"It's the Joy of Play": A Career-Spanning Conversation With Willem Dafoe [Interview]
Willem Dafoe wants to see my face.
During a Zoom call, the video is not working at the start of the interview. Finally, once Dafoe and I connect face-to-face, he explains, “It’s important.” And it is important. Seeing how someone reacts, what lights them up, or what disinterests them, matters during an interview. When you’re interviewing Dafoe, you’re talking to a real conversationalist, somebody who feels completely present. You want to see that, not just hear it.
The interview is for the actor’s sixth collaboration with Abel Ferrara, Siberia. It’s a dream, or nightmare, of a film. It’s tricky to put into words or boxes. It’s a dream narrative you’re reacting to, not consciously analyzing. In other words, another project well-suited to Dafoe’s approach to performing, which as he told us, isn’t about calculation, but intuition.
Truly, acting is reacting for Dafoe.
When did you first meet Abel?
I knew Abel, as they say, from the neighborhood. I was working downtown as a theater director. I was making movies, and I was aware of him. Also, Abel would always put out feelers for lots of different actors for the same role in the early days so, I was often hearing from Abel but it was never happening. I think my first meeting with him was at a bar called 3 Roses on Canal Street, which was a working-class bar for all the sweatshop workers during the day. I think he set the meeting for like 11:30 at night, and that’s the first time I met him [Laughs].
What was your first impression of reading the script for Siberia?
I mean, what script for Siberia? I don’t want to be jokey about that but it’s not a traditional work process. Abel approaches me, this is six times we’ve worked together so we’re always in touch. Abel bounces around some images, some thoughts, and we don’t really work… Some sections are written with the help of his writer, Chris Soyce, or him but mostly we’re working from a scenario, and then we’re feathering details into it. Some of the most written stuff is either taken from other sources or improvised. So it’s not a traditional script, it’s more like a proposition for certain situations in certain locations. And then once we get to them, it starts to come together. It’s not a traditional script where everybody puts pen to paper, it’s a series of scenarios, images, kicking things around casting costumes. It’s very organic.
So is that exciting on the day?
It is. This film you’re working basically in three different countries on a relatively small budget. We had to plan some steps, so it’s not like we just show up and figure stuff out, but there’s a degree of that. And always working with Abel, we know each other well so we can work flexibly, but it’s always a brand of there’s a degree of guerrilla filmmaking in there. Not traditional coverage, not a traditional script. We’re hitting with our instincts and with our interests.
Where do you start imagining how a character like Clint should move and behave?
I’m not thinking about that so much. No, because that’s all handed to me by the situation. I mean, I’ve got nothing to sell, I’ve got nothing to interpret. I’m trying to put myself in the lap of the experience and then have it work on me. And in this case, that’s exactly what that odyssey is. It’s an unconventional movie in the fact that there’s not a traditional narrative, so you’re basically doing things and then reacting to it.
I’m dealing with people that are speaking another language. I don’t understand them. I don’t understand the language, but I have to try to dig deep to try to relate to them. When I have an encounter with someone, we’re doing it and seeing what happens. It’s set up, we know exactly where it’s going to go, there’s a certain degree throwing the dice. And that can happen in this movie because that’s what the movie is. It’s about confronting certain situations in certain places and fragments of memories. So, to prepare was mostly about making the fabric of these events, and choosing props, and working with the dogs, and that sort of thing.
This reminds me, I was reading a conversation between you and Abel where you have this quote I liked, which is, “I don’t have to understand it to play it.”
You understand anything you do. I mean, you can’t be conscious of consciousness. You’ve got to become consciousness, and that’s the name of the game with performing. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want it to sound touchy-feely, I’m very conscious of what mark has to be accomplished, it’s not like I’m there expecting to get hit by lightning. I’m measuring lots of things but I don’t have a rigid expectation. I’ve tried to see what’s around me and see how I feel about it and see what I’m going to do about it and that’s basically what’s going on in this movie. I mean, there’s a cave up there, I’m down here, I’ve got the dogs, I got to get to that cave, it’s all practical. And then of course, between Abel and I, we figure out the best way to approach that.
Those environments must give you so much, too.
It conditions everything. That’s why we responded to these extreme environments because they’re characters, they’re part of the dialogue.
Do you still get a lot of joy out of, like in this instance, being in these incredible environments?
No, it’s beautiful. I mean, it’s opportunity, opportunity, opportunity. But that’s part of our work designing these situations where we feel that opportunity to explore something, to have something happen to us.
You also asked Abel once, which was telling to me, do I still surprise you?
I did. I was probably teasing him but listen, we have a good rapport. I always enjoy being in his company, it’s not always easy but deep down he’s a very warm-hearted, sweet guy, and has a deep instinct for cinema. I appreciate that.
It seems like there’s one misconception about your collaborations is that people seem to assume there’s some kind of psychotherapy going on, right?
Well, look, between Tommaso and Siberia, there are elements of biography. Tommaso quite frankly is very autobiographical for Abel, but I’m playing him and many things are also abstracted. So it’s not therapy, it’s just the old story. We’re talking about the stuff we know about or stuff that has happened to us. It’s not to work something out, it’s just we’re dealing with worlds we know, and we’re trying to examine them and play with them. And I think to that degree if that’s therapy, so be it. These are personal films, but they also have nothing to do with us because we’re playing characters and we’re creating invented situations. So the answer to that is yes and no.
But does that ever happen for you, where playing a character or movie is therapeutic in some way?
Listen, anytime you take a walk in someone else’s shoes you challenge your sense of who you are is going to be some sort of… Not therapeutic because therapeutic is a loaded word but there’s got to be some sort of introspection or measuring your sense of who you are, either abandoning it or challenging it. For me, performing is so much about not reinforcing who you are, but getting away from who you are. Not that I have problems with who I am, I think, this whole idea that the personality we present to the world is a construct that we shouldn’t lean on because that’s a dead end. Because then we have habitual responses and we lose the spark of life. We take ourselves out of the swirl of change, the swirl of creation, the swirl of what really is going on underneath all this stuff that people live by, we want to tap into that, and to tap into that you have to abandon your loyalty to yourself and imagine a loyalty to another created self.
Even though you want to abandon yourself, are there characters that felt very close to you?
Yeah. Sometimes you think, well, if my life was different, I could be this guy. It depends on the kind of performing, the kind of film. I was really struck when I did a film many years ago called Light Sleeper, a Paul Schrader movie. I played a white-collar drug dealer, basically. And that’s not my story, I don’t live in that world but I thought if my life was different, I could be this guy. So occasionally you relate or you imagine that things could have been different.
There are directors you’ve worked with many times, like Abel, Paul Schrader, Wes Anderson, or Julain Schnabel, who, and I mean this in a positive way, are characters. What attracts you to filmmakers with slightly bigger personalities?
You love to be with people that are fun to be around and challenge you and are interesting original thinkers, or have an energy that you know you want to kick it up. You know you want to make something and to be with someone that has a reason for making things, has a stake. A guy like Paul Schrader or Abel, they’re very different people but Wes Anderson or Marty Scorsese, all these guys they live and breathe cinema in a funny way. That sounds kind of corny, but they’ve dedicated themselves to this form and I just love being around them because I also enjoy it. I enjoy performing, and I enjoy making things. So yeah, I think I like being around the guys that aren’t just polite professionals.
Years ago, we talked about this in regards to Oliver Stone. You said, “I don’t mind when the heat gets turned up.” What does that bring out of you?
It’s just tension. It’s tension. Everything drops away and you have a kind of superhuman awareness. You’re engaged in a way that’s not normal life. And naturalism or not, I think for all performances it’s that double thing of, you’ve got to be absolutely receptive and relaxed but you also have to be aware of a kind of tension that exists. Be cool as you’re walking across that floor but the floor is covered in broken glass. To take those two opposing things is where we live somehow, and I think that elevates your awareness and elevates your stake in what you’re doing.
That doesn’t mean that everything has to be overly dramatic or artificially pumped up, but it sharpens your commitment and sharpens your senses to be more like an animal, more responsive, intuitive, reacting with a kind of logic. That’s not interpreted, it’s actual. So when you’re doing something, you’re not showing it, you’re not displaying it, you’re involved in it. You’re doing it, the world drops away. I’ve always said, I feel more like a dancer than an actor because I live through my body, I live through my voice, I live through my senses and you’ve got to find a way to make them super aware so you can receive and react. And that’s what performing is always about for me.
Speaking of animals, characters like Bobby Peru from Wild at Heart or Jopling from The Grand Budapest, have very animalistic qualities. How do you decide on how to use your voice and body in those instances?
I don’t want to belabor this animal thing, but there are the two things that you mentioned, there are two examples where an external thing made me feel different, made me look different. I invited that and it suggested a different way of being. When you take that leap away from yourself, that’s when things happen and you start to not depend on your understanding of the world but you actually get propelled into something that is new to you, something where you’re awake. That’s the story, to be awake and to allow things to happen to you without a rigid conditioned response. You’re not always getting ahead of yourself, you’re not trading something, you’re living the life.
You’re not saying if I do this, I’ll get that. You’re doing this to do this. And philosophically, I think that’s the biggest lesson for me anyway about performing. When you’re doing this to do this and you surrender to that and you give to that, then you stick your finger into the pulse of what’s really going on. If you say, well, if I show that the character does this then they’ll think this, that can work and that can be beautiful, and some people are very good at it. I don’t not admire that, but it’s not a talent that I have.
The thing that I like much more is throwing myself into it and then trying to figure it out through not a predetermined thing because if it’s predetermined you’d never put yourself in that position. It’s too far away from what you know, but if you do this enough you start to develop a sense of that’s a good place to be, not a bad place to be. It’s kind of like, if you can go toward the pain, you can survive it. If you’re afraid of the pain, you’re always pulling away from it then you’ll have a much more limited experience.
On the other side of pain, what about joy? When you look at your work in Shadow of a Vampire or with Wes Anderson, that looks like an actor having a very good time.
It is joy. And it’s the joy of play, it’s the joy of being a child, let’s pretend. Everyone turns up their nose at the word pretend, but on some level, that’s what we do. And when you can do it without that transactional thing, doing this to get that, then it’s something alive and it doesn’t have to do with you. It’s like you’re getting out of the way for something to happen. If you’re controlling it too much then it’s like, I’m all for rehearsal, all for preparing but then I’m also all for dropping that once you get in a moment. So don’t get me wrong, I’m not like a guy that just is like, eh, whatever, I’m cool, let’s just do it, man. No, I prepare and do whatever it takes to help me pretend, but once I’m in that pretend mode, then you can tap into something that will stay home no matter how they cut it, no matter how they shoot it because it’s authentic.
This is all making me think about one performance, in particular, just such the incredible responsibility of playing Jesus Christ. What was unique about that experience?
That one was very particular. It was a very reactive character and the whole idea was he didn’t want to be Jesus Christ. He wasn’t Jesus Christ. He was, but he wasn’t. And so that was trying to find that human aspect and that’s a good example actually, I’ve wanted to forget about my responsibilities or the responsibilities that came with that character. Also, a similar thing with Van Gogh. I put myself in the hands of painting on that one, and the hands of his words because he was so prolific in his letter writing, I was able to read maps and paintings with what he was writing, and then I was in the place where he was making it. So that was an extraordinary opportunity to let the land, let the words, let the painting speak to me, and work through you.
You said those are two experiences that have stayed with you. I once saw you, just in a second, hunch and lean your jaw forward like Jopling in-person. Instant transformation. Do these characters stay at your fingertips in a way or do they leave you?
I think it goes away because what really makes the characters is the situation. Characters are born out of the situation but what you do is you learn certain things. I mean, you learn certain things. Playing Jesus, you learn certain things about forgiveness. To play Van Gogh you learn certain things about being the spirit. I am the spirit. I mean, he was a very spiritual guy and he was always trying to touch the source of all creation in his painting. He was trying to be a part of the swirl, the movement that makes your beard grow, that makes your body without your will function, the very heart of creation. Something about what he expressed in the painting turned me into that and that’s exciting and that’s something I’ll keep with me all my life.
At this point in your career, how do you define success?
I try not to think about success. Sometimes things work for you, sometimes things are successful for you and they aren’t for other people. Real success I suppose is opportunity, being able to have opportunities over and over and over again. Opportunities to continue to do what you love to do and go deeper into what you do. I suppose that’s it because it’s certainly not about the traditional things that we think of as success. And also, you know this too, it’s nice when people like your stuff but one man’s meat is another man’s poison. It’s amazing how some beautiful films are so maligned and some bad films are so appreciated. So, you can’t get into that game. Yes, it doesn’t mean I live above that because I don’t, I’m totally aware and totally hoping that I have commercial success with a movie and all that like everybody. Success is sleeping well at night.
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