Seven Psychopaths is more brilliance from the director of In Bruges
Christopher Walken returns to his roots in the new film from the director of In Bruges, writes Roger Moore
A few years ago, the American national treasure known as Christopher Walken saw something happening. To himself. And he was not pleased. Every standup comic had a killer Christopher Walken impression.
His Saturday Night Live appearances on US network NBC had become the stuff of legend.
His image, his halting, mannered way of delivering a line, was overwhelming the actor behind it.
His every screen appearance was accompanied by giggles of delicious anticipation.
Walken was fast becoming a punch line. He might be a beloved icon of big and small screen cool, but “icon” in his case was becoming “baggage”. He’s an Oscar winner, an actor’s actor. And that was becoming a memory.
“Christopher Walken is to his co-stars what he is to me - a god of acting, of the American cinema,” says the Irish playwright-turned-filmmaker Martin McDonagh.
“He’s a serious actor. Some people tend to forget that.”
So Walken, now 69, had to “step back... from all that.”
No, he can’t talk without halting, without seeming to consider his words, even when they’re scripted and he committed them to memory months before. In person, in interviews, the effect is exaggerated. But he can control how often you hear it.
“With television, an actor has to be careful,” Walken says.
“So many people will see you doing something, that you become identified with that image, that version of yourself.
“I suppose... if you do one performance on Saturday Night Live, more people will see it than see you in ten different movies. Particularly if you’re doing the sort of small movies that I do. It's all-pervasive.”
And if you poke fun of your image on SNL and elsewhere, there’s a danger an actor could become a self-parody.
“It's like comics. They do TV, and they can’t use those jokes again. So I had to stop doing it.
“Sometimes, it’s better to be a little... mysterious.”
Walken is anything but a mystery this autumn. He has three films due out.
In Late Quartet, he plays the ailing leader of a popular string quartet, a man whose retirement sets off a tug of war over who will replace him.
In Stand-Up Guys, he teams up with fellow screen legend Al Pacino.
And in Seven Psychopaths, he lets writer-director McDonagh turn that recent image on its head, using Walken’s natural charm and funny way with a line in a movie that is like every gonzo Chris Walken movie of yore.
It’s about a screenwriter (Colin Farrell) writing a script about “seven psychopaths” and the ways he invents, or meets, characters who match that description.
“He’s such a great actor that the comedy is never funnier than when he’s doing comedy,” McDonagh (In Bruges) says. “He can be sinister and menacing just as brilliantly. Technically, there’s something kind of psychotic about Hans, his character in the film. But Hans is also the moral centre of the film, the one who wants to show Colin Farrell’s character the way - of peace, of pacifism. Hans makes it cool not to have a gun. To not fight violence with violence.”
And real psychopaths, as Walken’s character in the film reminds us, “can be tiresome”.
“The entertainment value of psychopaths, of people who are surprising and unpredictable, is hard to beat,” Walken muses.
“I’m not really sure what a psychopath is. If I've ever met one, I’ll bet... I don’t know... but I’ll bet... I left the room pretty quickly.
“When you're playing one, you cannot let yourself think of yourself as one. You just go about your business and let other people say you're a psychopath.”
He considers another thought.
“Somebody read me a dictionary... description of ‘psychopath’ and it was all about an inability to empathise or have human connections.
“Whatever that means.”
Seven Psychopaths opens in Australian cinemas today.
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Magnificent seven: Olga Kurylenko, Christopher Walken, Colin Farrell, Sam Rockwell, Abbie Cornish, Tom Waits and Woody Harrelson in Seven Psychopaths.