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Published: Oct. 24, 2004    

'Bend' it like Walken: Actor has more to say about food and hair than acting
By Dixie Reid -- Bee Staff Writer

Christopher Walken
Christopher Walken co-stars as Turner in "Around the Bend." Neil Jacobs

SAN FRANCISCO - Christopher Walken ambles in, his face pale, his hair sharp as a newly edged lawn. He grabs a bottled water that he won't open and slouches in a chair.

"How are you?" he growls gently.

He's a bit out of sorts, having eaten lunch - which he rarely does - and it's left him sleepy. He's supposed to talk about "Around the Bend" (which opens Friday in Sacramento) but doesn't seem so inclined.

"It's kind of a grind," is about all he'd say of the cross-country publicity tour.

"It's the story of a family," he describes the plot.

"It was in the script," he says of his character, a dying ex-con and former heroin addict.

To fill in the gaps: "Around the Bend" is the funny, poignant tale of four generations of Lair men: the ailing retired archaeologist Henry (two-time Oscar winner Michael Caine); his banker grandson, Jason (Josh Lucas); his 6-year-old great-grandson, Zach (Jonah Bobo); and his son Turner (Walken), who has a terrible secret and shows up after a long absence.

Henry knows he will die soon and plots to send his family on a journey from one fast-food chicken joint to another across the desert Southwest, his ashes in tow. He hopes that along the way, his son and grandson will come to know and understand each other - and become a real family.

"He makes like a treasure map that lets the rest of us find out things about each other," says Walken, 61, absentmindedly peeling the label off the water bottle.

For his portrayal of Turner, Walken was named best actor at this year's Montreal Film Festival.

"It's an honor," he says, not elaborating.

Maybe Walken is bored after talking so much about the movie over the past couple of weeks. Or maybe it is just the aftermath of his uncharacteristic midday meal.

His mood brightens when the conversation turns to other subjects, such as his hair, his passion for cooking, his creative use of punctuation and his stunningly long movie résumé.

He has appeared in some 90 films in 33 years, including the Vietnam War saga "The Deer Hunter" (1978), for which he won an Oscar for his supporting role.

A 200-movie career would not be out of the question, he says.

"That would be nice. I won't retire. When you're an actor, you're forced to retire every few months. John Gielgud was 96 when he died, and he was working. It's good to work, whatever it is that keeps you interested. I would like to do that, I would like to keep going. I don't have kids, and I don't have hobbies. I don't particularly like to travel. If you're an actor, you have to travel anyway."

Walken is known to take almost any role offered him, good or bad.

"I'm not that discerning, to tell you the truth," he says. "I like to work. I don't expect everything to be perfect."

Before "The Deer Hunter," his eighth film, made when he was 35, Walken worked in television, in summer stock and on Broadway. His first on-camera job was posing with a couple of kittens for a calendar at 14 months old. He studied dance as a child (and does a free-spirited campfire prance in "Around the Bend"). He sings but isn't fond of his voice. One of his oddest jobs was working as a circus lion-tamer when he was 15.

His big-screen roles, generally of a supporting nature, have ranged from the scary Hessian Horseman in "Sleepy Hollow" (1999) to the haunting drug lord Frank White in "King of New York" (1990) and the schoolteacher who can predict the future in "The Dead Zone" (1983).

Last year, Walken received his second Oscar nod, a nomination for his supporting role in "Catch Me If You Can." He played the father of Leonardo DiCaprio's con-artist character, and his trademark tall hair was intentionally flattened.

"It was combed down. That was the period," he says. "You know, when I did that movie, it was amazing how much I looked like my father. Men don't really wear hats much anymore, but there was a time when I was growing up that men wore hats. You went out, you put on a hat and an overcoat. And when I put on the hat and overcoat, I looked like my father. I was surprised."

Walken's stand-up hair is derivative of the ducktails and pompadours of the 1950s. Here's how he does his 'do:

"When it's wet, I stick it up with some gunk and walk around and let the air dry it and then it stays there. I have good hair. I have a lot of hair. Whatever I do must be good for it, because I've still got so much. Every time I meet guys I went to school with, they've got no hair."

Walken laughs.

He sees old classmates on occasion, because many still live back east where they grew up. Nowadays, Walken lives in rural Connecticut with his wife, Georgianne Walken, casting director for HBO's "The Sopranos," and their cats.

He was born Ronnie Walken on March 31, 1943, in New York City. His father is German. His mother hails from Scotland. He has two brothers, Ken and Glenn, both of whom are semi-retired. He studied at the Professional Children's School and Hofstra University, dropping out of college in 1963 to take a role in the off-Broadway musical "Best Foot Forward."

His father worked as a baker, and Walken is known to be an accomplished cook.

"Yeah," he says. "I do like to cook, and I like to eat when I feel like eating. I don't go out much. I make healthy food - fish and vegetables and salad. I love spaghetti, but I try not to eat it too much."

He usually limits himself to one meal a day, in the evening.

"But like today, because of what I'm doing, I'm not going to have a chance to eat. So I ate about an hour ago, and I'm sleepy already."

He puts his hand to his mouth.

"So I try not to do that."

Actually, the way he said it was: "So I try not. To do that."

Walken is known as much for the way he delivers his lines as for the lines he delivers. It's less pronounced in conversation than on screen, where he might string full sentences into a single breath or break a thought into segments.

"Um, yeah, everyone has their own way of speaking. I think mine is maybe a little more pronounced, a little peculiar. I think the way you talk is the way you think. It's true, I don't pay much attention to conventional punctuation. When does a sentence end and the next one begin? I just don't know. It does whenever it does."

He grins.

"I use punctuation, but I finish the sentence and put (in) a period but it's not necessarily where somebody else would. I think everybody should talk the way they want. You go to school and you all sit there and all learn to do the same thing. I guess it's necessary but it's too bad also, in a way. Kids, you know, get kind of restrained in a lot of ways.

"I probably wouldn't get a job as an English teacher."

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