Click to Skip Ad
Closing in...

Willem Dafoe on Reuniting With Wes Anderson, Working With Lars von Trier and Why He Doesn't Want to Be Famous

Photo of Nigel M Smith By Nigel M Smith | Indiewire March 6, 2014 at 10:47AM

Standing out in a Wes Anderson film ain't easy. Standing out in Anderson's latest, "The Grand Budapest Hotel" (out this Friday in select theaters), is nearly impossible.
1
Willem Dafoe

Standing out in a Wes Anderson film ain't easy. Standing out in Anderson's latest, "The Grand Budapest Hotel" (out this Friday in select theaters), is nearly impossible.

Dating back to "The Royal Tenenbaums," the filmmaker has stocked his work full of revered Hollywood players. With "The Grand Budapest Hotel," Anderson outdoes himself, employing the likes of Ralph Fiennes, Tilda Swinton, Jeff Goldblum, Adrien Brody, Saoirse Ronan, Bill Murray, Jude Law, Harvey Keitel, Edward Norton and more. Fiennes is the clear lead of the film as Monsieur Gustave, the legendary concierge of the film's title. Out of the secondary players, Willem Dafoe steals the show. That he does so with very little dialogue, speaks to his skill as a performer.

READ MORE: Wes Anderson On Developing 'The Grand Budapest Hotel' and What He Hates Most About Hotels

Indiewire sat down with the actor in New York to discuss his scene-stealing role as Jopling, a tattooed, leather-clad hitman, working with Wes Anderson for a third time (he previously appeared in "The Life Aquatic" and "Fantastic Mr. Fox), and his relationship with Lars von Trier, who recently directed him in "Nymphomaniac" (Vol. 1 is now available On Demand).

Jopling steals every scene he's in. His wardrobe is outrageous. Did you have anything to do with that?

Well it was pretty much proposed to me. Wes knows me. He asked me to do it very early, he showed me the lines very early, and there wasn't any input needed. It was beautifully made, done. So my job was more to inhabit it, and once we got there, he was very strong, he's very clear. You know your biggest job is getting, doing, what he sees. You don't use so much energy on finding it because it's very precise.

You've worked with Wes before. Does he afford his actors freedom on set, or is his method of directing you as precise as his visual aesthetic?

I feel terrific freedom, because I feel freedom in structure. I mean everyone's different, but you always hear that people think that improvisation is the absolute, biggest treat an actor can have. This, this is the easy stuff, this is the grunt work. The real beauty is in inhabiting and being there. So when all that stuff is done for you, I don't know, I just think that's closer to performing than anything else.

GBH, Willem Dafoe

I think also people aren't quite down with artifice, and for me, I'm fine with it. Because I think naturalism is... you get distracted by a certain kind of charm and a certain kind of recognizable personality. It's naturalism that keeps you away from seeing what's really going on. But when something is foreign because you don't see it in life, it's created, it doesn't exist in real life, then I think it creates a different kind of awareness and a different kind of consciousness and a different kind of appetite to go to someplace else that you don't know. So, me, I just like serving that kind of vision.

That's a long answer for a very simple question, but it has to do with. There are huge pleasures and there are huge freedoms in having a strong structure.

How you would compare working with someone like Wes Anderson, with someone like Lars von Trier.

There are similarities, but there are probably more differences. You know, their interests, they have a different kind of cinema, but they both have very clear visions, their ways of working are very different. Wes likes to shoot a lot, he's very obsessive, and he works things out ahead of time. Lars prohibits rehearsal, because he wants the actor off-balance and he wants the actor to be fresh, he doesn't want them to be able to deliver a performance, he wants the performance to happen. I mean that's my interpretation of it, but he really doesn't want them to rehearse. Also, the camera is more fluid, some shots are very designed but they're huge signs.

In the sequences in Lars' work where the camera moves, you don't even know where it is, and he really believes you can cut anything to anything so he doesn't shoot conventionally. Wes doesn't shoot conventionally but he does shoot in a very formal way. He really knows the frame, while he may have these wildly athletic camera shots, it's quite built. He plays very little with chance.

I saw the first volume of "Nymphomaniac" -- dying to see the second.

I haven't seen it yet

You haven't seen it yet? You must be curious.

Very curious. But the truth is, I haven't been anywhere, I've been traveling a lot and working a lot, and I haven't been any place where it's playing, and they sent me a link, and I was like, when do I have four hours to watch this? And I waited and waited and then I get very excited, and I get ready to do it, and so I went to see it, and it expired!

No!

So I thought, I gotta wait.

READ MORE: Review: Wes Anderson's 'The Grand Budapest Hotel' Is a Delightful Action-Comedy As Only He Could Make It

Willem Dafoe's "Nymphomaniac" poster
Willem Dafoe's "Nymphomaniac" poster

That's a film you need to see on the big screen. I would wait it out.

I imagine, I imagine.

Were you at all wary about collaborating with Lars again following his whole Cannes blowout?

No, no. I mean you know, I think he doesn't protect himself, and he says irresponsible things, but I think he is… you know, he's a risk taker. Sometimes he puts his foot in his mouth, sometimes he says things that probably aren't wise to say, but he's thinking them. Everyone assumes he plans everything out very carefully and he's just a bad boy seeking publicity. I don't think it's quite like that. He's a guy who challenges himself and he challenges people's reactions to him, and how his films get made and how they get released, he's always playing around with different formulas. And he goes to Cannes quite often, and he's always set up as the bad boy and he always plays his part, and this time, he went just a little too far and it was funny to see how they came down on him. And then of course the press ran with it, but if you look, I mean it's old news, but, if you look at the sequence, classically, out of context, some of it's very outrageous, but if you see the tone, and how he's doing it, you say, OK, I wouldn't have said that, and it's probable ill-advised to say that he did, but I get it, he's not a Nazi, he's not promoting, you know. But this is why he gets spanked. I've seen worse press conferences (laughs). And better reasons to ban people.

Has it always been a conscious effort on your part to keep a good balance between studio and indie fare?

I think I have tendencies, and I'm always looking for good opportunities, and I'm always looking to not repeat myself just for my own pleasure. So, I like to mix it up, I think it's the healthy thing to do. But let's face it: it's all conditioned by what's available to me, what's happening. So, I go through periods where there isn't interest in things to do, and I get quite depressed, but then I go through periods where there's lots of things to do. And it's only in those periods where you feel your sense of choice. But it's not always like that. So you can see patterns in what I like to do. I don't control that. It's not as smart or as clever or as synced with my personal… it's a case by case basis to try to find interest in things to do.

One thing I will say is, I'm not a careerist and I'm not interested in being famous. I am only to the degree that it keeps on giving me opportunities to keep doing what I like to do, and working with interesting people. That's, because I've lived in New York for many years and, I'm not a Hollywood creature, and I also work in the theater, I don't think about these things too much, it's really just about keeping opportunities going.

This article is related to: Willem Dafoe, Interviews, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Wes Anderson, Nymphomaniac: Volume I, Nymphomaniac: Volume II, Lars von Trier