Transcript from BAFTA A Life In Pictures: Willem Dafoe, 6 December 2019, Odeon Leicester Square, London
Francine Stock Ladies and Gentlemen, please welcome Willem Dafoe.
So at time of speaking you’ve got something like 125 actor credits, it will probably be more by the time you get back down here, it goes up so fast. But was this always in your mind from the beginning as a kid, were you a performer?
Willem Dafoe I was but I never imagined that it could be a profession because where I grew up in the mid west in the United States I didn’t know anybody that made their living performing or being an artist of any kind so it was something that I, you know, found fun to do, but I didn’t connect it with the possibility to be a livelihood.
FS: And at what point did that change then?
WD: Um, it takes a long time because I didn’t have formal training and there was a period where I always liked performing and I liked making things but it didn’t really immediately become my identity. So, to make a long story short, I mean I really realised that I was an actor and I wanted to be an actor after doing it for a while, because initially I really just kind of followed situations and people, ‘cos really I started out with very small theatre companies, self fun theatre company in particular, most notably the Wooster Group in New York, which was company run, we were making original work and there was no way to really exploit that commercially and it probably wasn’t even a career because never, you know it wasn’t enough to live on but we had a space and we put all the money we had into keeping the space and it was a life and I was able to squeak by and basically I worked in the theatre for a while and then people saw me in the theatre and said, well, specifically, Kathryn Bigelow saw me in a piece called The Rig at the Wooster Group and she called me up. I didn’t have any representation and I was in the phone book then, the New York City phonebook, why not right? And she called me up and she said “Would you be interested in, you know, being in my movie?” And I said “Sure” and that was her first feature called ‘The Loveless’. So that really started my involvement, you know, formally with movies.
FS: And you played the biker, I think we saw a tiny little bit, we saw it in there didn’t we?
WD: Yeah, we saw me for a second.
FS: But you would go then over the next few years to work with quite a lot of big names, not necessarily with leading roles as such, but you worked with William Friedkin, for example
FS: Tony Scott, and Oliver Stone
WD: Oliver Stone, uh Walter Hill
FS: Indeed, so before we come on to talk about Platoon for a second, what were you as primarily as a stage actor at that point, what were you picking up on those sets from those directors?
WD: From those directors, hmmm, they were all very different. I mean, uh, Walter Hill had seen this movie that I made with Kathryn Bigelow and put me on a motorcycle again. He thought nobody’s seen this movie I can get away with plucking him out and putting him in my movie! And that was a movie called ‘Streets of Fire’ and it wasn’t very successful but it’s a movie that really people, you know it does have a following. Um, what I learned from him it was really my first studio film – I had a false start, I worked on Heaven’s Gate as a glorified extra from which I was fired, um, so that doesn’t really count, but that’s a whole story, we could spend a whole evening on the story of Heaven’s Gate, um so Walter Hill was great because he made a film that once he described that he wanted to put all the things he loved in a movie when he was a boy into a movie and he almost made a checklist and tried to include all those things in this script that he was writing. So it was a lot of fun but maybe it didn’t hang together for some people. Um, but it was a lot of fun and after that I did ‘To Live and Die in LA’ with Friedkin. And he at that point had, I don’t want to say fallen out of favour, but this was a totally independently financed movie and he was going to fore wall it, there was no studio involved, a friend was going to put up the money and he was going to get I remember when he first met me he said “I want to get nobodies in this movie, like people that people don’t know, so they can really enter, you know they don’t have any associations outside of the story”. And he cast me in this role of this counterfeiter criminal and it was a beautiful role and he was very loose and very inspired and I loved working with him and actually it’s a beautiful movie. That also didn’t really immediately find a great audience and I remember there was something that I noticed very consistently about the reception of that, was that people said this movie cannot function because there’s no-one to root for, there’s not a good guy and this is years before Quentin Tarantino, nobody to root for, everybody’s bad, everybody’s morally corrupt and so critically it didn’t really do much but it was shot very beautifully by Robbie, worked with Wenders, died recently? [Audience member calls out Mailer] Thank you, Robbie Mailer, thanks. Can I take you with me?
But beautiful movie and I think strangely enough Oliver Stone saw that movie
FS: Right, which then led to Sgt Elias in Platoon, which led to your first Oscar nomination?
FS: And so was that a transformative period do you think?
WD: Well, getting an Oscar nomination…
FS: But even the making of the film…
WD: Oh, absolutely. But every film is, I mean truly. Ah, they were all, they, ah, still not, it’s, I mean people ask if you have favourites and all that, commonly actors say oh, they’re like my children, but it’s really true. There’s no reason that you have to have favourites and sometimes even favourites tighten you up because you try to go to the same place or you try to repeat the conditions for the things that you liked in that, and I think you have to, at least I have to, remain loose, you know, treat every one like it’s the first time.
FS: So was it after the notice of the academies that you first began to talk to Martin Scorcese about Last Temptation of Christ?
WD: Well there was a movie after that and what’s interesting is the first time when I was nominated, you get raised out of the pack a little bit and you’re seen as the new kid and even though I didn’t win it got attention and the film was a special film because it was a little tiny film that got critical praise and crossed over and became a popular movie. So that was very sweet, when you make a passion project like that a small project like that, that really becomes quite successful all over the world. So, that was a good thing and then people started offering me lots of things. But they were all wrong. I felt like they were being offered to me because I was the new kid on the block or I was one of the new kids on the block, none of them made sense to me and I was flattered, I was excited by all the offers ‘cos that was not my usual thing before that, I worked at the theatre and occasionally someone would reach out for me to do a movie and I very casually would pursue work because my identity was still as a theatre actor, but I think, with the Academy Award that changed a little bit and all this attention. But I didn’t work for a year, even though I had all these offers because nothing was right and I finally held out and I finally found a script and it was a story about Vietnam and I thought what a bad thing to follow Platoon up with, but I did it anyway because to tell you the truth I was eager to work and I loved the script and it was going to be an adventure because we were going to shoot in Thailand and I was, I finished that movie and it, there were lots of problems with the studio and you know it came in under one regime and kind of was hated by the new regime and lots of tension with the director with the studio, so there were lots of problems and I came back totally fatigued and thought, boy I’d better get back to where I belong and that’s the theatre, my theatre downtown. And we were teaching some place in the state of Massachusetts, very humbly, you know, I was kind of going back to my roots and I get a call one day. And they said “Martin Scorcese wants to talk to you” and they had been casting Last Temptation for a very long time and they never asked me, everyone I knew went in for this role of Jesus, not me! And I thought, ok, I don’t feel like very Jesusy, so, and when they called I remember I said “Really? Good, what’s he want?” You know, and it’s “Oh, he wants to see you for Last Temptation of Christ” and I said “Which role?” and my agent’s like “Eh, eh, Jesus!” And I was quite surprised and I said “Ok, seems strange to me, but great, you know Martin Scorcese is great I’ll check it out”. So I read the script and when I read the script I understood and I loved the script and I was so excited and I went and had a meeting with him and he said “ok, let’s do this”. So it was a really sweet, out of the blue at a time I was feeling really quite dejected and kind of depressed by, you know, what it takes to make a movie, not actually doing the movie but everything around the movie. And went off to Morocco and made this movie that you know was one of my best experiences, because it was total immersion, a lot was demanded of me, he’s a great director, it was a low budget movie, so there was no fat, it was very essential, it was very immediate, he was very turned on. He had been making this movie in his head for many years and his heart was in it. So, it was a beautiful experience and the fact that it was a character that, you know the biggest challenge was to cleanse myself of expectation of what I had to do. But thank God, thank God, haha, I’m happy to say, yeah, careful with those words, I knew that, the big thing was I had to be free of that burden of trying to be Jesus and it was a reactive role, so really I had to put myself in a neutral place that was very reactive, and that was a beautiful place to be for that story.
FS: We’re moving now towards our first clip, which is indeed Last Temptation of Christ
FS: And this is the point where Christ has been defending Mary Magdalene against attack, if we see the clip please.
FS: And so followed the sermon, haha. Obviously with Barbara Hershey and Harvey Keitel there
FS: Um, so that was an extraordinary and obviously very controversial piece of work as well. But having that kind of attention, did you feel, you said just now, I was really interested when you said things were coming in and you knew they weren’t right, I’m really interested to know what it is. I mean obviously if Martin Scorcese calls then this is fantastic.
WD: You look at something and you have to have some inkling that you would have to have a curiosity about it you have to feel like it peeks your interest and you feel you’re capable of bringing something to it. I mean, in the best circumstances you feel like I’m the only guy to play this role. And it’s not egotism, it’s you have some sort of connection with it. And it can’t be something that you, well, it can be, but it’s not necessarily something that you recognise and say, oh, I can do this and you see what the result is, it calls you and if it doesn’t call you and it doesn’t, the set up, you know you look at a script and you say “Do I want to do these things? Do they mean something to me? Are they evocative? Do I have to learn something to do them? Is this going to change how I think? Is this going to challenge my sense of the way things are?” You ask yourself all those questions. And I was asking myself a lot of questions and getting a lot of bad answers, so this was a blessing, hahaha.
FS: So, inevitably we’re racing on a bit because with 125 also it’s impossible to stop every wonderful spot. But then you worked with David Lynch, you worked with Wim Wenders, Kronenberg, ah, you make ‘Tom and Viv’ which was BAFTA nominated here, and play TS Elliot. Um, Caravaggio in ‘The English Patient’.
FS: Now, many of these characters are volatile, unpredictable, maybe their actions might turn quite quickly, you know, or their behaviour might turn quite quickly, but one of the really remarkable things about your performances, is that, although we may be startled by the turn the character takes, it never seems implausible.
WD: Oh ok, good.
FS: But this is really important and this is not always true. So, how do you do that?
WD: Uh, I don’t know. I play the scenes, you know, I think I’m always interested in what is presented, you gotta find the shadow side, just develop a kind of full character and a balance. And you don’t point to that, you don’t even have to show that, but you have to have that to feel like you aren’t representing. To inhabit it you have to find the full range of people, of the person, I mean that’s the theory, so you get away from yourself to take on new habits, new ways of thinking, the situation of the character, and you’ve got to build something that’s as complete as, you know, your sense of self, but you’ve got to leave yourself behind. So I think normally if you have like a character that is perceived as threatening of course you’ve got to develop the shadow of that, the other side of that, and I really enjoy that and that’s my sense of the world, you know, what you see is not what you get usually. So, um, that’s just a fun way to work and fun way to try to find the truth in a scene, not to illustrate it, not to show it, but to have an experience of something that you don’t see. Or play around with that at least.
FS: So does that mean that sometimes you will be developing that shadow and never needing to use it.
WD: Yes, absolutely, it’s just got to the there. It’s like when you’re a theatre performer, if you’re just thinking about what’s in front of you, you become top heavy, you also have to think about what’s behind you. There aren’t people there, but there is a world there, so to be in your feet, to be really standing, to be present, you have to, whoosh, you have to take it all in, and I guess it’s the sense of that.
FS: Well, talking about shadows we’re going to go on and talk about ‘Shadow of the Vampire’. Which is a film in which you left a kind of indelible impression playing Max Schreck. Who was the actor who played Nosferatu in FW Murnau’s 1922 film. Now this is an extraordinary film because, well, number of levels, one you have to wear a huge amount of prosthetics and make up, how long did that take every day?
WD: Four hours in, three hours out.
WD: And what was interesting is the crew never saw me because I was as myself, they only saw me in character, because I was there before they came in and I was there after they went home, curious!
FS: Adds another level of mystery to a story that’s already full of sort of meta levels of mystery anyway, because the sort of premise is that Max Schreck was quite a reclusive and mysterious actor and the premise of this film was that probably he was playing, wasn’t even playing the vampire, he was!
WD: Haha, yes
FS: Which is, uh, and it’s great because it’s funny and it’s scary and it’s quite poignant too at the same time. Um, I’m just wondering whether in a sense it’s um, well maybe we should see the clip first so we can see some idea of you in it, so here we see, um, FW Murnau, the director, who’s played by John Malkovitch, it’s getting towards the end of shooting and this is a scene which is obviously, the sun is about to rise, so it’s a point where, but Schreck, whilst he’s carrying out, while he’s playing the scene is also overcome by a terrible thirst, I would say. Let’s see the clip.
FS: And another Oscar nomination there, and it is the most fantastic film, I don’t think it’s seen enough actually.
WD: No, it’s not.
FS: And in that scene you get that lovely, the other sort of double thing, which is who’s the vampire in that scene? Haha.
WD: Ah, yeah, it’s, no it was a great, fun film to do, not only because of the concept, but of course there’s this heavy mask so it was a beautiful opportunity to work with a literal and metaphorical mask, you know, as a performer because when you get in that make-up chair, it’s like meditation and you see yourself physically go away, you don’t recognise yourself anymore and then it’s so cumbersome and then you’ve got these long fingernails so really in a physical way you’re forced to be another person I’m also wearing a corset, um, I’ve got fake teeth, I’m using an accent, so many things to take you away and make your conditions different. Plus, a really beautiful thing, is I have something to copy, which is the original, and I’m working from that, that’s where I start. I’m not a slave to it, uh, I always like the quote of Archel Gorky, who says “I try to paint like Picasso, but every time I try it comes out like Archel Gorky”. Well, I say that only because there’s no such thing as really copying and I love sometimes to use a model, because that’s a good thing to give you a direction, get you in movement and then once you have that, then you can kind of leap off from it, and that was a beautiful case here, because you have the comfort of that thing that you’re actually working with and it gets you going.
FS: Umm, it’s an extraordinary way that he moved in the shoulders and
WD: Well, that’s, that’s, if I put long, long fingernails on you, you would move like Schreck too, haha.
FS: So you would take on, you say that you know when a role is right and you’ve taking on many challenging, experimental films over the years. So maybe people are a bit surprised when then you do Spiderman.
FS: Because they go, here’s a big effects, popular film like that, um, so what’s appealing?
WD: What was the appeal?
FS: Obviously, pretty well rewarded I’m sure, but…
WD: You know, that’s not the reason and it’s not always big film, big pay check. It really isn’t. Sometimes the small films need you more for the financing and you get paid quite well for small films and for the big films they’re like, well this is competitive, take it or not, because that gets a big distribution, um, it helps, with you know your profile, all that kind of thing. So, it’s not that simple. You know so really, money is part of it, but it’s a very, very, it’s a consideration, but it’s a very small part of it for me because we know money can’t buy you love, haha, no, that’s not going to make you happy as far as the work. Um, why did I want to do it? It was a double role, it was a mixture of comedy and drama, sometimes in the same scene. Also I love doing physical stuff, I knew I was going to do the stunts, I was going to fly around, I was going to wire work it was fantastical, and also at that point comic book movies were not a normal thing, so it wasn’t you know, a system wasn’t created, the experts weren’t there, people were feeling their way through, so even though it was quite a large movie and you know, built to be a popular movie, it still was quite challenging and experimental, hahaha
FS: Oh absolutely and well I mean which…
WD: I mean friends would say to me, you know they assumed you want to do it for money, it seemed like a weird thing for a guy that had done some art films and that came from an avant-garde theatre to do what seemed like the most commercial kind of movie possible. But I’m interested in popular movies. Also, you like to get out there, sometimes it gets a little, um, you know, difficult when you make movies that you think are beautiful and then they don’t reach an audience. So you try to balance it out for many, many reasons, it’s not even that calculated, it’s like sometimes, you know the role excited me. Sam Ramey, I knew it was a personal film, it wasn’t a by the numbers, this wasn’t an industry technician coming into a corporate idea, you know trying to raise it from the dead, he really was into this.
FS: Well, this would be a good point to introduce the next clip in which you are playing both the tycoon, Norman Osborn and the nemesis Green Goblin and here we see you literally dancing with yourself, as it were. Can we see the clip please.
FS: But even the shape of your face seems to have changed.
WD: Ah, you know when we first did this, we did it in one take, you know, doing the camera so I could play both roles at the same time. Which we did and that’s the bulk of that, and afterwards they wanted to cut in all that information with the newspaper and then they also put some close ups in there, but as an exercise, as the meat of the scene, it was really fun because I had to position myself so sometimes the camera would see me in the mirror where I was one character and then of course sometimes they’d see me as the other character. It was fun, it was a good game to try to be clear about those shifts. I remember Sam gave me, first thing he did he gave me a little volume of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and I’m not sure this was even written by that point, this scene. I thought, hmm, that’s strange. Not so strange, but you know, now I know why he gave it to me.
FS: So that was 2002, which is before Spiderman joins the Marvel universe, if he does. Oh, I’m sorry we’ve lost your microphone I think.
WD: Oh did I?
FS: That’s ok, it’s all right, otherwise we’ll all be very, somebody is running out now.
WD: I turned around to watch myself in the movie and this is the punishment, haha!
FS: So, Spiderman is in 2002 and, as I say, it’s a stage before it’s into the Marvel, and it’s way before all this great sort of raft of films that have come later. When Martin Scorcese talks about, you know, these kinds of films being more like theme park experiences than cinema, about human emotions and human, I mean, do you have any sympathy with that, do you have any thoughts about that?
WD: I know what he’s talking about but I think a lot of things about those films and I like to mix it up, so, you know.
FS: You still think that even if you are in one of these big films you can still bring to it.
WD: Oh I think so, yeah. It’s a different, you know, you need a different skill set, your job is different, but I maintain that’s true for any movie. How you function in the movie, what kind of movie it is, what the intentions are, it’s fluid. Yeah, I know what he’s talking about but I have a lot of positive experience in those kinds of movies too. And that’s not just to be politic, it’s just I don’t feel compelled to judge it that way, because sometimes I do those kinds of movies. In the same way that someone could maybe complain that some movies are, you know, they don’t appeal to a wide enough audience so they aren’t worthwhile, but I think there’s room for all kinds of movies.
FS: You’ve worked with some directors over and over again. So, for example, you have worn the red beanie of team Zissou in Wes Anderson’s Life Acquatic and you have been the voice of the dastardly rat in Fantastic Mr Fox and the thuggish assassin in Grand Budapest Hotel. You’re working again with Wes Anderson, is that right?
WD: Yeah, I’m in his new one. But the role is quite small to be honest. I shot a couple of days but I was happy to be there and he’s at the top of his game, so I love being around him and I love his movies.
FS: And what are the specific elements of working in Wes Anderson’s world.
WD: It’s Wes’s world, he’s very specific, he’s very precise but at the same time he’s kind of playful and he uses what he sees coming off you. But he makes a place for you that’s very specific and he’s got anything he looks at, you know he treats it with such care and has to mess with it and has to refine it. So when you enter that world it’s very complete and that’s what I always love with great directors, they have such a clear vision that they make a world that when you enter it, you know what has to be done, there’s a logic, and it’s not a logic that has to be thought it, it’s so clear, just by how the world is, and you have a strong response to it because it’s so specific. Specific world, specific response, that gets you going and I love that. And he’s just creative, he does fun things, I like how he shoots, he’s got a great film culture, he loves actors. And I like sometimes, you know, working with a director, whether it’s many times like Paul Schraeder, or Ava Ferrara, my wife, Giada Colagrande, because then you become part of the fabric of their work and there’s another dimension to what you’re doing and of course you establish a trust, which is so important, so you feel looser, you have a shorthand, you can set them up, they can set you up to do the things that you’re both interested in or things that you’re good at, things that you like doing and that’s, you know it taps into that sense of play without the angst.
FS: You say without the angst, but in fact you have played many, many characters sort of in extremis, haven’t you?
FS: I mean you’re quite often playing somebody who is pushed right to the edge of survival, whether it’s indeed a crucified messiah or a bereaved father or people, loners quite often who are often out in wildernesses, why?
WD: I think, you know, I’m interested in, I’m attracted to, the other. I have quite a normal life in a funny way, I live in this world and we get a mirror held up to us all the time, you know, to live a certain way and I basically live that way, you know, socialised, lock-step, get ahead, have the good life, search of happiness, all that. And we can learn a lot from people on the margins and people that have a completely different life than ours, and it costs me nothing except for the will to try to understand that or try to inhabit that. That’s a beautiful way to go. I mean why it illustrates something or inhabits something that we already know, let’s go some place that can challenge how we think, challenge how we feel and also politically it gets us out of our certainty and out of the things that we hold to be absolutely true. Those things are the good things to attack sometimes. Not because I’m a crazy, transgressive guy or anything like that, but I just find that’s the way to a certain kind of liberation and a certain kind of joy to know that there is another way, because I think a lot of people, you know, live, what’s the expression, quiet desperate lives?
FS: Yes, quiet desperate lives
WD: Yeah and culture in general and movies in particular is a way for us to come together and feel, see possibility, see hope, see connection. On some level I’m listening to myself and I sound like a preacher, but you get it. I mean..
FS: Yes. So in some ways the, when in 2017 you were both BAFTA and Oscar nominated for playing a man who seems to be kind of a regular guy, who’s Bobby the Caretaker in The Florida Project, there was actually a bit of comment at the time, oh, Willem Dafoe’s playing kind of this regular, normal person! He was actually more complicated than that, it wasn’t really quite that simple but Sean Baker the director, did you know him, how did that come to you?
WD: I knew he was looking for an actor for this particular role and I saw Tangerine and I heard many good things about him as a person and I knew how he worked and I was very interested in that and I met with him and he asked me to do it. And it was a very happy experience and I plan to work with him again. The way he works is beautiful because it’s different from film to film, I imagine to some degree, but he mixes not usually actors, like non-actors, I think he doesn’t like it when I call them non-actors, people who aren’t normally actors, or beginning actors, or children, or people that are in the actual place where we are filming, with actors, and that really appealed to me, because on some level, even though we are talking about these extreme performances sometimes, in a lot of the independent cinema that maybe people aren’t as familiar with as far as my work, I play more naturalistic and maybe more normal characters and I feel Iike I’m always wanting to get away from feeling like an actor. I remember when I was young I always loved actors that didn’t seem like actors, I thought they were people, you know people like Warren Oates, or Harry Dean Stanton, there’s a kind of grace and a kind of um, as it turns out they’re both actors, but they didn’t feel like it. And as I was a kid they were like oh they got some truck driver to do this role, but he had a kind of humanity and a kind of, you know, lack of narcissism, that I thought, wow that’s the way to tell stories, to not make it about you, but to have an experience and have it be transparent enough for other people to have that experience with you. That’s a difficult thing to achieve when you’re trained to be ‘look at me’, you know. Well, we want to get away from that. So Sean Baker is very good at creating a world where this hooks up with my training and my experience with the Wooster Group. I didn’t act that part, I became a hotel manager. And it’s not a method thing, I did the things a hotel manager does, but I didn’t adopt a psychology, I just tried to do them correctly and tried to run that motel and he set it up so I could and the people that lived there sort of showed us how to make the movie. They were the things that rooted it, made it not an invention that served our agenda, it goes beyond that, it expresses their experience. So that was a beautiful way to work and I don’t know how well you know the movie, but looking back, the beautiful thing is, I never knew I was playing a nice, compassionate, regular person, I really didn’t, I was just trying to take care of those people, do the scenes and, um, be in that place and respect the people that were living there and that became really important to me because the movie is very much about our responsibility to each other and also politically about, you know, we have to take care of each other.
FS: Yes because the film is partly also about a single mother and her young child and there are quite a lot of children in the film. I’m wondering when you say that you have to sort of look after people, presumably, you are the experienced actor, they are non-professional actors, maybe at the beginning of a career, or maybe not, that must, it must be a very specific kind of dynamic, do you have to make allowances?
WD: It is, but you have to let them be who they are and you’ve got to learn from them. And that sounds a little pat but it’s really true. You gotta watch them struggle. You know, ‘cos Sean has such a relaxed, beautiful attitude and approach with the crew and how he makes things that he allows, that he gives those people things that they feel comfortable with, things that they feel familiar with, things from their life, things that they, you know, don’t feel like they’re performing, and you follow suit on that.
FS: Well the clip that we’re about to see now is actually where your character Bobby is in fact seeing off a potential threat to the children.
FS: Let’s see the clip.
FS: That’s a really good scene, a really uneasy scene on so many levels. Is he right, is he not? And again, that’s the sort of thing where presumably, I mean, how does Sean Baker work, was that all…?
WD: Improvised it. Yeah. You know what the situation was and I knew it was a very long way to the soda machine and it was actually sort of a problem, they were like oh my God, how we gonna get from the picnic table where the kids are playing and this guy, you know this suspected paedophile is chatting them up, to the soda machine, which is way over there? So they’re like, you know, just talk to the guy, you know, and it actually the walk because the bulk and the interesting part of the scene because you can kind of see his uneasiness and you can also feel that I’m trying to be more assured that he is who I think he is ‘cos he’s not giving me any of the right answers.
FS: Hmm, so, exactly. And how many times would you have done that?
WD: Um, I don’t know, we did the actual walk at least twice, because I was waiting for a line that was improvised that I liked that I forgot. It isn’t in this take, haha.
FS: Oh well.
WD: Sometimes the ones that you like really shouldn’t be in there anyway. So maybe two or three times.
FS: That must be an occupational hazard, seeing when you see the final film, oh that bit that I loved…
WD: It’s normal
FS: It’s normal, you get over that quite quickly. I mean, so many credits, as I keep saying, but you’re quite shy of the whole stardom thing. I mean there are points at which you could have become, you know, you could have played more of a star persona…
WD: Could have?! Hahaha, no one told me, haha!
FS: I mean you say you lead a very ordinary life, I mean I’m sure, relative to other things, but you don’t like to be seen that much necessarily out and about.
WD: You know, I support movies, you know, when movies come out I do press for them, it’s not like I’m reclusive, I like doing that stuff. Um, but I don’t live in LA, I live between New York and Rome, and I work a lot. So I’m away a lot, I’m not in that, I never feel like I’m quite a person of the industry, but then of course, when we come together, then I feel very much and I feel at a film festival or at an award show and I see people that I’ve worked with or people that I admire, then I feel very close. But most of the time I’m just problem solving, you know, in the middle of nowhere trying to figure stuff out, because one thing that is worth remarking about my filmography, besides directors, I’m very drawn to directors, but also I’m very drawn to location. It’s not like I choose projects for their location, but I feel like it helps if you have an experience that informs, you know your learn something, it’s a life experience, an adventure that fuels this shift that you want to make, so I’m gone a lot and so if you’re talking about stardom, what does that mean?
FS: Well, I suppose it’s just a public perception thing isn’t it?
WD: Yeah, yeah. And also, you know, I don’t make, it’s served me Ok, but I’ve never had a career path as far as choices, because sometimes if you go off and you make, you know, some movies some place out of the system, they may not see you for a little while, so really the way to have a career and become a movie star is to get a set up, you know, at a studio, or now with a TV series or something and keep on banging away and keep on reminding people you’re there. Um, I’ve never really done that. And it’s not that it repulses me, it’s just not my way, it hasn’t been my experience.
FS: But now you’ve had this Oscar nomination for leading actor for a film about Van Gogh…
WD: Yeah, yeah, a film that I loved making.
FS: So I mean that in a sense is the best of both worlds that you are having the recognition for a very sort of specific and in some ways esoteric film, very beautiful film, with Julian Schnabel.
WD: Well, it’s a film about painting. Um, and it’s a film about an artist’s life, it’s not a biopic and it doesn’t explain, it’s not going to tell you who Vincent Van Gogh is, even though there are a lot of elements, you know, that we took from his life to make this movie.
FS: But it’s more about his creativity.
WD: It’s about painting. It’s really about ways of saying, and how you dedicate your life to a way of seeing, and how these ecstatic states that you find, we all have this in our work or sometimes it’s not in our work, it’s some place else, where we have these places where we feel free and connected, you know, what’s the popular thing it’s like in the zone or you lose yourself or you become, you know, free. It’s very much about that, how you reconcile that with regular life.
FS: And when you say it’s about ways of seeing, it’s also a bonus in this film because there’s very striking cinematography, well I say it’s striking, it’s not the kind of cinematography where you go wow, it is so right…
FS: It’s very subjective, and Benoit Delon follows you around, always in the right place.
WD: Yes, no, it was beautiful, because it was very fluid camera, and there was a lot of, there’s scenes that are quite written, but there’s also huge sequences where we would just go up and we’d either paint or we’d go into landscape or we’d, you know, improvise, but not improvise like doing big actions or making up dialogue, going for a walk. And I’d go with Benoit and Benoit was an extension of me and I was an extension of him and I sometimes didn’t know who was leading the dance, and he didn’t know who was leading the dance, but we were moving well together. It’s really fun, I love dancing with the camera. It’s a nice, you know, relationship.
FS: Well we’re going to see an example of Benoit Delon’s cinematography here in this scene in which Van Gogh is in Arles with his friend and sort of mentor really Paul Gaugin, and if we could see that clip now please.
FS: With Oscar Isaac there obviously as Gaugin. Even by your own standards there’s a great feast of films with Willem Dafoe in it appearing, even in the last few months, year, I mean we’ve got a whole range of them. Motherless Brooklyn is in cinemas now. Edward Norton has directed that and also acts in it, which begs the question have you ever wanted to do that?
WD: To direct?
WD: No. ‘Cos I like performing. It’s still mysterious to me, it’s still fun. I don’t have that, I like doing things, and I think, while sometimes I feel some people I collaborate with them in such a way that I feel very much like a filmmaker, I never feel like a director really because I don’t like that position of number one, telling people what to do and number two, I don’t like that kind of responsibility to know what things mean. I trust, you know, I trust the kind of quality of being there and it’s, I like more inhabiting something and seeing what happens, rather than kind of directing an inquiry, I like to be in that inquiry. That’s basically it. And every time, like there were periods where I felt like I wasn’t getting opportunities and I thought well stop crying about it and make your own film, you know, be a self starter, think of what you want to do. You have things you want to see, try. And every time I tried they would complete themselves, and I would find that it wasn’t, it’s like sometimes when there’s a Q&A someone doesn’t really ask a question, they make a comment, it was, no, it was a little bit like that. It’s like oh it would be interesting to have this story and I’d construct the story and I’d start to write about it and I’d think oh yes and we’d do this and we’ll shoot there and it would complete itself. I wasn’t curious anymore. I had to inhabit it rather than standing outside of it.
FS: But do you offer, I mean do you offer to directors suggestions of how they might…I mean you will be a lot more experiences than many of the directors you’re working for.
WD: I offer them myself as material and I try to be flexible, receptive, tolerant, you know, curious, that’s what I offer, and I want to give them authority, because you can’t, yeah, you can help them if they’re a young director, if they’re an old director, you see something and think the comment’s worth it, that’s fine, but you know there’s a certain level of submission to someone’s vision and when someone has a very strong vision I want to be the creature of that vision and part of my creative process is going towards what’s in their head, not my head and in the end it probably is my head, because I’m using my head, but I go towards, if you explain to me what you want to see, I have to become you to inhabit it and to realise it because I am physically doing that, so it’s that kind of relationship. And when you’re a director, I just don’t have an imagination about what a director does. Hahaha
FS: So you’ve just been working with a very imaginative young writer/director, Robert Eggers.
WD: Robert Eggers is a great talent, yes.
FS: On this project ‘The Lighthouse’, which is an extraordinary kind of 19th century tale of 2 men on an island with a lighthouse. You got it as a sort of completed script or did you talk to him beforehand?
WD: I think it’s worth mentioning that I went to see ‘The Witch’, which was his first feature, and I saw it under the best circumstances because I knew nothing about it, I’d been away, I just was a guy going to the movies, basically on the strength of a poster. I wanted to see something. I went in there and I entered that world so easily and it was so beautifully shot and I liked very much how the story was told and the performances and the whole feel of it that I thought ‘who made this? How do you make this?’ So I tracked him down. I got in touch with him, we met, we got along fabulously, we had a lot of common ground, a lot of common ideas and things that we were interested in and we said we’d work together and then he was trying to get some things going and I was sort of involved in that and then one day he called me up out of the blue and said “I’ve got it, I’ve got the thing that we can do together”. And he said, very directly, he said, it’s you and Rob Pattinson, here’s the script, basically, yes or no? And that was that. And I tell that story only because I had a feel for this guy and I thought ‘wow, I want to work with him’. And he gave me a script that was very beautiful, the language is, it’s 1890s, the state of, an island off the state of Maine, a lighthouse and the language is very poetic, it has beautiful images in it, it has a music, has a rhythm, it’s not normally what you get to do, the kind of language you get to work with in a film. So, that was very exciting, and then, like always, you look at it and you say ‘do I want to live in that world, do I want to imagine that world, do I want to do those things?’ and it was a resounding yes.
FS: So, essentially it’s really just the two of you all the way through.
WD: Yes, it is. And that’s also attractive because I knew that there would be things to do, there’s a lot to do. Sometimes people say,’ what’s the hardest thing?’. The hardest thing is when you don’t feel engaged, when not enough is asked from you. My best experiences always come when more is asked of me than I can imagine. You may fall short sometimes, but you know, that effort, that movement, that trying to figure it out, that being under siege, that kind of energy is a place for me that I love to live, rather than a kind of calm more measured, you know, applying your craft and being the good chap.
FS: So, with a drama as intense as this one is, I mean, do you like to rehearse, ‘cos some screen actors don’t like to rehearse.
WD: It depends. We didn’t rehearse. The shooting style was very clear, our actions were very clear, also Rob, we had very different characters and we had very different ways of working and I think Rob, and he says this quite often, he doesn’t want to do anything until the cameras are rolling because he feels like it’s only that he can make wild swing that something can be truthful.
FS: You’re from a stage background.
WD: I’m the stage and also I had a lot of the text and it’s my lighthouse and I’m driving, he’s the more reactive character. He’s the real protagonist because you see the movie through him and the transformation is probably more marked in him, but I’ve gotta drive, and I’ve got this complicated text, so I practised it a lot. Also, it sounds silly but you practise, I love to sit on the set and just practise doing normal things, like lighting your pipe, keeping the speech going, lighting your pipe from a coal with some tongs, you know, in a stove, lighting it, keeping the speech going, putting it back, it sounds silly, but that stuff can hang you up forever when you’re shooting and it can be a great frustration. And particularly when you’re not shooting coverage when you’ve got a very distinct, very disciplined shooting style, that stuff can’t happen, so I like to rehearse to get it in my bones, get it kind of natural, get it regular, so it becomes a normal thing and then forget about it. Then, when you come to the scene, it’s in your memory, it’s in your body and you can leap off and do other things.
FS: Well that’s a great cue, which we’re going to see now, with great examples of the speech..
WD: Do I light a pipe?
FS: Hahaha, wait and see! Can we see the clip from The Lighthouse please?
FS: Yeah, you really upset him.
WD: Well, he upset me first!
FS: So where did you film this?
WD: Nova Scotia.
FS: Wow, so pretty extreme.
WD: It was a rocky peninsular called Cape Forchu, Forchu, I guess, and it’s outside a fishing town called Yarmouth, nice place. That’s where they take the ferry to go from Portland, Maine to Nova Scotia. Um, the weather’s brutal, because where we’re shooting. We built the lighthouse. Beautiful lighthouse, if you see the movie it’s quite incredible, it survived gale-force winds and we had a lens and a real light up there that actually shone 17 miles.
WD: Yeah, Robert Eggers is a freak, with the details. He’s really totally dedicated because he finds that’s a good place to work from and he’s a man that also really lives in the past and his choices, he doesn’t want too many choices, he wants to find out through research what is the most authentic thing and he’ll accomplish that. That’s how his, why his stuff is so rooted, and his worlds are so complete.
FS: And does he require you to carry out a lot of research as well?
WD: He gives it to you, he does the heavy work. When I first decided to do this gave me all, you know, lots of visual references, dialect tapes, interviews, material about the daily life of a lighthouse keeper, vintage footage, all kinds of things. So there was a lot to help with, to learn things and to kind of place yourself so you were knowledgeable about those things, which is always great when you, you know, you go back to Platoon, one of the key things in Platoon was they trained us seriously – I knew how to clean a rifle, I knew how to set an ambush, I knew how to land navigate, I knew how to move through the jungle. You learn these things and when you learn something it’s a shift of identity and if you’re making a wilful shift of identity to another person that kind of concrete experience really opens the door. And it’s a little bit like this, we didn’t have, you know, so much to do, it was more around the language and very simple tasks, but it was important.
FS: When you were saying earlier on that it was really, you like to go somewhere where you haven’t been before and you like to really inhabit the landscape, were you able to do that here? I mean, did you go a few days ahead of time or whatever?
WD: Um, yeah, yeah you do, but also, yeah, we went a little ahead of time. Sometimes it’s not totally practical, it’s like stuff isn’t built, you know, your costumes aren’t finished, um, but yes. One thing that I like to do is that I like to stay on the set. ‘Cos I like to see what’s going on and I like to, you know, it’s, you know, I like to take the drama out of going from your rest area to the set, you know like ‘here comes the actor’, you know, be like one of the workers really and it helps you. It helps you relax and it helps you take in what the tone is on set. And also it roots you, then you start to own it. I remember, I can’t resist this story, once I did a film in China called The Great Wall and a great director, Zhang Yimou directed it, and it was a big, it’s a big kind of tent pole movie and Chinese actors, they come in with an entourage and there was a point of pride of performing as quick as possible and getting out, ‘cos that was a status thing. And everybody kind of honoured that. And when I wanted to go to the set people would get in a panic, they’d go “No, no you can’t!” and I’d say “Why?” and they’d say “It’s dangerous!”, I’d say “Really? No, no, I’m fine I’ll stand off the set”. “No, no, you can’t go” and then they’d try every excuse “The director said you couldn’t”, I’d say “No, I’ll talk to him, I’m fine”, and then they’d say “Please please I’ll get fired”. Because it disturbed their sense. an actor hanging out on set disturbed their sense of drama, and the hierarchy that was very clear on that set.
FS: But how can you make yourself unobtrusive if you’re staying on set all the time, isn’t that?
WD: Oh it happens real easily because it’s like anything, if you’re around, they get used to ya, hahaha. If you’re sitting next to the camera you’re that guy sitting next to the camera, you know. And it’s nice, for me it relaxes me.
FS: So with all these credits and all these achievements are there still things that you’re thinking ‘I’d really quite like to do’, is there anything you’d share with us today.
WD: Of course. I wish I could share, I don’t know what they are, that’s the game, that’s the game, trying to find out what that is. And because movies in particular but also because theatre’s a collaborative game, I need other people to do that with, so I seek out situations and people that inspire me and be with them and I try to figure out what those things are, but I don’t have a set thing. And the beauty, the most beautiful thing about this work, you know, the privilege, is I do have a kind of amnesia, where, when I do a project, and I’m not being coy about this, and I think a lot of actors have this, ‘cos a lot of actors talk about fear, you know when they work, no matter how many movies I do, when you start there’s really that moment of ‘Wow, how do I do this? What’s required here? What’s supposed to happen? What do I anticipate?’. All those questions come up and when you have work with that kind of mystery, that kind of curiosity and that kind of tension, you know, to learn something, I like it very much. And after a while, if you get used to that state it becomes normal, you like it, you don’t invite it, it kind of happens naturally, so when you say is there anything, accomplishments, and so many movies, I’m not doing those movies now. I’m starting from zero, I see that, it’s like that other guy did that, and there’s really a kind of sense of what’s next, you know, and that’s exciting.
FS: Let me put it another way, which is how..
WD: I didn’t answer the question, hahaha
FS: No, no, you did answer the question, but I’m going to go and stand on the other side of that question, which is to say how reassured or anxious are you about the state of moviemaking now and the kind of opportunities that there are?
WD: I’m anxious about the world, I’m anxious about how we’re dealing with you know the information age, and why there’s widespread depression in western society. Those things I’m anxious about. Um, I gotta be honest in this way I’m selfish. Now I’m going through a period where I’m finding interesting things to do. And that’s why I’m kind of loth to say movies have to be one way or pass judgement on someone else. You do that over there, I’ll do this over here. But right now, I’m yeah, it’s still hard, it’s still hard making movies, you know, sometimes I see very talented people that can’t get the money to make beautiful, what could be beautiful movies. That’s a constant frustration, that’s always been a problem, but yeah, also the other thing that’s tough is where movies sit in the culture, has certainly fallen. Um, you know and then there’s the rise of TV and I think TV is not, you know, in general there’s a lot of great things on TV and I haven’t worked much in TV but I still love the adventure of going some place to make a movie and not a long form movie but a thing that’s disciplined and tight.
FS: When you say that movies don’t have same sort of status as..
WD: People don’t talk about them the same way. Young people right now, they, one nice thing about The Lighthouse that I noticed and maybe this is you know like a self flattery observation, I think very young people like it because they haven’t ever seen anything like it, because they don’t know old cinema and there’s a degree of classicism in it and also older people like it because they recognise that classicism and then also it’s, well no you haven’t seen it because it hasn’t shown here at all yet, it’s quite fiercely experimental at the same time as being kind of a throwback, so it’s beautiful, it’s taking kind of a way of film of the past and filtering it through a new way of thinking.
FS: Yeah and it’s pretty daring isn’t it to take a film and put it out there and see if people will accept it in this new way.
WD: And so far so good, I mean I’m eager to see how it does here.
FS: So no great unfulfilled ambition that you have.
WD: Yes! But I don’t know what they are!
FS: Well, I’m sure there be.. so how many, you’re currently, you’re about to start shooting again?
WD: Actually I haven’t shot for a little bit, but I’m going to shoot with Guillermo Del Toro and I’m golng to shoot with Rob Eggers again. And that’s what I know for certain. I’ll shoot with my wife, Giada Colagrande again. So, those are some things.
FS: Pretty good things to have lined up. Well, thank you very much indeed for sharing all your insights with us today and Willem Dafoe for Your Life in Pictures, thank you.
WD: OK, thanks, thank you.