Martin McDonagh’s crime comedy Seven Psychopaths is filled with moments that will make you laugh and jump at the same time — a surprise gunshot here, a Grand Guignol murder there — so who better to add to the unpredictability than Christopher Walken, whose unexpected speech patterns give the film a kind of jittery grace? Walken’s up here in Toronto to promote the film, which casts him as a dog-napping con man who gets into hot water (along with friends Sam Rockwell and Colin Farrell) when he unknowingly kidnaps the dog of ruthless gangster Woody Harrelson. Vulture recently sat down with the 69-year-old actor to talk about travel, Lady Gaga, and his frequent appearances on Saturday Night Live.
You got giant applause at the premiere from your very first frame on screen. How do you feel when something like that happens?
It’s better when you get it at the end. That’s okay, but it’s better later.
You worked pretty extensively with Sam Rockwell in this movie, and the two of you also starred in Martin’s play A Behanding in Spokane. Were you happy to reunite?
He’s a terrific actor, and he and I just get along. In my life, I’ve worked with people and then it’s over, and very rarely do I ever see them again. It’s even unusual to get to work together again. I continue to see Sam, I talk to him on the phone, and I have only a few actor friends like that. Like Kevin Kline.
Shooting a movie is like summer camp: You have these intense relationships for a few months, and then everybody leaves.
Exactly. It’s very much like that. And people usually live in different places, particularly me, because I live in a very isolated place. I was born in New York, but about twenty years ago I moved out of the city and now I never see anybody. I didn’t want to live in the city anymore.
You probably still spend time in the city when you’re shooting or promoting a film, though.
Yeah, although I can’t stand going to the airport. I avoid it as much as I can. I just can’t stand it, it’s really an ordeal. And if it’s an international flight, and you have to fill out those immigration cards? Stay home!
With the humor and gunshots and surprises, Seven Psychopaths reminds me of Pulp Fiction, though of course, you’ve got a much bigger role in this one.
I think the similarity may be in that both scripts have a lot of dialogue. Usually, movie scripts don’t. Very few movie scripts you open up and you’ve got a big speech. And then the actor has to be able to do it, of course. You know, there’s a story about Marcello Mastroianni, who never made a movie in America, and they were always trying to get him to. Eventually, he said, “Okay, I’ll come, but it has to be a western. And I’m a cowboy. But I’m mute.” Maybe there’s something to be said for being the strong, silent type.
How do you feel about the violence in the film?
If violence is stupid, if it’s gratuitous, who needs it? But this movie is kind of a dialogue about violence. When you see [fantasy] shots where Woody’s head explodes or he’s got an arrow through the neck … well, that’s like Road Runner.
You’re a pretty avid moviegoer. What have you seen lately that you liked?
There are certain movies that I don’t think get the attention they deserve. I think the best movie I saw last year was Margin Call. Excellent, amazing acting, and it just goes to show what you can do with not much money.
On television, you’re often asked to read absurd things aloud, like the lyrics to a Lady Gaga song …
Oh yeah, I remember that. When I was asked to do that, I had no idea what I was doing. It was at Halloween, and literally when I got to the studio, I thought it was just going to be an interview. And they handed me this thing and said, “Would you read this?” And she wasn’t even that famous at the time, not to me, anyway. I just read it. I didn’t know what I was reading. That’s called being a good sport. I don’t even remember the lyrics.
You were made to say “bluffin’ with my muffin” at one point.
Bluffin’ with my muffin! [Laughs]
You’re also pretty well-known for your Saturday Night Live appearances.
Oh yeah. Too much.
Do you watch the show when you’re not on it?
Oh, I love the show. I mean, I watched it from the time it started. I was on it six times over the years, but I thought that was enough. It came home to me a few years ago when I made a movie in Europe, and from there I went to Australia, London … in other words, I went right around the world, and every time I was in a hotel I’d turn on a TV and Saturday Night Live was on! Reruns. It’s huge. And I thought, Oh, this is a little dangerous. TV, you can get famous in the wrong way.
You’ve made over 100 films.
Easily. It’s much more than that, in fact. I’ve made movies that I’ve never seen, a lot of them.
Which were the hardest ones to make?
Movies are hard to make, but for actors? Usually if they’re hard, it’s some physical thing like you’re in the jungle or on top of a mountain. The other thing, of course — and it’s very rare — is when there’s somebody you’re not eye to eye with, like the director. “Do it this way, or read the line this way.” Then, of course, it’s war.
People still hire Christopher Walken at this point and think they can direct your line readings?
I’m saying it’s very rare. But it’ll happen!
I think you’ve fully earned your idiosyncrasies at this point.
I think so, too. [Laughs]