Combustible Celluloid

Interview: Willem Dafoe

Truth and Consequences

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

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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 Loveless?

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 extra layer?

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 conditions.

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.]

Partial Willem Dafoe Filmography:
The Loveless (1982)
The Hunger (1983)
Streets of Fire (1984)
To Live and Die in L.A. (1985)
Platoon (1986)
Off Limits (1988)
The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)
Mississippi Burning (1988)
Triumph of the Spirit (1989)
Born on the Fourth of July (1989)
Cry-Baby (1990)
Wild at Heart (1990)
Flight of the Intruder (1991)
Light Sleeper (1992)
White Sands (1992)
Body of Evidence (1993)
Faraway, So Close! (1993)
Tom & Viv (1994)
Clear and Present Danger (1994)
Basquiat (1996)
The English Patient (1996)
Speed 2: Cruise Control (1997)
Affliction (1997)
Lulu on the Bridge (1998)
New Rose Hotel (1998)
eXistenZ (1999)
The Boondock Saints (1999)
American Psycho (2000)
Shadow of the Vampire (2000)
Pavilion of Women (2001)
Spider-Man (2002)
Auto Focus (2002)
Finding Nemo (2003) (voice)
The Reckoning (2003)
Once Upon a Time in Mexico (2003)
The Clearing (2004)
Spider-Man 2 (2004)
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004)
The Aviator (2004)
xXx: State of the Union (2005)
Manderlay (2005)
Ripley Under Ground (2005)
American Dreamz (2006)
Inside Man (2006)
Paris, je t'aime (2006)
The Procedure (2007) [short]
The Walker (2007)
Mr. Bean's Holiday (2007)
Spider-Man 3 (2007)
Go Go Tales (2007)
Adam Resurrected (2008)
The Dust of Time (2008)
Antichrist (2009)

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