ANTALYA, Turkey — Veteran character actor Christopher Walken, at the Antalya Fest to screen his 1990 cult hit, Abel Ferrara’s “King of New York,” recalled that his mafia kingpin role – like many of his turns – grew out of his roots in the streets of Queens.
“My old neighborhood when I was kid, that’s where I come from, so the movie was very close to me,” he said, speaking to audiences at the Ataturk Culture Park cinema. “Abel was lucky to have such good actors. It was a highlight of my life.”
As for how he fell into acting on screen, in this case manifesting in himself the distinctive mobster Frank White, Walken confessed, “I don’t know. I became an actor after being a dancer, kind of accidentally.”
Even after 100 roles, Walken admits he still isn’t sure he’s doing things right.
“I don’t think I do it like other actors do it. I just pretend. I pretended to be Frank Wise.”
Ferrara’s loose style and respect for actors’ creativity was a boon, he said. “A lot of this movie, the dialogue was spontaneous. This movie had a lot to do with the actors making up the dialogue.”
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Much of the performance centers on Walken’s face, reactions and eyes, including a few unconventional breaks in the fourth wall, he recalled.
“You probably don’t notice it unless someone mentions it. There are a number of times including in the end, when I talk in the shower – when I look into the lens. And Abel and I discussed that, making the connection of Frank White with the audience.”
Walken’s career as a performer grew from dance to theater and then more or less slipped into film, he says.
“When I was growing up in New York, everyone, the boys, would go to tap class. It was very typical, instead of going to play baseball or learn to play the piano. The kids learned to dance and I did as I got older, I did that for a living.”
Performing seemed like the only option for a kid from a tough neighborhood with immigrant parents, the 74-year-old actor said.
“I had no choice when I got out of high school – I didn’t have good grades to go to college. There was nothing else I could do.”
From early TV dramas in the 1950s to his first real film break in 1971’s “The Anderson Tapes” to career lulls, it was an uneven road leading to his eventual Oscar win for supporting actor in Michael Cimino’s 1978 hit “The Deer Hunter.”
Walken’s grounding in theater kept him busy whenever he fell out of fashion in Hollywood, he said.
“They didn’t want me, but then they did. That’s show business. It’s very difficult. Actors, even successful actors, don’t work very much. Most of the time they sit and they wait.”
“The Deer Hunter” turned things around for Walken, launching him into meaty parts and real earnings, he said, but he still credits his casting as Nick to being “absolutely just lucky.” They were looking for someone. I went and I met the people producing it. Michael Cimino was an inspiration for Walken, he said, not just for his major success with “The Deer Hunter” but also despite his disastrous Western epic “Heaven’s Gate.”
“I loved Michael,” he said, adding that “Heaven’s Gate” “was also an amazing experience. It didn’t work out so well but now it’s proven to be a more interesting movie than it’s given credit for.”