Christopher Walken has pretty much done it all. He won an Oscar for 1978’s The Deer Hunter, played a Bond villain in 1985’s A View To A Kill, achieved cult following for his extraordinary dance in the 2010 Fatboy Slim video Weapon Of Choice, and through appearances in films such as Pulp Fiction and True Romance has earned a reputation as one of the greatest actors of his generation.
Yet it all begins, he says, in his home in Connecticut—specifically, in his kitchen, alone, talking to himself.
“The work I do on the scripts, you know, I spend a long time in my kitchen, all by myself, trying to figure it out. My process is to read over and over until it sounds right. Suddenly it’s almost like talking to someone you know: either you believe them or you don’t. And when I start to believe myself, I think I’m on the right track.’
It was in his kitchen that Christopher first read the script of Stephen Merchant’s The Outlaws, a new BBC comedy drama set in a Bristol community service. “It’s very good writing, you can tell if you’ve been doing it for as long as I have,” says Christopher, 78.
Christopher Walken (pictured), who won an Oscar for 1978’s The Deer Hunter, plays Frank in the new six-part series The Outlaws
“I’m standing in my kitchen reading the lines out loud, and those were really good words.” And it was also in his kitchen that he first met Stephen and was persuaded to take on the part.
‘I sat with him for a few hours. By the way, I made him an omelette, and he ate it all and asked if he could have more. And I thought, “Yeah, I like this guy. I have to work with him.”‘
The result is the new six-part series on BBC1 that stars Christopher Frank, a roguish American con man who has lived in the UK for most of 40 years and is now in trouble with the law again.
“He’s married to an Englishwoman and has kids and a life in England, but I’d say he’s barely assimilated,” Christopher says.
“He’s a bit of a good-for-nothing, I think, a good man who is kind-hearted and good-natured, but he’s made a lot of mistakes. He probably has poor judgment, often in trouble with the law, you know?’
Christopher brings exquisite timing to cheat on Frank as he moves back in with the daughter he abandoned decades earlier and bonds with his strait-laced grandson (and guides him in the fine art of ruthless womanizing).
The comedy couldn’t be more fish out of water – the New Yorker in Bristol, the inveterate crook trying to fit into a family. The show is set in Bristol, which is where Stephen Merchant comes from.
His parents were community service workers there, which inspired these genre-breaking antics about the community payback scheme that brings together people from all walks of life, from a kleptomaniac straight-A student (Rhianne Barreto) to a young man who gets caught up in county-bound drug crime (Gamba Cole) and Merchant’s geeky lawyer who finds himself doing community service after being a bit harassed.
Christopher said he is a fan of Stephen Merchant and wanted to come to England. Pictured: Christopher and the cast of The Outlaws, with Stephen Merchant as fourth from the front
When their worlds collide in the dilapidated community center the team must renovate, they suddenly discover they have more in common than they thought.
And when we talk about worlds colliding, you don’t get cultural clashes much bigger than Christopher Walken shaking up in pandemic-ravaged Bristol. He’s an actor from another era, one for streaming, and yet here he is in a BBC/Amazon co-production.
His raspy American vocals are very distinctive, but this is a comedy full of ripe Bristolian vowels. How did that happen?
“Look, I’m an actor, it was a good job, I’m a Stephen Merchant fan and I had to come to England. I’ve been to England many times in my career – not Bristol – but I’ve always had a good time here. So it was just a good job,” he says.
I still need to figure out how to answer my mobile
He filmed two series of The Outlaws this year in two separate stints. The first coincided with the Bristol riots in March, the second with Euro 2020 in June.
“The first time I was here there was a lot of noise outside, that was a disturbance, and the second time there was a lot of noise outside again,” he laughs. “But I think that was football.”
When he arrived on set, the other actors were in awe. “I was really impressed with the stars,” said Jess Gunning, who plays jobsworth community payback supervisor Diane.
“I mean, it’s just crazy isn’t it? He is a very down to earth guy and he is so professional and doing his thing. But I got goosebumps when I saw him on the monitor. You know, there’s just something about him. He is a movie star and yet here in Bristol he is in the freezing cold in a communal paying hi-vis tabard. Actually?’
Christopher said he hopes not to be able to attend his own 96th birthday party because he is working somewhere. Pictured: Christopher as Frank in The Outlaws
But Christopher says he’s gotten something from the younger cast, including Poldark’s Eleanor Tomlinson. “I was in the makeup trailer with a lot of my castmates who are younger than me.
‘And I don’t have any technology, I don’t even have a cell phone. I mentioned an actor named Clifton Webb who was amazing, one of my favorites. He made many movies in Hollywood in the 1940s. None of my younger colleagues knew who he was. I said, ‘He’s one of the best actors, how could you not know?’
So one of the younger actors picked up his phone and googled Clifton Webb.
“In 30 seconds he had all these details, when he was born, where he started, his credits, where he lived… I thought, ‘Well, I need to get myself one of those cell phones, iPads or whatever it is. And I need to figure out how to do that.”’ So, because actors talk to actors about other actors, Christopher Walken now has an iPhone.
I always hoped I would work on my 96th birthday
“I got a call this morning and tried to pick up, but in the end I broke off the whole thing. I have yet to figure out how to answer when it rings. But you know, small steps.’
He still sees acting as one job after another. He talks about getting restless after nearly 70 years of not working on a great career that started as a child actor.
“For me, and always has been, one of the best feelings for an actor is to go home in the car at the end of the day, go back to the hotel and think, ‘I was good today. . That was good.” There’s hardly anything better.’
And with two series of The Outlaws in his pocket, he is looking for that next job again. “Someone told me that actors don’t retire. They are retiring. And I’m not retired yet.
“One of my favorite actor stories is that John Gielgud was celebrating his 96th birthday and I think the royal family wanted to throw him a big party.
“The story I heard was that he had to respond and say, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t be there because I’m shooting a movie on location.’ I always hoped that on my 96th birthday I would be working somewhere and not be able to go to my own birthday party.”
The Outlaws, Monday, 9pm, BBC1.