Tradition dictates that actors who spend their career playing psychos are, in real life, full of bonhomie. Christopher Walken is not traditional. “Are you… Scottish?” he asks. As it happens, I’m not, but it sounds like he’d be really ticked off if I were. “No,” he says, seriously. “My mother was Scottish. In fact, I love Scotland. I also love Turks & Caicos.” Relief all round.
Turks & Caicos is Walken’s latest drama. He plays a CIA man, the coiled snake at the heart of David Hare’s screenplay about rendition and corrupt security services. It’s 30-odd years since Walken unnerved audiences in The Deer Hunter (his role as a disturbed Vietnam vet bagged the 1979 Oscar for best supporting actor) and Annie Hall (where he played Annie’s suicidal brother). He did the hair-trigger menace thing so well he practically never played another sane person.
“I think I got a kind of villainous, disturbed thing going on quite early in my career,” he agrees. “There is a tendency – just because of the mechanics of making movies – that if you do something that is a success, you might get asked to do it again. Of course there are things that I don’t get offered very often. Things I’d like to do. Wholesome things. I don’t tend to get offered ‘dad’ parts. Or granddad parts. Or avuncular parts. Men with families and jobs.”
You can see the irony for a man who has been married for 45 years and was working long before that. Walken and his wife, Georgianne, a casting director, met as young hopefuls in the chorus line of West Side Story, before Walken’s career took its turn to the dark side. Growing up in Astoria, Queens, where his father was a baker, he was propelled to child stardom by his ambitious Glaswegian mum.
As a teenager he worked, briefly, as a lion tamer (yes, you read that right). At 70, he isn’t about to argue with his luck. “Any actor who gets to work is fortunate,” he points out. And if the grass seems greener for the “good guys”, it probably isn’t. Walken recalls a conversation with Roger Moore on the set of the Bond movie A View to A Kill (Walken played evil microchip magnate Max Zorin – in 1985 microchips were at the sinister limits of science). “We were waiting around to shoot the scene where I get killed and Roger, who’s a dear friend, asked me, ‘Do you always die?’ I answered, ‘Yeah, pretty much’ and Roger said, ‘I’d love to do that, but they never ask me.’ ”
The fact that his character makes it to the closing credits alive in Turks and Caicos is something of a personal triumph for Walken. The fact that he gets to play a CIA man with his trademark pompadour unbreached is, arguably, another. But there is much else to celebrate in David Hare’s screenplay (a sequel to 2011’s gripping Page Eight and the second film in Hare’s Worricker Trilogy).
“David is a wonderful writer and also a wonderful director. I had a really good time on this job for all sorts of reasons. Bill Nighy [the eponymous Johnny Worricker] is an actor who I’ve admired very much for a very long time. Working with him was terrific. He’s just the best company and I got along with him great. I think that when you see actors together on screen the word ‘chemistry’ does apply. I wish Bill was in the cast every time I went to work.”
Walken’s character – a lizardly pragmatist bent on covering his government’s traces – is superbly nuanced. In person, he does not come over as a political animal. “I’m not aware of the rest of David’s trilogy. I only read the rest of my section so I don’t really know the big picture. But sure, the part I was involved with was fascinating. I became aware of things I had never even thought of.” Does he think the American public has more faith in its secret service than we in Britain have to in ours? “That’s something I’d have to think about, “he says. “I’m completely unqualified – and a bit isolated, frankly, in my life – to address that.”
When he’s not filming, Walken tends to keep his distance from Hollywood, preferring his farm in Connecticut.
It seems of a piece with his curiously distant manner – the pauses and delays that are so effective on screen and that, in conversation, make him sound like a gentle alien processing each new piece of language. “Well...” he says, “I like Hollywood very much. The only difficulty I have there is with driving. I’ve never really been comfortable with driving and especially not in Los Angeles. I do a lot of walking– I put on a hat and go round the streets more or less like a jogger; nobody pays much attention, though there are certain dogs that always chase me. But if I lived there I would have to drive. And I do like the East Coast. I also like the seasons.”
He can be lured as far as New York City, where he has a standing invitation to guest host the iconic comedy show Saturday Night Live (an invitation only he and Alec Baldwin have). “I’ve done it six times,” he says. “Alec Baldwin has done it more, but six times is quite a lot. The thing about television is that you do one of those shows and more people see you in that than in all the movies you’ve done in ten years. It’s a different kind of buzz.”
Walken still has the moves from his early days as a hoofer – he was glorious in Hairspray and his 2001 dance video to Fatboy Slim’s Weapon of Choice was a viral hit. “It’s fun to be silly,” he says, a shade wistfully. He would love to do a big musical, but recognises that all singing, all dancing super-villains are thin on the ground.
And while he is a man of many talents, certain roles will always chase him; his special gift is to freeze the marrow. The problem for Walken, the thrill for us, is that nobody does it better.
See Turks & Caicos tonight 9:00pm, BBC2