If you’re going to cast a movie titled Seven Psychopaths, Christopher Walken and Sam Rockwell should make the short-list. Both are friendly guys in real life but have made careers playing mentally unbalanced and/or violent characters.
So, perhaps understandably, when we sat down with them at TIFF, there was a brief moment of silence before any among the small handful of assembled journalists worked up the nerve to ask a question. From there, the conversation branched out to hilarious effect, touching on their eccentric screen personas, acting techniques and Walken’s unusual accent.
Sam, Roger Ebert called you a “latter-day” Christopher Walken. Did you take that as a compliment?
ROCKWELL: Great quote.
WALKEN: I just heard that!
ROCKWELL: It’s a funny thing. I identify with Chris in some ways ... but it’s a great compliment.
WALKEN: Sam and I did this movie, but about a year before we did a play on Broadway, written by [Seven Psychopaths writer / director] Martin McDonagh, that went very well. We got to know each other then.
ROCKWELL: We were both child actors. Started very young, so there’s a similarity there. We’ve both played bad guys, and some good guys. People have said that we’re quirky or eccentric but a lot of great actors are — Malkovich, Turturro, Oldman. When I think of Chris, I think more of antiheroes in movies like The Deer Hunter or The Dead Zone. Dark, but not so eccentric.
WALKEN: Your movie persona doesn’t necessarily have to do with anything. It comes from the parts you play. I have this theory about movie actors: whenever you see them, you’re not just seeing the part they’re playing now, but everything they’ve done before comes into the mix. Sometimes it has nothing to do with the person. My life is anything but eccentric. I’ve been married 46 years. I pay all my bills. I live in a house where the lawn is always cut. I’m nice to my cat!
ROCKWELL: Didn’t you say something once about how eccentricity is perceived in films ...
WALKEN: I’ve been acting since I was five years old. I was raised by musical-comedy people — gypsies. Comics. When you’re raised by those kinds of adults, it’s almost like you’re a foreigner. You become strange, the "other." And that is seen as menacing or malevolent in movies. Strange is dangerous. I always thought I was a foreign actor. When people do [an impression of me] I always feel like they're making fun of my accent.
ROCKWELL: Because you’re from Queens?
WALKEN: No, from show business!
ROCKWELL: Your accent is very particular. [To the room] You start with a guy who doesn’t use punctuation, he’s got the sense of humour of Jackie Mason, and he does Shakespeare. Mix all those together and you get Chris.
WALKEN: Here’s the real point: where I come from, where I grew up, almost everybody was from someplace in Europe. English was often not spoken, or with Italian, German, Polish, and various accents. I grew up with people who spoke English as a second language.
ROCKWELL: Did that influence your performance of Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire?
WALKEN: When I played Stanley I was hilarious!
ROCKWELL: I mean, the Polish thing ...
WALKEN: Everything I said was hilarious! I brought the house down. When I screamed “Stella!” they couldn’t stop laughing. Sam played Stanley last summer ... you weren’t hilarious.
ROCKWELL: Stanley is a funny part, but I wasn’t hilarious.
WALKEN: I was hilarious for the wrong reasons.
ROCKWELL: Yeah, for the “Stella!” scene that’s a little strange.
WALKEN: The rape scene — hilarious!
Were you were cast in Seven Psychopaths because you’d worked with Martin before?
WALKEN: I think so, yes.
ROCKWELL: He came to us about a year after we wrapped the play.
WALKEN: He writes wonderful dialogue. So unexpected.
How closely do you think Colin Farrell’s character, Marty, matches him, and were there more real-life elements brought into the movie?
ROCKWELL: Oh, yeah, there’s an autobiographical element to the character.
WALKEN: I remember when we did the play, I got my upstairs neighbours, where I live in New York, some tickets. After, I asked them what they thought. The woman said, “It had so many layers!” I said to Martin, “My neighbour said your play has layers.” And he said, “No it doesn’t! It is what it is — layers, what are you talking about?” So in the movie, we’re out in the desert, and Sam does a big speech about how he envisions Marty’s screenplay, and I [added], “I like it! It’s got layers!” So that was a rare time when he did [change the script] based on real-life.
ROCKWELL: And when your character says, “I’d make a good Pope.” That’s something you said in rehearsal...
WALKEN: I’ve always thought I’d make a good Pope. I don’t know why they’ve never asked me.
Chris, you’ve famously said you’ll take any role you can but it seems like you’re drawn to movies with great monologues, like Seven Psychopaths.
WALKEN: Certain writers — Martin, Quentin Tarantino — write great monologues. But not a lot of screenwriters try it.
ROCKWELL: It’s very theatrical. Not a lot of monologues in film.
Sam, you said earlier you’ve played both good and bad guys. Where do you think your characters, Billy and Hans, fit into that spectrum?
ROCKWELL: A bit of both, sure. We’re not bad guys, it’s a comedy!
WALKEN: The violence is kind of Wile E. Coyote vs. Roadrunner violence, cartoony ... [he leans in to examine a journalist’s digital recorder] Look at this thing!
ROCKWELL: That’s how they do it now. I still have a cassette recorder.
WALKEN: I do, too.
How did you prepare for your parts?
WALKEN: I just learned my lines. That’s all I ever do. I’ve never known good actors to talk about character motivations. Actors all talk about the same things ...
ROCKWELL: Girls and food.
WALKEN: Girls, food and movies. Some Italian restaurant, some hot girl ...
ROCKWELL: Or hot guy.
WALKEN: Or they complain about somebody they worked with.
ROCKWELL: There is a technique to acting but it’s like talking about architecture.
WALKEN: It’s a bit like playing in the sand, making stuff up. A good director is like a lifeguard, sitting in his high chair watching these crazy kids. Every once in a while one of them will, you know, slip or fall out of bounds. A good director picks them up and puts them back in.
Seven Psychopaths opens in theatres October 12.