by Susan Wloszczyna, USA TODAY
TORONTO - Seven Psychopaths. Three unconventional actors. One wickedly smart filmmaker.
All the elements are in place for a free-wheeling encounter that is anything but routine. Certainly that suits the subject at hand: a dense and dark lark of a movie opening Friday that takes deadpan aim at crime-drama clichés and our society's cultish fascination with serial killers.
On the hotel floor where the interview is taking place, things already are out of hand. An adorable fair-haired toddler darts through the hallways as if fueled by sugar cookies dunked in Red Bull. Turns out, he's Henry, the nearly 3-year-old son of the film's leading man, Colin Farrell. Henry obviously has inherited his dad's nervous energy.
Nearby, a different breed of star is sniffing about. That would be Bonny, a 2-year-old rescue pooch who figures prominently in the plot of Seven Psychopaths when a dog-napping caper goes awry. She is a Shih Tzu, Hollywood's go-to canine for cheap jokes - or, as the promotional materials say, "They won't take any Shih Tzu."
The gathering begins benignly enough as a discussion about the second feature by noted playwright turned filmmaker Martin McDonagh, 42, whose Oscar-nominated script for 2008's In Bruges was similarly steeped in comical crooks and baroque bloodbaths.
Joining McDonagh, a wily silver-haired fox of an Irishman, are Farrell, 36, whose character is an alcoholic L.A. screenwriter who just happens to be Irish and called Marty; Sam Rockwell, 43, who plays Billy, Marty's hyper best friend; and Christopher Walken, 69, whose Hans is a pensive scam artist who collects rewards for returning "missing" pets to their owners.
The human AWOL today is Woody Harrelson, whose vicious gangster hunts down Marty and company when his beloved four-legged friend - yes, Bonny - is snatched by Billy. He had to return to New York to tend to his stage farce, A Bullet for Adolf, which he co-wrote and directed.
Even minus a core member, this is a tight-knit bunch that relishes one another's company. Two years ago, Rockwell and Walken appeared together on Broadway in McDonagh's A Behanding in Spokane. And Farrell's career received a much-needed recharge (after taking a break to enter rehab) with a Golden Globe for his role as a guilt-ridden hitman in In Bruges.
"I never thought in my life that I would be working with Chris or these guys," says McDonagh, whose Seven Psychopaths also includes cameos by gravel-voiced singer Tom Waits and the still-trucking character actor Harry Dean Stanton. "Chris, I grew up watching on-screen."
"I feel so old," Walken says with a smile, "because I am."
Not only was McDonagh able to attract this dream team of actors, but "I got them for really cheap," he says. "That was the great thing about it. I just gave them a back end."
"I'm not sure if I had any back-end deal," says Walken, a veteran of 100-plus films and TV shows. "I usually get paid in a brown paper bag."
The reason they all signed on, according to Farrell: "The strength is in the writing. Anyone who ever has a chance to look at anything Martin has written, a play or a script, it's just such good stuff."
Actually, Farrell tried to talk McDonagh out of hiring him for In Bruges. "Because I came with a certain amount of baggage and thought he should use an unknown. It was a very egocentric way to be unselfish."
The definition of a psychopath is briefly debated, and two traits are agreed upon: "They don't know the difference between right and wrong," Farrell suggests. Plus, they often seem normal and even charming on the surface.
As for the difference between psychopaths and sociopaths?
"Bernie Madoff is a sociopath," Rockwell says. "He didn't kill anyone."
Suddenly, Farrell takes note of how Walken and Rockwell are each clinging to opposite ends of a couch. "Look at the body language," he says. "The way they are pulled away from each other. They are playing hard to get. They'll have makeup sex after this."
That is all it takes to launch the conversation into the outer limits of absurdity as Rockwell whips out a pair of tacky gold-rimmed sunglasses and pleads with Walken to put them on. Suddenly, Elvis has entered the room - even if he has nothing to do with Seven Psychopaths.
"Peanut butter banana sandwich," Walken mumbles after donning the shades. "Fried in lard. Mama mia! That's a spicy meatball."
Rockwell: "Elvis doing Frank Sinatra."
Walken: "Thank you very much."
Once the laughter subsides, it is suggested that all three actors - as well as Harrelson - have impersonated their share of noteworthy psychopaths in their time. Farrell mentions his comic-book villain Bullseye in Daredevil and the deceptively upstanding cop in Pride and Glory.
For Rockwell, his death row maniac in The Green Mile ranks above any others on his résumé. They all admire Harrelson's tour-de-force nut job in Natural Born Killers.
For Walken, however, his list of psychopaths is like an infinity pool. It goes on and on, from Bond and Batman villains to his smooth-talking mobster in True Romance. As he says, "With me, it's more just volume."
Has he ever kept count?
"You know, one of the best things about me? I can't remember anything.''
He checks out the eyewear again. "These are good glasses."
Rockwell: "I got them in Graceland."
Walken: "They are real Elvis glasses."
He turns to Farrell: "You've been to Graceland, haven't you?"
"I had four peanut butter and banana sandwiches fried in lard," Farrell says before turning serious about his visit to the Memphis landmark. "You get to go all around the ground floor. You can go in the basement, where the TV room is. I went there with my sister. It was really (expletive) sad. We were sad for the whole day. ''
Interjects Walken: "OK, we have to get back to the movie.''
Rockwell: "Was Elvis a sociopath?"
Farrell: "He was a lardopath."
Which actors do they consider to be the gold standard of psychopaths?
Rockwell: "Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet."
Walken: "Klaus Kinski. He was the real thing."
Rockwell, whose Billy turns out to be probably the most likable if unstable of the crazies in Seven Psychopaths, reveals his inspirations for his character: "I watched Kathy Bates in Misery, and Mean Streets, and I actually watched Colin in In Bruges. There are a lot of similarities in our characters, except he has a conscience."
As McDonagh observes, "From my perspective, none of the guys in the film think they are psychopaths."
"I watched In Bruges again recently since I'm doing a part that is similar - I kill somebody by accident," Rockwell says of A Single Shot, due next year. "The thing I was struck by is how the guilt is prevalent throughout the movie. You see a glimmer of guilt in Colin that is very deep even early on, before anyone even mentions what he did."
Turning to Farrell, he asks: "Was that on the page?"
Farrell: "It's on my birth certificate. Catholic Irish."
Seven Psychopaths is not just an investigation of the criminal mind, however. It's also a commentary on Hollywood conventions, a movie about making a movie that shares the same title while control of the plot eventually shifts from Marty to Billy. As Walken's character says after reading the script, "I like it - it's got layers."
The actor volunteers to reveal the real-life origins of that line. Turns out, he borrowed it from one of his upstairs neighbors - "I don't really like them" - after he gave them tickets for a rehearsal performance of A Behanding in Spokane.
"The next day, on the stairs, I saw the lady and said, 'So, did you go?' That was the performance where I forgot all of my lines. I jumped about 10 pages ahead. She said, 'Oh, yeah, I loved it.' Then she said (he switches to a whispery voice), 'The play - it has so many layers.' "
He shared her response with McDonagh. His comment?
"I said, 'No, it doesn't. It doesn't have any layers. It just is what it is.' "
But for some reason, McDonagh brought it up again during Seven Psychopaths. Says Walken: "We are shooting that scene and he said, 'Why don't you tell them the story about the lot of layers.' It's about the only thing I have in the movie that wasn't in the script."
Is she still Walken's neighbor?
"Yes," he says. "I can't stand her."