Are there two more consistently enjoyable character actors in American movies than Sam Rockwell and Christopher Walken?
Forty-three-year-old Rockwell, who started in stage roles as a child, has starred in independent films (Moon, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Choke) and added memorable grace notes in mainstream ventures (Galaxy Quest, The Green Mile, Iron Man), is a specialist in men who don’t want to grow up. Sixty-nine-year-old Walken, whose career includes television work in the 1950s, time as a professional dancer and roles in such films as as Annie Hall, Next Stop, Greenwich Village, The Deer Hunter, Heaven’s Gate, The Dead Zone, and Pulp Fiction, is the master of wing-nut menace.
They starred together in the 2010 Broadway producton of A Behanding in Spokane, a black comedy by the celebrated Irish playwright and budding filmmaker Martin McDonagh. McDonagh cast them again in Seven Psychopaths, his sophomore feature after 2008’s In Bruges.
Seven Psychopaths, which premiered at TIFF on the weekend, stars Colin Farrell as an L.A. screenwriter named Marty, suffering from writer’s block. Rockwell plays his best friend, an unemployed actor who is involved in a scam with Walken’s character to steal dogs and then return them to their owners for return money. Things go sour when they inadvertently steal the prized Shih Tzu of a crime boss, Charlie, played by Woody Harrelson.
Even before they shared the stage and screen, the two actors had been linked, at least in print. Roger Ebert, reviewing the 2008 movie Choke, noted that Rockwell “seems to have become the latter-day version of Christopher Walken – not all the time, but when you need him, he’s your go-to guy for weirdness.”
On Friday, the two actors sat sprawled across a couple of hotel chairs at the Intercontinental Hotel, looking and sounding like any couple of guys talking shop in a bar after work. When I mention the Ebert review, Rockwell nods in recognition. “I know where you’re going,” he says. “It’s a huge compliment to me because Chris is such a great actor.” Walken, however, looks amused: “Really? I hadn’t heard that line before.”
One might imagine a reputation as the go-to guy for “weirdness” is not entirely a compliment, but Walken shrugs it off. “With so many actors out of work, you’re happy to have work for whatever reason. I’m anything but eccentric in my personal life, but people know you for a few roles and they tend to have those in mind.”
Rockwell adds: “One thing we do have in common is that we were both show children. It makes you different, kind of jaded. You know that scene backstage in All That Jazz, when Bob Fosse is surrounded by all these strippers? You see a lot when you’re young, and it changes you. And you get used to attention, which is probably not entirely healthy.”
Walken nods: “It’s true. You grow up feeling different from other people, like a foreigner. I’m a foreigner from the Land of Show Business.”
He adds as an afterthought: “I knew Bob Fosse, you know, when I was in New York. I was a dancer. That’s why I always walk differently.”
Rockwell: “You mean you bummed your knee up?”
Walken: “Nah. I mean I walk like a dancer. You train for 20 years doing that, and it affects the way you walk the rest of your life.”
Walken doesn’t just walk the walk; he also talks the distinctive talk. He’s mocked his own offbeat delivery on Saturday Night Live a number of times, but talks about his speech patterns as just another habit. “The way I speak was completely shaped by New York [stand-up] comics that I heard when I was growing up.”
Rockwell, though, says Walken approaches roles with a lot of capital-M Method.
“You know when Chris gets a script, he takes out all the punctuation? It’s brilliant, really. I think Stanislavsky recommended it.”
“I would have probably done it anyway,” says Walken. “I’m defiant. Unless you’re doing Shakespeare or Chekhov, there’s always a lot of stage directions telling you how to say a line, you know, in parenthesis,” he says whimsically. “I take a marker and get that out. And if I have something that’s written as a question, I make it a statement.
“You try to make it real, to keep a conversational flow,” he adds. “I always do the best job I can but I’ve almost never done a movie when I haven’t been surprised by the final result. In the famous Dick Cavett interview with Marlon Brando, Brando said making movies is a roll of the dice. That’s true to my experience. A roll of the dice.”
“I’m kind of a control freak,” says Rockwell. “So I try to control what I can. It’s easier if you’re the lead because you can control the environment around you a bit more. But yeah, I guess it is a roll of the dice.”
“Of course,” Walken adds, “when you get talented people together and you’re compatible, you can increase your chances somewhat. … ”
There is a chilling, quiet scene in Seven Psychopaths in which Walken’s character, Hans, sits opposite the killer Charlie (Harrelson) in a hospital waiting room. Hans gazes at Charlie with a half-smile for a long time.
“That’s a great scene,” says Rockwell. “I think it kind of creeped Woody out.”
Adds Walken: “When you do a scene, and the director says, ‘Let’s try that a little faster,’ that’s always a good note. But this time, Martin said, ‘Let’s try it slowly.’ So before I spoke, I counted to five. And silence. Can be. Very. Effective.”