Eamonn Walker’s name might not be too familiar here in the United States where he doesn’t have years of appearing on stage under his belt, but if you’re a long-time subscriber to HBO, it’ll be hard to forget him playing Kareem Said for all six seasons of Tom Fontana’s prison drama “Oz.”
Although Walker has been a regular presence on television (and stage) since that show went off the air, his film appearances have been few and far between, which is why one might not recognize him when he first appears on screen in his latest movie, Cadillac Records, which reunites him with former “Oz” director Darnell Martin. The movie’s a look at the early days of recorded blues at Chess Records, and Walker gives an amazing performance as legendary blues singer Howlin’ Wolf. The movie also stars Adrien Brody as Leonard Chess, the label’s co-founder, Jeffrey Wright as Muddy Waters, and Beyoncé Knowles as singer Etta James.
ComingSoon.net had a chance to sit down with Walker to talk about what went into playing the role of Howlin’ Wolf, as well as to learn a bit about his new NBC show “Kings” which starts airing next year.
CS: When you first appeared in the studio performing it really took me a second to realize it was you, even though I’ve seen every episode of “Oz” a number of times.
Eamonn Walker: You didn’t recognize me.
CS: I don’t know if it was the just the beard or just the situation, and I was really curious, do you have any kind of musical background whatsoever?
Walker: I’m a frustrated musician, I would go there. I sing in the bath, I’ve done the odd piece of singing here and there, but nothing what I would turn around and call myself a singer. I knew for this that I would have to step up, and really kind of dig in and find my voice.
CS: Did you just happen to find the script or your agent?
Walker: You may not know, but Darnell directed the pilot and the first two episodes of “Oz” so that’s where we met. My first big meeting at HBO was with Darnell Martin and twenty seven HBO executives, and I had to come in and read, and I read with her and we clicked straight away. It was a really amazing reading, because she’s a pretty good actress herself although nobody knows that. That’s how that came about and then all these years later, when she said she had some quite specific ideas in her head. I guess what popped up was working with me ’cause I can do intense I guess and she wanted this character to have an intensity about him as regards to the specific subject matter between he and Muddy Waters. If you watch this movie, you could take away from it that their whole relationship was this slice that you get, but it wasn’t, they played together, they loved each other, they respected each other on one level. It was like they became really great friends, and Willie Dixon, they all played together, all of them.
CS: Oh yeah, of course. It’s funny because he toured in the U.K. a lot, and I don’t know how old you are, but were you aware of him being there and playing with Clapton and others?
Walker: I’m in my 40s and no, I wasn’t aware of him at all. I mean my I call him my surrogate father, John Eichler, because I adopted him and said, “I like listening to you.” Anyway, he was a big fan of Howlin’ Wolf, and so, I told him I was doing this film and I’m still apprehensive as to his reaction, because that was a criteria that I held high in my mind’s eye. Any of the music that I listen to or the kind of broader eclectic kind of thing came from him. That’s why I’m saying I was working in the Hope & Anchor with punk and all of that stuff. It’s because of that band my music is quite wide that I listen to. So, me playing this role and him being a huge Howlin’ Wolf fan specifically, and he really spoke about it. I was like, “Oh my God, I really don’t know what to do,” because there’s one person I cannot let down, it’s John.
CS: It’s funny because punk was pretty much them fighting against all the bands who were influenced by Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters. So you were never into punk at all, you were just kind of there.
Walker: I was there and I was working in the bar.
CS: I’ve been to the Hope & Anchor, so I know the bar, and I know it’s legacy.
Walker: So you were around during that punk era and you probably would’ve seen me there. (laughs)
CS: No, I wasn’t there at the time. I’d heard of it, but I wasn’t there until ’89 or so.
Walker: Okay, no, I was gone by then.
CS: So when Darnell said, “Okay, I want you to play Howlin’ Wolf,” what was the first thing you had to do? Are there any TV appearances or anything you had for reference for him?
Walker: Well, you start doing your job as an actor basically. The first place I actually went to after the initial conversation of, “Yes, I’d love to be a part of that cast, are you kidding me?” was YouTube. I went straight to YouTube and put in Howlin’ Wolf, and POOF, it kind of exploded with stuff which was great, and not only his stuff, but references to all of the people he ever played with, and all the people who loved him and were fans of him, and the people who wanted to play and emulate him, so it was a wealth of knowledge, the internet. Then I knew straight away from watching that, that his voice, his movement, his weight, all sorts of things were going to have to shift in me fairly quickly. So the first thing I stopped doing was exercising because I had to get bigger. The next thing I did is I found a jazz singer called Cecilia Stalin who works with you on breath control, and expanding your voice because I knew that if I spoke like that for too long I was going to go like (snaps fingers).
CS: Oh yeah, I was going to ask about that because Wolf has such a distinctive voice, and your voice is nothing like that, so was that a lot of work trying to get that right?
Walker: It was a lot of work, it was a lot of work and I’m very glad that I instinctively kind of knew that I had to just give it up and go and find somebody. In actual fact, I didn’t know Cecilia, it was a friend of mine called Bobby Kray, who is a singer, and I was like, “Bobby, man, I’ve got to do this voice and I don’t know where to start.” He suggested Cecilia. He was like, “Well, she works with voice, she teaches, and she’ll be able to get extraordinary things out of your voice.” I was like, “Give me her number,” and that was the beginning of that, and that happened in London. So by the time I got to New York, I was kind of already started. I mean, it was quick work and it was intense work, but by the time I got to New York, I was kind of already practicing and playing and extending how long I could sustain it with and then the moment I felt the exhaustion, I would rest off it.
CS: I know you have a really extensive theater background, a lot of TV, a lot of film was there anything in your background that you could use for this?
Walker: You use it all. There is nothing, I believe, that an actor uses in one role that he hasn’t found out a little bit of something while playing something else on stage, film, or otherwise. So definitely as far as Howlin’ Wolf was concerned and what Darnell when I walked into her apartment, she had such a specific idea of who she wanted, but when she was talking about it, images popped into my head. Literally I was going, “Oh, no, I could do that. No, I know what you want. Oh, I could do that.” Then she explained there were going to be other scenes, but because of time constraints and everything else she said she was going to cut one scene, and she was going to amalgamate another one so the performance was supposed to be in front of an audience, but we changed it, and it ended up as she came and said, “I’m going to give you a girl, so you perform for her.” So the cinema gets an idea of how you perform, but you’re recording, so you actually are doing two things at the same time, but as well as that, making the sexuality and the outrageousness of who this man is, but at the same time, I’m going to use this to let the audience know about who this man is. He’s a man’s man, you know, because he’s been on these journeys. She never explains in the film, but this is a man who went to jail for murder…
CS: There’s obviously so much more about Howlin’ Wolf we could find out and he could have his own movie in some ways.
Walker: Yeah, he could have his own movie. Chester Burnett’s life, when she gave me this book, and it was full of her notes and all the little post-it stickers all attached to it all about Howlin’ Wolf, and I just got lost in it. I didn’t come out of it for about five days. Also, on top of that I had the harmonica lessons I was doing, learning a Mississippi accent, but we all did that, but we all did it separately.
CS: And then Darnell just threw all of you together to see how it would work?
Walker: That’s the amazing thing about sitting downstairs and listening to everybody ’cause I didn’t know everybody was doing that on their own. I was worried about my own stuff. I turned up at work and my scenes were mainly with Jeffrey and Adrien, and all my stuff was running in my head, “Well, God, is this going to work?” and everything else, and then she goes, “Action,” and it all goes whoosh, and this energy, and you go, “Wow, wow!” As you can see we’re all quite very friendly and very jovial now.
CS: It’s funny because the way you talk about it, it sounds like the way Mike Leigh works. He works with his actors all separate, they never know what’s going on, they don’t know who they’re going to meet, and then he just throws them in front of the camera with their characters developed completely separate. It’s really kind of interesting because I would never really put the two of them together as directors.
Walker: Well, that’s how it ended up. I’m sure she didn’t mean for it to be that way, it was time constraints. When I got there Beyoncé’s stuff that first week of filming, while I was doing all of my learning and doing all that, she was filming with Beyoncé. We had conversations on the phone, but she was banging it out, twenty-eight days to shoot a movie. All these huge people, all these great actors, everybody comes from a slightly different background, and me, with my English self. I know in her head she goes, “Well, I know he can do the American accent and now he’s going to switch into the Mississippi,” ’cause I called her up specifically two days after I said, “Yes, I want to be a part of it.” I said, “You’re going to dub us.” And she went, “No, everybody sings.” And I went, “No, really, you’re joking.” And she went, “We’re not.”
CS: Another thing about the performance, the presence of Howlin’ Wolf and I think that’s one of the things that kind of threw me off because on “Oz,” you always seemed to have a quieter presence and Wolf is such a huge presence. It was just amazing how you achieved that.
Walker: He’s just a completely different character. At the end of the day, I mean, “Oz” was a huge cast and we were there all of the time, and so you just do the arm movements of me just standing there, looking out over everybody, that was the nature of that space. I love to play lots of different characters. This guy, although a controlling, full of demons, righteous man in his own way, but was essentially a good man. It’s something we don’t talk about in this film, and it’s a sign of the time, and not just these bluesmen, but they had lots of women and they beat their women, and all that kind of stuff. Howlin’ Wolf loved women, would never beat a woman. It’s rumored that he was sleeping with a woman and the woman’s husband found out and he beat her, and that’s why they had a fight. He didn’t have his mother around. So you have to find things all the time that kind of drive people. So Said had his demons running, but he was a powerful thing, but he was also torn. This man that we’ve got is a man who’s finding himself because if nothing, he’s black and white, and that’s what I love. There’s a pull within the character. How it gets perceived on the outside is one thing, but what’s going on inside the man is a whole other thing.
CS: That’s really interesting, the fact that he didn’t have his mother and didn’t beat women. You could almost psychoanalyze these guys about what they might do and why they became how they did.
Walker: That’s why I love to act because it’s cathartic, and you could work a lot of that kind of stuff out, and you can roleplay and stuff that you would never normally do. You do pseudo-psychology, you work things out on people and then you try them out.
CS: I was really excited to hear you’re going to be on “Kings.” Now were you in San Diego for Comic-Con or did you miss that?
Walker: No, I missed that. I was in London. I was shooting a thing for the BBC so I couldn’t be there.
CS: Okay, because they did a first day of Comic-Con, they showed like twenty minutes and I can’t remember if I saw you, but you’re like the king’s right hand man or something, is that right?
Walker: Well, no, I’m not the king’s right hand man. What’s the best way to put it? I’m Reverend Samuels, so I’m his spiritual advisor at best, but I’m not a part of the politics of the land. I am my own entity, but I have a direct, firm line to God.
CS: It seemed like a really interesting idea for a show because this country has this entire religious area which that’s never catered to by television, and it has this really interesting thing with drama that we don’t really see these days. I was curious, first of all, how is the show going?
Walker: The show’s great. NBC are flipping out, they’re so happy, just amazing coming from people. I mean, the great thing about being an actor is you work with great people all the time and I’ve got to work with Ian McShane, Brian Cox is in this thing, Chris Egan is going to blow your mind. He’s like this new, young kind of Heath Ledger type person, and they’re putting their heart and soul into it. Because as you said, the Christians don’t normally get catered to, what’s really clever about this is you don’t have to be a Christian to enjoy this ’cause it stands up on its own, but if you kind of know your bible, it’s like twice the fun. (chuckles)
CS: How much more shooting do you have to do? I know it starts airing sometime in January?
Walker: It comes out January or February so maybe in March, I don’t know, but they’re so happy with it thus far, they were like, “Just finish the first bunch and then we’ll let them have another lot.” There’s no questions beforehand, everything that’s coming in is brilliant, and Ian McShane is brilliant. I’ve enjoyed working with him so much. I’m a lucky fellow.
CS: I’ve talked to Francis Lawrence and Michael Green, and they said they have a huge expansive story that goes way beyond the story of David.
Walker: It’s a huge story. It’s a really big story. Good to be a part of.
CS: By the way, there a lot of diehard “Oz” fans who would love to see more.
Walker: Oh, really? You want some more “Oz,” don’t you?
CS: Any chance that Tom Fontana might someday to a two-hour movie like “Where are they now?”
Walker: Well, my character died, so he could come back as a ghost. But mind you, he did that an awful lot.
CS: Right, or maybe they could do a prequel showing your first day at Oz.
Walker: Oh, like before.
Cadillac Records opens nationwide on Friday, December 5.