When I asked Christopher Walken who he thought did the best imitation of his trademark voice, he said his wife thinks Kevin Spacey. It was one of those weird things I've always wanted to know.
Actually, I had a lot of things to ask Mr. Walken, as he’s one of those actors who’s been in almost every type of movie and has done an amazing job in so many roles. But since I participated in a roundtable interview, I knew I would only have limited opportunities to ask questions… so I went with the imitation question first.
And the reason Mr. Walken was there in the first place was to promote his new movie, “Hairpsray.” In the film he plays the main character’s father, and the husband of John Travolta. Here is the synopsis:
Tracy Turnblad, a big girl with big hair and an even bigger heart, has only one passion – dancing. Her dream is to appear on “The Corny Collins Show,” Baltimore’s hippest dance party on TV. Tracy (Nikki Blonsky) seems a natural fit for the show except for one not-so-little problem – she doesn’t fit in. Her plus-sized figure has always set her apart from the cool crowd, which she is reminded of by her loving but overly protective plus-sized mother, Edna (John Travolta). That doesn’t stop Tracy because if there is one thing that this girl knows, it’s that she was born to dance. As her father Wilbur (Christopher Walken) tells her, “Go for it! You’ve got to think big to be big.”
After wowing Corny Collins (James Marsden) at her high school dance, Tracy wins a spot on his show and becomes an instant on-air sensation, much to the chagrin of the show’s reigning princess, Amber Von Tussle (Brittany Snow), and her scheming mother, Velma (Michelle Pfeiffer), who runs television station WYZT. Even worse for Amber is the fact that it’s not just the audience who loves the new girl in town; Amber’s sweetheart, Link Larkin (Zac Efron), seems to be smitten with Tracy’s charms as well. This dance party gets personal as a bitter feud erupts between the girls as they compete for the coveted “Miss Teenage Hairspray” crown.
At school, however, a short stint in detention and raised-eyebrows caused by the budding relationship between her best friend Penny Pingleton (Amanda Bynes) and Seaweed (Elijah Kelley) opens Tracy’s eyes to a bigger issue than the latest dance craze or the coolest hairdo – racial inequality. Throwing caution to the wind, she leads a march with Motormouth Maybelle (Queen Latifah) to fight for integration and winds up with an arrest warrant instead. Tracy is on the lam now and goes underground – literally – to her best friend Penny’s basement.
Has Tracy’s luck finally run out? Will she miss the final dance-off against Amber and forfeit the title of “Miss Hairspray,” or will she sing and dance her way out of trouble again?
When big hair meets big dreams anything can happen – and does – in this high-energy comedy that proves you don’t have to fit in to win.
During the interview he talks about all the usual subjects and it's a good read. As always, you can download the audio of the roundtable interview by clicking here. It’s an MP3 and easily placed on a portable player.
“Hairspray” opens on July 20th.
Question: You look like you had a ball.
Christopher Walken: Sure. (laughter).
Was it not true?
No. I was… singing and dancing.
How was it getting back to your roots of starting on stage so long ago and coming full circle?
That was great. It also, of course, made it easier. Singing and dancing that was what I did really all my life—choruses and tours, shows. So to be able to do that in a movie, and they don’t make a lot of musical movies anyway, so to do that is pretty rare.
You and John dancing through the sheets. How was that?
We rehearsed that for a long time. You know, for weeks. But then, when John had that big suit on, and heels, we knew it so well that when we came to shoot it, we did that very fast. I think it was very fast. But we knew, we’d done it so many times.
But during rehearsal, what was the process?
When you learn dancing it’s a different kind of rehearsal some rehearsing acting. It’s really repetition. And you learn the steps and then you do them until you don’t think about them. When you go home, I had a DVD of it and I’d play it in my house, and I’d do the moves. And then it’s just kind of in your bones, so it’s really more like repetition.
Was it easy for you to forget that you were dancing in a man? Was it just Edna, not John?
It was John. It was always John in the rehearsals. And then he put that outfit on, and for five minutes, I had to think about it. But after that, I just looked at him and it was still John. It was John with this thing on. So he and I treated each other, it was more like Chris talking to John than Wilbur and Edna.
Could you talk a little bit about roles that you play. There’s such a wide variety. Does it surprise you sometimes that they’ll offer you everything from being the bad guy to being in a musical? Just extremes.
Well that is an extreme, but in fact a lot of my career has been the bad guys, different kinds of bad guys. But you’re right—to have a thing like this. There probably aren’t a lot of actors my age who tap dance. When it comes to casting, and of course the opportunity like I say to do a musical now, it’s rare. So I think it’s an unusual additional thing. I’ve done…I did Pennies from Heaven, and I did another musical movie of the kids’ story Puss in Boots, which nobody ever saw, but it’s good. So I’ve done really my share of movie musicals considering the times I live in.
Your character is so wonderfully eccentric and kind of … he’s a really nice guy, but he’s a little odd. That scene with Michelle where she’s trying to seduce you and you’re just not getting it or something’s wrong: Was it hard to keep a straight face? ‘Cuz she’s right in your face, and you’re just like ‘what?’
No, you’re right. I think that was the joke – Michelle Pfeiffer is hitting on you and you don’t realize it. I think Wilbur is a very nice, very good man. But not the brightest bulb. So a little bit slow.
Was it nice to work with Michelle again?
Yes, very much, to see her again. Last time I threw her out the window. It was great to see her. And what I didn’t know about her is she’s like a world class singer. That’s really her. And she can really sing. I didn’t know that.
Many people do imitations of you, and I wanted to know if you have a personal favorite. So many people are on TV…
There’s a lot of people who do that. I like it, I think it’s cool.
John [Travolta] does a great one.
Somebody told me that. I’ve never seen that.
He might not be brave enough to do it for you.
No, no, it’s not that. Maybe he’s done it and I didn’t realize it. Yeah, a lot of people do that. I don’t really know why, but it’s okay with me.
I was wondering if you had a favorite, though.
A favorite? No I don’t. But my wife says Kevin Spacey is very good.
Can I also ask what other projects you’re working on? Or might be working on in the future?
I don’t know. Like a lot of actors, there’s things that may happen, they may not happen.
Have you done anything since Hairspray?
I read magazines. I organize the refrigerator.
Do you get a little antsy—
Put things in smaller containers.
Are you one of those actors that between projects—do you still get a little nervous? Like, ‘Oh my God, that might have been the last one..’
I used to, genuinely. But I don’t anymore. I think I’m getting a little bit of Alzheimer’s. (laughter). Just a little.
You had such a touching little scene with Nikki in the basement. How was it working with her?
Oh, it was great. You know, she’s pretty amazing. Come out of nowhere. And when she performs, she has that confidence. I’ve seen her do a number five times in a row, and every time it’s like, ‘Blang.’ Yeah, who knows where that comes from?
Has your personal motivation changed over the years from when you started? Obviously when you start you want to make it and you want to make money. But from a deeper level, is it always the same passion that has carried you forward from day one right until now?
To be honest, I was never very ambitious. And I still am not. It’s astonishing to me how well I’ve done. Yeah, I just always have gotten along. I became an actor by accident. I suppose I figured since I was in musical comedy from the time I was a teenager, I suppose I figured that I’d always been in that world to some extent. There were dancers that I knew who became choreographers and so forth. But in fact, here we are and that’s in fact exactly what happened—I’m still in musicals.
Did you watch the original?
You mean John Waters’?
Sure, I’d seen that anyway. But I never saw the stage show.
What was something about that particular version that you wanted to bring to this? Or anything about Wilbur…
No, no. That’s that and this is this. I mean, the movie’s not a musical. And I think once it becomes a musical—in fact, when I got this job, they said to me, ‘You want to see the show?’ And I thought, ‘Yes, of course.’ And then I thought, ‘Mmm, maybe not.’ You know, just have a separate look.
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Have you seen it since?
No, I haven’t.
Were you on set when John Waters was there?
No. He was probably there for half a day.
Or Ricky Lake?
No. I didn’t see Jerry Stiller. Those parts I’m sure they just came and.. you know…
When you were doing the dance with John—‘cause you are a good dancer—did you just get to put some input into the choreography? Or did you just do what they say?
No. We came and [director] Adam [Shankman] had these assistants and they showed us that dance to the music. And just two people doing it for us. And then we learned that.
So there wasn’t any little flare?
No, it was all choreographed.
Was it always the change of costumes? Was that always part of it?
Oh, it was. That was very cute.
You know, it was, of course that was a time lapse thing.
How was working with Adam?
Great. I didn’t know him at all, but I ended up liking him a lot.
Was there something that surprised you—
He’s a good guy, you know.
Was there something that surprised you about his directing or his choreography?
Well, he’s very good, you know. He knows a lot about all that stuff. But, he’s also, he makes a nice atmosphere on the set.
I was going to ask you about previous projects you’ve worked on. Is there anything that you look back on and you think that these are some of your favorite roles? Do you have any personal favorites?
Sure. I saw a movie that I was in the other day that when I made it 10 years ago, I didn’t think much, and it didn’t do anything. It disappeared, you know. And I never saw it. And then I saw it the other day on The Movie Channel. And it was funny.
Was it in between doing the containers? Shrinking things down?
Cleaning the refrigerator.
Oh. No, no. This was a picture called Kiss Toledo Goodbye, and I played kind of a low level mob guy. Not very bright. It was funny.
Is there a role you haven’t played that you’d like to play?
This part that I have in a strange way is a part that I’ve wanted to play. A husband, a father, a good guy, a man with a business and all that stuff. His own house, like a wholesome type man. Ozzie and Harriet. And this part really is the closest to that I’ve ever played. You know, it’s a bizarre family, but it’s a pretty nice family.
You talked a little bit about Adam bringing a different style. What was that style?
No, I didn’t say he brought a different style. I said he made a nice atmosphere.
Atmosphere. What kind of atmosphere?
Nice. (laughter) You know, where people are calm and they take their time and everybody is encouraged to do their best. When knock on your door of your trailer and they say, ‘Come to the set,’ you’re looking forward to it.
How do you pick the roles that you choose?
My agent sends me the script and I usually just look at my own lines. And then I think, ‘Could I say that?’ If I read it, mumble it to myself, if I have no idea what the script is about, but if I mumble the lines to myself and it’s okay, I usually say ‘Yeah, I could do that.’
Would you like to host SNL again? I know you’ve done it quite a few times, you’re in the what, five or 10 department now?
I would. They haven’t asked me.
I’m sure they will soon.
No. Sometimes when you’re an actor you get put out to pasture.
Have they done the collection for you?
They did. You get… they put you on an ice flow. Or it’s the old actors’ home in Jersey. Where you eat bologna sandwiches on white bread.