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Sculpting Away: An Interview with Willem Dafoe

Sculpting Away: An Interview with Willem Dafoe

Willem Dafoe’s versatility as an actor cannot be understated. His range as a performer is remarkable, and that comes across in a wide range of his performances, from his expressive turn as Jesus of Nazareth in The Last Temptation of Christ to his charmingly bombastic voice-acting performance in Fantastic Mr. Fox.

Dafoe is starring in a couple of new features now hitting theaters, like The Hunter, an upcoming eco-thriller, and 4:44: Last Day on Earth, a moving drama that will get a limited theatrical release starting Friday. In Last Day on Earth, Dafoe plays a man who has to come to terms with the fact that the world will end at exactly 4:44 a.m. I had the pleasure of talking with Dafoe at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival about reacting to nature, and about how television is changing actors’ performance styles.

Which of the three films you have at the festival was the most rewarding to work on?

Oh, I never have favorites like that. It goes against my nature; even if I have favorites, I don’t admit them, to myself or to anyone else.

(laughs) Okay, let’s talk about The Hunter then. Had you read Julia Leigh’s [source] novel before taking the title role?

I didn’t read it first. There was a script, and we had to get the script to a place where we wanted it. And I felt it was best to really identify the story we were trying to tell. Once that got to a place that felt good, then we could do the movie. They did an adaptation, cut out the story we were going to make.

Now you say “we,” I’m curious…

The [screenwriter], the director, and myself.

How did you refine the role? Did you do rehearsals or rewrites? What was your process?

In this case, all of those things. But certainly working with the dialogue, seeing what was necessary and what wasn’t. You sculpt away, because you tend to overwrite initially so you can identify what you’re interested in, but then cut it back to something more essential. Then, once you’re filming, that becomes your blueprint. And you make another draft during the filming.

Right. I’m curious because of the three films that I mentioned, The Hunter seems like the most intensive role. You’re not really consistently reacting to other actors; you’re mainly reacting to everything but other actors. You said you did research for the role. What kind of research did you do?

Well, first of all, I did have another actor to work with, and that was nature (laughs). I had to learn how to do all that stuff, bushcraft stuff, the law of survival and hunting. Also, in the script, there are things that I needed to learn how to do practically, so that when we were filming, I could do them gracefully and efficiently. But also, from the point of view of a character, it helps. Because when you learn something new, it always makes you adjust your point of view and your way of seeing things. That becomes the little crack through which you can enter the character sometimes. It’s really essential that I learn to do those things so that I have authority, and it’s fun, besides. I worked with old-fashioned trappers and kangaroo hunters and animals, and this very good survivalist who makes these beautiful snares. He taught me a lot about how to survive without anything but a knife and some string in the bush.

You don’t seem to be slowing down in the number of roles you take on. At all (laughs). I know you’ve said you don’t like to pick favorites when it comes to your roles, but do you have favorite collaborators?

I mean…(sighs audibly) My favorite collaborators are the ones that invite me to work with them over and over again. (pauses) I wouldn’t even say that, because there are some people that I’ve only worked with once that I’ve really enjoyed collaborating with.

Recently, this new movie of Abel’s [4:44: Last Day on Earth] is very good, I think. And that’s the third time I’ve worked with Abel, and each time, I think, it gets better.

I know you’ve also worked at least three times with Paul Schrader. What’s it like rewriting or going over your roles with him?

Well, it’s very specific to each film, but Paul is someone that works very efficiently. And because he started primarily as a critic and a writer, a lot is accomplished in the screenplay. He’s also usually working with a very tight budget so we tend to shoot quite efficiently. So the advantage of having worked with each other is that we have a understanding, and very little has to be explained or said. I remember the first film I worked with him on, Light Sleeper. Halfway through, he had barely talked to me. I remember we were starting up one day, and he came over and said, “Listen, you’re probably wondering why I haven’t said anything. It’s because you’re doing fine.” (laughs) He was right—if he was happy, I was happy.

Do you find the conversation that you have with more experienced or maybe even more established screenwriters or filmmakers is different than the one you have with new filmmakers?

Always, but I don’t categorically say one is better than the other because sometimes, people who have made films for a while start to get lazy, or get bad habits, or get stuck. And you can imagine with young filmmakers, some of the problems with them. They don’t, sometimes, have a history to hone their instincts. I think the more someone’s been working, the more they can skip to the chase. And there’s less talk, because they have a history of sensation. When someone is making something, they’re wide open. There’s a good part of that and a bad part of that. The good part of that is they’re usually passionate and really turned-on, but the bad part is that they don’t experience . . .

But I’m good with both. I remember Gene Hackman told me, when I was working on Mississippi Burning, “If you want a career, never work with a first-time director.” But I don’t follow his advice. (laughs)

Yeah, obviously! You’ve been working with a lot of first-time directors over the last couple of years, it seems. That’s a very trusting decision on your part.

It is, it is. But I think, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve been able to be more reckless with my choices, because practically speaking, you get less careful. Your choices become more instinctive, and you feel like if you make a mistake, it won’t destroy you. The irony is that, when you’re younger, you feel like if you do a bad movie, that’ll be the end. You never try to do a bad movie, of course, but if you’re worried about that, you can’t take the same kinds of risks or do things that are driven by your curiosity and passion.

You don’t seem to do a lot of comedic roles. I can’t recall one since Mr. Bean’s Vacation, at least.

Uh, Life Aquatic. There are elements of comedy in Spider-Man—huge elements of comedy. You know, that’s arguable. I think, generally speaking, no, I’m not a go-to comedy guy. But as I get older, more comedies are available. I’m not that attracted to comedies. I like seeing them, but a lot of comedies are broad, and they tend to cast comedians for them.

There’s a lot of broad comedy throughout your career, in films like Wild at Heart, which is just a spectacular performance and, as you mentioned, the Raimi films. And you have a real knack for it. Does it feel like a different experience when you go broad like that?

I don’t feel dimension (laughs). I’m not attracted to naturalism, I’m not attracted to behavior, I’m attracted to dance. I’m attracted to gesture, I’m attracted to singing with your voice, as opposed to having a natural manner. I’m a theater actor first, so that probably influences a lot of my approach. And I think in many ways, naturalism has ruined movies.

Could you expand on that a little?

I think film has taken a lot of cues from television over the years, although I often like understated performances where the actor disappears. I like that a lot. But this imitation-of-life stuff doesn’t always tap into what’s beautiful about the language and the poetry of film.

What kind of television do you feel is guiding the film industry?

I’m just saying that a certain acting style depends on close-ups and personality. Personality and psychology and literature, rather than poetry, space, light, dance. All the energy is going toward TV these days. It’ll shift back. TV is seductive but I don’t think it can do all of what film can do.

Simon Abrams is a New York-based freelance arts critic. His film reviews and features have been featured in The Village Voice, Time Out New York, Slant Magazine, The L Magazine, The New York Press and Time Out Chicago. He currently writes TV criticism for The Onion AV Club and is a contributing writer at the Comics Journal. His writings on film are collected at the blog, Extended Cut.

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