Willem Dafoe

Spousal hobbling and primal fears: just another day’s work for Willem Dafoe. Although he’s starred in plenty of mainstream films—his role as Spider-Man’s Green Goblin comes to mind—he’s always had a taste for the extreme, whether playing a real-life vampire cast in F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu or a flawed and all-too-human Jesus Christ. In Lars von Trier’s Antichrist, he’s a psychotherapist coping with his son’s death and his wife’s grief, which goes from agonizing to dangerous when he unwisely prescribes a restorative stay in their secluded cabin in the woods. Trier’s characteristically provocative film is equal parts psychodrama and splatter, held together by the high-wire acting of Dafoe and costar Charlotte Gainsbourg. As the film screened at the Toronto International Film Festival, Dafoe sat down with The A.V. Club to talk about preparing for a role, working unprepared, and dealing with a depressed director who needed on-set naps. 

The A.V. Club: How did Lars von Trier describe this material to you? 

Willem Dafoe: He described very, very little. We had a script. He told me that he wanted me to see The Mirror by Andrei Tarkovsky. He hooked me up with somebody at Columbia University to learn a little about cognitive behavior therapy. He showed me a few visual things, like where we were going to be shooting. But that was about it. He also told me that for two brief little shots, he wanted to use a porn double. He didn’t want me to do it. That was about it. Most of it was done in the doing. And he’s also very keen to not be too prepared, because I think he feels like the best impulse comes when you’re not secure. A truer impulse. 

AVC: For a movie like this, it’s hard to imagine going in unprepared.

WD: It is, but that’s what we did a lot of the time. Long scenes with lots of talking, and you only know where they begin and end. That was it. No blocking. No camera positions. No cueing. No props. The stuff was there, and you dealt with it. And of course multiple takes, and of course he doesn’t have a traditional cutting style, because he basically cuts wherever he feels like. Which really liberates him and the actor, because you aren’t pre-figuring a performance. “We got that part of the scene.” “We don’t have that part of the scene.” You know? “Yeah, you gotta juice it up for this close-up.” There’s none of that. 

AVC: How does working on Antichrist compare with making a movie like Spider-Man? Is it a completely different job?

WD: It’s all the same job, because it’s kind of your job to be interested in what’s going on, to be engaged. [Laughs.] To realize it. But I’d say I had a lot of responsibility in this one. It’s not real apparent in the story, and I don’t want to be too proud of this, otherwise I get self-conscious, but I’m driving a lot of those scenes, because it’s two characters, and she’s so sick that I only know where we have to go. And sometimes, because she’s so sick, she’s not much help. So I had to roll up my sleeves.

AVC: It’s the therapist’s role to guide the conversation.

WD: Yeah. 

AVC: Did von Trier say why cognitive therapy specifically?

WD: It’s something he’s used. It’s from Sweden, I believe. He’s Finn-Danish, I believe, but that’s Scandinavian.

AVC: He’s talked openly about dealing with clinical depression. Cognitive therapy is often used to treat depression and anxiety because it places the focus on external behavior and away from internal struggles.

WD: Right. This exposure therapy. 

AVC: The movie is very much a gauntlet. Just watching it is a harrowing journey, loosely analogous to what he went through.

WD: A little bit. Yeah.

AVC: You’ve known him for a while. Did he seem different to you? Did you get a sense of him working through his problems with this film? 

WD: Well, you know, he was feeling quite well when he was in work. I mean, as he said, the one thing he’s not afraid of is making movies. The one place that he feels comfortable is on a set. That’s true. But that’s a relative wellness. It was weird, because as he was struggling, he was always sort of a model, a reference point. Because some days, he would cease to function for little periods. He’d take a nap, we’d take a break. We had to be sensitive all the time to these little things we couldn’t control. So that put us in a certain kind of trust game, a certain type of sensitivity game that was really important to root this movie for us. As far as the arc of what happens, I think for a little while, it’s recognizable. And then once [Gainsbourg’s character]—well, she kind of shifts into psychosis, because she starts to embrace the fears rather than try to get rid of them. That’s where everything goes bad. And that’s where my character starts to become afraid.

AVC: He loses control of the situation.

WD: Oh absolutely. Absolutely. And then, of course—well, I’m not much for interpreting the movie, but clearly he’s the rational one. He’s talking about measuring how you think against empirical experience. He’s the rational—he’s the Western thinker who is going to get you clear; the clarity is going to save you.

AVC: It breaks down into gender stereotypes: He’s more logical and repressive, she’s emotional and impulse-driven.

WD: But the truth is, as I’m doing it, we’re not thinking about that at all. 

AVC: One way to read the ending of the movie is as one principle triumphing over another. 

WD: Not necessarily! I’ve seen the movie three times, and you know, this movie is a breathing thing. It changes. It shifts. And that ending: I read it differently each time. One thing that remains constant is the intent of that power that you see coming up that hill. It’s clearly a faceless female power. What its intentions are is not clear. And what’s going to happen to him is not clear. 

AVC: Going into this with no safety net, with no idea of where you’re going, is a challenging, risky, and maybe fascinating proposition.

WD: It was. And that was the strength. A deep trust was established just by that very fact that Lars realized he was requiring a lot from us. So it made me kind of brave. It had a funny thing if you gave over to him. And it was a source of strength, that kind of submission. Once I decided to do it, I made the gesture, let it go. And then you start to connect the gestures, and then before you know it, you’re in movement and you don’t think about it anymore. 

AVC: There’s so much consternation over the more extreme elements of the movie. What place do those elements play in your feelings about doing it? 

WD: They’re challenging things. They’re kind of fun things. They’re kind of goofy things. Some of the violence is all kind of proppy. You know? It’s not like we’re laughing when we stop doing takes. But it’s very artificial. Those moments are very movie-movie, because you have to set up the shot in a way that we haven’t been setting them up. I think the more difficult part is just the emotional rawness of it. It’s not those moments. It’s of course natural for people to go to those moments when they discuss the film. They’re kind of like little explosions that root the rest of the film. But that wasn’t my biggest concern. My biggest concern was trying to find the right tone and trying to connect with the material and not stand outside of it, and give Lars what he needed. Sometimes it was a question of, “How are we gonna do this? Really?” The normal thing is “Did you have trepidation?” To tell you the truth, I didn’t. 

AVC: It’s a very intimate movie. There are essentially two speaking parts. What was the set like? How many people were on it? 

WD: It was small. And they were mostly—we were shooting in Germany, so there was some German crew, but the more principal people were from Denmark, and were people that Lars knew very well, so it was a very tight group. So small. And the camera was very fluid. A lot of the time, [cinematographer] Anthony Dod Mantle just straps that thing on, and he’s like another one of the actors. 

AVC: The look of the film is more elaborate than anything Lars has done since before Breaking The Waves.

WD: Oh I see. It’s like more romantic, and there’s smoke and stuff like that? 

AVC: And the blurred, damaged quality of some of the images.

WD: There’s a lot more treated stuff. Right. 

AVC: Did that affect your experience on the set at all? 

WD: It did sometimes, because some of that stuff requires incredible preparation. Some of those close-ups that are very slow, that’s filmed with a high-speed camera. The camera is running for eight seconds, and that runs about 10 minutes [at normal speed], so you’re involved in this kind of mind-numbing mathematical game of “How do you approach making a gesture in eight seconds that plays for 10 minutes?” You can’t go like that. [Mugs to camera.] You’re involved in the technical process a lot, but then you always get these huge scenes where you’re just talking, and you’re trying to get from A to Z. That’s one of the first things when I read the script that I really appreciated. That the two parts of Lars, at the very extreme, that he was kind of marrying them in a nice way. 

AVC: You talked about studying up on psychiatry. Other than that, how do you prepare for a role like this? 

WD: That was about it. That was the main thing, getting into the mind of someone that that’s their work, and that’s their identity. Which is pretty substantial, because if you believe in that, it’s a whole way of looking at the world, the idea of thinking errors. This therapy was very much the basis of my understanding. My brief studying and my brief sitting in on sessions really formed who this character was. It was a good starting point. 

AVC: Is there any comparison between that profession and yours? Every actor has a different approach, but some of the tools that actors use to understand their characters are similar.

WD: Different every time. It’s what no one really knows unless you’re an actor. Because sometimes you feel like you need a lot. It’s whatever you need to give you the authority to say “I am this guy,” or feel like you are in the world. Sometimes it’s little, sometimes it’s a lot. 

AVC: Can you predict that in advance? 

WD: No, I think really it’s a confidence game. And it’s a game of flexibility. If I feel full and engaged, like I’m having a dialogue with myself that’s not my normal dialogue, that really comes from the story and the material, then that kind of tells me that I’m engaged. And the inner life of what you’re feeling, what’s happening to you during these actions, is colored by that. It’s some indication that you’re entering the character. That’s the barometer. In this one, I had a full job. I have to take care of her. And then when we got to the woods, I had to deal with the woods. Doesn’t seem like much of a job, but it is. [Laughs.]

AVC: Your original background was in experimental theater. Does experience with that kind of anti-naturalism come in handy on a movie like this?

WD: I think it does, because it gives you flexibility. You don’t have conditions for feeling right. You don’t have a way. At least when you work in a theater where you’re less an interpreter and more an inhabitor and a collaborator. You’re more like an artist. You’re more like a plastic artist than you are an entertainer. So I think that prepares you. I think that’s a big difference in coming from the non-traditional theater.

AVC: There’s more leeway there to deviate from the script, to create in the moment. 

WD: You know, I just started working on a play with Richard Foreman in New York, and one of the conditions for the rehearsal—he was very adamant—it’s got a lot of text in it, and it’s poetic text, if you know his stuff; it’s kind of like a philosophical comedy. He was very adamant about being off-book for the first rehearsal. He was also very adamant about having costumes on the first day. And mics. And the set. And the props. It reminded me of Lars. I thought, “Fuck.” You know? It was like [Claps hands.] “Do the play.” Wow. The amount of fear and tension and not knowing—then you really feel yourself coming up against making something. And once you get over the fear and kind of embrace that, it’s a very powerful feeling. 

AVC: That goes for watching the film as well. 

WD: No, that’s true. I think this is a film, it’s a film you participate in. 

AVC: Or don’t.

WD: Yeah. I’m sure some people say, “I can’t do this.”