Christopher Walken plays the title role in Percy, a new drama about a Saskatchewan farmer who took on the agrochemical giant Monsanto in 2004. The David-versus-Goliath film is stirring up controversy in canola country, but if the pitchforks on the Prairies are out for Walken, the veteran actor would be the last to know.
“I don’t have a computer, and I’ve never sent an e-mail,” says Walken, speaking from his home in Connecticut. “I’ve never sent a tweet. I don’t even have a cellphone. I’m completely out of touch with all that.”
In the film, out this Friday, Walken is Percy Schmeiser, the canola farmer accused by Monsanto of using their genetically modified seeds without paying for them. Though Schmeiser lost his court battle against the corporation, the film props him up more or less as a winner and a folk-hero Everyman fighting for the small farmers' cause.
After Percy’s trailer was released, concern over the film “based on a true story” was raised. The Western Producer, a weekly newspaper read by Canadian farmers, feared inaccuracies. "To some extent it seems likely to misinform about commercial crop production and Canadian farmers' cultural lives as well,” an editorial reads.
Along the same lines, an opinion piece on a website run by a pro-Monsanto organization, the Genetic Literacy Project, described Percy as an anti-Monsanto film that "promotes public confusion about crop biotech.”
Director Clark Johnson doesn’t think his film is anti-Monsanto or anti-GMO. “It’s about being bullied,” he says. “I expect agrochemical farming to contest our point of view. That’s fine.”
Some tweeters objected to the casting of multinational Monsanto (now owned by Bayer) as villainous. Others howled at the since-fixed movie poster that wrongly showed Walken in a field of corn instead of canola.
“I’m not surprised,” says Walken, about the concerns over the film’s slant and accuracy. “But movies are stories. The absolute truth of things, I don’t know. I’m an actor playing a part.”
The part is that of a combine-driving curmudgeon. It’s a character film fans wouldn’t normally associate with the 77-year-old Walken, an ashen, sunken-eyed native New Yorker who often portrays psychologically unique individuals. He was a nervous telepath in David Cronenberg’s Dead Zone, Diane Keaton’s wacko brother in Annie Hall, and a traumatized Vietnam vet in The Deer Hunter. Rarely has he been seen in overalls.
“He’s not exactly typecast as playing Saskatchewan canola farmers,” admits Johnson, a veteran Canadian-American actor-director known for his roles as a detective on NBC’s Homicide: Life on The Street and a newspaper editor on HBO’s The Wire. “He’s lovely, and he worked his butt off.”
The New York Times once ran a profile on the actor with the headline, “Christopher Walken isn’t as weird as you think.” Is he as eccentric? “He’s a private guy,” says Johnson. “When I want to talk to him I have to call his agent in Los Angeles, and then they fax him with a time I can ring in.”
Most of the film was shot in Manitoba, on a family farm. The closest Walken has likely ever come to anything barnyard in his career was the cowbell in a memorable Saturday Night Live sketch. Still, Walken, who played Romeo in a Theatre Calgary production of Romeo and Juliet in 1972, enjoyed the rural experience.
“We drove 45 minutes every day to the farm, and it was beautiful," he says. "The people who lived on the farm were wonderful. I even borrowed some of the owner’s clothing. We were about the same size.”
Asked if the titular Saskatchewan farmer and reluctant activist Percy Schmeiser is a hero, as the film makes him out to be, Walken isn’t sure. “He’s a guy trying to live and be happy and make a good life for his family,” he says.
As for Walken’s inspiration for portraying a farmer, the actor did not speak to Schmeiser. Suffering from Parkinson’s disease, the 89-year-old former farmer no longer speaks publicly. The actor didn’t look at any film of Schmeiser either. There was no need.
“I happen to be the world’s imitator,” says Walken, in the same halting speech that comedians love to mimic. “There are actors who are chameleons, and we all know who they are. But that’s not me. Anybody I play is going to be mostly Christopher Walken.”
Percy opens Oct. 9.
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