Christopher Walken has built a career on playing menacing characters. The 69-year-old actor has been working since childhood, appearing in well over 100 movies, from masterpieces – ‘The Deer Hunter’ (1978), ‘Pulp Fiction’ (1994) – to cult classics – ‘King of New York’ (1990), ‘The Funeral’ (1996) – and the occasional disaster – ‘Gigli’ (2003). His new film ‘A Late Quartet’ sees Walken taking on a rare nice guy role as Peter, a respected cellist diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.
You’ve said that ‘A Late Quartet’ is important to you because you’re good in it. How often are you satisfied with the work that you do?
‘I think I am good in it, and good in a way that’s different for me. As an actor I’m rather hit and miss, I throw a lot out there, and some of it works and some of it doesn’t. But this is a nice part. Peter is a good man, he’s a talented man.
‘I’ve played a lot of sinister, villainous, troubled people and that’s fine, actors are lucky to work. But this is something else, and I hope it’s a harbinger of things to come. It has to do with the time of my life. In the last few years I’ve started to get parts I didn’t used to get, fathers and uncles and grandfathers. I jump at the chance.’
Playing a cellist with Parkinson’s must’ve required a lot of preparation.
‘It’s true. In the movie I go to a class, and the lady who teaches that class suffers from Parkinson’s. She’d been a dancer, and she was my instructor. We had long conversations about how one deals with symptoms. And of course I got to have lots of cello lessons.
‘String instruments are particularly difficult, it’s both hands, bow strokes, body language. I never learned to play, but I learned how to fake it a little bit. Philip Seymour Hoffman got to the point where he could play, somewhat. He had a natural aptitude.’
So you studied as a dancer, but you never played an instrument?
‘No. As a kid I learned piano, I had some guitar lessons, but my hands are clumsy, I never had the physical equipment to do that.’
It’s quite a sombre movie, and you’re working with a group of very serious actors. Was that reflected in the mood on set?
‘No. The truth is that no matter what the movie is about, when good actors get together there’s a playground aspect to it. Whenever we got together as a quartet, those days could be fairly hilarious.’
Do you think the movie business is a friendlier place for older actors?
‘I’ve noticed that too, I have no idea why it seems to be happening. Older actors, and women in particular, are getting more opportunities. It pleases me, its very good news for us. They say that people are living longer, and maybe it’s just that there’s more of us out there.’
In England they call it the grey pound, what do they call it in the US?
‘They just call us geezers.’
Are there any movies of yours that you think deserved to be better treated?
‘I’ve been quite fairly treated by critics. There are certain movies that slipped under the radar, but that’s what Marlon Brando called the roll-of-the-dice aspect of the movies. You jump in and take your chances.’
You work incredibly hard. Do you ever worry that you make so many movies, when a really remarkable performance comes along it gets drowned out?
‘There’s an impression that actors make a lot of choices. I just take what’s there. In my whole life I’ve been very bad at figuring things out, at making plans. There are people who are able to plan their career, their future, but I’ve never had any talent for that. I just do things and hope for the best. Say yes, take a chance, and sometimes it’s terrific and sometimes it’s not.’
Does that philosophy extend to your personal life?
‘In my personal life I’m very conservative. I’ve been married to the same person for nearly 50 years, I’m scrupulous about paying bills, avoiding debt. I’m very careful. But as an actor I’m pretty reckless. I’ve done a lot of things that, when I see myself on screen, I have to shut my eyes. And I’ve made a whole bunch of movies that nobody sees, including me.’
You do a lot of extracurricular work, like music videos and cookery. Is there anything you’ve always wanted to do that you haven’t done? A cookbook, maybe?
‘I’m not sure I’d write a good cookbook, but I might make a good cooking show. I enjoyed the ‘Funny or Die’ sketch (see below). The stipulation when they asked me to do it was: ‘Okay, but no preparation. I’m going to show up, we won’t have a script, we’ll just know we’re going to cook a chicken.’ Everything that you see is spontaneous. And I’d like to do that for a whole show. No preparation, just go make a fish.’
‘A Late Quartet’ opens in the UK on Apr 5.