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Friday, September 9, 2011

My Checkered Past: Christopher Walken

My Checkered Past: Christopher Walken

I used to be a professional actor. Professionally trained, I embarked on an incredibly short career that consisted of a couple of jobs, one of which was in a film called “At Close Range.” It starred Christopher Walken and Sean Penn, and I had a few seconds that made it to the final edit, as Rosie the Cook. It was a thieves’ kitchen sort of scene, something familiar to me since my first acting experience was as one of Fagin’s boys in a production of “Oliver!” with the West Valley Light Opera in San Jose at the age of eight.

It was my second day of work on this film. I’d been in a jail scene earlier, and that was somewhat amusing though as always in that job there was a lot of waiting. Most day players I know bring a book or something to amuse themselves while waiting to be sent in front of a camera. On Rosie the Cook day, it appeared we were waiting for the sun to go down. When it did, we were allowed on the set, which was an old barn in Franklin, Tennessee.

I’d been on film sets before, in other jobs I’d done out in California, so the hot lights and power cables everywhere weren’t new to me and it didn’t seem weird. The rest of the actors and extras milled about, waiting to be told what to do. Tracey Walter flirted with all the girls, but I think everyone wanted to meet Christopher Walken. I’d always liked his work, and was pretty excited to be there that night.

The director, Jamie Foley, pointed to me and told me to stand next to a table, so I did. In the scene I was told to pour a cup of coffee for one of the actors and respond to a comment from Walken’s character. Then look busy. On that table were a big pot full of water, a couple of electric burners, one bearing a coffee pot full of coffee, about three opened cans of Campbell’s Chunky Soup, and a spoon. Look busy? Doing what? Once the soup was in the pot, all that was left was to pretend to stir it with the spoon which was too short to reach the bottom of the pot. Hm.

The first setup was a long shot, and I didn’t know where the camera was. I did what I was told, but the coffee I poured sort of all plopped into the cup at once, making it too full. Walken walked past, said, “Make it spicy, Rosy,” I smiled at him, and that was it for the take. I think we did it another couple of times, and those times I managed to fill the cup so it was a bit more wieldy, and the lights dimmed for another setup. Told to stay on my mark, I stayed where I was, on my mark drawn in the sawdust on the floor.

I tried to reset the props on my table, but the soup was in the pot and for the last couple of takes I found myself shuffling empty cans. I had no clue how I was going to fake it for further setups.

Next thing I knew, Christopher Walken was there, asking me about the stuff on the table. “What have you got here?” I showed him, and he tut-tutted and muttered some. Then he called over one of the property guys. “What’s this?” he said. “Look what she’s got here. How’s she supposed to do anything with this? This is a disgrace.” The property guy stammered and blinked and said it was just what was given to him to put there. Big mistake, for that brought more chewing out about how bad a job the properties were. Then Walken said, “Here, I’m going to give you a list. Take this down, and you go get this stuff for me.” Over protests that more stuff might not be available, he said to go find a store and buy it if necessary. He ordered shrimp, rice, vegetables, garlic, and a number of other things to throw into the pot. He asked for knives and spoons, and a cutting board. Then he hung out with those of us in the scene while waiting for the props to arrive, chatting with the other actors.

Very seldom in my life have I been a fangirl. I’ve sometimes had severe cases of boggle-eyes at meeting someone I admired, but most of the time I take that sort of thing in stride. But that day I found myself struggling to maintain a professional demeanor. Somehow I managed to hold it together without saying anything too stupid. When the props arrived, we discussed the stew as if we were going to eat it. Walken helped me chop vegetables, the shrimp and rice went in, and soon the pot smelled wonderful. All garlicky and shrimp-like. At one point I thanked him for his help with the props and said, “It must be nice, to be able to order people around like that.” He replied, “That’s what it’s all about.”

By the time the next setup was—well--set up, he was calling the stew “jambalaya,” and I realized what he was really up to. It wasn’t just a matter of giving me something to do so that I wouldn’t be obviously faking being busy on camera. It was also that by doing what he did, he established the same sort of relationship with me that his character would have with the character of Rosie. He helped me become comfortable in the scene, and helped me to be comfortable with the steaming pot of “jambalaya,” the knives, the vegetables, the cutting board, and the space I occupied behind the table. Basically, he was being the great actor he is, attending to details that weren’t necessarily his job but contributed immeasurably to the quality of the film.

The final takes of that scene went smoothly, I was able to actually be busy rather than fake it, and when Walken left the set he gave me a smile that warmed me to my toes. That was twenty-six years ago, and I still have to rub down goosebumps at the memory. For me, working with Christopher Walken was like being paid to take an acting lesson.


  1. Great blog! Sounds like it was a lot of fun.:)

  2. Very, very interesting, Julianne. And also is a great example of how focusing on the smallest details can make the story/product/etc. even better. Thank you!

  3. I'd never thought about the connection before with acting. But I guess it's true - in either acting or writing - it's all about the characters.

    Maybe the lesson authors can take from Walken is how important it is to make sure that every character hits the mark with readers, even if they're only in 1 or 2 scenes. For after all, what is a book but a collection of scenes? If the little scenes don't live and breathe and inspire, then there is no hope that the book will do better.

    Great post - thanks so much for sharing the experience!

  4. Fantastic story, Julianne! I lo-o-ove Christopher Walken so much I named my site More Cowbell after his famous SNL skit with Will Farrell. Thanks for sharing the memory.

  5. Thank you so much for sharing that story! Sounds scary but so much fun at the same time. So, are Christopher Walken's eyes as amazing as they appear on screen? :)

  6. What a great experience! He sounds like such a quality professional who takes pride in his work and wants his scenes to depict reality.
    Wonderful blog!

  7. Mmmm...I have a thing for eyes... ;)


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