The Chameleon Sheds His Skin
One of the greatest character actors in the business, Willem Dafoe is riding high this season with roles in three very different, yet thematically similar, movies, two of which give him the rare opportunity to take the lead.
By R. Kurt Osenlund
As Willem Dafoe approaches, the drumroll has already started. It's a Wednesday afternoon at Manhattan's Loews Regency Hotel, and not far from the interview suite, a big, noisy renovation project is underway. The rumbling and rattling of power tools all but shake the room. Outside the window, a massive scrim that's hanging down the length of a workman's scaffold is taken by the wind, wrapping itself around the building like a giant mesh snake. It's all so...cinematic.
“Well this is pretty wild,” Dafoe says as he eyes up the black, waving serpent. “I feel like I have to kill it.”
It's interesting that Dafoe's first impulse is one of knightly heroism. For many of today's filmgoers, this remarkably individual actor is a player of rogues, be them comic book villains (Spider-Man), seemingly demonic silent stars (Shadow of the Vampire), or duplicitous cops (The Boondock Saints). But with a staggering number of films under his belt (he'll tell you how many), Dafoe has in fact been the good guy, the bad guy, and just about every guy in between. For Martin Scorsese, he played Jesus Christ (The Last Temptation of Christ). For David Cronenberg, he played a twisted, black market video game technician (eXistenZ). For Lars von Trier, he played a gangster (Manderlay) and a one half of a deteriorating couple (Antichrist). For Pixar maestro Andrew Stanton, he voiced a hard-scaled, mentoring fish (Finding Nemo).
Dafoe recently teamed with Stanton
again for John Carter, Disney's mega-budget sci-fi spectacle
that saw the actor take on his first motion-capture gig (he brings to
life a green, six-limbed Martian). It's one of three movies Dafoe
appears in this season. The other two are the Australian nature drama
The Hunter and Abel Ferrara's intimate apocalypse tale, 4:44
Last Day on Earth, both of which
cast Dafoe as the lead. In The Hunter,
the 56-year-old star plays a mercenary hired to trek to Tasmania and
kill a near-extinct animal. A conflicted drifter surrounded by moral
and environmental stressors, the titular gunman requires the
instincts and introspection Dafoe is wholly prepared to give. In
4:44, Dafoe is an
extension of himself—an actor counting down our planet's last hours
in an apartment with his younger artist girlfriend. Again, Dafoe is
tasked to project a churning internal struggle, and again, he
|As Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ|
For a man in his fifties, Dafoe is in remarkable shape, though he never seems aware of it. Dressed all in black, he takes a seat, kicks out one foot, stretches one arm over his head and grips it with his other hand, like he's doing a morning stretch. He slumps in his chair a bit, as if he's meeting with someone he's known for ages.
“So, let's begin,” he says.
R. Kurt Osenlund: This is a big month/year/season for you. You've got three movies: John Carter, The Hunter, and 4:44. Do you see a common thread among them? Because I see a planetary theme.
Willem Dafoe: You know, I'm kind of literal – I'm in all of them. The connection? You know, because I've been doing interviews, I get a little self-conscious and wonder if I'm full of shit, like I'm forcing an agenda, but they're all passion projects for the director. They're all special in how they were shot. I'd say with John Carter, it was motion capture, and the sheer scale of it was huge. On The Hunter, it was the fact that it was an Australian movie shot in Tasmania, with a director I didn't really know, but had a lot of faith in because of how he pitched it. And 4:44 was special in the way that we shot it—kind of loose, with people we knew, working with a scenario and a script in a very fluid way. So I guess they each have their specific process that's specific to them.
RKO: The Hunter and 4:44 are fundamentally human stories, but they also possess these eco-themes that seem to provide more legitimate dramatic stakes these days, seeing as audiences at large, not just select groups, are finally starting to take these issues seriously. Do you see it that way?
WD: I don't disagree with you. But as I'm approaching it, as I'm playing the characters, you can't play ideas, and you can't play situations. You play actions. So I didn't think so much about the eco themes. With 4:44, the fact that the earth is ending, and that there's some sort of disaster—that's a convention. That's really a convention so we can turn up the heat on two people in an apartment trying to find out how to live and trying to see what's important in their lives. For The Hunter, someone called it an eco-noir. So there are definitely issues and themes about ecology, and a responsibility or relationship to nature, but as I'm inhabiting the character, this is not really a concern of his. He sees it in much more human terms. When I'm working on something, I'm concentrating on the doing. The frame is so specific and so based on the doing that I don't have that kind of reflection or that kind of consciousness of the themes. I'm putting myself into a place where I'm trying to be responsive in a fictional setting, and find truthful behavior for me and for the character. I'm not thinking about what it means because I don't have to. If I think of what it means, then I start to interpret, or I start making choices that point to things. I don't want to be outside of it like that. I want to be the thing. I don't want to say what the thing is.
RKO: I think it's safe to say that you have one of the most unique and fascinating faces in film. It's led you to playing everyone from Jesus Christ to Max Schreck. Was there ever a time when you were dissuaded from pursuing acting because you didn't have a typical leading-man look?
WD: Um, depends who you talk to. [Laughs] Well...does Clark Gable have typical leading man looks? No. Nah, I don't think about that, you know? Because I never thought of acting as a career. I was lucky. I just followed situations, and people. I didn't think about what would and what wouldn't work. I was just dealing with one situation at a time.
RKO: You've made more than 60 films...
WD: Oh, more than that. More like 80.
RKO: Oh, wow. I stand corrected.
WD: Some small things, of course. But still, it's a lot. I look at the number and I think, how did that happen?
RKO: Was there ever, or is there still, a roster of roles you'd like to play?
WD: Nope. Not at all. There are some things, you know, that were fantasies that I could invest in because, for whatever reason, it'd be attractive to play certain characters. But I never know what a character is until I do it, and even then I sometimes don't know. It's really about the proposal for an adventure, a proposal for an investigation. If I know what the character is, it's finished and I'm not so attracted to it. I'm attracted to things when there's something there, something interesting, but I'm not sure exactly what it is. Inventing the character is chasing that thing and finding out what that thing is.
RKO: So it sounds like it's much more about the interior for you.
WD: I don't know. In a way, yes, in a way, no. I look at a script and I say, what is this person doing? Am I interested in doing those things? I never ask myself what they mean. Occasionally I'll say, “Am I the right guy to do this? Am I up to this?” Sometimes I'll do that. Because you want to be careful and you don't want to get this fantasy that you can do everything. There are lots of limitations, and sometimes I'm not the right guy. A couple of times I've said I'm not the right guy to the director, and he's said, “No, you're not the right guy, but I thought you were an actor, come on! I like the fact that you're not him, and I know you'll do something that will make you him. That distance right now will be fuel for you becoming him.” It's like—and this is paraphrasing, so if I fall on my face just forget it—but I love the idea Jackson Pollock had with his drip paintings. He said, “the painting's already there.” He just had to give himself to the impulse and the painting would...become. I feel like that a little bit. I don't see it before, but I have some instinct of what it could be. It's really the doing that makes it what it is.
RKO: Speaking of directors, you've
pretty much always been an auteur's actor. How does that typically
work at this point? Are you pursuing them or are they pursuing you?
|Dafoe in The Hunter|
WD: I mostly pursue them.
RKO: And, for you, how important in the process is the director?
WD: It's maybe the most important thing. Even more important than the script, because scripts have to be put on their feet. My favorite movies are not often due to the script or the literature or the psychology, but something else. It's the kind of poetry of cinema that only auteurs seem to get. And I'm really taken by this idea of attaching myself to someone who has a very personal vision. And it may not be mine. I attach myself to them and part of my job is to go toward their vision, and realize it. And that's the making of something. That's the transformation. That's the becoming that I love so much. Because you learn things along the way, and you have a little shift of perspective. So you don't quite feel like yourself. You let go of what you're holding onto as an identity and it opens you up to apply yourself to other considerations. I think an actor has to be in that state of mind. Flexible and ever-ready. And those opportunities are happening most often with people who are making personal work.
RKO: Is there anything that scares you? Because you're quite a bold actor.
WD: Well the boldness comes because I'm scared of things! I'm scared of corruption, I'm scared of boredom, I'm scared of being silly, I'm scared of being pretentious. But at the same time, I think you've got to reach, so you've got to be bold with risking to be pretentious. Because if you're too afraid of being pretentious, then you'll be safe. So yeah, I'm scared of a lot of things.
RKO: Looking at The Hunter, you
shot of outdoor scenes in Tasmania. You've done some outdoor films
before, like Platoon. How was this experience different?
|In Abel Ferarra's 4:44 Last Day on Earth|
WD: It's great, because there's no reference to another life. Nature is a partner that's stronger than you, more complicated than you, more connected than you. It's perfect. It guides you, and you play with it. The weather, for example, was a huge factor. It shapes so much, and it had a profound effect on how we made the movie and how we told the story. It's also easier to be neutral, and to start from a “zero place,” because Hollywood, filmmaking, career, banks, good food, all that stuff feels millions of miles away. You're just kind of stuck with the task at hand. So it gives you this kind of concentration you're not often afforded in this information-heavy, comfort-heavy, modern technological world. Strip that all away and there's a part of you that's kind of bare-assed and more naked with the task.
RKO: I imagine every film leaves a little piece with you. What did The Hunter and 4:44 leave with you?
WD: Well, The Hunter was a real adventure. It was a three-month period in my life where I was living in a very rural area, in Tasmania, at the edge of the world. Very remote. The making of the film is always so much stronger than the film itself. And it was quite a memorable shoot. So that's what stays with me. For 4:44, it continues, because I still see Abel, I intend to work with him some more, I have worked with him before. So, I don't know, because that's not finished yet. I feel like it's continuing.
RKO: Last question. It's the last day on Earth. What do you do?
WD: What I do in the movie, pretty much. Except I don't visit my drug dealer because I don't have one! And I never have had one, okay!? [Laughs] You know, that character could be me in another life. I mean, it's Abel's idea, but I collaborated on some of the activities, and I think it's pretty practical and pretty understandable that we'd all pretty much do the same thing. And that is, try to find some pleasure, try to find some solace. I think there's a tendency to wrap up and say your goodbyes to people. Make amends. Try to cleanse yourself. Because you're going away. You clean up and you get your house in order. It's a weird impulse, but I think it's pretty human. You either destroy your house or clean up your house. And that's really what it comes down to.
*This article was previously published in the April 2012 issue of ICON Magazine. It has been republished with permission.
*This article was previously published in the April 2012 issue of ICON Magazine. It has been republished with permission.