Christopher Walken on why Bristol is like a ‘campus’

Christopher Walken has likened Bristol to a “campus” and praised its “strong counterculture”.

The Oscar-winning Deerhunter star appears in BBC One’s Bristol-set crime series The Outlaws, which will start at 9pm on Monday, October 25.

The six-part comedy-drama about offenders on community service — written and directed by Hanham-born Stephen Merchant — used Sea Mills Community Centre as its main filming location, and many other areas of the city are featured.

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When the series premiered earlier this month at Watershed cinema in the Harbourside, Merchant told Bristol Live how he persuaded the legendary Walken to join the cast by informing him Bristol is like San Francisco.

And now the BBC has shared an indepth interview with Walken about The Outlaws and his time filming in Bristol:

Tell us about your character in The Outlaws.

I play Frank. He’s an American who’s lived in England for 40 years or so. He married an English woman and has children and a life in England, but I’d say he’s barely assimilated. He’s a kind of a ne’er-do-well, I guess, a good man who’s good hearted and good natured but he’s made a lot of mistakes. Probably has poor judgement. Often in trouble with the law, you know? Anyway, he means well and in this story he’s part of this group of outlaws, people doing what we in America call ‘work release’. I think it’s a very good idea: instead of locking everybody up for nonviolent offences, you do something that could rehabilitate them and put them to some sort of good service, instead of sitting around all day behind bars.

How did you come to be cast?

I’m an actor, it was a good job and I’m a fan of Stephen Merchant. We met at my house and I was very taken with him. It’s very good writing: you can tell that, if you’ve been doing it for as long as I have. I stand in my kitchen, I read the lines out loud and these were very good words. And, you know, it was great to come to England. I’ve been in England many times in my career, not to Bristol, but I’ve always enjoyed myself here. So it was just a good job.

Aside from the script what other factors affect whether or not you’re going to take a job?

The people you’re going to be working with is very important. All the actors on this show are terrific, really terrific. It’s a lot of fun to go to work and that’s very important. There were other factors, of course, like being away from home and so on. But we filmed the first season and then there was a break. When you’re in a job you always think, when the job is over, I’m going to take a break. But it doesn’t take long to get restless again and you want to go back.

Christopher Walken
Christopher Walken filming at Highmore Gardens in Lockleaze
(Image: BBC / JAMES PARDON 2020)

How did you find spending time in Bristol?

It’s a terrific place. It’s a university town. I live in Connecticut in America, which is rather close to Yale University, but there’s a theatre there that I’ve worked at many times when I was young. Bristol is very much like that. It’s a campus with lots of students walking around, but the Old Vic is here. I like it here very much. There’s a strong counterculture here. First time I was here there were riots, a lot of noise outside. Second time there was also a lot of noise outside, but I think it was on account of the soccer.

How have you found working with Stephen Merchant on set?

One: I like him, so it’s easy. But two: he’s very good at making adjustments. Fixing, tweaking and getting everyone comfortable. Sometimes writers are very strict, you know, they insist on it being exactly what it is. And he’s very flexible, which I’m all in favour of.

What was it like with the younger cast?

The other day I was in the makeup trailer with a lot of my cast mates who are younger than I. And I don’t have any sort of technology. I don’t even have a cell phone. I mentioned an English actor named Clifton Webb who was this marvellous actor, one of my favourite actors. And he made a lot of movies, you know, in the 40s in Hollywood. And I mentioned Clifton Webb and none of my younger colleagues knew who he was, I said: “He’s one of the best actors, how could you not know?” And this one guy took his cell phone and punched in ‘Clifton Webb’. And in 30 seconds he had all these details – where he was born, his credits, where he started, where he lived in Hollywood, everything! It was amazing. I thought, I’ve got to get me one of those cell phones.

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You’ve done lots of great comedy in your career, including several memorable stints hosting Saturday Night Live. How would you describe your sense of humour?

I think my sense of humour has very much to do with where I come from. I was in show business when I was five years old. And when I was growing up in America, it was the birth of television after the Second World War when television first started, and there were these huge shows like Milton Berle and Sid Caesar. And so I think my comedy is very much of that time.

I also loved Broadway musical comedy. I was in Broadway musicals for years as a dancer and I think my own sensibility (as well as my acting technique) is very absent of a fourth wall. The famous fourth wall doesn’t really exist for me because of all that time in musicals where the other character in the scene is always the audience. So I’m always very aware of the audience. And I think that’s where I come from.

Given the choice would you watch TV, go to the movies or the theatre?

Even now when somebody says, ‘Would you like to go to the theatre?’ I say, ‘Yeah, let’s find a musical.’ I love musicals. And as far as TV goes of course I watch a lot of news and sports. I have a cable channel that has old movies 24 hours a day. So I watch a lot of old movies. The good thing is there are still some very funny people out there. Like Stephen Merchant — you should watch out for him.

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