A couple of weeks ago, I traveled to the Regency Hotel in Manhattan to interview the talents involved in Catch Me If You Can, the Steven Spielberg caper flick that opened Christmas Day. The film, set in the "60s, chronicles the adventures of Frank Abagnale Jr., who, between the ages of 16 and 21, masqueraded as a pilot, a doctor and a lawyer while passing a mind-boggling number of bad checks. Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Abagnale, with Christopher Walken playing his con artist father and Tom Hanks co-starring as FBI agent Carl Hanratty, who pursued Abagnale for years, building an odd bond with him along the way. During the course of the roundtable interviews (five to seven writers at a table, talking with each subject for about 20 minutes), I learned four things.
Christopher Walken isn"t scary at all. In fact, he would probably be better received at a neighborhood association meeting than most of us. "I"ve heard that some people that meet me are surprised I look healthy," said the acclaimed actor, who carved a place in film history as the haunted soldier in The Deer Hunter, the suicidal brother in Annie Hall, the tortured seer in The Dead Zone, the sociopath papa in At Close Range and the veteran with the watch in Pulp Fiction, to name but a few. Even though the thick, brown hair that he combs straight back was doing its damnedest to stand straight up, Walken looks like Joe Average. He is soft-spoken and exceedingly pleasant, appearing far more interested in discussing domestic subjects than his films, although he does express fondness for the recent comedy Blast from the Past, where he played an eccentric "60s father not all that much different than his role in Catch Me If You Can. "That was a fun movie. What an idea - living in a bomb shelter, and very happy." Married for 35 years, Walken chatted about all things domestic, from the secrets of marital bliss (both parties must remember that they are involved in an ongoing partnership) to his passion for books, especially biographies. He gave brief answers to most show business related questions, although he acknowledged, "I did want to be a movie star, yes I did, but I actually wanted to be more romantic. I could see myself on a horse, with a hat - sort of a cowboy, romantic." He enjoys dancing onscreen, as evidenced by his outstanding work in the Spike Jonze"s Fatboy Slim video, "Weapon of Choice," as well as a charming scene in the current film. But the only time he really became animated was when he talked about the prospect of being involved in a TV cooking show. "I think the thing about cooking shows is that watching somebody cook is always interesting. Did you ever notice that if you go to somebody"s house and they"re cooking, you always watch. So it"s perfect for a camera. And oh, The Iron Chef, that"s great! I especially love it at the end when they judge the dishes - they"re so brutal!" Leonardo DiCaprio is smarter than most of his peers. So what happens when a young man with a reputation as an outstanding actor for his work in films like This Boy"s Life and What"s Eating Gilbert Grape stars in the biggest hit film in history? "We all have different journeys as actors," Leonardo DiCaprio said. "The phenomenon of Titanic made me almost like a product rather than an actor - and I don"t even want to say movie star - I use the term product, because I traveled around the world and I saw my face on the cover of T-shirts and magazines that I had no idea I was on. Titanic was this cultural worldwide phenomenon - it was something no one could have foreseen, especially me. I came predominately from the world of making independent movies and that was completely against the, sort of, grain of the decisions I had been making. But I wanted to have that experience, I wanted to be in this epic type of movie, to try something different. But with all that said, because of that movie, I get to steer the course of my career and really make my own choices as an actor and not be dictated by what parts fall to me. It"s pretty amazing. I have more opportunities now than I ever had before that film and these are opportunities that I"m not going to squander. My goal has always been, and it remains the same, I don"t want to make movies that are recycled versions of things we"ve seen a million times before. I want to be in films that are like time capsules, that resonate through time, that people remember." While the mania over Titanic was at it peak, DiCaprio did a disappearing act. The tabloids were desperate for anything Leo-related, but the actor gave them nothing. Desperate, they reported on inanities, but even the hardened pros failed to get the sort of fodder they gather on other hot properties. When his new films required him to do press, DiCaprio steadfastly refused to discuss any aspect of his personal life. Smart, very smart. Tom Hanks understands the essence of movie interviews. Tom Hanks entered the suite, glanced at me and the six other writers at the table and said, "I recognize you guys. We"ve all been through this before, so let"s just boil it down to its essence." Then, in broad tones with sweeping hand gestures, he did just that, saying, "Blah-ti-dee blah blah blah, blah blah-ti-dee blah blah blah blah-ti-dee blah. Questions?" Switching to the role of reporter, he asked, "Blah blah-ti-dee blah blah?" Reverting to self, he responded, "Blah! Blah-ti-dee blah blah blah-ti-dee blah blah blah-ti-dee blah!" Joining our laughter, he said, "God, wouldn"t it be great if you could just print that and be done with it?" Steven Spielberg can make major decisions in the time it takes me to form a sentence. What"s it like to be Steven Spielberg? Check this out. While answering a question, he made a passing reference to the film Poltergeist, the rip-roaring 1982 ghost story he co-wrote and co-produced. I asked when we would be seeing a special edition DVD of the film and Spielberg said, "No, I don"t think so." "Oh, please make one," I said while everyone laughed, "it"s such a terrific movie." Spielberg looked at me for a second, said, "OK," took out his notebook and jotted down a few words, then put it away. And that was that, because that is how it works when you are Steven Spielberg. Despite having more clout than virtually anybody in the movie business, the director retains a sense of humor about himself. Spielberg is known for shooting films faster than most. (With 140 sets on locations in and around Los Angeles, New York, Montreal and Quebec City, Catch Me If You Can was shot in a mere 56 days.) Does he feel that he ever lost anything by filming so quickly? "No, I lost things by slowing down," he said with a laugh. "It took me 130 days to shoot Hook and that didn"t help anything. It took 179 days to shoot 1941. I discovered slow is bad and fast is good."