TORONTO – Christopher Walken, the actor with the mile-high hair and staccato line delivery, would like to play what he calls a Fred MacMurray part.
Not as in Double Indemnity, where an insurance salesman is lured into a murder plot by a femme fatale played by Barbara Stanwyck, but something closer to My Three Sons.
I want to play a guy who has a house, a wife. My wife wears a dress in the house. I have three sons, and they say to me, Dad, what should I do?’ And I say, ’Son, always try to do the right thing.’ Yeah, I’d like to play a guy with a family, a regular guy, but I’ll never get that part, he said, to appreciative laughter.
Although not a cartoonish villain, he’s not exactly a regular guy in A Late Quartet. The drama had its world premiere in September during the Toronto International Film Festival, and that’s where Walken and some fellow cast members did interviews with small clusters of reporters (not even enough for a quartet, in some cases) in a nightclub one morning.
In A Late Quartet, Walken is Peter Mitchell, a cellist diagnosed with early symptoms of Parkinson’s disease on the eve of a famous string quartet’s 25th-anniversary season. Philip Seymour Hoffman portrays the second violinist, Mark Ivanir is first violinist and Catherine Keener, a violist who considers Peter a father figure.
The 69-year-old actor, an Oscar winner for his devastating supporting turn in The Deer Hunter and later a nominee as the dad in Catch Me If You Can, learned to play – and appear to play – the cello.
I had to take lessons and I didn’t like having to take lessons. My teacher would come and we would play for five minutes and I would say, Can we take a little break?,’ and I’d put my cello down and then we’d just talk. We’d look at the cello and say, That thing sure is expensive.’
Walken, clad this day all in black, could appreciate what the diagnosis meant for the ensemble’s patriarch. If you did something very well and you made a good living and it was your life, to be told suddenly that you couldn’t do that is a terrible thing, he said.
You know, in the ancient theater, the Greek theater, the big tragedy for an actor and the thing that actors feared as they got older – this was before they got dentists and ways of taking care of things – the teeth would fall out. And when your teeth fall out, of course your diction and your voice, everything’s affected and that would be the end of their career.
Which then leads to an inquiry about whether Walken believes in an afterlife. I don’t believe in death. I think Noel Coward says in Private Lives,’ he says (that) death is a trick done with mirrors. I think that’s true.
Keener, sitting next to her co-star on the banquette, said, I think that we’re part of whatever happens to the rest of the Earth happens to us. If a plant has an afterlife, probably we do, too.
A Late Quartet doesn’t cite Coward or Woody Allen, whom Walken also references, on the subject, but it does quote the line about time present and time past from T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets.
The film’s musical centerpiece is Beethoven’s Opus 131, written in seven movements and with no pauses. That means the musicians cannot tune their instruments between movements and they go out of tune each in a completely different way, much as relationships do in life.
If Walken didn’t enjoy practicing, Keener said she learned Beethoven by making songs up. I knew where the notes were and then I would make up songs with the notes about my son. Clyde, I love you so,’ she sang, before Walken burst into a robust Full moon and empty arms.
An absent Hoffman, Truman Capote to Keener’s Harper Lee in Capote, mastered the music. Phil could actually play, Walken marveled, as Keener added, Phil, honestly, made me realize if he continued to play for a year he’d be great.
Asked how years or decades of work had changed their work, Walken said, I think I’m better at it than I was. ... When I began, I was so terrified that I’m sure that compromised me. I’ve kind of gotten over that. A great actor friend of mine said acting is not difficult once you know how to do it.
But Keener acknowledged moments on the set – although she hasn’t had one in years – when she felt like a deer in the headlights. Just kind of looked up and froze. I just wanted to stop and run.
Although Walken was out of his comfort zone in A Late Quartet thanks to the cello, he was at ease with the notion of being a performer as Peter is. He goes on stage in front of an audience. That I understand.
One of the last scenes filmed was a concert in front of hundreds of people. That was extremely comfortable for me, he said. Most people, that’s difficult, if you throw somebody on stage in front of a big audience, but for me, that’s kind of like being on my own turf.
He grew up on New York’s Upper West Side, where many orchestra musicians resided. The mother, the father, the kids, they all played instruments, they all made a living. A good living. They lived in nice big apartments and they were very smart, cosmopolitan, but also street-type New Yorkers.
They talked like New Yorkers and they didn’t talk about special things, they talked about movies and restaurants and Zabar’s and smoked fish, things like that.
They were very down-to-earth people, but very cultured. ... I went to school with their kids, including a man whose father played violin for Toscanini.
Walken, who next ricochets into Stand Up Guys alongside Al Pacino and Alan Arkin as retired gangsters, also acknowledged Elvis Presley as an influence on his hair, which also gave him the appearance of an unusually large head, which is common to many actors.
Males in all nature, they have their plumage. I always think of my hair as a kind of attention-getting device. You know, it basically says, Look at me,’ and if you’re in show business, that’s not such a bad thing.