How Christopher Walken Got His Unique Way Of Speaking

Christopher Walken isn't simply one of the most beloved actors of a generation. He likely is also one of the most impersonated. Walken is a class of actors, along with Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jack Nicholson, Robert DeNiro, and Al Pacino, who has such a unique and recognizable way of speaking that you frequently hear imitations of him — and you know immediately that it's him, even when it's a bad impression.

Walken has had a hugely successful acting career, perhaps partly because of his unique speaking style. Yet, he started his early profession with a different talent: dancing. After an early job with the circus as a lion tamer, he starred opposite Liza Minelli in the off-Broadway revival of "Best Foot Forward" at age 20. He married his wife Georgianne Walken in 1969, and expanded his Broadway career with acting roles in plays like "The Lion in Winter" and "The Merchant of Venice," before his breakout screen role in the 1977 comedy "Annie Hall" kicked off his massive movie credits. Walken has also hosted "SNL" seven times, and most recently he played Burt in the mesmerizing first season of "Severance," on Apple TV+.

Yet, Walken still doesn't identify as an actor, despite his unique and recognizable voice, and feels he happened upon acting "very accidentally," as he told The New York Times. "I was a dancer first," he says. "Even calling myself an actor, it's a little strange. I think of myself as a performer." But however he identifies, there's no escaping his unique speech, which he has an interesting explanation for.

Christopher Walken's speech is based on a variety of sources

Christopher Walken started his performing career early, studying at the Professional Children's School, appearing on television with Jerry Lewis at age 10, and debuting on Broadway at 16. A big part of any acting training is usually diction, enunciation, and learning to emote while speaking clearly — especially for live theater. And while this training and experience probably influenced Walken's manner of speaking, it's not the reason he credits for his unique voice.

"I guess I do have a particular way of speaking," Walken told the Observer. "It has to do I think with where I come from in the city, and also the neighborhood," he said, referring to his upbringing in Astoria, in Queens, New York, with his Scottish mother and German father. "Both my parents had accents, European accents; they were pretty strong. And so did all the people that they knew, and all the people who worked in my father's bakery."

He explained that in the melting-pot neighborhood where he grew up, many languages besides English were spoken, including Greek, Italian, Polish, Yiddish, and German. "I think I grew up listening to people who spoke English in a kind of broken way. I think maybe I talked that way." He also blames it for a particular characteristic of his speech. "People tell me I end a sentence before it's finished. And I understand that. But I think it might have to do with growing up around people who spoke English as a second language."

Christopher Walken's quirky voice matches his absurd roles

Christopher Walken's early film career set him apart as an actor who plays disturbed characters. His deadpan delivery as Duane in "Annie Hall" hides a quiet desperation that is simultaneously funny and chilling. As traumatized Vietnam veteran Nick in "The Deer Hunter," which won him an Oscar, Walken's matter-of-fact actions as he fails at Russian roulette give away his psychosis and his hopelessness. Even his masterful striptease dance in Steve Martin's 1981 film "Pennies from Heaven" has a sinister air. Following roles in "The Dead Zone," the James Bond film "A View to a Kill," the sequel "Batman Returns," and as the ultimate crime boss in "King of New York," Walken established himself as a master player of villains.

Yet he's always balanced comedy and dancing with his sinister roles. Though known rarely to turn down a part, he did once tell his agent, "enough already" of playing sociopaths and villains, as he recounted to The New York Times. "I want to play a nice guy with a wife and a family and a dog and a house." Yet even his lighthearted roles, like in "Hairspray," "Blast from the Past," "Peter Pan Live!," and even the music video for Fatboy Slim's "Weapon of Choice," which Walken co-choreographed, have a touch of cynicism, psychosis, creepiness, or sadness to them. It's perhaps difficult to avoid, with the uniqueness of Walken's voice. "In fact, I've never done much of anything else," he told the Observer. "It always comes out pretty much like me."