Willem Dafoe is more or less a nice, ordinary Wisconsin boy who went
into theater because it seemed like the thing to do at the time. But
he's also a prolific and amazing character actor with a sinister gaze
and a reptilian voice. He has racked up over 70 film appearances in less
than 30 years, plus two Oscar nominations for Best Supporting Actor (for
Platoon in 1986 and Shadow of the Vampire in 2000). He seems to
specialize in mesmerizing villains (Wild at Heart, the Spider-Man
series) or in highly controversial films (The Last Temptation of Christ,
Lars von Trier's new Antichrist). Yet he eludes the label "character
actor," because he can just as easily play warm and touching parts (the
voice of "Gill" in Finding Nemo, or The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou).
The best word to describe the 53 year-old would have to be "truthful."
For his 2009 CineVegas tribute, the festival will be showing his little-seen
debut, The Loveless, co-directed by Kathryn Bigelow.
Combustible Celluloid: Do you have any specific memories on The
Willem Dafoe: They saw me at the theater and they wanted
me to play the lead of this motorcycle gang. They wanted to know if I
could ride a motorcycle and of course I couldn't, but I lied, as actors
will do. I thought I could practice, but I never got around to it. I
showed up and there was this 1200cc hog, a Harley Davidson. That baby
took off with me and I went flying though the yards of Connecticut. They
busted me but they didn't get rid of me.
CC: A lot of movies today, the bad guy is just a one-dimensional
representation of pure evil, which isn't really very interesting. Your
bad guys are psychotic, but mesmerizing. Can you please talk about that
WD: It's an act of empathy. If my life was different, I
could be this guy. I don't have a distance. I become that guy. You try
to find the reasonableness. There's no justification to who he is, but
at the same time, there's a playfulness -- and kind of sweetness -- that
is a fantasy for me. Playing bad guys is a strong fantasy. They're not
always bad guys, they're just outsiders, people that don't prescribe to
the main code of behavior. So when you're cackling or being maniacal,
and you want to rule the world, all that stuff falls really flat,
because that's the kind of stuff these guys are fighting against.
CC: A few of your movies -- The Last Temptation of Christ, Auto
Focus, American Dreamz -- didn't get the recognition they deserved. They
just came out at the wrong time, under the wrong conditions.
WD: I've been on a few international juries. That's sort
of a lesson on cultural conditioning. On what conditions an audience
sees a movie. The same movie has wildly different responses. As far as
releases and things, I feel like some things could have been better if
the timing had been different. I was happy to do Platoon, but I always
had this nagging fear that it was going to get mis-identified. At that
time Vietnam movies were like Rambo. I thought it would end up on the
video shelf. It didn't have all the marks. It didn't have enough
pedigree to rise out of the condition of what a war movie was in those
days. But the time was just right and things were pregnant enough.
CC: It seems like Antichrist is already becoming a victim to these
WD: It's a strong movie. When people can't frame their
experience, they grab for old models. Eventually, with a little
distance, someone will usually lead the way.
CC: One thing I've noticed about your work is that none of your
pictures feel like they were cranked out just for a paycheck.
WD: I'm deeply humiliated if I do something for the wrong
reasons and it turns out bad, but if I do something for the right
reasons, and it turns out bad then I don't feel bad. There are duds and
backfires, but I could go back and tell you on each of those what I
thought was challenging and interesting about each of them, and not just
a crass business proposition. It's all tempered by what your options
are. I want to work with people who are a little crazy. I want to work
with people who reach for poetry and something out of the ordinary. When
you do that, you're going to fail sometimes. And as long as they don't
kill you, you get to work again another day.
June 2, 2009
[This article also appeared in the Las Vegas Weekly.]