Willem Dafoe Interview

When the term character actor is used in film discourse, Willem Dafoe is one of the most common actors to come to the collective mind of cinephiles. However, he is, and always has been, a leading man who simply isn’t deterred by the size, or lack thereof, of a given role to which he connects. The Wisconsin native could turn even the most seemingly banal character into something singularly mesmerizing. This intuition to excavate the humanity out of the roles he chooses is part of what makes Dafoe so effective as an actor. Perhaps it’s also what draws skillful auteurs like Wes Anderson, Martin Scorsese, Paul Schrader, Lars von Trier, Abel Ferrara, Sam Raimi, and Oliver Stone back to him for memorable repeat collaborations. Whether as a character actor, leading man, or disembodied voice (Vox Lux), Dafoe remains one thing above all: A universally sought-after director’s actor.

One collaboration that evaded Dafoe for nearly three decades was that with legendary Argentinian filmmaker Hector Babenco (Kiss of the Spider Woman). It wasn’t until 2015 when the two longtime acquaintances finally made a film together with Babenco’s autobiographical My Hindu Friend – also titled My Last Friend – in which Dafoe plays a stand-in for the director during a particularly grim period in his life. My Hindu Friend is a thoughtful, honest exploration of death, life, cinema, and unlikely yet timely human connections. Shortly after the 2016 Montréal World Film Festival, Babenco passed away, delaying the film’s release nearly four years.

On the cusp of My Hindu Friend’s January 17, 2020 theatrical release, I spoke with Dafoe about his experience on Babenco’s final film, his aptitude for portraying real-life figures, the existential weight of death in cinema, The Lighthouse, the politics of the Oscars, and his storied career, including his collaborations with Anderson, Scorsese, and von Trier.

What’s the most satisfying part of finally seeing this film find distribution and hit theaters?

It’s a film that, of course, is always best projected. And I know, because Hector [Babenco] passed away and the themes and the impulse behind making the film was so tied to his love of cinema, and people, and life that I’m happy it’s getting a release, because its release was somewhat crippled by the fact that he got ill shortly after the movie was completed.

How familiar were you with Hector’s work as a filmmaker before you signed on to play him?

I knew pretty much all of his movies. Of course, he dropped off my radar for a little while, like he did for a lot of people. That’s part of the story. But I knew most of his movies. There were a couple movies shot in Portuguese – in Brazil – that I didn’t know. And so I followed him, and I also met him years ago at the Venice Film Festival when Last Temptation opened there – I believe he was on the jury or presenting a film there – and we got friendly and then kept in touch. And through the years, we talked about doing something together. Then, finally, I was in Sao Paolo with a Robert Wilson theatre performance, and he came by and we talked about this project. And he sent me a script, and I said, “If you want me to do it, it would be an honor.”

And what a script it is. It depicts Hector at a crossroads in his life. He’s brash and largely unapologetic. But he also has a tender and empathetic side. Was this duality something emphasized on paper that Hector specifically wanted you to channel in your performance?

He never really spoke directly to that. It was in the scenes because that is Hector. He was a brash guy. Sometimes he was a little rougher and a little too passionate and egocentric for some people. So he really took no place in this. And part of the story is, when he got sick, some people were a lot less forgiving because they had conflicts with him when he was doing very well, full of life, and being very successful. So when he got sick, there weren’t that many loyal friends left. And then when he came back, he had to deal with his past, and deal with a new way of living, and realize there’s a lot of examination not only towards your mortality, but this movie is more about really learning how to live and dealing with an illness.

Speaking of death, the enigmatic man in the hospital who visits Diego was a very interesting character. In your opinion, who or what does this man represent?

He’s very much a death figure. But the dialogue and how he’s presented is not so mysterious. It is Hector’s impulse always to find not be turned into a melodrama or a sad piece. He wanted to find the humor. He wanted to find the goofy parts of his struggles. So that was a device to try to find some sort of levity and dialogue in some of the more absurd places he would go when he realized he was sick and he had to deal with his mortality.

Right. And it gets the audience thinking about their own mortality as well. At least for me. And I’m someone who definitely leans on the more neurotic side. The film processes death in a comforting way. For you as an actor, does playing a role in which your character is dying or dies allow you to more readily process your own existential thoughts on death?

I think so. I think so. It’s imitation, but it’s a kind of imitation that is operative. And it puts you in that place. There are enough tangibles there that it’s going to play on your imagination. It’s not fun to play a sick person. I would usually avoid it. But Hector was also a person that was very vital, and had a lot of energy, and had a lot of fight in him. So even though there are some sequences in the film where he’s very sick, really what he wanted to express is, through death, his appreciation of life mixed with his appreciation of cinema. Because cinema was his life. That was one of the things that gave him the most pleasure. That was the riddle. That was what we were playing with.

The cinematic references are wonderful, particularly the Singin’ in the Rain homage at the end.

He’s very sincere in his love for those things and his love for cinema.

It shows. Do you have a memorable moment that you might share with Hector on set?

I don’t have one moment. It was a fight to find out where to place himself as he was directing me because sometimes, he’d get very passionate and just want things to happen. And other times, he’d be very aggressive about telling me certain details about his life that he thought I needed to know to inhabit to the scene. So every day was a little different. And every day, it felt very eventful.

You’ve played several real-life people on top of Hector, including Pier Paolo Pasolini, Vincent Van Gogh, and Roland Sweet. Does portraying somebody who existed in history with actual documentation, whether visual or written make it more creatively constricting or liberating than playing a fictional character?

In the end, it’s movies. In the end, it’s fiction. In the end, you’re creating something. But I’ll tell you, it’s really nice when you have a wealth of material to think about, because you learn things. And whenever you learn things, you have a shift in understanding, and a new part of your heart and a new part of your brain opens up. And that’s the part that you didn’t know existed, and that’s what you can apply to becoming this new person. So I remember vividly, certainly with Pasolini, certainly with Van Gogh, but also with T.S. Eliot a number of years ago – the fact that I could read his letters, read his diary, read his critical words, read what he was working on at any given time, you could approximate what his state of mind was according to your imagination. And that kind of specificity is really fun to play with, because you’re not interpreting it, but you’re learning things that give you an appetite to think a different way. And I love when that happens.

You’re not interpreting T.S. Eliot as you understand him. You’re inhabiting him. You’re imagining him. It’s not the T.S. Eliot. It’s your T.S. Eliot. And hopefully, it’ll be transparent enough that it’ll be resonant for people. And as long as you’re kind of pure in your investigation and pure in your flexibility, maybe something will be expressed that you might not be able to respond to just in fact. Because when you invent things, sometimes it opens the door to an understanding that you couldn’t have if you were slave to the facts.

In the case of Hector, sometimes, he was very, very specific, and he goes, “No, no, no. That’s not what happened,” or, “This is going to be like this,” or, “I don’t like it like that,” or, “You’ve got to do it this way.” And then other times, he’d [be] like, “It’s up to you. I don’t know. You’re Diego. I’m not.” And I’d be like, “What do you mean I’m Diego?” [Laughter] And of course he wasn’t Diego. This is fiction. So it was an interesting process, to say the least.

I want to speak about The Lighthouse, which I finally just got around to seeing. You gave an incredible performance in a wonderful film.

Oh great. Thank you.

I interviewed Robert Pattinson last year, and I asked him what he did to keep himself occupied in Cape Forchu when he wasn’t shooting your film. He said there were a multitude of sex shops whose online reviews he enjoyed checking out on his spare time. What kept you sane in such a remote location when the film wasn’t rolling?

My memory is the film was always rolling, or I was always practicing jumping, or I was always getting warm, or I was always changing my clothes, or I was always doing my practices that I do anyway. So I didn’t have that crisis of downtime. [Laughter] I make a life. I’m a nester. When I went there, I moved into a little fisherman’s cottage and I made a parallel life to what we were doing in the day, because there were only two of us. I was pretty busy. So I’d wake up early, do my practices, go off to my work. And then at night, just kind of enjoy cooking for myself, reading some, staying warm, thinking about the next day. It was a simple life, and I enjoyed that. No sex store reviews for me.

If this were a just world, you would have not only been nominated for an Oscar, but you’d win for The Lighthouse as well as many of your past roles.

Well, thank you. Thank you.

Of course. Is it easy to get preoccupied with the accolades aspect of the industry?

When a film like Lighthouse gets a very strong response – there’s a great critical response and then a good popular response for a modest release, you get excited. And you start to do press for it in the hope that people see it and people will appreciate it. And that was accomplished. But you also hope that it will get some recognition so people do see it. So I try to support the film, and I do hope for those recognitions. They help the movie. And it’s a good movie. And Robert Eggers is an incredible talent. So yeah, I’m aware of it.

A lot has to do with the question of whether people have seen the movie, too. It’s very competitive just with people’s time to make sure they check out the movies. And as a member of the Academy, you get flooded with all these movies. There’s a tendency to go to the ones that have the biggest advertisements, budgets, and people are talking about the most. But sometimes those are not the best movie.

Hopefully there’s a continued trend towards the smaller movies getting recognized at larger awards shows. One filmmaker who has been consistently snubbed is Wes Anderson. Your collaborations with him are some of my favorites. Each one is so memorable. However, personally, Klaus, from The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, has a special place in my heart.

For me as well. For me as well, actually. And I haven’t confessed that, but now that you’re saying it, I’ll join in, too.

That’s wonderful. He has a certain vulnerability beneath his “rough exterior” that’s uniquely sweet. Is Klaus your favorite Wes role?

Klaus is up there. Klaus is up there. The idea of the blowhard German; the guy that acts like he’s totally efficient and can take care of things, but he basically just is looking for approval and love – it’s a male archetype that is worth exposing. There can be a guy that just really wants to be appreciated.

And I haven’t quite seen that archetype expressed in that way, so it was refreshing. Is there a role you wouldn’t play for Wes Anderson? Or are you more selective in choosing your work regardless of who’s at the helm?

I wouldn’t play something if I thought someone else could do it better. You like to contribute. You like to have a connection. If you don’t have a connection to something, and you didn’t think you could find a connection, I’d say to him, “I don’t know. Does this make sense to you?” And if he said, “Yeah, it makes sense to me,” then I’d probably do it anyway. I’ve been in that situation before, where I’ve said to a director, “I don’t think I’m really liking this.” And they’ve basically convinced me that it’s worth the leap to try to find what it is, because often, you don’t know a character until you make it. It’s an interesting thing sometimes that you’re just not feeling it. But if you admire [a director’s] work and they’re very convincing that you’re the guy to play it, sometimes, I can be convinced to try to find the way.

Speaking of directors whom you admire, it’s telling of the actor and person you are that accoladed directors so often return to you for repeat collaborations. It speaks volumes to your talent and character. One of the lesser known repeat collaborations is with Martin Scorsese. In between The Last Temptation of Christ and The Aviator, there was a large gap of time. Although you worked with Temptation and Taxi Driver‘s screenwriter, Paul Schrader, during that time, was there a mutual desire to relink with Scorsese after such a memorable, incendiary film like Temptation?

Yeah. I follow his work and, of course, I’d love to work with him. Last Temptation was a beautiful experience for me. And The Aviator hardly satisfied that hunger to work with him again because it was a true cameo. I was happy to do it, but it didn’t tame the beast. But sometimes you can’t force these things. And when I look at his films, I don’t sometimes see lots of opportunities missed. And ultimately, it’s up to him. If he doesn’t see it, he doesn’t see it. And the other thing is, if I was his Jesus, maybe that’s it. Maybe that’s who I am for him. I’ve worked six times with Paul. I’ve worked six times with Abel. I’ve worked with my wife [Giada Colagrande] four times. I like to go back. But Marty‘s working with very big budgets on very big films. For the best roles, sometimes, there’s a lot of pressure to cast  the $20 million guys. So that’s just the way it is.

Do you think Temptation and Antichrist would make an interesting double feature?

They’re very different movies. And they’re both filmmakers that I adore, but very different movies. And thematically, they couldn’t be further from each other, really, to tell you the truth. I don’t like that link at all, actually. One’s a period film. And not only are those films from different parts of my life, from different parts of my career, I just don’t make the connection. I don’t have an imagination for it. And to make the comparison, it requires to account for both of them. And both of them are really substantial movies. And I don’t really enjoy, as the central act in them, trying to account for what they are to make that comparison. [Laughter] They deserve better. It’s like when a movie comes out and they blunt this activity to it by comparing it to another movie.

That makes sense. You can’t reduce a movie by confining its themes to another.

Yeah. And from the critical point of view, that’s fine. But for me, it’s a little hard because that’s also the trick as an actor. You’re trying to make each film very specific. And one’s not like another one. The pleasure is making something new every time.

Speaking of Lars von Trier, not many actors have had the opportunity to work with him multiple times over the course of his career. He’s an extraordinary filmmaker. There’s this public persona that von Trier wants to convey, and then there’s this persona based on an amalgamation of his themes among his films. But what is the real von Trier like, in person, behind these personas?

He’s very sweet. He’s very thoughtful. He can be perverse in a playful way. He’s got his demons. And he has a real nose for kicking a hornet’s nest. But I don’t think it’s for an affect. It’s just his personal and intellectual curiosity. I find him really drawn to the unspeakable sometimes. But the unspeakable, sometimes, are the things that, if we deal them, we’ll be liberated. So, basically, he’s a very thoughtful guy. And he’s not making these films just to provoke. He’s making them because they’re things that he’s curious about. He’s trying to make sense of his experience of the world. And he’s an original thinker, so I like being around him. Yes, he’s sometimes a little strange. But if you’ll accept it, it can be very entertaining. And he can defend himself. And there is a playfulness to him. Sometimes it gets him in trouble. But he’s got a great work ethic and he’s a self-starter. He inspires me. And somewhere deeply, he’s a sweet person.

Are there any projects on the horizon that have you excited particularly?

Next up, I’ll be working with Guillermo del Toro on this Nightmare Alley movie. I’m looking forward to that.

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My Hindu Friend begins a limited theatrical release today.

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