of sitting around. He's very fast.
You also have another film coming out. A much smaller movie but an enjoyable film called Poolhall Junkies. This was a classic case of a first-time director with very little clout, Mars Callahan, and you helped get the ball rolling on this script he's had floating around for years.
I was in a play in New York and Mars came to see it. And he told me this film he was doing. He sent me the script. We shot my scenes for little more than a week. Mars did an Orson Welles on it. Wrote, starred, directed, did the publicity for it. It's his baby.
Let's talk about comedy. I watched your “Saturday Night Live” shows (five total). You have an open invitation to host. You obviously enjoy working with the troupe.
I think I enjoy funny people. Olivier has said no matter what the part is, even if it's King Lear, look for the jokes. I love watching comic actors. People who are funny are just a blessing to work with. I'm hosting my next Saturday Night Live on February 22.
Do you approach comedy differently?
I think of everything I do as comedy. Even when I'm holding a machine gun.
The villains you've played always seem to have a chuckle behind them, like a wink to the audience.
I've never gotten away from the idea of the performance thing. I come from musicals where there is no fourth wall. I grew up watching Zero Mostel in pieces like A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum. And Jerry Lewis, with Damn Yankees, he'd walk out and do the scene and always turn to the audience and [makes funny expression]. There's always in the cast list of a play an unmentioned character. It's the audience, and I carry that with me into the movies. When I play these villains, I think people can see that's Chris, pretending to be Max (from Batman Returns) and Max knows he's really Chris, and Chris knows that you know that Chris knows that.
You are a genius with monologues. Movies like Pulp Fiction and True Romance are memorable because of your speeches. You have a gift for them.
People don't have monologues in movies. I get monologues a lot. I worked with Peter Berg in the last thing I did, Helldorado. He was directing and he came in and gave me this big speech that was three pages. He said, “You're good at big speeches.”
Berg wrote it after he hired you?
He did. I think it comes from doing so much theater.
What about the long speech in Pulp Fiction?
Pulp Fiction was eight pages long. I was talking to the camera. It was great. I had the speech for months. I must say in that case every time I went through that long speech, every time I got to the end, it cracked me up. It stayed funny.
Do you have any favorite directors?
I've enjoyed working with almost everybody I've worked with. And there are people I'd like to work with. I've never worked with Scorsese.
That's shocking to me.
I almost worked with him once. He tried to make The Last Temptation of Christ a number of times. At some point I was going to play Jesus. I spent some time with him and it was fascinating, but then the studio wouldn't let him make it and ten years went by. I almost got to work with him. So many wonderful directors I'd love to work with: Sydney Pollack, Spike Lee, Bernardo Bertolucci, to name a few.
What do you hope the next 10 to 15 years will bring for Christopher Walken, the actor?
As I get older, I think the whole thing with Catch Me If You Can is maybe the beginning of something where I play uncles, fathers— you know, decent people.
I have my James Lipton question: When all is said and done and you're gone from this planet, how would you like to be remembered?
There's something about movies. You know when I sit there and watch Bogart. I watch Cagney. I watch Olivier.
That's what I want.
(Michael Wechsler is an award-winning writer-director with his own production company, Modern Primitives Films. He has directed television series for the BBC, Bravo, and TLC. He won numerous film festival awards for writing and directing the feature film, Slaves of Hollywood. His internet series, "The Last Date," is one of the most successful in the history of the web, with some 25 million views to date. His next feature directing project is entitled The Red Robin and is currently in pre-production.)