When Walken films something palpably good, though—like true romance‘s extended monologue with Dennis Hopper—he feels it. “The stars were well-aligned or something,” says the actor, recalling set that day in his usual no-frills style. “We shot that in one afternoon, and when we were done, he said to me, ‘We did a good scene today.’ And I said, ‘Yes, I know.’ And he said, ‘Let’s go have dinner.’ So we went back to the hotel, the Chateau Marmont I think.”
Walken’s no-nonsense approach can be traced back to his childhood, when Walken and his two brothers would schlep from Queens into Manhattan for auditions, hustling to book gigs on variety shows and soap operas. In 1954, when Christopher was 11 years old and still going by “Ronald,” his mother, Rosalie, described getting her three sons into the business in a newspaper piece that ran nationally. “Sometimes, I feel like a central casting agency,” Rosalie said, acknowledging that her sons would have to drop out of their regular school for an education more flexible for work schedules.
“It was very different from most childhoods,” says Walken. “It was an unusual education, and I’m very glad I had it. It gave me experience to do what I do as an adult. When you’re a child performer, you’re competitive. You’re out there hustling.” He doesn’t regret the fact that he missed out on a “normal childhood” because “I don’t know what it would’ve been like. I didn’t play baseball, basketball. I still can’t swim, but I can tap dance. It’s different.”
I note the many iterations of Hollywood and entertainment he has seen—the Studio 54 days, the coked-up ’80s, the big-budget ’90s—and ask what has been his favorite to experience.
“The interesting thing about my career is that I was part of something that doesn’t exist anymore,” answers Walken, flashing back to his days as a kid actor on variety shows—“the early days of television after the second World War, when television was getting born, in the late ’40s and early ’50s.” Those were the days. “In a whole neighborhood of people, you had one TV set, and everybody would go to the guy’s house to watch his TV. There were no videotapes, so if you didn’t see Uncle Miltie on a particular night, you missed it. It wasn’t like you could watch it again. At that time in television, everything was kind of one-off. In New York, there were 90 live shows from New York every week. They used a lot of kids, and I was there for that. And that certainly doesn’t exist anymore.”