With its expressive crags, Willem Dafoe’s face has been unmistakable since the days of “Platoon” and “The Last Temptation of Christ.” However, with more recent supporting roles in multiple “Spider-Man” movies and “Aquaman,” he’s noticed a different response when people spot him in public.
“I’ll run into people sometimes who say, ‘You don’t make movies anymore?’” he said over breakfast in the West Village. “It’s embarrassing. They look at you like, ‘Poor guy! You really had something going and it’s not happening for you anymore.’”
In truth, movies happen for Dafoe faster than ever. This former experimental theater performer almost never stops working, garnering four Oscar nominations (two in the last three years, for “The Florida Project” and “At Eternity’s Gate”). But he tackles so many varied projects — ranging from superhero universes to microbudget biopics like Abel Ferrara’s “Pasolini” — that it’s often hard to see the big picture. With a tireless work ethic and near-unmatched pliability, he’s one of the most adventurous American actors working today.
At this year’s Cannes Film Festival, he stars in “The Lighthouse,” director Robert Eggers’ eerie black-and-white followup to horror sensation “The Witch,” opposite Robert Pattinson; and “Tomasso,” the intimate story of an older man who flees America for Italy, directed by Dafoe’s pal and longtime collaborator Ferrara.
Dafoe also just wrapped Ferrara’s “Siberia,” a larger-scale drama about dreams; he plays Anne Hathaway’s father in Dee Rees’ upcoming Joan Didion adaptation “The Last Thing He Wanted,” and stars in next year’s Disney+ adventure movie “Togo” as the leader of a 1925 dog sled team that transports antitoxin serums to a small Alaskan town. Somewhere in there, he snuck in two days for a bit part in Wes Anderson’s coming “The French Dispatch.”
“When I switch between these different kinds of movies, with different ambitions and resources, part of my job is to find my relationship to it,” he said. “I have to make it mean something to me.”
Dafoe’s lanky figure and angular features can yield impish troublemakers and trenchant survivalists, but that doesn’t guarantee the audience keeps track. “There are periods where people watch the movies or they don’t,” said Dafoe, 63, as he poked at a plate of eggs. “There are also kinds of movies that certain people watch, and they don’t know anything else. I’m always shocked when people don’t know I’ve done theater. My whole life was theater. I did movies around theater.”
Much has changed since the days the Wisconsin native became a founding member of the Wooster Group with former partner Elizabeth LeCompte. Even as he launched a movie career in Kathryn Bigelow’s grimy biker saga “The Loveless,” he maintained ties to a scrappy, radical underground that still informs his screen presence. Today he spends most of his time in Italy with his second wife, where he lives next door to Ferrara, but maintains a home in downtown Manhattan. He returned there for the release of “Pasolini” to find that his view of the Hudson River is now blocked by construction. “They took my little piece of it,” he said.
Dafoe relates to an old New York, and Ferrara is a kindred spirit. The pair first worked together over 20 years ago in “New Rose Hotel” but found their collaborative rhythm in the past decade, starting with “Pasolini.” The subdued philosophical portrait finds Pier Paolo Pasolini in his creative prime, days before his mysterious death. As he shares his views on society, Hollywood, and sexuality, the “Salo” director grapples with his place in a world beyond his control. The movie radiates with existential intrigue, and derives much of its hypnotic appeal from Dafoe’s performance.
“It was so organic, and set the tone for how we worked on the last two movies,” he said. “You surround yourself with people who know the subject, and you use the stuff that’s there.”
Dafoe first got hooked on Pasolini’s cinematic provocations through filmmaker Mark Rapapaport, who had an idea for a movie about the filmmaker early in the actor’s career. Later, when Dafoe had children, he hired a babysitter — future Paper Magazine film critic Dennis Dermody — whose enthusiasm for Pasolini was infectious. Then came Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ,” for which the filmmaker required Dafoe to watch Pasolini’s “The Gospel According to Matthew.” That clinched it: Dafoe was a Pasolini superfan, and Ferrara’s passion project on the filmmaker became the actor’s as well.
“I always go back to him,” Dafoe said. He wore some of Pasolini’s old clothes for the movie, which was shot in many of his old haunts. “You’re always flirting with ghosts,” Dafoe said. “It’s something between him and me when I’ve got his jeans on.”
Like a lot of Ferrara movies, “Pasolini” got held up when a sketchy financier kept the movie in limbo. Kino Lorber finally managed to secure U.S. rights this year. “It broke my heart,” Dafoe said about the delayed release. “They were very passive about getting it out there. He’s a revolutionary, and he can inspire people.”
“Tommaso” allowed Dafoe and Ferrara to experiment with improvisation, using the outlines of a script to build a story on the fly. “It’s not really scripted, for the most part,” Dafoe said. “It was really loose, and sometimes, it was just dancing with the camera.”
Dafoe said he was happy to help keep Ferrara working, decades after the auteur behind “Bad Lieutenant” and “The Funeral” burned bridges in Hollywood and escaped to Rome to get clean. “He’s in a good place right now,” Dafoe said. “I mean, he still screams, he’s still volatile, he’s still passionate. Sometimes I tell him, ‘You can’t talk like that.’ He’s not a criminal, he’s not a street guy, but he has some affinity with those people.”
Dafoe said he would much rather take a risk with a no-bullshit visionary like Ferrara — or Dafoe’s “Antichrist” director Lars Von Trier — than follow the safer route of television. He’s the rare major performer with almost no TV credits to his name.
“I don’t mean to be a snob,” he said. “I don’t know TV, and there’s only so many hours in the day. I’d rather watch movies. The couple of times I’ve dipped my toe to read stuff or watch some of these series, I just find I’m not drawn into the long form as much.”
But there’s another issue: Television tends to play things safe. “It makes friends with people and takes the edge off,” Dafoe said. “You don’t really have to make an effort, because there can be a kind of call-and-response with the public. When you make a film — at least, if you make a film with a strong director as I like to — it’s between you and the director. It’s very private and personal. The film is a record of that experience.”
That said it’s grown harder to find projects that meet his expectations. “I’ve always sought out good filmmakers, and that’s not necessarily what’s in favor right now,” he said. “The business models in Hollywood have become the business models of the world.”
“The Lighthouse” only came to fruition once Dafoe sought out the director of “The Witch” on another project. That fell through, but Eggers circled back a year later with the story of an aging lighthouse keeper (named Old) who lives in early 20th-century Maine.
“I loved that it was a two-hander, it was demanding, and it had him all over it,” he said. “I thought this is him, this is his meat.”
The project was shot under extreme weather conditions in Nova Scotia. “It was very, very tough physically, but that was kind of the point,” Dafoe said, adding that he relished the way Eggers used genre elements as a Trojan horse. “It’s less ‘Friday the 13th’ and more Tarkovsky,” he said. “With genre movies, you can use a very beautiful cinematic language and still make a movie that appeals to a wide audience, because you give them something something to hang onto, and they’re willing to receive this unfamiliar language without rejecting it.”
However, Dafoe doesn’t harbor illusions of many people engaging with his most challenging work. “The discourse is gone,” he said. “It’s not fun anymore, it’s not sexy. Nobody’s getting upset, no one’s getting excited. Nobody’s talking!”
He shrugged, holding up his iPhone. “It’s all these connections that are making us feel good, feel smart, and feel secure,” he said. “We’re getting on top of things because we can Google shit, and we can buy stuff online, and all that. People are losing their human sense.” A waiter came by with coffee; on a tear, Dafoe waved the man away. “A lack of control keeps us alive,” he said. “But all these tools we have with connectivity are really oppressive now. They want a routine. I think that’s killing people. It’s cultural ADD.”
Dafoe’s tech skepticism extends to the filmmaking process. He accepts the odd studio paycheck for CGI blockbusters, scouring the city as the Green Goblin in “Spider-Man” and, last year, playing superhero Jason Momoa’s Atlantean trainer Vulko in “Aquaman.” That smash included scenes from Aquaman’s youth, and the first time Dafoe witnessed what happens when technicians de-age him. He remains unconvinced.
“There are flashback sequences, and they scrubbed me, basically taking out the wrinkles,” he said. “My wife was saying that it just made me look softer, fuzzier. So I’m not sure they quite got it down yet.”
He’s more comfortable playing his age, a luxury many actors don’t have. “I always feel sad when I see some great old actors who don’t have the stuff to sustain them because the stories being told box them in,” he said. “But so far, I don’t feel that. I mean, I’m 63 years old and it’s not been a problem.”
Dafoe doesn’t embrace “Aquaman” with the same fervor as Ferrara, but he knows it draws more crowds than anything else in his oeuvre. “That’s a good spanking,” he said. “When you do something like ‘Aquaman,’ and it makes a billion dollars, everywhere you go you see a reflection of that experience. Movie people think everybody is privy to the same information that they are, and it’s just not true.”
He returned to those people who spot him on the street and think he stopped making movies: “It’s also a good spanking when some blue-collar guy who probably loved ‘Platoon,’ and loves ‘Clear and Present Danger,’ and maybe he saw ‘John Wick,’ he looks at me and says, ‘What happened? Why don’t you do movies anymore?’ Listen, I don’t have one way of working, and I think that’s very important. Because if you do, then you get stuck.”
As for the question of the next “Aquaman,” Dafoe said, “I think they’re going to make another one. We will see about my involvement in that.” Asked if he enjoyed the experience, he underwent a shocking transformation. His eyes curled into slits and darkened as he eyebrows melted into the mass below. He hunched forward, and his tongue peered out between a narrow bracket of teeth. It was an eerie, almost satanic vision, as ominous as any of his most disturbing screen turns.
He relaxed, chuckled, and sat up. “You know what I like?” he said. “I like a movie where I work every day and have challenges, pleasures, and work the whole day. Then, at night, I go home. And I’m tired.”