Yet Walken remains a versatile performer capable of mesmerizing subtlety. In contrast to the likable dognapper he plays in the recent Seven Psychopaths, his character in this week's new release, A Late Quartet, is a veteran cellist forced to leave his popular string quartet when he develops Parkinson's.
In a telephone conversation with The Pitch, Walken explains what it's like to defy audience expectations and what it's like to be a viral-video star without Internet access.
The Pitch: Your father came here from Germany, and your mother was from Scotland. Did growing up as a first-generation American affect the way you speak?
Walken: Absolutely. Both my parents came over as adults. I think in the neighborhood I came from, there were people from all over, mostly Europe. My friends were all first-generation. My father had a bakery. Everybody who worked there spoke German. The people in the neighborhood generally had strong accents from some place or other, and sometimes they spoke more of their original language than they did English.
They didn't really have to speak a lot of English because they brought their food and their culture and their music and their language with them. I grew up with a lot of people who spoke English as a second language. I'm sure that's got something to do with the way I speak.
Hans, the character you played in Seven Psychopaths, and Peter, your Quartet character, here are more sympathetic and even lovable, compared with the characters you've played in the past.
Maybe I'm just getting old. But it's true that for a long time I looked younger than I was, and I'm getting to a place now where I'm starting to get parts of fathers and uncles and grandfathers, and that sort of thing, which is nice because it opens a new territory for me. I play a kind of dad in this movie [Quartet]. I play more or less the patriarch of this group, which is unusual.
Was it tricky to look convincing behind a cello?
Yes. It was very tricky. I had to take lessons every day, and I never did get to be able to play. But I was able to passably simulate that. Playing a stringed instrument is different to fake than, say, a piano or a trumpet because the hands are so expressive. You have to see both of them doing what they do, fingering bow strokes and stuff like that.
You also had to be convincing as someone who has Parkinson's.
Well, I had a wonderful lady [Pamela Quinn] who had been a dancer, who had dealt with Parkinson's for a dozen years, and she was very helpful when I spent time with her. She's, in fact, the lady in the movie who teaches the class. I talked to her. She gave me pointers about things one does with one's body. There are things about walking up and down stairs, so I did study that, also.
The Fatboy Slim video was a real production. It was done with Spike Jonze [director of Adaptation]. It was very carefully worked out.
With some of the other stuff you talked about, I have no idea who Honey Boo Boo is, and I don't have a computer. I don't even have a cellphone. Sometimes people ask me to do things during the interviews, and I just do them, not even knowing what it is.
With the Internet, if you do anything, it ends up all over the place. I suppose you have to be very careful nowadays that somebody's not pointing a cellphone at you.
Around here, we also remember your performances in the Sarah Plain and Tall TV movies, which were shot in Kansas.
Oh, that was wonderful. I did three of those. That house in the movies was a real house. It belonged to somebody, and we just rented it. It was a working farm, and it would take a long time to get there. It was really out in the middle of nowhere — I wonder if it's still there — but I became very familiar with that house.
Emporia is a university place. That's where we stayed, in a Holiday Inn there, and then we drove for an hour way out to this place. I had a nice time doing that. I got to know Emporia very well. I'll bet you not many actors know Emporia really well. [Laughs.]
And people rewatch your scene opposite Dennis Hopper in Tony Scott's True Romance.
Dennis, bless his heart, was a friend of mine. When we did that scene, we both had the script and we knew our lines. That scene was basically shot in one day. It was in a small room, and they pointed the camera at him, and then they turned it around and pointed at me, and then we went home.
Often when I make a movie, I read a script and think, "This is going to be my big scene" or "This is important." And very often the stuff that ends up being most memorable is stuff that you never even noticed or you never even knew was there. Sometimes it's something accidental that happens, lucky accidents and that sort of thing. Movies are mysterious. Something makes a mark, and you really didn't know it was coming.
You won an Oscar playing a troubled Vietnam vet in The Deer Hunter, and it's still a defining role. When you play a character that disturbed, is it tough to go home after you get off the set?
No, we're pretending. Actors are a lot like kids in respect to when they go to work — they play. I didn't come to acting on purpose. I was a dancer. I just kind of accidentally got to be an actor, so I've never brought things along with me in that way.