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Christopher Walken on 'Severance,' the importance of dancing and why he speaks in that Walken way

John Turturro, left, as Irving and Christopher Walken as Burt in ’Severance’. Picture: Apple TV+

John Turturro, left, as Irving and Christopher Walken as Burt in ’Severance’. Picture: Apple TV+

Published Mar 5, 2022

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By Stuart Miller

Christopher Walken is renowned for his unique take on characters who are charismatic but also menacing, haunted yet off-kilter, or sometimes, all of the above.

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Which is why watching "The Deer Hunter" actor as an industrious and dedicated worker named Burt who shyly reveals a sweet side as he falls for his co-worker Irving (John Turturro) in the new show "Severance" feels like a new side to Walken.

The Apple TV+ series stars Adam Scott as Mark, a man who voluntarily splits his consciousness between his work and home life. Patricia Arquette also stars, while Ben Stiller serves as executive producer and directed six of the nine episodes.

But the show is also notable for Walken because, despite more than 120 film credits, the Oscar-winning actor has rarely ventured into the television scene outside of a few TV movies and "Saturday Night Live" (more cowbell, anyone?).

It will be his second time being a regular on the small screen, as he was the biggest name in Stephen Merchant's British dramedy, "The Outlaws," which premiered across the pond in October and will premiere on Amazon Prime at a future date.

There, Walken plays a more familiar type: a smooth-talking ex-con, oozing charm to cover his lies and manipulate friends and family until circumstances force him to mend his ways - at least a little.

Walken, 78, recently spoke by phone with The Washington Post about both roles, the importance of dancing, both in life and on-screen, and what it's like to constantly be impersonated.

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What drew you to finally sign on for a TV series?

There's so much of what they now call "content," so it's much more present as an opportunity for me. I was friends with Ben Stiller's mother and father (Anne Meara and Jerry Stiller) and worked with Ben in a play and the movie "Envy."

In show business, very often, your career has to do with playing a certain type of part.

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"Severance" was something different, and that was appealing - to do something people don't usually ask you to do.

And a big part of "Severance" was going to work with John (Turturro) every day. We're old friends - I've been in three or four of the movies he wrote and directed - and I find when you work with someone you're close to, it shows.

You don't have to talk about anything. I guess it's what they call chemistry.

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On "The Outlaws," you play a scheming rogue - much more of a Christopher Walken-type, especially since you also dance in two scenes. Did being a dancer inform you as an actor?

Absolutely it does. With dancers, rehearsal is called repetition - you just do it over and over until the moves become a part of your muscle memory.

The whole discipline and the physical aspect is not unlike being an athlete: It hurts, and you have to do it, and you get sore.

I've always approached being an actor the same way. I find my rhythm in what the character is saying and just do it till it sounds convincing. It's not a conventional way of doing it.

Does dancing now make you feel your age or does it evoke some of that freedom of youth?

I don't go out dancing. I only dance if it's part of a role. Sometimes I think maybe I've done it one too many times on-screen, and maybe I should cool it for a while. But when it's in a scene, I think to myself that at my age, it's pretty nice that I can still do it at all.

And even though I don't dance much anymore, you carry being a dancer with you for your whole life. I exercise every day.

Not a big deal. But I do it every day for about an hour. I'm sure it's because I was a dancer. If I don't do it for some reason, I feel lousy.

That's part of being a dancer, you get into that groove, and your body tells you what to do. There's a physical mind at work.

What else have you been doing during the pandemic?

I always have little projects: I like to read all sorts of stuff, and I've tried a little bit of writing. I have yellow pads full of notes.

I like to cook. When you get to be my age, you just try and stay healthy and take care of myself. I live in a nice, quiet place. It's just me and my wife and our cat.

I don't like to travel. I don't like to get on aeroplanes. I don't play golf or tennis. I don't even like to drive. Mostly, I just stay home.

I've gotten all the travel I need from my roles. A lot of my favourite memories about the movies have to do with where we went.

Making "The Deer Hunter" in Bangkok and Thailand was absolutely fascinating.

But it doesn't have to be that far away. I made "Homeboy" with Mickey Rourke in Asbury Park in New Jersey, where Bruce Springsteen is from, and that's just down the road from Connecticut.

It was winter, and there was nobody there, and it was just the ocean and clean, cold winds, and that was beautiful.

Going to Bristol for "The Outlaws" was a fun change of pace during the pandemic.

When I was young, I worked at university repertory theatres at places like Yale and Harvard quite a lot, and I always enjoyed the campus atmosphere.

Bristol is a university town, and they have theatre there, so I really enjoyed that.

Your distinctive speaking style is irresistible to impressionists. Where does it come from?

It's nothing I ever did intentionally, but I obviously have a way of speaking that's easy to imitate.

I thought a lot about it, and the only answer I've come up with is that I grew up in Queens, where at the time, the whole neighbourhood was full of people who had come from somewhere else, and English was not their first language.

In my father's bakery, everybody spoke German and usually a few other languages. The guy next door, the butcher, he was Polish.

And the grocery guy was Italian. In the street and at friends' houses, you heard other languages spoken all the time.

When people spoke in English, there was kind of a searching for words. I grew up hearing people who spoke broken English with those rhythms, and it affected the way I speak English.

That style is very evident in "The Outlaws" but mostly muted in "Severance." There's one moment, though, the brief final line of Episode 5, where you dial it up. Was that conscious?

No. With that scene, there were probably six different ways I said that in different takes.

If I wasn't a performer, I think I might like to be an editor.

You take all the stuff and rearrange and put it together, and the choices can make an enormous difference. Whenever I see something I've done, even if I think I knew what was going on, I'm always surprised because of the way they've put it together.

You've embraced your persona, even doing an "SNL" skit, "Meet the Family," where everyone - Bill Hader, Amy Poehler, Andy Samberg - played a Walken and did their impression.

Were you wary of people becoming distracted by this in your movies?

There are certain things in life you can't do anything about. If that's what it is for me, well, actors realize pretty quickly that they're lucky to be working.

Most actors are not working. So, if I was welcome in the business, then that's all that mattered.

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