“I love spaghetti. And I like to cook spaghetti. And I used to eat it every day. I weighed thirty pounds more than I do now. You can’t—you can’t do that.” – Walken
It is completely unnecessary to point out the eccentricity of Christopher Walken. His stone cold screen presence and monotone voice have evoked both horror and hilarity in movie audiences for over 40 years. As some viewers cover their eyes and brace themselves for discomfort at his entrance into the frame, others begin laughing in anticipation of his oft-imitated way of speaking. He looks strange. He talks weird. Walken is an enigma. He does have another talent that goes beyond this, however. No, it is not his fantastic ability to dance, but something more bizarre than that: his subtle art of eating on screen. Even as early as 1977, he is positioned at a dinner table as Duane, Annie Hall’s creepy brother. Why is this man constantly stuffing his face with food?
Of course this does not apply to every scene in every movie Walken has been in, but there are countless examples of bad table manners throughout his career. Within the first five minutes of Man on Fire we see him behind a grill, avidly licking his fingers in mid-conversation with Denzel Washington. And when he isn’t satisfying this insatiable hunger, he is talking about it; note the opening sequence of Brainstorm: “Steak, overdone, right? Peanut butter, hot fudge sauce, a slight orange flavor… disgusting… walnuts, I hate them… marshmallow, cherry on the top. I feel like a glass of champagne, get some glasses!”
Or maybe eating on screen isn’t something so specific to Walken, it is just that he is able to masticate so naturally, yet passionately at the same time. Another actor might go through the motions of eating a piece of food, but when you see Chris Walken going at it, it is so genuine that by the next scene you know that what he just ate is now being digested. But does he look for these scenes? In True Romance, Sicilian thugs track down Clarence’s father Cliff (Dennis Hopper) in order to get information through torture. In a wide shot near the beginning of the scene, we see a plastic container of small, edible objects (my guess is nuts of some kind) seated in between Walken’s thighs. The shot is so brief, that in the following reverse over-the-shoulder shots, one hardly notices him placing the container on the floor to the right of his chair.
Throughout the interrogation, he chews on something in such a subtle manner that his mouth movements could be mistaken for grimaces. Hopper knows that they are going to horribly torture him if he doesn’t reveal his son’s whereabouts, so he eloquently insults their racial history by claiming the Sicilians have darker skin because of breeding with the Moors hundreds of years earlier. At the end of his explanation Hopper states, “You’re part eggplant,” to which Walken animatedly replies, “You’re a cantaloupe!” (During his appearance on Inside the Actors Studio with James Lipton, Hopper revealed that he and Walken stuck to Quentin Tarantino’s script almost entirely; the only improvised part that they came up with on their own was the eggplant/cantaloupe exchange.) They both start laughing hysterically, only to have Walken brutally shoot Hopper in the head immediately after. Walken wipes off his face, referring to Hopper’s splattered blood as egg. The scene concludes with one of the thugs finding the address they needed while rifling through the dead man’s refrigerator.
Incidentally, Walken gives a racist monologue to Johnny Depp in Nick of Time a couple years later, one that attempts, yet fails to achieve the same intensity of the True Romance dialogue. He starts off by saying, “Have a cracker, Mr. Watson,” and throughout the rest of the spiel casually chows down on hors d’oeuvres. In order to intimidate Watson (Depp), Walken recounts a story about how he killed an Irish-Italian friend who fucked up one too many times. He concludes, using some perverse food metaphors: “Lemme tell you something. I’ll make gravy outta your little girl. Just to season that black Irish cocksucker’s meat.”
Walken’s eight or so minutes in Abel Ferrara s pretentiously well-read vampire flick The Addiction have more abstract food references. The whole movie is more or less about consumption, but in context to blood, drugs and the allegorical chewing up and spitting out of religion and culture. Walken, who plays some sort of puppet master-like role, leads the protagonist played by Lili Taylor up to his loft for an ambiguous, philosophical vampire pep talk. Although he does not literally eat anything during his short appearance, he arbitrarily holds a bowl of apples while talking about Nietzsche and mentions dieting (albeit in context to cutting down on vampiric consumption of blood, not necessarily food). Continuing on, he happens to mention William S. Burroughs’ aptly titled Naked Lunch, of all books. Also, he does definitely feast on Taylor’s neck for a few seconds, gratuitously biting her and drinking blood. Probably at this time in his career there were not too many mouth watering roles coming his way, so he settled for this minor part just to put some food on his actual, real life table.
If I had to guess which of the countless roles is Walken’s favorite throughout his extensive career, it would most likely be his portrayal of Lieutenant McDuff in Billy Morrissette’s Scotland, PA, an ingenious reworking of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The story plays out in context to the growing fast food culture of the 1970’s. The McBeth’s, lowly workers at Duncan’s restaurant, murder the owner, only to open McDuff’s, a parody of today’s most recognized fast food establishment. Forty minutes into the picture, Walken introduces himself to the new entrepreneurs (and the audience), casually popping some sort of morsel into his mouth between words.
He goes on to explain that his business cards can be found next to the plate of baba ghanoush, a vegetarian dish his wife made for the deceased former owner’s funeral. A few scenes later, Walken’s attention is completely diverted from his police questioning when he enthusiastically notices a dip the McDuff s made as an ice cream topping. In the climactic rooftop struggle between McBeth and McDuff, the latter attempts to force-feed the adamantly vegetarian lieutenant a hamburger. When all is said and done, the movie closes with McDuff reopening the restaurant once again, only this time as the “Home of the Garden Burger.” The last shot fades out on him whimsically munching on a carrot. Imagine the excitement he must have felt after reading the script for the first time! This film encompasses more culinary shenanigans than most actors might deal with in their entire careers.
Things get deeper as the story goes on. In a July 2005, interview with Der Spiegel, Germany’s version of Time magazine, Walken said that his father was a baker, originally from the town of Essen. Essen used as a verb translates as “to eat,” while the noun das Essen simply means food. Coincidence? I guess it either runs in his blood, and/or he just has a very close connection to the heimat.
Among the long list of quotes found in Walken’s profile on the Internet Movie Database, we find the following, “My favorite thing is to have two scripts at the same time, and study them simultaneously in the kitchen.” This explains a lot. He probably can’t recall lines unless he associates them with the act of cooking and/or eating. Going back to his starved, yet award-winning role in The Deer Hunter, it is quite obvious that The Academy already knew of this acting crutch early on. He has not received an Oscar since, because this urge to eat on screen ruins the purity of all his great performances; when members of The Academy see him chewing, they are reminded of the same old Chris Walken they saw at the cocktail party a few weeks before. The character is no longer believable.
If all this evidence isn’t enough to prove that Walken is a food maniac, we find an answer to one of the rhetorical questions at the beginning of this article in his own words. A while back in 2001, he—or someone satirizing him—wrote a column for a publication which happens to be called The Onion, in which he editorialized on hot dogs: “If, in the middle of a scene, I decide I want to consume a hot dog, I do so. I waste the director’s time and thousands of dollars in film stock, but in the end, it is all worth it, because I enjoy eating hot dogs more than I enjoy acting. He continues on in the next paragraph, “When we filmed The Dead Zone, I ate over 800 hot dogs a day. It was necessary. My character needed to come across as intense as possible, and I found the inspiration for that intensity in my intense love for hot dogs. The director, David Cronenberg, said that he would never work with me again. I kept eating hot dogs when the cameras were rolling, and that seemed to bother him. I say fuck him. He doesn’t even like hot dogs.” With a persona as deadpan as his, can we really be sure he is joking?