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Actor’s Spotlight: Nate’s Top Ten Christopher Walken Performances

Whenever Christopher Walken shows up in a film you can practically feel the energy and interest go up in an audience, whether they know him by name and are studious of his massive career (raises hand) or they just remember that instantly recognizable face. Whether it’s a supporting role, cameo or star turn there’s something about his electric eyes, steady yet spooky voice and offhandedly eccentric mannerisms that make him something truly special. His career is an epic one that spans comedies, drama, musicals, stage plays, music videos (that Fatboy Slim dance marathon!!), a Bond movie, the odd horror flick and a good dose of obscure indies that I’ve always loved to hunt down. Here are my top ten personal favourites! Please share yours as well and enjoy:

10. Max Shreck in Tim Burton’s Batman Returns

With a shock of electric silver hair and a razor sharp pinstripe suit, Walken embodies monstrous corporate evil as Gotham’s most corrupt business tycoon. I’m not sure if Shreck was a villain that ever showed up in the comics or if he’s something Burton dreamed up for the film, but in any case he makes just as much of a morbid impression as Danny Devito’s Penguin and Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman in the baddie department.

9. Gabriel in The Prophecy Trilogy

Walken takes a decidedly darker approach to the Angel Gabriel here, playing him as a rogue operative at war with god and his forces and engaged in casual genocide of the human race to both achieve his goal and simply prove a point. The cool thing about Walken as an actor is that most of his career finds him playing characters in crime dramas, comedies, real people in the real world, no matter how wacky they get. But he also has the deft versatility to pull off something otherworldly and supernatural too, as you can see by this moody, intense characterization that definitely suggests something out of this world.

8. The Headless Horseman in Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow

I had to. Roger Ebert wrote in his review of this film:

“ Note: No power on earth could drag from me the identity of the unbilled actor who plays the Horseman when he has a head. But you will agree he is the only logical choice. “

Is that not the perfect summation? He looks positively animalistic here as the big bad in Burtons best and most underrated film, sporting rock star hair, teeth whittled down to points and a thunderous roar which is the only actual dialogue he ever has in the role. Walken is a lot of things but one that you could boil his complex essence down to is ‘both scary and funny.’ If there’s one role that reinforces that it’s this, he’s somehow legitimately terrifying and ridiculously hilarious in the same note. That takes skill and charisma.

7. Caesar The Exterminator in Gore Verbinski’s Mouse Hunt

There’s something in the way one observes a crazed Walken crawling along the floor adorned in a headlamp and tactical gear, tasting dried mouse droppings to learn the gender of his quarry. Only he could take a ten minute exterminator role intended as comic relief and turn it into the kind of bizarre, deranged performance art that steals an entire film. I’ll also add that the film overall including his presence is one of the most overlooked of the 90’s and a misunderstood dark comedy/fairy tale that was unfairly billed as a kids film and lost on many dismissive viewers. Time for re-evaluation.

6. Frank Abagnale Sr. in Steven Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can

A family man whose reckless decisions lead to a radically different lifestyle and a diminished self image, Walken nails both the fierce pride and detrimental flaws of this character while infusing a deep love for his wife and son. It’s a complex portrayal that despite being a sideline supporting character, fills the film with humanity and humility. Don’t even get me started on the “two mice fell into a bucket of cream monologue.”

5. Paul Rayburn in Tony Scott’s Man On Fire

Another performance filled with subtly sorrowful regret, Rayburn is an ex military man who shares a past connection with Denzel Washington’s John Creasy, and the two share several central scenes of mutual remorse and guilt that land hard. Walken is good at masking deep set emotion with a joke, cloudy half smile or idiosyncratic anecdote, but the intention burns bright beneath whatever deflection tactic he employs, and his work here is no exception.

4. Vincenzo Coccotti in Tony Scott’s True Romance

Like many actors in this film, Chris only gets one scene or so to strut his stuff, but the nasty verbal showdown with Dennis Hopper here is not only one of the most memorable of the film but of cinema itself. He’s an apex predator here, a sociopathic mafia don who’s used to getting his way and accustomed to nobody standing up to him. His simultaneously bemused and aghast reaction at essentially being owned by Hopper’s wily ex cop is something for the ages and provides the film with some it’s best humour and scariest violence. “You’re a cantaloupe!”

3. Brad Whitewood Sr. in James Foley’s At Close Range

Walken has portrayed a lot of villains, scumbags and less than desirable dudes but Brad takes the fucking cake. Leader of a rural band of small time thieves, he re-enters the lives of his two sons (Sean and Chris Penn) he left years earlier and from the moment they become involved with him nothing good comes of it. He’s charming and affable at first but when the heat shows up it becomes very clear this guy will kill anyone, including his own sons, to keep himself afloat. This is a mean, sad and bleak spirited film with a cold, ruthless central performance from Walken. But it’s worth it to observe just how far human nature can go into extremes that all of us hope we don’t ever have to encounter.

2. Nick in Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter

One of several young men who go from life in a small industrial town in Pennsylvania to the horrors of the Viet Nam war, he brings all the subtleties of the world into his work here, showing how the darkness out there can smother someone’s soul to the point that they don’t even know who they are anymore. One of my favourite moments in Walken’s entire career is in this film, where a nurse in a military hospital asks him who he is and who to contact in this situation. The actor expertly but unobtrusively displays a quiet, confused and utterly devastating mental breakdown as the reality of what has happened to him sets in. It’s showcase Walken for how believable it is and one of the finest scenes he has ever crafted.

1. Frank White in Abel Ferrara’s King Of New York

The most introverted criminal kingpin ever to show up in cinema, Walken plays a recently paroled crime kingpin who’s ready to take back the territory he lost while in the slammer, with some help from his rambunctious crew headed up by a fearsomely unstable Laurence Fishburne. The performance I picked for top spot isn’t a weird one, a hyperactive comedic turn, a funny scary villain or anything that he’s outright known for. There’s something remarkably compelling and down to earth about Frank, something very ‘street.’ His name is fitting because that’s how he approaches both business and relationships: with a blunt, no nonsense and vaguely sadistic air. Ferrara directs one of the best NYC crime dramas ever made here, he and Walken make the moody final scene ring with unexpected, grim poetry.

-Nate Hill

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A Chat with actor Chris Ellis: An interview by Nate Hill

Very excited to bring you my latest interview, with actor Chris Ellis! Chris has an epic and wonderful career, appearing in many films including Armageddon, The Island, The Dark Knight Rises, The Devil’s Rejects, The Guest, Catch Me If You Can, Transformers, Wonderland, Planet Of The Apes, October Sky, Mr. Bean, Con Air, Wag The Dog, A Little Princess, Crimson Tide and many more. He’s a true gentleman, a hard working performer and a great guy. Enjoy our chat!

 

Nate: How did you first get into acting? Was it something you always wanted, or did you stumble into it?
Chris: From age 5 while watching the Mickey Mouse Club on early television, I warbled, “Hey diddley dee, that actor’s life for me.”
Nate: I’ve heard you referred to as a character actor before. What is you opinion on the term, and would you categorize yourself as such?
Chris: A male character actor is one who never gets the girl because he is not pretty enough – too bald, too chubby, too southern. I have played such roles throughout a lengthy, undistinguished career. Just once I wanted to kiss the girl.

Nate: The Dark Knight Rises: How was your experience working on this film, with Christopher Nolan and such an epic scene on that bridge?
Chris: You have the advantage of me, sir, as I have never seen that movie. More to the point, I have never read the script, though I understand I appeared in it in the early, middle and late sections. The reason I never read the script is that I was never shown any part of it other than the pages containing my own dialogue, and those pages were drastically redacted such that I was able to see the immediate cues for my dialogue and nothing else. At one point, after shooting a scene over my shoulder, the camera was turned around on me for a reaction shot. My query as to what I might be reacting to and how was answered by Nolan so: “That is on a need to know basis and you don’t need to know.” He fleshed out that response by suggesting I react as if I were “reacting to the sight of two guys talking.” No one I know who saw the movie hinted that I never looked as if I didn’t know what the hell was going on, but in fact no plot point was ever made known to me, nor any suggestion of the long arc of the movie. On the other hand, I got paid well, travelled to Pittsburgh, New York City, and Nottinghamshire in England. In all three places I had lots of time off in which to wonder what the hell the movie was about and to do lots of sightseeing. Any time, Mr Nolan.
Nate: I’ve noticed that you work with Michael Bay very frequently. Are you two pals, or has that just been coincidence? How has you experience been on his films, Armageddon/The Island etc.?
Chris: I worked with Bay on Armageddon, Transformers, and The Island. He is said by some to lack gentility and sophistication, and I have seen him on sets demonstrating a want of courtesy to actors who permit him to do so, but if you want a big action movie grossing a billion dollars about exploding planets and trucks turning over in high speed traffic mishaps, he is your boy. If you want art, go to the Lemmle Theatre in Santa Monica. I do this for a living. I go to museums for art. 
Nate: The Devil’s Rejects: such a wild and crazy film. Very memorable part as the goofball cop. How was your experience on that set, working with Rob Zombie and William Forsythe?
Chris: One day I mentioned to my theatrical agent that I had always been a fan of horror movies, by which I meant the classics of that genre, mostly from the 1950s and 60s. Very next day he called me with an offer for “a horror movie by Rob Zombie,” of whom I had never heard. I wouldn’t call The Devil’s Rejects horror – more like a Charlie Manson wet dream, but Zombie was the soul of gentility on the set. He is covered in tattoos, many of them visual renderings of famous horror movie characters from a simpler time, and when I worked with him he kept his wallet attached to his person by a length of chain sagging with languor between the wallet and his belt loop. This is a fashion accessory I associate with the Donald Trump demographic but which was belied by Zombie’s gentle and quiet spirit. 
Nate: What are some of your favourite roles you have played in your career so far?
Chris: Last year I played a judge on a TV series called Murder In The First. That was my dream job, as it involved sitting in a comfortable chair all day long on set, frequently unshod, and with an improving book in my lap to which I could refer between the words, “Cut!” and “Action!” I quite enjoyed yet another incarnation of Sheriff Cracker von Peckerwood in a 2000 movie called The Watcher, not least because I was given a rather wide berth by the director and screenwriter in making the dialogue my own. Also, it was a character with whom I felt a comfortable intimacy. The same applies to the character I played in the movie Armageddon and in one episode of the TV show X-Files. Playing Deke Slayton in Apollo 13 was probably the actual thrill of a lifetime because we all believed while working on that movie that it would become a significant movie (which it remains) and because I remembered Deke while he had been part of the Soyuz/Apollo mission in 1975. But, I hope it will not appear to be taking the liberty of rodomontade to utter the hope that there never has been a time of stepping onto a movie set without breathing a prayer of inarticulate gratitude for the consummation of a lifetime’s desire.
Nate: How was your experience on Catch Me If You Can?
Catch Me If You Can was a joy to work on, first because the script is superb, and because it gave me the chance to work with Spielberg who is a gentleman non pareil and who offers every artistic freedom to everyone on set. When I worked with him, at the completion of each set up, he would ask to the crew as well as to the cast, “Does anybody want to try another one? Anybody want to try something a little different? We have the time, so let me know if you’d like to do anything else with this shot.” Of course he has a very competent crew surrounding him, so his movies are apt always to come in one time and under budget, so it was a joy to work with such freedom.
Nate: Do you have a favourite or preferred genre to work in, or is it all equally enjoyable? Just once I’d like to kiss the girl, but as I say, every time I step onto any kind of set I remind myself that I am not laying roofing tar in Phoenix during the summer. If you ever hear me complain about any circumstance of my livelihood, you are invited to come where I am and kick me in the nuts.
Nate: What is next for you? Any upcoming projects, cinematic or otherwise that you are excited about and would like to mention?
Chris: Nope. Mostly what I do for a living is wait for the phone to ring. My family and I are now on vacation, but soon as I get home I will be slouching toward the telephone hoping to god it rings.

Nate: Thank you so much for your time Chris, it’s been a pleasure, and keep up the awesome work!