'The Outlaws': How Stephen Merchant landed Christopher Walken for his new BBC comedy

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The Outlaws, from multi-award-winning writer and director Stephen Merchant, will air this Autumn on BBC One and BBC iPlayer in the UK (BBC Studios)
Christopher Walken stars in The Outlaws, from multi-award-winning writer director Stephen Merchant. (BBC Studios)

He’s starred in The Deer Hunter, King of New York, Pulp Fiction and even Cleopatra.

So what on earth is Christopher Walken doing in a high-vis vest, cleaning up the streets of Bristol?

In perhaps one of the most inspired bits of casting in the history of British television, the Oscar-winner lines up in new comedy drama The Outlaws alongside co-star and creator Stephen Merchant.

The community service series, which also features Poldark’s Demelza, Eleanor Tomlinson, follows on from Merchant’s writing work on massive shows like The Office, Extras and Hello Ladies and the movie Fighting With My Family, which featured The Rock and Florence Pugh.

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But even Merchant was stunned to attract a star like Walken, saying: “Someone mentioned Christopher Walken and I thought that would be amazing. 

"What I love about him is that he can do both great charm and be very funny, but also menacing at the same time. We got word to him somehow.

The Outlaws, from multi-award-winning writer and director Stephen Merchant, will air this Autumn on BBC One and BBC iPlayer in the UK (BBC Studios)
Stephen Merchant in The Outlaws. (BBC Studios)

“Chris doesn't use phones and he doesn't have a computer, so it was a bit hard to contact him. 

"I ended up having this very glamorous weekend where I went to Los Angeles to go to the SAG Awards for that film JoJo Rabbit. On the way back, someone said, 'Chris can see you on your way home.'"

Merchant continued: “So I flew from this glamorous award ceremony to New York, and then drove up to Connecticut, and met Chris at his house. 

"And I was there for hours. Chris was just as committed and invested and passionate as I imagine he ever was.

WARNING: Embargoed for publication until 00:00:01 on 19/10/2021 - Programme Name: The Outlaws - TX: n/a - Episode: The Outlaws generics (No. 1) - Picture Shows:  Frank (CHRISTOPHER WALKEN), Rani (RHIANNE BARRETO), Christian (GAMBA COLE), Greg (STEPHEN MERCHANT), Gabby (ELEANOR TOMLINSON), Myrna (CLARE PERKINS), John (DARREN BOYD), Diane (JESS GUNNING) - (C) Big Talk/Four Eyes - Photographer: Gavin Bond
Christopher Walken (L) with The Outlaws cast. (Big Talk/Four Eyes/Gavin Bond)

“He was asking a tonne of questions about the character and about the scripts and about Bristol. We spent hours just chewing the fat and the next thing I knew he agreed to do it. And that was a huge thrill.”

Set in Merchant's local community and inspired by his family’s work history, it’s a real passion project.

Merchant added: “Growing up, my parents used to work for Bristol Community Service. My mother was always careful, she would say, 'I can't tell you about specific cases...', as if it was sensitive information and I couldn't be trusted.

WARNING: Embargoed for publication until 00:00:01 on 19/10/2021 - Programme Name: The Outlaws - TX: n/a - Episode: The Outlaws ep 1 (No. 1) - Picture Shows:  Diane (JESS GUNNING), Greg (STEPHEN MERCHANT) - (C) Big Talk/Four Eyes - Photographer: James Pardon
Jess Gunning (Diane) and Stephen Merchant (Greg) in The Outlaws. (Big Talk/Four Eyes/James Pardon)

“But here and there, not naming names, she would talk about some of the people that came through the doors. 

"I was always intrigued because it was such a mix of people. You'd have the businessman who'd got caught drink-driving or some student who’d got in trouble for some minor thing.

“Or there was an old guy who was stealing cabbages from allotments just to get community service, because he was lonely and he liked the social aspect of it. 

"What was interesting to me was that it was a way of bringing completely disparate groups of people together.“

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Walken himself was excited about the role: “I play Frank. He's an American who's lived in England for 40 years or so. He married an English woman and has children and a life in England, but I'd say he's barely assimilated.

WARNING: Embargoed for publication until 00:00:01 on 19/10/2021 - Programme Name: The Outlaws - TX: n/a - Episode: The Outlaws generics (No. 1) - Picture Shows:  Frank (CHRISTOPHER WALKEN) - (C) Big Talk/Four Eyes - Photographer: Gavin Bond
Christopher Walken plays Frank in The Outlaws. (Big Talk/Four Eyes/Gavin Bond)

“He's a kind of a ne'er-do-well, I guess, a good man who’s good hearted and good natured but he's made a lot of mistakes. Probably has poor judgement. Often in trouble with the law, you know?”

He added: “I'm a fan of Stephen Merchant. It's very good writing: you can tell that, if you've been doing it for as long as I have. 

"I stand in my kitchen, I read the lines out loud and these were very good words. 

"And, you know, it was great to come to England. I've been in England many times in my career, not to Bristol, but I've always enjoyed myself here. So it was just a good job.”

While he’s often known for his scary turns in True Romance and A View to a Kill, Walken said he loves to stretch his comedy muscles.

Who's next to play a James Bond villain? - Credit: MGM
Christopher Walken as Bond villain Zorin in A View To A Kill. (MGM)

“I think my sense of humour has very much to do with where I come from. I was in show business when I was five years old. 

"And when I was growing up in America, it was the birth of television after the Second World War when television first started, and there were these huge shows like Milton Berle and Sid Caesar. 

"And so I think my comedy is very much of that time.”

He added: “I have a cable channel that has old movies 24 hours a day. So I watch a lot of old movies. 

"The good thing is there are still some very funny people out there. Like Stephen Merchant – you should watch out for him.”

The Outlaws launches at 9pm, Monday, 25 October on BBC One.

WATCH: Stephen Merchant explains Christopher Walken casting in The Outlaws

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