Even Christopher Walken doesn’t speak like Christopher Walken. He may be tall and imposing, especially in the long, black overcoat he's wearing (and on a warm spring day). But the legendary actor is, as it happens,also soft-spoken and shy. When he talks he doesn’t do what he does in movies: emphasizing odd syllables, pausing at random places, filling people with intense dread. When he’s acting, it seems, even Christopher Walken is doing a Christopher Walken impersonation.
Walken is in town to speak about the indie dramedy “The Family Fang.” The Oscar-winner plays one half of a famous performance artist couple (along with stage actress Maryann Plunkett) who’ve done a mental number on their kids, now grown and played by Nicole Kidman and Jason Bateman. (The latter also directed.) His character, Caleb, is no hero, but he’s not a villain, as Walken has so often been typecast. Instead Caleb has rationalized the harm he does to others.
“There’s that thing with certain people where they believe the breaking of eggs is necessary if you want to make an omelet,” Walken tells us, quietly. “He steps on some toes because he thinks it’s OK, because it’s justified. Not a very nice man. I’ve never had kids, but I’d never want that guy for a father.”
Walken has spoken often about his longing to play characters more like him: not just complex but reserved, down-to-earth. A rare case where that did happen was Steven Spielberg’s “Catch Me If You Can,” in which he played Leonardo Di Caprio’s haunted, tragic father. Walken was rewarded with an Oscar nomination. What happens more often, he says, is he’ll sign up for a role only to find out it’s been suddenly rewritten as wild and eccentric — what he’s called “Walkenized.”
“That happens to me a lot. I take a part and the writers decide they’re going to make it better or something. I hate when that happens,” he explains. “You’re in the costume fitting and they say to you, ‘This is for the scene where you throw her out the window.’ You say, ‘What scene is that?’ And she opens the script and there’s a scene you never saw before.”
That didn’t happen with “The Family Fang,” although Caleb is still more keyed-up than the actual Walken. Forced to talk about himself to a strange journalist in a tiny room, he’s understandably withdrawn. He seems like what he really is: Just a guy who, when not working in movies, lives a normal life in Connecticut. He rarely makes it to New York, although he confesses his dentist is still here.
Walken gets animated when we discuss his early days, as a kid in Astoria, Queens. Growing up, he frequently acted at Kaufman Astoria Studios, a hotspot for TV recording, where he appeared in army training films (teaching things like how to dig a foxhole) and comedy shows. He lights up when talking about being an extra or bit player in “The Ernie Kovacs Show,” which would often feature elaborate jokes. He fondly remembers starring in a sketch where a family sat in their home, which was then invaded by a locomotive. Incredibly, it was all done live, on a set.
But Kovacs’ strange humor wasn’t the norm. “Television used to be totally family-oriented,” Walken says. “It was beyond wholesome.”
Today’s TV is more adult-oriented, but one of Walken’s more recent gigs was pretty squeaky clean, too. In 2014 he played Captain Hook in the live TV production of “Peter Pan.” It was, he remembers, intense.
“I didn’t realize that until we were about two days from the show. I thought, ‘You’re only going to do this once. And it’s live,” he says. “Every rehearsal we had people flying in the air, wires getting caught, music cues. To this day I’m thankful I got through it.”
Walken, now 73, is also adamant about not being up with tech. He doesn’t do social media, because he doesn’t have a cellphone, and he doesn’t even have a computer.
“I kind of just missed the boat,” he says. “I’ve always been reluctant to do something any seven-year-old can do better than me. If I started using a computer right now, your six-year-old nephew would run circles around me.”
Not only that, he prefers to use his brain over gizmos. “I’m kind of an encyclopedia of old musicals,” Walken says. “If I’m at dinner and somebody says, ‘What’s that show, what’s that song?’, usually I know. I can sing it. Then somebody will have a computer and they’ll go bop-bop-bop, and a minute later they’ve got some recording of it. That’s amazing.”