Although filmmaker Yaron Zilberman’s critically acclaimed drama A Late Quartet revolves around the exclusive highbrow world of classical music in Manhattan, Christopher Walken makes a pretty good argument as to why its appeal is more accessible.
“It’s a real complicated family,” says the legendary film star in his iconic staccato speech pattern during a sit-down interview at the Toronto International Film Festival. “It’s almost got the possibility for being a soap opera — just an ongoing thing — it’s these people and they’re all related in odd and ambiguous ways.”
A smart peek behind the curtain of a prestigious group of musicians on the cusp of collapse, A Late Quartet brings together such gifted actors as Walken, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener and accomplished Ukrainian actor Mark Ivanir (The Human Resources Manager) as a world-class string quartet that is about to mark its 25th anniversary with a celebratory performance — that is, until Walken’s cellist character announces his retirement because of the onset of Parkinson’s disease. As if the loss of their leader wasn’t enough, the revelation sets off an assortment of repressed feelings, envy and animosity.
“It’s a long time that they’re in this business together only to know each other only too well — except that they don’t,” says Keener, whose character is married to Hoffman’s terminally jealous second violinist. “What’s uncovered at this pivotal time is stuff that they all sort of suspected and had doubts about and then all of a sudden the truth just comes.”
It’s the type of film that actors of great demand love to sink their thespian teeth into, and for audiences, the drama unfolds not unlike great theatre. One could even be mistaken for assuming it was adapted from an off-Broadway production — it wasn’t.
“I didn’t think that (it was like a play), but for a movie it’s got a lot of words — and in some cases, big speeches,” says Walken. “It’s also about people who perform in front of a live audience. There have been plays about (performers) like The Royal Family (a 1927 play about the Barrymore family of actors), and stories about whole families who are in show business. These people are in show business. They talk a lot about going to practice, (getting) ready to perform — I mean, the final scene is a performance.”
The fictional directorial debut for Zilberman (he previously helmed the award-winning 2004 documentary Watermarks), the Israeli-born filmmaker was thrilled to hire such an auspicious cast (even Ivanir was apparently a fortunate fill-in at the last minute). But he especially feels lucky to have landed Walken in what is possibly the Academy Award-winner’s best role in years.
“First of all, he’s a dream actor as you know. He’s legendary; every expression, just his presence is just so big onscreen and it’s incredible, but he’s not the type usually to play sort of the father figure,” says Zilberman. “I think that’s what made it even more interesting — to find somebody that will bring that added dimension to the role and that’s what happened in this movie. I think it’s more heart-breaking to see Christopher Walken dealing with an illness and eventually becoming very emotional about it.”
Walken, a New Yorker, is clearly excited about the advance praise he’s received for A Late Quartet. However, it might surprise some that the film likely holds a special place in his Big Apple-shaped heart for a more personal reason.
“I grew up on the Upper West Side where this movie takes place and in fact, when I was a kid, and still, it was where a lot of the professional musicians in New York lived,” says Walken, pausing before reflecting back on his upbringing. “Whole families — mothers, fathers, kids — play instruments, they teach and it’s a very big part of life in that part of New York.”