Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: It’s a tribute to the breadth and diversity of Willem Dafoe’s career that there’s no way to settle on a signature role. To some, he might be Spider-Man’s Green Goblin, to others, the flamboyant FBI agent from The Boondock Saints, or Platoon’s fragged Sgt. Elias. Beginning his career with the avant-garde theater of the Wooster Group, Dafoe has carved out a mainstream career while fostering relationships with experimental directors like Wim Wenders and Lars Von Trier. Two new movies, The Hunter and 4:44 Last Day On Earth, show the range of Dafoe’s talents, from stoic explorer to hot-blooded artist.
4:44 Last Day On Earth (2011)—“Cisco”
The A.V. Club: You have a relationship with director Abel Ferrara, going back through Go Go Tales and New Rose Hotel. At this point, how much about the movie does he need to give you?
Willem Dafoe: To have me show up? Not that much. The director’s very important to me, particularly when the director has a recognizable style. Every movie’s different, but when Abel calls me up, I have some anticipation of what the experience and what the movie’s going to be like. And if it makes sense, yeah, I like being in the room with him. He’s got really good instincts, and on the surface, he’s not the most intellectual guy, but he’s very smart, too. I also like his work ethic. People paint him as kind of a crazy, but he’s a total self-starter, and he’s passionate. He’s a compassionate person, and he’s intense. I like being around people where the stakes are high, because it adds value to what you do. So much of performing is a leap of faith. So much is a certain kind of throwing yourself out and taking on something else, so you don’t want to do it for bullshit reasons or with bullshit people. Sometimes you’re wrong, but if I’m a repeat customer, it means I must have valued the past experiences. So to answer your question: Very little, maybe. A lot of directors that I’ve worked with, if it makes sense, and if I have any connection with the proposed role and the proposed story, I’ll be there, because it’s nice to go back with people that you already trust, are already established with, maybe have some sort of rapport and shorthand. I can’t overstate how important trust is for that director-actor relationship.
AVC: To an extent, the people in 4:44 go on with life as usual right up to the end of the world, rather than rioting in the streets or running out to the desert to take peyote. But there’s a heightened emotionalism to their interactions, where they can be calm one moment and screaming the next. How much did you talk about that quality beforehand?
WD: It’s something that just happens in planning out the scenario. One thing that occurs to me, and maybe this seems very obvious, is that the end-of-the-world thing, clearly, is just a convention. You don’t even pay it off, and I think someone’s lost if they’re too interested in that aspect of it. It’s not a science-fiction movie; it’s not even a doomsday movie. It’s a device to let us see people dealing with their lives. The one thing that it does clearly, and it’s sort of beautiful, is you recognize how much of what we do is predicated on a future. When you take the future away, what do we have? You’ve got a choice: Do you live in the past, or do you live in the present? And if you decide to live in the present, what the fuck is that? What do you do? What are your interests? What are your illusions? What kind of consciousness do you have? Part of Abel’s world is the language of, “You wanna go out straight, or you wanna go out high? Which is better? You’ve got a choice.” Because somewhere, deeply, a lot of life is about that.
AVC: It’s kind of the ultimate existential choice. Not, “Are you sober because you want your five-year chip?” but, “How do want to experience this moment?”
WD: Exactly. Obviously, it’s examined in a heightened way because of that, but I think it’s a worthwhile experiment. And then also, because [my character’s] place downtown has a slight flavor that’s specific to New York, it recalls something of 9/11 that you can’t quite put your finger on. I mean that sense of New York, collectively, something going very bad. I was here when it happened and the whole city felt, at the same moment, something going really bad. So that memory helped tap into this fictional end of the world.
The Hunter (2011)—“Martin David”
AVC: The Hunter is such an interesting contrast, both as a film and as a performance. It’s much more…
WD: Subdued? [Laughs.]
AVC: Subdued, and with a gradual crescendo, rather than bursts of emotion. Your character is much more a part of the landscape.
WD: It’s also a very controlled narrative. It’s very controlled because part of the structure is that you’re paying off what someone called “eco-noir.” There are suspense elements, there are puzzle elements of chasing down the [Tasmanian] tiger. Now, of course, that’s not what the film is ultimately about. One of the things about 4:44, the reason why it’s so punchy—that kind of slipping in and out of emotion—is that there was a sense of flying by the seat of our pants. That seemed to match; not only was that the process, and not only is that kind of Abel’s way, anyway, because he works from a certain amount of chaos, controlled chaos. I think that’s the big difference in the performance style.
The Loveless (1982)—“Vance”
WD: It’s pretty wild. [Laughs.] It must be weird.
AVC: Director Kathryn Bigelow came out of a background in painting and experimental film, and you’d been involved in avant-garde theatre with The Wooster Group. Abel Ferrara has connections to that world, as does Lars von Trier. Does it help to work with people like that, where you share a common language?
WD: I think so. I think I just feel more comfortable with that. I feel like I’m with my people. I feel like we have the same values. But on the other hand, I like to work with people of different cultures, different points of view. But yeah, I feel much more comfortable. That’s the problem I sometimes have with going to Hollywood. I feel like they don’t share the same values as I do. They aren’t interested in the same things. It’s not always true, but sometimes, I feel it deeply, because as an industry, they celebrate things that I’m less interested in, and it’s all about the business.
The Boondock Saints (1999)—“Paul Smecker”
AVC: On YouTube, someone’s edited together the emotional high points of your performance.
WD: Oh, God. [Laughs.] Okay.
AVC: The movie’s…
WD: Yeah, yeah.
AVC: But it’s a fantastically unleashed performance.
WD: Yeah. Sometimes you get something that’s like a fantasy. For all of us, we can do some imitations, and other ones, we don’t feel as deeply. How does that happen? I don’t know. It’s just that somewhere, we have a deeper feeling for certain masks than others. That was a good mask. That was a good mask, the Boondock Saints one, in terms of a self-loathing, smart, gay FBI agent that has these kind of special powers. I like it. Sweet, but abusive, you know? I mean, this is really fun. [Laughs.]
AVC: Using the word “masks” harks back to The Wooster Group. It’s not the Actors Studio approach to a character.
WD: No, no. I don’t have that Actors Studio approach. But I think, somewhere, I relate to Stanislavski’s approach, because, for me, it’s about action and task and often, mask.
Shadow Of The Vampire (2000)—“Max Schreck”
WD: Max Schreck: A perfect mask. That was sweet, particularly, because I had such a specific model. That’s a case where you really start out by imitation and then you take off from there. For every role, you have to always find a different way to approach it, one that’s specific and suits what the key is. Every role’s a mystery. I think if you know what it is, you probably shouldn’t even do it. So you’re always looking for that key. I had a beautiful mask. I didn’t look like myself, I didn’t feel like myself. That really invites you to be someone else. And when you have something to work with, then you fly with it. It’s an invitation to make something, and that’s when actors are free, and when actors can address impulses that they aren’t even aware of. Truly creative without being a showboat. They’re created in the sense that they’re connected to an action/reaction thing that starts to gain its own momentum, and then it operates by itself, without making choices. Without thinking, it does it by itself.
AVC: How much does it help to have a face that’s not your own?
WD: It helps a lot. On some level, I always want to disappear. I mean, literally. [Laughs.] Because I think that’s my actor’s impulse, to become, and not have me be there anymore. Who I am, we can only figure that out by kind of getting an idea that’s expressed through preferences and habits; all the things that can block you. So once you take away those preferences and take away those habits and those points of view, then you’re open for anything, and if you know where to direct your energies, then something really beautiful and special can happen.
AVC: Is that something you get better at, entering the stage or the set as empty as you can be?
WD: I think so. I mean, it’s a theory, you know? Sometimes, you need nothing; sometimes, you need a lot.
The Last Temptation Of Christ (1988)—“Jesus”
WD: [Laughs.] Jesus. Ah, there we go! You needed nothing. That was important to be empty. That was the most essential thing, to cleanse myself of any expectation. Now thankfully, the role is a passive role; it’s a reactive role. That’s the whole point of the story, that he’s handed a job, and he’s saying, “I don’t want it, I don’t want it, I don’t want it.”
AVC: “Let this cup pass away from me.”
WD: Yeah. I could really not need anything and just react to the story, and then once that something was established, then it kind of played itself. But really, it was essential to forget I was playing Jesus, which is kind of a no-brainer, you can imagine, because that’s a pressure you don’t wanna have.
AVC: There’s obviously no Christianity at that point.
WD: Yeah, yeah. Exactly. [Laughs.] Yeah, that was important. That was sort of a revelation that the most important thing was to… That was the first time that I started thinking of this concept of, “You have to start from zero.” Because every learned thing is in your body and it’s in your brain. It’s instinct, but you don’t have to recognize it, you don’t have to call on it. It’ll be there. All is readiness. Although, sometimes, you have to be a more active character and you have to drive the narrative. So you have to make different kinds of choices. But even that, you group them into actions. So there’s a practicality to it.
WD: Now, that was interesting, because I had a [psychiatric] methodology to stand behind. And since he was so tied to it—his identity was his profession—that was the role. That was where it started. Now, stuff happens to him, but that’s where to start. I had a bible. It was like being… I don’t know what the equivalent is. Evangelist? No. What do they call it? People that really believe in the Bible. Whoever takes the Bible literally. An orthodox person. I don’t know, that was my bible. In everything, I always referenced that. And my actions were very clear, because my whole thing was to make her well, and my technique was [Slaps hands together] the bible. Not that bible, but…
AVC: It makes it easier that your character doesn’t have to succeed in the film. There’s no chance he’s going to cure his wife.
WD: True. Lars wouldn’t let me. I don’t think he liked his therapist very much, and I was using the therapy that he uses.
Heaven’s Gate (1980)—Extra (uncredited)
AVC: I gather that you were, and then weren’t, in Heaven’s Gate.
WD: Yeah, yeah, yeah. That’s a whole story. That was a whole experience. I’m working at The Wooster Group, and through a series of weird events—because I’m not really soliciting work so much—they say, “Oh, would you like to work?” And I was very happy, because I liked The Deer Hunter, and [director Michael Cimino] had just come off the Academy Award [for The Deer Hunter]. A week later, we were shooting. We were going to shoot in Kalispell, in Montana, this beautiful landscape. It was a special Western, it was going to be great. Even though I had a small role, I didn’t care.
Well, all of a sudden, my small role becomes huge. I’m only supposed to be there for a couple weeks here, a break, then a couple weeks, and then I’m done. So I walk away from The Wooster Group, saying, “Excuse me, I’ll be back in a couple weeks.” And I get there, and they rip up my contract and say, “Baby, you’re here.” So I call home and say, “Hey. [Laughs.] I don’t know…” And they’re like, “What are you doing? You said you were gonna…” I said, “It’s changed.” And they said, “Okay, we’ll wait for you.” Well, it ended up being three months. And it could’ve been eight if I hadn’t been fired, but I was fired one day because we were sitting in a lighting setup, and someone told me a joke. I laughed. Cimino, in a very agitated state, at this point—previous to that, I got along with him great—he turned around, told me to step out, and they put me on a plane. Last laugh, maybe?
AVC: You might have gotten off easy.
WD: I mean, I don’t like to gloat, because that movie has some things to recommend. It wasn’t my absolute favorite.
AVC: A lot of its reputation as a disaster has to do with the business. When you’re watching it, you don’t care how much they spent on wagons.
John Carter (2012)—“Tars Tarkas”
WD: Right. And they’re experiencing that right now with John Carter, which I think is a good movie, a very good movie. I think people will really enjoy it, and I think it’ll have the last laugh. But there’s so much negativity and so much obsession over budget. The world’s having the last laugh here, because it did really well internationally, but they’re obsessed with this first week here. Did you that article in the Business section of The New York Times?
AVC: The Ishtar thing.
WD: That had to have been written last Wednesday [before the film opened]. Do you remember how it was written? Very well-researched, very methodical, really tracing how everything went wrong to this guy’s project. I thought, “This was written last Wednesday, before he even knew how it performed.” And he dubs it a failure. I’m not sure that’s true. I hope it isn’t, because it’s a good movie, and it deserves to get free of this obsession about budget.