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
). 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
). For Lars von Trier, he played a gangster
) and a one half of a deteriorating couple
). For Pixar maestro Andrew Stanton, he voiced a
hard-scaled, mentoring fish (Finding Nemo
|As Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ|
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
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
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.
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
: 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
, 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?
: 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
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.
: 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.
|Dafoe in The Hunter|
: 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?
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.
: 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
|In Abel Ferarra's 4:44 Last Day on Earth|
: Looking at The Hunter
shot of outdoor scenes in Tasmania. You've done some outdoor films
before, like Platoon
. How was this experience different?
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
RKO: Last question. It's the last day
on Earth. What do you do?
: 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.