“I can see why people might confuse me with my roles. Early on, I played one or two disturbed people and I guess I must have been good at it, because it stuck,” he said in an interview with The Guardian. “But, you know, I’m a regular guy. I stay home a lot, I make an effort to keep a distance from the whole social thing, the openings, the parties. I try to live in a calm way.”
Walken does admit, “I play disturbed people a lot, but always with a bit of distance or tongue-in-cheek. Most of the villains I play are essentially harmless.” However, he does get to indulge in a normal-guy part in his other new film, A Late Quartet. His portrayal of a cellist struggling with Parkinson’s Disease, allowed him to reflect on his acting style, where he noted that he essentially plays variations of himself with each role.
“No matter what character I’m playing, it’s me,” the 69-year-old said. “I’m the only person in my life that I can refer to. I have a wife, I have friends, but it’s essentially me. There are actors who can transform themselves, famously so, but I’m not one of them. There’s a crucial difference between an actor and a performer. I’m essentially a performer. That’s where I came from. That’s what I know. That’s what I do.”
Indeed, Walken started out as a dancer when he was merely five years old, appearing on The Colgate Comedy Hour in the ‘50s. He eventually appeared on Broadway alongside Liza Minnelli in Best Foot Forward, which led to acting roles in productions like The Lion in Winter. This theater background is what Walken feels separates him from other actors.
He doesn’t feel he can ‘fully articulate’ how he prepares for a role, but said, “Basically I prepare in the same way every time. I take the script, I stand in my kitchen and I quietly mumble it to myself. Over and over. I keep doing that until I hear something in there. I was trained as a dancer and that stuck with me, so I’m essentially looking for a rhythm. For me, acting is all to do with rhythm. When I figure stuff out, it has to do with finding the rhythm. Always.”
It makes sense that part of Walken’s preparations is reading lines over and over—it’s his least favorite part of the job. “I don’t know how people learn their lines quickly,” he admitted. “It’s always been a tedious, agonizing chore for me. I hate it. It takes me ages to know my lines. I just wish I could do movies with cue cards. That way, it’s easy. Not lazy, but easy. You know what? I wish I could live my whole life with cue cards. I really do.”
But after surviving decades in the industry, the Oscar-winner doesn’t have the exact same perceptions of the business others have. “I’ve always found it to be an honest place. They either want you for a role or they don’t,” Walken said. “It’s pretty simple. People talk about Hollywood being this place where you can never get straight answers, but my experience is the opposite. If they don’t want you, it’s very clear.”
And it’s clear that after all these years, Hollywood still wants Walken.