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WILLEM DAFOE
INTERVIEWED BY WES ANDERSON
PHOTOGRAPHY BY JAKE CHESSUM
ASSISTED BY DAVID ROSENZWEIG & DOMINIC NEITZ
STYLING BY MARK HOLMES
GROOMING BY AMY KOMOROWSKI AT CELESTINE AGENCY
PHOTOGRAPHED AT SUN STUDIOS, NEW YORK CITY
 

To the right of Willem Dafoe’s heart is a scar. It’s about an inch long, raised and white – a slithery flag on the bosom of one of filmmaking’s most versatile actors. A war wound perhaps, or the result of a bar-room brawl? Given his devilish and deranged movie character history, it would be easy to assume these or some other unsavory altercation was the cause, but you’d be wrong. The small-town Wisconsin native who brought us an Oscar-nominated turn as Sgt. Elias in Platoon, Marvel’s Green Goblin in the Spider-Man films, a domineering and arrogant psychiatrist in Antichrist and Jesus himself in The Last Temptation of Christ was the very man who wielded the knife that scarred him.

Thirty years ago, while pretending to commit suicide on the stage, Dafoe accidentally skewered himself in front of a live audience. His body is chipped and marked from his life as a vagrant tradesman – never bound by the glistening grip of Hollywood and equally comfortable teetering on stilts, walking the streets of Rome, or setting traps in the Tasmanian wilderness if the job demands it. His three latest roles – in Aussie production The Hunter, Abel Ferrara’s doomsday drama 4:44 Last Day on Earth and Disney action epic John Carter – are testament to his artistic veracity, resourcefulness and ferocious appetite for interesting work. Director Wes Anderson experienced the joy of seeing things done the Dafoe way on The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and Fantastic Mr. Fox and let The Lab listen in when they caught up recently. There’s commitment to your craft, and then there’s Dafoe. That scar is his reminder, and this interview can be yours.

WES ANDERSON —Hi, Willem!

WILLEM DAFOE—Hey, Wes.

WA—Where are you?

WD—I’m in Rome.

WA—Weren’t you just in a play in Ireland?

WD—In Manchester, England. It was a Bob Wilson piece called The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic. It’s a big piece and we developed it in Madrid. All these people put in money to produce it so I’ll be doing it again. Our first stop was The Manchester International Festival – it’s this great festival that only does premieres and they also commission stuff so it’s really world class and quite incredible.

WA—And the performance artist Marina Abramovic is in it?

WD—She’s in it and also, among others, Antony Hegarty of Antony and the Johnsons. He made the music and he performs in it. He also wrote me a beautiful song and taught me how to sing it, which was really one of the highlights of doing it. Do you know Bob Wilson’s stuff?

WA—A little bit. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen anything performed but I have a book of design of his. You’ve worked with him before?

WD—I did an art project with him. It was a plasma portrait – a little plasma screen that moved at an incredibly slow speed so you had to sit with them because the speed was almost imperceptible. There was a big show of them. Very cool. Ever since I came to the city I’ve been reading about stuff that I certainly wasn’t seeing in the mid-west when I was a kid, I really sought his stuff out and followed it through the years.

WA—I saw you in Richard Foreman’s Idiot Savant two years ago – how does this Bob Wilson play compare?

WD—Their aesthetics are very different but they’re both masters of their aesthetic because they’ve both been working for a long time and have very specific visions. One of the things they have in common is they both speak all the time about keeping the tension. So it’s exciting and gruelling to perform in their shows because you’re keeping the tension for two hours straight. And they both don’t like natural movement; if anything is naturalistic it’s pretty much rejected and you try to find a way to formalize it, make it specific to the world, not just borrowed from our natural world. It heightens performances and really forces you to enter the world in a full physical way.

WA—There’s a very dance-like aspect to this work that is often the opposite of movies, which are generally about naturalism. You’ve always had this other part of your acting life – a whole range of experiences – that allows you to use all your muscles.

WD—I think I trust my body more than anything else. When I’m in movement I’m happiest, so I think even in movies I’m attracted to things that require me to be pretty physical and sometimes adopt a performance style that isn’t naturalistic or isn’t filled with manner and normal psychology. Those are often the movies I appreciate more and I think you have a greater possibility of tapping into what’s great about movies that way. Movie language is not about close-ups or naturalistic acting; it’s about a series of pictures and sounds and rhythms that you can really play with on a big old screen, whereas in TV they’re much more dependent on writing and psychological timing.

WA—I can definitely see that. When we did The Life Aquatic together, I feel like the overview of the whole thing is not realistic at all, it’s a complete fantasy, but I still think with movies moment to moment you’re looking to make it feel like it’s really happening.

WD—Yes, you’re not just doing abstract moving, so the way you connect with anything is you give a psychological motivation to it. I guess what I’m talking about is the language of everyday gesture and manner and charm, and it’s nice to get away from that in movies because I think there’s a better world to be had.

WA—Definitely. The exciting thing in movies is figuring out if there’s another way to do this that we’ve never thought of or that we’ve never seen.

WD—For me the best thing about movies is the shift of seeing. It’s not so much to reassure you what you already know but to remind you of what you’ve forgotten or kick-start your imagination in a way you didn’t think of before, whether it’s a fantasy or a gritty realistic style of movie.

WA—You have two new films, right?

WD—Actually, I’ve got three, Wes. I’ve got Abel’s [director Abel Ferrara], which is a very small movie. I’ve got an Australian production called The Hunter, which I shot in Tasmania, and then I’ve got this huge movie for Disney called John Carter. It’s kind of a fun period because they’re three very different movies.

WA—And you’ve worked with [John Carter director] Andrew Stanton before, he did Finding Nemo, right? So this must have been a different way to work together?

WD—It’s true, but you know this from doing Fantastic Mr. Fox, when you think of someone doing a voice it sounds like they go into the studio for a couple of hours or days, but it’s actually quite involved. It was interesting doing the voice in Finding Nemo – I really got a sense of Andrew and how he works and the culture, the utopian way of working, that Pixar has developed, so when I knew he was going to do a live-action movie it was pretty exciting.

WA—Their utopian way of working – is that because it’s like an old-fashioned movie studio where they keep this whole company together all the time and they’re all available to each other?

WD—That’s part of it. I think the other part is they really believe in research and development and they believe in trying things from different angles. And if something isn’t working they go back and rework it. It felt like a studio, not like a movie studio, but it felt like a place for artists. I’m sure there’s another side to it, as there always is, but from the outside it seems pretty incredible.

WA—[John Carter] is a live-action movie, right?

WD—It is live action, but I’m a computer-generated guy. I play a Martian, and I did pretty much all of the stuff on stilts with the headcam on and the battery on my back, and with arm extensions and lots of bells and whistles.

WA—I really can’t think of very many actors who are used to such physical experimentation and elements of dance and things coming into their work and to be able to still work on character. It sounds like the sort of thing not so many people would be able to sink their teeth into. Who else is on stilts?

WD—The other person on stilts the most is Thomas Haden Church.

WA—He’s very good; I’d love to see you two together.

WD—He’s a lot of fun, actually, and he’s a great storyteller. I make quite a few movies, but I never feel like I’m in the business. He’s very much in the business, and he tells the funniest stories about movies and past experiences. He’s very fun to sit around with.

WA—One thing that probably prevents you from feeling like you’re in the business is you tend to work so internationally. And more recently you live so internationally, too.

WD—Yeah, I do. But I think it’s always been that way. I was with The Wooster Group for 26 years and even though it was a New York-based [theater] company, we were travelling many months of the year. So I’m sort of used to that. It’s not a particular attitude about Hollywood versus other cinema; it’s just where I find my most interesting opportunities usually. And also I think I’m a bit of thrill seeker, so while on one hand I like habit, I think the only way to not get lulled into a stupor is to switch it up, and one of the ways you can do that is switch up the kind of movies you’re making and the way of making movies. The way of making movies is pretty international as far as the language of the technology, it’s just the cultural orientation’s very different. And I think I always seek that out because that kind of refreshes you. It’s a trick to try to not get stuck or develop a shtick or get bored. The bad side is there’s always a scramble. With flexibility comes not having a particular community or a particular kind of work that you’re known for. While artistically it’s very stimulating, I think career-wise it becomes very challenging.

WA—It used to be that all the American movie people were out in Los Angeles and they had a little community. They would go to each other’s houses and they would go to the studio every day and they had their lunch in the commissary. It was contained, consistent, thriving, and limited. But they were working all the time and they were developing within these confines. And what we’ve ended up with, and you more than anybody, is this gypsy lifestyle. Whenever I have someone come on a movie I’m working on who I haven’t worked with before, often they’re like, “So this is the way you guys do it.” I don’t know how other people work but I would figure going onto a Lars von Trier set, for example, is probably unlike anybody else’s.

WD—True. I’m attracted to people, as opposed to traditionally, the character or the roles. I tend to look at the whole thing. I’m guided by being in the room with people I like being in the room with. When I went to work with you, I didn’t know what that role was. You even told me you didn’t know what it was, but I liked meeting with you, I liked your movies and the idea of shooting in Rome – various things made it attractive enough that it made me want to take the leap, but the key was you. I think I seek out strong directors, because those are the film sets that have a strong stamp on them, a strong guiding principle.

WA—In terms of Life Aquatic, one of the things I felt was most exciting during filming was you were so engaged; you were just interested in staying in it and the way in the theater someone might be rewriting, reworking, and expanding the character during the rehearsal process, that was happening on a shot by shot basis and your character ended up being much fuller. After we finished that movie I decided I never wanted to do another movie with a trailer parked anywhere near it. I don’t want anybody to have anywhere they could possibly go to, largely because you never went to your trailer and that fed into the movie.

WD—I never use my trailer because I always feel like if you go to your trailer then you take yourself out of the world, and then when you come back you’ve got to catch up. I’m like a little kid – I don’t want stuff to happen without me. I think that’s just because of the theater – you’re always in this room and you’re treating everything as if you’re going to have to perform that evening. At least that’s the way I learned to rehearse. Your set up on The Life Aquatic was very good because sometimes the shots were very long and very complicated and you’d be making one shot for a great part of the day. I would be there and you would fill me in and then as we started to define our actions the shot would shift and then as the shot was shifting you’d get to practice it some more and some more and sometimes you’d abandon it and start all over again, but it’s the idea of always trying to find the gesture. There’s no arriving; there’s no nailing it. I don’t believe in that kind of thing. Since films are so collaborative, you’re generating material that’s going to become something else, so the best thing that can guide you in making that material is to not have it be a preparation or anticipation, but being engaged in a way that’s undeniable and material to work with. Not anticipating anything but just doing, failing, doing, failing, doing, failing better.

WA—I like that.

WD—That’s similar to something Beckett said.

WA—It sounds like a good headline for this piece. Let’s talk about The Hunter or Abel’s movie – 4:44 Last Day on Earth.

WD—Were you bummed you didn’t come and see [4:44 Last Day on Earth] at the New York Film Festival?

WA—Yeah, I missed it.

WD—It’s a shame, I wanted you to see it. You always have interesting things to say, so I was curious. It’s a really small film, basically a two-hander. It’s about two people in an apartment that accept that the world is going to end. It’s the last 24 hours of their lives, but it’s really more of a convention to see how you live your life and how you deal with each other and whether you want to live life awake or asleep and sedated, and I think there’s probably a case for both choices.

WA—And the movie makes them?

WD—I think so. I think the movie’s interesting. This is the third time I’ve worked with Abel and each time our shorthand and our trust gets a little stronger. First time I worked with him was on New Rose Hotel, which was rocky and interesting. The second one was called Go Go Tales and I liked it a lot, but it got hung up in a lawsuit and has never been released. And now there’s this movie.

WA—What was the lawsuit?

WD—Some guy said that he wrote the script, which was hilarious because we improvised it. If there was a script, I wish he would’ve given it to me. I don’t like to complain or gossip, but that was too bad, because it’s a movie that should be seen. The Hunter is an interesting movie. I like it because it’s one of these movies where I get to be in every single frame so it’s a really slow reveal. I play a mysterious guy that starts off very cut off and then through the movie he kind of comes back to feeling, so the internal journey is interesting to me. Externally it’s about him trying to find this Tasmanian tiger, so there’s a lot of action shots in the wilderness – there were months where it was just me and the crew doing things out in the wilderness in Tasmania… Have you seen any good movies lately?

WA—I liked Beginners, with Christopher Plummer and Ewan McGregor.

WD—I haven’t seen it but when I get back to New York it’s Oscar movie time, so I’m sure that will be in that stack.

WA— Another one I want to mention that I liked very much is the film you made with Werner Herzog, My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done. Did you know Herzog before the film?

WD—I met him at Telluride Film Festival years ago. I had two films there and he watched both films and liked them. One of the films was Shadow of the Vampire so we had lots to talk about because of the Nosferatu connection. I got to know him talking about movies, and we kept in touch with each other and when he was putting this movie together he asked me to do the part of the detective. I was happy to do it and I like Chloë [Sevigny] who I had most of my stuff with so it was fun to do. Obviously shooting in suburban San Diego I wasn’t getting Fitzcarraldo Herzog, but that’s always the way it is. When someone asks me what it was like to work with Marty Scorsese, I feel like I worked with the Scorsese who made The Last Temptation of Christ, who was not necessarily the Goodfellas Scorsese.

WA—I will say I consider you to be the greatest Jesus in the history of cinema.

WD—Thank you, Wes.