There is no wrangling legendary actors Christopher Walken and Philip Seymour Hoffman when they're in a room together. Like old friends, their conversation can swing wide and cover just about anything -- from the employment rate of Screen Actors Guild members to "The Hunger Games."
Beyond the interview circuit, the Oscar winners (Walken for "The Deer Hunter"; Hoffman for "Capote") co-star in "A Late Quartet," Yaron Zilberman's understated drama about the tumultuous personal and professional lives of members in a string quartet. (Catherine Keener and Mark Ivanir join Walken and Hoffman in the foursome.) With the film out now on Blu-ray and DVD, Walken and Hoffman sat down to discuss Hoffman's comfort with string instruments, Walken's thoughts on "Saturday Night Live," and even Paul Thomas Anderson's next film, which neither actor has officially signed on for ... yet.
I heard that you, Philip, are the actor who walked away from this film really knowing how to play the violin and not just mimicking.
Hoffman: I really got into the violin thing, because it's not acting, and I got off on that. That I got to go someplace and work on something that wasn't my day job. I really enjoyed that.
Walken: You could play!
Do you still play?
Hoffman: I haven't done it since -- the sound was awful, but I started getting a sense of what it meant to hold it and play it and ... if you could play, what that might feel like. It was great faking it. We had a lot of fun. I got to the point where I would enjoy the faking of it, and I really liked the teachers too. They were really cool, they were at the top of their profession. Any time you get to learn something you know nothing about, is pretty cool.
Have either of you learned something for one of your other roles and then picked it up permanently after the fact?
Walken: Not me. If you make a Western, you have to learn to get on a horse -- but I would always get off that horse as soon as possible.
Hoffman: I think that's actually the good metaphor for it. That actors -- what's that phrase? You know a little bit about a lot of things. That's kind of what ends up happening. It's like you're an ongoing college student, in a lot of ways. You learn a little bit about that language because you have an accent to learn. I remember going -- early on -- to Poland to shoot a movie, so I read Michener's "Poland." [Laughs] I remember reading the whole thing and I was completely fascinated by the history of Poland for a while. But then you're done and you gotta move on, you gotta let it go. Nothing's stuck with me, either.
You're both at the point in your careers where you can really do anything and excel. Is there anything you won't do? Or conversely, is there something you're dying to do?
Walken: Well, sure. There's lots of directors and actors that I'd love to work with. I'm inclined to say yes in all things, but if I read a script and I stand in my kitchen and mumble it to myself and I think, "I can't play this!" I'll just say so and that's the end of it.
Hoffman: I think that's true -- if it doesn't feel right, you just don't do it. I think the days of acting just for acting's sake are gone. I've got to know why I'm going to do it. I think that's, I guess, a plus. I'm grateful that I'm in a position where I can think that way. Because most actors aren't; they gotta take the job they're offered because they need the money. I'm grateful that I'm in the position where I can take the one that I know I care about.
Walken: I heard a statistic the other day. I guess I'm not surprised, but 98 percent of the members of the Screen Actors Guild, at any moment, are unemployed.
Hoffman: Yeah, it's amazing! Amazing!
Walken: Good actors go decades, they can't get a break.
Hoffman: It has a lot less to do with talent, at the end of the day. Tenacious! Any actor that I've looked up to who's ever talked to me -- if it's not that word, something like that. That's the advice, that people are tenacious.
This makes me think of the moment in the movie where you, Christopher, give a speech to your music class about meeting one of your idols. It's a fantastic scene.
Walken: That speech came out of a conversation about the good stuff. When I see myself in a movie, with very few exceptions I think, "OK, you're pretty good in that scene." But the others, I mean, I have to cover my eyes!
Walken: Oh, sure! I don't know about other actors, but I'm a very on-and-off type of guy. You know, I throw a lot of stuff at the wall and some sticks. [laughs] But that's true: in the movies I think, "You're good in that scene!" and "You're not good in that scene!" And it's always that way, it's just a matter of how much each way.
Hoffman: That's true!
Is there anything you've done that has made you say, "Yeah, I'm good in all of that."
Walken: Very rare.
Hoffman: Yeah, so rare.
Walken: You know, in fact, I think this movie is interesting in that way for me. I feel that way about myself and I feel that way about all the five characters. Everybody in the movie has their job and they really nail it. It's very rare; I haven't been in many movies like that. It's so much like the facts of life for people in a quartet -- that they perform together and they've all got to be really on the ball 24-7. And this movie was done not with a lot of money and there really wasn't a lot of time. And it's really amazing. I think for me, also, I was energized by being in New York. I remember one day, we had a scene at my house and they picked me up and took me to the set and I'd forgotten something -- my script or something. And I just walked back to my apartment and got it and I came back and nobody had noticed that I'd left. That's pretty cool!
Hoffman: It is rare. All the actors are really vulnerable. Like, I'm watching and everybody seemed to want to be vulnerable in the movie. There's no kind of cool, clever acting -- everyone's just kind of being honest. There's a lot of really good acting.
And it's funny too that the dynamic of this string quartet so closely mirrors the dynamic of actors working together on a set -- it's almost meta.
Walken: That scene at the end, I think we did in two days, but they had a big auditorium and lots of people they invited -- hundreds of people -- but for me, the fact that I'm an actor, for better or worse, working on the stage is my whole life; standing in front of people who bought a ticket. And that was so real to me, I didn't think of myself as someone playing a cello, I thought of myself as Chris and -- you know -- I'm standing out here, let me entertain you. There was a direct correlation, I think, for the other people, too.
Speaking of musical theater, Christopher, you officially broke through to the teen generation with the Fatboy Slim music video. And now, Philip is poised to do the same thing as Plutarch Heavensbee in "Catching Fire." Any advice on how he can survive in the belly of that beast?
Walken: What's that?
Hoffman: "The Hunger Games" books. I'm in the next couple "Hunger Games" movies, yeah.
Walken: You know, I don't know them -- I know the "Hunger Games" are huge.
Hoffman: Yeah, it's these books -- I didn't know either. And then they offered me this job on them, so I went and saw the film that came out, which I thought was pretty good.
Walken: Is that vampire stuff?
Hoffman: No, it's like sci-fi.
It's basically dystopian young adult fiction.
Hoffman: About the future. You first read it and you think, "Oh -- it's one thing." And then I finished the books - unbelievable! [To Christopher] You really should read them. It's this woman [Suzanne Collins] whose father I guess was in the military and in Vietnam and she wrote these books for the teenage audience, about war. And it's really this futuristic take on what happens to a fascist regime where they basically have these games where kids kill each other. It's really amazing stuff. But yeah, I don't think I'm going to be part of that -- I think that's more Jennifer Lawrence and those guys.
Oh, I bet you'll still get swept into it. That franchise is a force to be reckoned with!
Walken: Have you done it already?
Hoffman: No, I shot the first one but it hasn't come out yet. So I haven't experienced what you're talking about yet. We'll see.
Walken: I wish they'd invite me!
It's not too late!
Hoffman: No, it's not too late!
While we work on getting Christopher cast in the next "Hunger Games" movie, allow me to also ask about Paul Thomas Anderson's next film: Are you confirmed for "Inherent Vice"?
Hoffman: Not as of now, which is cool. I mean, it's so -- with me and him it's just kind of, you know, when it's right, it's right. But I knew about "Inherent Vice" a long time ago -- I always know what's going on. Sometimes I do readings and stuff for him.
Why haven't you been in a Paul Thomas Anderson movie yet, Christopher?
Walken: He hasn't asked me!
Hoffman: Actually, I should mention Chris for "Inherent Vice"!
Walken: You know what's funny, I love "Boogie Nights." I've seen it a lot. Just yesterday morning I watched it. Somebody said it's a movie about a family. That's a nice way of putting it.
Hoffman: Yeah! It is!
Walken: It's a very wholesome movie! The whole thing -- Burt Reynolds is papa, and he's a good papa. He's a decent man.
Hoffman: Yeah, and he takes back the kids. They go out, and they cause trouble, and they come back.
Walken: Yeah, they come back at the end! It's a really nice movie. And Alfred Molina is so cool.
Hoffman: So great! One of the great cameos ever.
I'm losing count of how many times people this awards season have won statues and mentioned "The Master" in their speech.
Hoffman: Oh, people are doing that? Yeah, they didn't give Paul enough credit there. But that's how I feel about Paul. He's a great talent. A really gifted filmmaker.
It's a legendary relationship, between the two of you.
Hoffman: Yeah, we're very close friends -- we've known each other 20 years now? Very, very close.
You, Christopher, are one of two people -- along with Alec Baldwin -- to have an open invitation from Lorne Michaels to host "Saturday Night Live". How does one achieve that, exactly?
Walken: Musical comedy really may be my biggest influence. I always, you know, if I'm on the stage I turn right around and talk to the audience. [Laughs] That's from the old days! So "SNL," sure, that's an extension of that -- doing things live. Although with television, particularly something like "SNL," I had occasion to go literally around the world a few years ago, and where I was -- Asia and all over the place, Australia -- you turn on the TV, "SNL" is there. And it's so pervasive that you have to be careful. You can do one "SNL" and more people are going to see you than if you'd made 10 movies. And you have to be a little bit discreet.