Willem Dafoe: Not Just ‘The Bad Guy’

Oct 13, 2017

Willem Dafoe has lit up the big screen for three decades, from his Oscar-nominated performance in “Platoon,” to playing Jesus in “The Last Temptation of Christ,” to great character roles in “Wild At Heart” and “The Grand Budapest Hotel.”

His latest is “The Florida Project,” directed by Sean Baker. The story centers around a young girl and her single mom who live in a budget motel in Orlando, in the shadow of Disney World. Dafoe plays the manager of the motel — and acts as landlord, parent, and sheriff to its residents.

The movie was shot at a real, open-for-business budget motel in Florida. When Brendan met with Willem, he started things off with asking what that experience was like.

Willem Dafoe: Sometimes I would tell the real manager to move over so I’d get in his place, because we were filming. They would step out, and then after we finished that scene, they’d go back in and continue their job.

Brendan Francis Newnam: What a weird environment.

Willem Dafoe: It’s very rich because you always have that touchstone of the real life going on. And also, the people keep you honest, you know? You don’t think about acting, you don’t think about showbiz, you don’t think about who’s going to see the movie. You’re having this encounter and you’re acting out these scenarios. So it’s very rich and very inspiring.

Brendan Francis Newnam: It sounds like it’s a vérité experience. You’re living it, and then you’re just stepping into the role of the characters that are already there.

Willem Dafoe: A little bit. A little bit. Of course, that’s a dream for an actor. You still pretend, you still submit to scenarios, and you still invent things, but you’re guided so much by so much around you.

I always feel like the best directors… it’s not what people think. It’s not about emotions, or saying this has to happen… it’s more about creating a world that’s so complete that when you enter it, there’s a logic and a clarity that is natural. You’re acting natural[ly] because A follows B. You don’t feel the strain of creating. You’re letting things happen.

Willem Dafoe and Brooklynn Prince appear in a scene from “The Florida Project.” (Image Courtesy of A24.)

Brendan Francis Newnam: Also, in this movie, you were acting with people who had never acted before.

Willem Dafoe: That’s OK.

Brendan Francis Newnam: How did you react when you found out that would be the case?

Willem Dafoe: You know what? I like to pretend I never acted before. That’s the whole point.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Yeah?

Willem Dafoe: I encourage it! I want to learn how to not be an actor.

Brendan Francis Newnam: What do you mean by that?

Willem Dafoe: The best performing, and the performers I admire the most, disappear. They become part of the fabric of what’s going on. That’s why I’ve always loved nonprofessional performances.

I love watching films from other cultures where I don’t know sometimes whether the person is well-regarded, whether they’re a famous actor, when they’ve been in many films, whether this is their first film. It doesn’t matter.

So much of performing on film, because it can be framed and it can be edited, has to do with presence, commitment to being there and letting things happen. While it’s nice to have the craft of an actor, that can get in the way sometimes, because you’re so result-oriented or you’re so in control, that you close out accidents sometimes.

With people that don’t have a craft, sometimes things occur naturally, and if you’re present enough to receive it, then they have a different kind of truth. They don’t have the same kind of manufactured truth that you have when you’re building something. What you miss in refinement sometimes you gain in spirit and accident, and hopefully humanity.

Brendan Francis Newnam: That’s what I try to tell people in my personal life, but it doesn’t always work.

Willem Dafoe: [Laughs.] That’s good. That’s good.

Brendan Francis Newnam: This is your first movie with Sean.

Willem Dafoe: Hopefully not my last. Once I have a good experience, sometimes I like to come back.

Brendan Francis Newnam: I’ve noticed that. You’ve shot a number of films with Lars Von Trier, and Paul Schrader, Wes Anderson, among others.

Willem Dafoe: Abel.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Yeah, Abel Ferrara. What is it you look for in a collaboration with a director?

Willem Dafoe: I love it when you start to know, you start to become their creature. They want to make something, but they can’t do it because they’ve got to watch it, they’ve got to frame it.

And they can tell you in various ways what they’re interested in making. It’s not always what they end up making, but they can tell you their intention, and you help them to realize. That’s when an actor becomes a creative artist and not just an interpreter.

And you’re also working from a place that takes you out of your impulses and you’re entertaining someone else’s. If you believe in that person, it can be a learning thing that gives you a special energy. That and the combination of submitting to them, in agreeing to be their creature, is a great freedom and power. And I like that.

Willem Dafoe appears in a scene from “The Florida Project.” (Image Courtesy of A24.)

Brendan Francis Newnam: I find it interesting, though, that you don’t just work with auteurs. You also are in blockbuster comic book movies, like “Spider-man.” Later this year you’re going to appear in “Justice League,” and after that, “Aquaman.” Do you get the cultural equivalent of the bends going back and forth between these sorts of films?

Willem Dafoe: I suppose I do, but I like it [laughs]. How can you appreciate being well if you don’t get sick every once in a while?

Brendan Francis Newnam: That’s fair. Maybe they each enhance the other.

Willem Dafoe: They do. It’s really important not to get stuck. Everybody’s got their strategy about how not to get stuck, but I just don’t want to be in a job. I want to always be excited by what I do. And the only way I can do that is trick myself into making it feel like the first time every time.

Part of that trick is to always change the situation, because your job is always different, even if you’re working in the same kind of film, your job would always be different. Because Sometimes the audience sees the story through you, sometimes you art the story, sometimes there’s a transformation, sometimes you’re supporting, sometimes you’re candy, sometimes you’re meat. It’s always changing.

Brendan Francis Newnam: But so the interview experience isn’t boring, we have these kind of standard questions we ask. One is simply, what question do you not like being asked? What question are you bored of?

Willem Dafoe: I get crazy when people say, “You play bad guys all the time.” Questions involving that. Because what that tells me is what kind of movies they see. I can’t be upset if someone doesn’t know the body of my work, but I don’t experience it that way.

Brendan Francis Newnam: It also telegraphs kind of a shallow kind of research, because that was maybe a label that came early with a few key performances of your’s.

Willem Dafoe: Maybe.

Brendan Francis Newnam: In my world, they’re the villains of that interview.

Willem Dafoe: OK, good.

Brendan Francis Newnam: So to not do that, our second and our last question is: tell us something we don’t know. And this can be a fact about you, that you don’t share in interviews, or it could just be an interesting piece of information about the world.

Willem Dafoe: God, what a great opportunity! Something about the world. That’s a great opportunity, but I can’t get that together. Something that I haven’t told anybody? I was very, very late getting toilet trained.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Really? Is this true, or are you acting?

Willem Dafoe: You asked for it, you got it!

Brendan Francis Newnam: OK. Like in your 20s?

Willem Dafoe: The boom man here that’s recording this is blushing on my behalf. The publicist probably has fainted. Not very elegant, but you know what, it’s true.