Though he's no musician, Christopher Walken says his role as Peter in the Beethoven-infused independent film "A Late Quartet" brought him as close to his own identity as any of the characters in his long career — which made the experience particularly special for him.
"Any part I play is going to have a lot of me in it," Walken said in a phone interview today. "There are actors — but very few — who can disappear into their character chameleon-like, change shape and change personality, but I’ve never been able to do that.
"But the truth is the guy in 'A Late Quartet' is a lot more like me in his private life than I think anybody I’ve ever played. I stay at home a lot, unless I’m going to work. I’ve been married for nearly 50 years. I’m a pretty conservative guy, in spite of playing nut jobs."
In the Yaron Zilberman-directed film, which co-stars Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Mark Ivanir and Imogen Poots, Walken gives an Oscar-worthy performance in the role of Peter Mitchell, the quartet's elder statesman. Though facing a crisis of his own, he is the group's voice of reason.
"In my career," Walken said, "I've played a lot of troubled people, and this guy was more a papa. It has to do with me and a certain time in my life too. If you’re an actor and you get to work, you're lucky, and I’ve played a lot of these odd people. For a long time, I looked younger than I was — now I’m at a certain age where I’m starting to play uncles and fathers and grandfathers and so on, which is what I am in this story. That was new — that was an opportunity that I jumped at. And maybe it will lead to more of that sort of thing."
Walken's agent sent him the script (co-written by Zilberman and Seth Grossman) six months before filming began. He said he took a crash course on the cello, though he never did learn to play.
"I learned how to fake fingering and bow strokes, and we all had to do that," Walken said. "Some of the other actors got quite good at it. Phil Hoffman could acutally play by the time we shot movie and Catherine too, but I never got to that point."
Even so, Walken did bond with the character of Peter, in a story that compelled Walken to confront the idea of mortality — both professional and personal — in a way he seldom had.
"Where I connected with Peter was in the obvious place of being a performer," Walken said. "I’ve spent my life really on the stage. That whole dynamic of performing in front of a live audience for people who bought tickets and doing what you do best in a given amount of time, it’s really more like athletics I think. You have a small amount of time to do what you do best, and the rest of your life is getting ready for that.
"I've never thought much about (mortality), but I’m going to be 70. Lately ... it comes into my head, starting to think about that. It’s not morbid — it’s just pragamatic I suppose. I never thought I’d find myself thinking about stuff like that, but I do."
It was fitting, then, that Walken had a key scene in the movie that involves Peter telling a story that reflects on success and failure.
"Absolutely, it was an important story," he said. "I believe that very much. I’ve always felt that in terms of addressing my own work, I try to look for the good parts. I've done lots of bad work, and then occasionally some good work. With me, I’ve always had to get a little lucky — you have a day where everything works great, and you have a day when things don’t work so good, and there never seems to be any particular reason why any of them should happen. I try just to prepare and be ready and get a little lucky."