He has been performing since he was a child but Christopher Walken has really come into his own as the actor who can make any role menacing.
Hollywood's consummate villain
In Richard Kelly's excellent recent book Ten Bad Dates With De Niro: A Book of Alternative Movie Lists, one of the standout contributions was from the celebrated filmmakers the Coen brothers. It detailed the five films these leading lights of contemporary cinema would like to see remade. One, perhaps obviously, was The Godfather. But they had a caveat: Christopher Walken had to play every single role. It wasn't such a bad idea. Walken is, right now, probably America's greatest living screen villain: you have to surmise it would probably be the most terrifyingly believable gangster film ever.
Walken is that remarkable and rare beast, an actor who makes anything he stars in watchable. This is why he was top of the web-traffic charts last month for simply reading the lyrics to Lady Gaga's Poker Face, deadpan, on a chat show. Two months before that, he was top again, this time for a video which saw him cooking chicken with pears. There was something delightfully menacing in the subtext to the simple line: "What I do is I take some of this - fat. And I cut that off." And now, he is the talk of Broadway after signing up to the Irish playwright Martin McDonagh's new black comedy, A Behanding in Spokane.
"Behanding", one imagines, is a related - if less terminal - torture to beheading. What is interesting here is that Walken, who has played characters driving into oncoming traffic and shooting good guys, isn't performing the act himself. McDonagh's play, which opens in February, involves Walken's character searching for his own missing hand and encountering two con artists and a hotel clerk (played by Sam Rockwell) along the way.
Whether McDonagh will make Walken's character scary, funny, weird, or a combination of all three will be interesting. And, in the best possible way, totally irrelevant. As his incredibly varied career has proved, Walken really can do it all. His reputation for embodying sadistic characters is, though, well founded. Walken first came to global attention in 1978 as an unhinged Vietnam veteran in The Deer Hunter. It won him an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, but this role has been overshadowed by his performance in True Romance. It is tempting to suggest, watching him politely and then violently threaten Dennis Hopper's character, that there has never been a more threatening scene in a Quentin Tarantino film. He was, memorably, in "a vendetta kinda mood". He has also bleached his hair as a Bond baddie in A View to a Kill, been a remorseless drug dealer in King of New York and a barbaric gangster in Last Man Standing.
But typecasting Walken as the go-to guy for menace seems to rather amuse him. The 1981 film Pennies From Heaven saw him confound those expectations in one easy step:he performed a tap-dancing striptease. He would go on to use those dance moves in one of the most memorable music videos ever. The humour in the award-winning Spike Jonze treatment of Fatboy Slim's Weapon of Choice came from the knowledge that we were watching a man famous for his villainous roles happily dancing around a hotel. That was precisely the point.
It was also not actually that much of a stretch for Walken - this is a man, after all, who trained as a dancer in musical theatre. He has appeared in countless Broadway shows already, taking on everything from Shakespeare (The Merchant of Venice) to Tennessee Williams (The Rose Tattoo) and winning the celebrated Tony Award for his performance in the musical James Joyce's The Dead in 2000. Then there's the comedy. He is dryly hilarious in both Biloxi Blues and Wayne's World 2. These are the roles that give perhaps the greatest clues to Walken's off-screen persona. Certainly, interviews usually begin with the journalist expecting the kind of intimidating encounters that characterise some of Walken's best films and end with the writer glowingly reporting what a lovely, accommodating and humane man he is.
It is true that a memorable lead role has escaped Walken, but in a sense he has used this to his advantage. It is difficult to think of another actor who is so consummately able to make use of every second of his limited screen time. He is the classic character actor: someone who can, as he once said himself, make the line "pass the salt" have six different subtexts. Most of those subtexts are, in his characters, deeply unsettling. And for all his comic turns and dance steps, it was an interview in 2004 which really summed up Walken's career. "I think people respect me, but they're always wondering if there's something innately mean inside me," he said. "But I take it as a compliment that audiences get caught up with the characters I play. When I play a villain, I want people to be scared and gripped by the character. That's the art, that's the desired effect."
In Walken's hands - or should that be hand? - A Behanding in Spokane will surely be gripping. It should also be an utter treat to see this versatile actor live on stage.