After all his years playing eccentrics and live wires, it ought to be hard to be surprised by Christopher Walken, but the circumstances of our conversation are idiosyncratic even by his standards. When he appears on Zoom, the hair, first crafted to emulate his teenage idol Elvis Presley, is still wild and wiry, the gaze less fierce than expected and the simmering threat of many of his best-known characters entirely absent. In conversation there are distancing strategies, mild digressions and quotes from Robert Duvall, Marlon Brando and Noël Coward, while a smile perpetually plays around his lips. As well it might — somehow he has landed up in a hotel in Bristol, quarantining between two series of The Outlaws, Stephen Merchant’s new comedy-drama for Amazon Prime and the BBC — yet he seems unfazed.

Walken plays Frank, a philandering conman released, with ankle tag, into the care of his daughter, Margaret (Dolly Wells). His days are spent on community service, renovating a derelict community centre alongside six other unlikely miscreants: Eleanor Tomlinson’s troubled socialite, Darren Boyd’s bigoted businessman and Merchant’s hapless lawyer among them. The erstwhile “King of New York” is now a smaller, softer kind of criminal. “It happens when you get old,” Walken shrugs.

The Walken screen credits comprise well over 100 performances, including instances of Oscar-winning intensity (The Deer Hunter), Bond villainy (A View to a Kill), Tarantino monologues (Pulp Fiction), magnificent follies (Heaven’s Gate), terrible late-career comedies (Gigli, Stand Up Guys) and a Grammy-winning dance routine (in Spike Jonze’s video for Fatboy Slim’s “Weapon of Choice”). But Bristol? For a 78-year-old man who hates flying (“these days I’m more inclined to take jobs someplace I can drive to”), it had to be a truly compelling prospect.

Walken as Frank, a philandering conman in The Outlaws, Stephen Merchant’s new comedy-drama for Amazon Prime and the BBC
Walken as Frank, a philandering conman in The Outlaws, Stephen Merchant’s new comedy-drama for Amazon Prime and the BBC © James Pardon

“Stephen writes terrific dialogue,” Walken explains. “Doing this as long as I have, you can spot that pretty quickly. He came to my house, we sat and talked and that’s how it happened. This is a nice job, these are terrific actors and I always enjoy coming to England. Bristol is new to me, but familiar because it’s a university town. I did plays in Yale and Harvard when I was younger. And it’s always good to be near the water.”

He ponders, then offers an adjacent explanation. “Almost everything I’ve ever done has slightly been an accident. This was in front of me at the time and I took it. That’s how I’ve always lived and it’s how I still live — I do the next best thing.”

That work ethic is as strong as ever, and a week in a hotel offers valuable time to learn lines, alongside reading Nabokov’s Laughter in the Dark, watching daytime TV — reruns of Frasier (“really good”), Judge Judy (“fascinating”), Traffic Cops (“you know, the shows where they catch people speeding”) — and keeping up with the news. A Democrat by inclination, he is delighted that “you don’t cover what’s happening with Trump over in England so much — that’s to your credit”.

His opinion of Trump is coloured, too, by similarities he considers “spooky”. “We’re both from Queens, we’re close to the same age, his mother is from Scotland like mine, his father is German-American like mine. We both have hair fixations . . . ”

Walken, then known as Ronnie Walken, as a child actor taking off his clown’s make up, c1955
Walken, then known as Ronnie Walken, as a child actor taking off his clown’s make up, c1955 © Getty Images

Despite the superficial similarities, young Ronnie Walken (he changed his name in 1964) came from very different stock: his father ran a bakery in the neighbourhood of Astoria, a melting pot which, he has suggested, could be responsible for his distinctive stop-start speech cadences. His movie-obsessed mother took him and his brothers to dance classes and auditions for musicals and variety television shows, where they would work as extras through childhood.

“I’ve been in show business since I was five, that’s what has made me whatever it is I am,” he says. “I was raised by comics and tap dancers. The trials and tribulations of working in front of a live audience toughen you up. It’s the paradox of being an actor. You have to be sensitive and have very thick skin. You have to be able to take a shot, because the assumption is that you’ll never work again.”

That resilience was essential as Walken scratched a living in New York from his late teens to his early thirties: workshops, bit parts, off-Broadway readings, even lion taming (“too good to pass up”), all poorly paid, if at all. Amid the occasional triumphs — working opposite Liza Minnelli in Best Foot Forward (1963), recovering from crippling nerves to debut King Philip in the Broadway premiere of The Lion in Winter in 1966 — he also met his wife Georgianne during a 1963 tour of West Side Story. They married six years later and now live in rural Connecticut.

With Susan Sarandon and Liza Minnelli
With Susan Sarandon and Liza Minnelli in 1985 © Getty Images

“I tried to keep my life simple,” he recalls. “I never had children, I didn’t want to have that kind of responsibility. I’ve always bought my own food and cooked it, I still do. I was able to live for a long time on very little, and live quite well. I never wanted for anything.”

Everything changed in his mid-thirties, when an arresting performance as Diane Keaton’s suicidal brother in Annie Hall (1977) preceded an Oscar-winning one in The Deer Hunter (1978), as a Pennsylvania steelworker traumatised by serving in Vietnam. “I went up for that movie a number of times and, at my third interview, they asked what part I wanted to play. I said I’d be very happy with one of the really small parts, then they offered me Nick and it was a tremendous opportunity. When we got to the wedding scene, which took a week or so to shoot in that big hall, I thought, for the first time in anything I’d done: this is gonna be important, this is a big one. And it was.”

Things could have been very different had he, rather than Harrison Ford, won the role of Han Solo — a prospect more distant, Walken argues, than is widely believed. “I did audition [for Star Wars] but I don’t think I came remotely close to getting the job. About 500 other actors auditioned, so it wasn’t as if it was down to me and somebody else. I also auditioned for Ryan O’Neal’s part in Love Story, and in both those cases I was lucky because I’d have been awful in them.”

Annie Hall and The Deer Hunter established him as the go-to guy for edgy oddballs and troubled souls, with plenty of villains thrown in, although his funny bones and variety-show nous have also established him as a favoured host on Saturday Night Live. Watching him on the set of The Outlaws some months before we talk gives a fascinating glimpse of that under-appreciated range: as Frank, he works his way from deadly serious to wildly silly over several takes, taking full advantage of the comedy-drama material.

Christopher Walken with John Cazale and Robert De Niro in Michael Cimino’s 1978 film ‘The Deer Hunter’
Walken with John Cazale and Robert De Niro in Michael Cimino’s 1978 film ‘The Deer Hunter’ © Studio Canal/Shutterstock

Nevertheless, the type he is often cast as bemuses him, given how distant it is to his real-life circumstances. “I’ve played so many strange, villainous, unwholesome people, but my life is contrary to that. I’ve been married over 50 years, I pay all my bills, I live in a nice house with birds and trees . . . ”

For all the domestic bliss, he continues to take those next best things diligently, although he has never developed a follow-up to his writing debut, a curious play about Elvis in the afterlife called Him performed in 1995. Why not?

“Well, I’ve got boxes of scripts but none of them are any good. Lots of people have read them and you can tell . . . I’m lucky I’m not a writer.” He grins conspiratorially. “Actors do all these things people don’t know about. Almost every actor I know secretly paints, and it’s mostly pretty awful.”

He won’t be drawn on who does the best work. “I’m not getting into that! But I’ve got walls of paintings. I show them to people and you can tell by the looks on their faces that they want to be kind. They pull their punches because they’re nice people.”

What about The Outlaws’ Frank? Is he a nice man? “Well, I like him. Performance is the thing for him, the urge to entertain. Being amusing is a big point. As far as I’m concerned, Frank is just like me. He looks like me, he doesn’t always tell the truth . . . ”

I ask Walken whether he thinks of himself as a bit of a con artist. “I don’t know. I suppose in order to get through life you have to do a bit of tap dancing . . . And I’ve done that literally and figuratively. Frank and I have a lot in common, except I haven’t been to jail.”

Walken has been getting away with it for years, then — the only difference being, I suggest, that he wasn’t caught. He looks delighted. “I wasn’t caught — exactly. Well put!”

‘The Outlaws’ begins on BBC1 in the UK from October 25 at 9pm and will be on Amazon Prime elsewhere next year

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