Interview: Christopher Walken and A Late Quartet
Christopher Walken’s place in film history is secure, having appeared in Oscar-winning classics such as Annie Hall, The Deer Hunter, and Pulp Fiction, and blockbusters including Batman Returns, Catch Me If You Can, Wedding Crashers, and Hairspray. Yet at sixty-nine, Walken continues to film several movies a year, including the recently-released A Late Quartet. The film, in which Walken plays aging cellist Peter Mitchell who discovers he has Parkinson’s Disease, is possibly the most vulnerable work of Walken’s career. In A Late Quartet, Mitchell’s disease threatens to bring his twenty-five year tenure in a world-renowned string quartet to a crashing halt. When Mitchell announces his retirement to his fellow musicians (Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, and Mark Ivanir), long suppressed battles of lust and egos rise to the surface, threatening to forever disband the tight quartet. While the film remains playing in limited release, Walken and I spoke on the phone from New York, where is currently filming yet another movie. Here’s what Walken shared with me about playing a character suffering from Parkinson’s Disease, why he can’t stop making movies, and filming A Late Quartet.
Jackson Truax: I know you’re currently filming in New York, but in your breaks from shooting you’re calling journalists to talk about A Late Quartet. Of all the films in your long career, why is A Late Quartet important to you and so much so that you’re championing it so passionately at this stage?
Christopher Walken: A Late Quartet is important to me because I think I’m good it in. Also, it’s different. I don’t get a lot of parts like that. Maybe now I will. I never used to get the parts of fathers and grandfathers and uncles. In A Late Quartet, this guy is kind of Papa in the movie. He’s the patriarch… I hope it opens the door for me to be able to do more of that. I spend so much time playing troubled people, disturbed people. And that’s fine. It’s been a good living. But sometimes it’s a little monotonous. I’d like to be able to do something else once in a while.
JT: In the past you’ve said that you don’t like to do a lot of research for roles, but rather bring your own experience. What experience did you bring to A Late Quartet? Was there something you had in common with Peter Mitchell that you used as your starting point?
Walken: Yes, there was something very important… The real connection between Peter and me is the performing aspect, something I’m very familiar with. People whose lives have to do with somebody buying a ticket; then you stand on a stage and you do what you do in front of a live audience. It’s something I’m very familiar with. So for me, the connection to Peter was the performing aspect. And the end of the movie, when we’re onstage, they had a real theater with lots of people. It was exciting to me because I’ve done so many plays. Before I did plays, I was in musicals. Being in front of an audience is part of my life. It’s something that most people don’t have to think about. It’s more akin, maybe, to athletics, where you have a given amount of time to do what you do best. And the rest of your life is spent getting ready for that… So for me, that was the connection. And it was a very strong one. Peter basically is an actor, as far as I’m concerned. And he performs in front of live audiences for his living. Except I use my voice and my body. And he plays the cello.
JT: In A Late Quartet, your character is suffering the effects of Parkinson’s Disease. Did you study Parkinson’s or its symptoms at all?
Walken: Yes, I did. I was with someone who had Parkinson’s and we spent time together, talking about what you have to live with and symptoms and what you do to compensate. It was a lady. In fact, she’s in the movie. It was the lady who conducts the class that I go to. She had lots of pointers and things you do with your hands, the way you walk up the stairs, just little hints.
JT: In A Late Quartet, you’re part of a remarkable ensemble cast. What about working so closely with this group of actors made filming this movie a unique experience?
Walken: It was a great cast. I knew some of these actors before. Some I never had worked with. Actors all have their own ways of doing things. The truth is that they rarely discuss these things with each other. Actors go to work to play. There is, on a good set, no matter what the movie’s about, always the element of play. They have a good time with each other and in each other’s company. I loved being with these actors. It’s almost always the case; actors get along great. Even if they are doing whatever they do in very different ways. I think when people think about what actors do on a set, that there’s a lot of discussion about character and motivation. But that’s not been my experience. When actors are together on a set, they usually talk about movies, restaurants, sports. That’s been my experience.
JT: A Late Quartet is the first feature from director and co-writer Yaron Ziberman, and a great first feature at that. As an actor who has had so much experience, did you have any pause about working with a first-time feature director? What was it about Yaron that let you know that he would make a really beautiful movie?
Walken: I met him a good six months before we made the movie. I think I was the first actor who said, “Yes.” He came to my house. We sat a number of times and we talked about the script. I liked him. I had a nice feeling being with him. I could tell that he was very intelligent. He had passion and enthusiasm, which are so important, I guess to everything. He was just a good guy. I got along with him very well.
JT: Your speech in the final scene of the movie is so affecting, and a lot of that comes from your delivery. How did you prepare for that scene, and find the tone of what that speech would be?
Walken: I did it, I think, once. There were hundreds of people sitting there. They didn’t know what I was going to do. I, of course, had prepared my dialogue. But there was that unique one-time thing about it. That’s the quality of theater. You have to be there. In movies, the aspect of live communication isn’t usually a part of it, but in that particular scene it was. It was a really filmed theater moment.
JT: You’re such a prolific actor, with several films out this year and several slated for next year. Why is it important for you to be keep working so often?
Walken: It’s a different experience each time. I don’t have kids. I don’t have hobbies. I don’t like to travel… Work is the most important thing I do. I’m inclined to say, “Yes” to things. There’s something, a little bit of a daredevil thing with me I think. I just don’t think about it too much. I used to be a dancer. There’s a saying among dancers, “Shut up and dance.” In other words, don’t analyze it too much, just go do it. I’ve always felt that way a little bit. And as a result, I’ve done plenty of lousy work. And I’ve done some very good work. But there’s always that roll-of-the-dice aspect to it with me. You have a go, and it works out or it doesn’t work out. Then you just try to move on. I’ve always had to get a little lucky in everything. I’m inclined to just dive in and take a chance. And that’s disastrous occasionally. But sometimes it works.