An icon’s diction

Ryan Wenzel

Christopher Walken rarely gets to play glamorous characters.

As Diane Keaton’s younger brother in Woody Allen’s 1977 comedy “Annie Hall,” he grappled with the recurring urge to drive into oncoming traffic. He attempted to destroy Silicon Valley as the despicable Max Zorin in the 1985 Bond flick “A View to a Kill,” and in the more recent “The Stepford Wives” he coordinated a suburban community that sought to tame powerful women.

“You don’t choose these things,” Walken said of his roles. “If you’re a leading man, you’re a leading man. I don’t think I ever was going to be a leading man — the guy who gets the girl.”

His latest role in Jordan Roberts’ film, “Around the Bend” also is far from glamorous, but it does show audiences a side of Walken they seldom see –his softer side.

In the film Walken plays Turner Lair, a former heroin addict and “reformed” thief who returns to his family after 30 years in prison. After his father (Michael Caine) unexpectedly dies, Turner traverses the American Southwest in an orange Volkswagen bus with his son Jason (Josh Lucas) and grandson Zach (Jonah Bobo), scattering the departed patriarch’s ashes along the way.

Walken was downtown Saturday promoting “Around the Bend” at the Chicago International Film Festival. He talked about the film, in addition to his past films, in a wood-paneled conference room at the Park Hyatt Hotel. His sloppy clothing made it seem as though he’d just rolled out of bed, but his eyes were alert and his tone was sharp. He occasionally lurched forward in his chair to dip a teabag in a cup of hot water resting on the table.

“To me this (role) is a whole different thing,” Walken said. “I play a lot of cartoonish people, and this guy is not only a regular guy — he’s really messed up. Most people’s lives are not so sad and disappointing.”

Even for a seasoned actor, Walken boasts an impressive resume. In 35 years of screen acting, he has appeared in more than 90 films — sometimes in serious lead roles (“The Deer Hunter”) and other times in humorous cameos (“Pulp Fiction”). He said he attributes his prolific career to his willingness to take on almost any project.

“I’m inclined to say yes (to roles) because I don’t have anything else to do,” Walken said. “I don’t have hobbies. I don’t have kids. I don’t like to travel. I would stay at home all the time if I didn’t go to work.”

But Walken made it clear that each of his many roles has been important and unique. “I’m a big studier,” he said. “I go off the words. I have the script at home, on the table. I go over it hundreds and hundreds of times, and I do it with different accents. I try to take the script and know exactly what I mean when I say everything.”

Fans who love Walken’s eerie, intense characters might be surprised to learn he started in show business as a dancer. His most famous role before hitting the screen was in the 1963 musical “Best Foot Forward,” in which he co-starred with Liza Minelli.

“I never knew I was going to be an actor,” Walken admitted. “My whole background until my 30s was in musical comedy theater — in tours. I took a couple of acting classes, but I was already formed. I’m a musical comedy show-off.”

Though it’s been years since his last song-and-dance production, the dancer in Walken still manages to break through from time to time. He boogied around a posh hotel in the music video for Fatboy Slim’s “Weapon of Choice,” and he tries to incorporate dances into his movies whenever possible. In one of the funnier scenes in “Around the Bend,” Walken performs an impromptu dance in the desert while his grinning grandson watches from the bus.

But while his sporadic dance interludes provide an outlet for the dancer within him, Walken said he thinks they are becoming trite and expected. “I think I’ve over done it,” he said regretfully. “I have to stop.”

Walken’s signature speaking style has been the subject of impersonation for several actors and comedians, including Jay Mohr and Kevin Spacey. When asked why he was a popular target, Walken responded: “Because I have a peculiar way of speaking, I guess. It’s the punctuation, I think. I just have odd punctuation. When I was a kid, it used to bother me that they would say, ‘The period goes here. A comma goes here. This is this way.’ I thought, ‘No, it’s not. It is if I feel like it.'”

Walken’s contribution to the cinema was commemorated last Friday when he impressed his hand and footprints on the Hollywood Walk of Fame outside Grauman’s Chinese Theater. But Walken isn’t calling it quits just yet. His upcoming film projects include John Turturro’s musical “Romance and Cigarettes” and Tony Scott’s “Domino.”

Will they be good? From what Walken said, it’s hard to tell.

“There isn’t really a big criteria,” he said of his cinematic choices. “If it’s two-thirds good, I do it.”4

Weinberg sophomore Ryan Wenzel is the PLAY film editor. He can be reached at [email protected]