Chaos Reigns! Willem Dafoe talks with Capone about ANTICHRIST, CIRQUE DU FREAK, DAYBREAKERS, and JOHN CARTER OF MARS!!!
Published at: Oct. 20, 2009, 5:04 p.m. CST by Capone
Hey everyone. Capone in Chicago here.
It's difficult to think of another actor working today that has the range, the credibility, and the guts that Willem Dafoe has, and has had for nearly 30 years of film acting. At this year's Fantastic Fest alone, Dafoe was featured in three very different movies. The first was an extended cameo as the vampire Gavner Purl in CIRQUE DU FREAK: THE VAMPIRE'S ASSISTANT. He also has a juicy supporting role in DAYBREAKERS, a film about a world that has been taken over by vampires who have nearly depleted their supply of their most valuable natural resource: human blood. But it is for his work in Lars von Trier's beyond-controversial ANTICHRIST that Dafoe will be most remembered in 2009, and that's not even taking into account recent festival screenings of his work in Werner Herzog's MY SON MY SON, WHAT HAVE YE DONE and the soon-to-be-released Wes Anderson animated tale FANTASTIC MR. FOX, in which Dafoe provides a voice.
More than any other actor I can think of, Dafoe has the God-given ability to work with even the most notoriously temperamental directors, including Abel Ferrara, Oliver Stone, and Von Trier, whom Dafoe has actually worked with twice (ANTICHRIST follows their previous collaboration on MANDERLAY). I first remember being terrified of him in his role as Raven in Walter Hill's STREETS OF FIRE. The following year, he kicked even more ass in William Friedkin's TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A., and the year after that he became a star thanks to his performance as the archetypal good American solider in Stone's PLATOON (followed a couple years later by Stone's BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY). From there, Dafoe began an unbelievable run with movies like Martin Scorsese's THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST, Alan Parker's MISSISSIPPI BURNING, John Waters' CRY-BABY, and David Lynch's WILD AT HEART. He continued on, putting forth great work in THE ENGLISH PATIENT, BASQUIAT, NEW ROSE HOTEL, eXistenZ, THE BOONDOCK SAINTS, AMERICAN PSYCHO, AUTO FOCUS, and THE ANIMAL FACTORY.
But my favorite role of Dafoe's remains his fictional (?) portrayal of actor Max Schreck in SHADOW OF THE VAMPIRE. It's freaky how beautifully Dafoe captured the original Nosferatu, and the role earned the actor his second Oscar nomination (after PLATOON). It was only two years after that Dafoe secured his place in the pop culture hall of fame by playing Norman Osbourne/Green Goblin in Sam Raimi's SPIDER-MAN films. He did great voice work for Pixar's FINDING NEMO (he was the scarred angel fish Gil), played another freak in Robert Rodriguez's ONCE UPON A TIME IN MEXICO, and a bizarre Klaus in Wes Anderson's THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU, continuing on with Spike Lee's INSIDE MAN, and AMERICAN DREAMZ, directed by his CIRQUE DU FREAK helmer Paul Weitz. However, his ultimate film geek role may still be ahead of him. Dafoe will portray the peace-loving Martian Tars Tarkas in Disney/Pixar's JOHN CARTER FROM MARS, something we touch on during our conversation.
Dafoe will try anything and is afraid of nothing if he's committed to a project, and that's something you simply don't see in many actors. He's a small, wiry man, who still manages to come off as warm and attentive. No questions were off limits, as far as I could tell, and he answers everything with a smile and warm demeanor. He's simply one of the nicest and most forthcoming people I've ever spoken with, and I could have easily gone well over an hour going through his career. I think we cover a lot of ground in our nearly half-hour talk. So please enjoy Willem Dafoe…
Capone: I just came back from Fantastic Fest in Austin, which was sort of an unofficial film festival of many of your recent movies.
Willem Dafoe: Yeah, yeah, yeah. That's what I heard.
Capone: There were a lot of attendees running around the city with "Chaos Reigns" [a reference to one of ANTICHRIST's more memorable scenes] t-shirts, and it became the chant of choice at any gathering. It was pretty great.
WD: Nice. Good for them, good for them.
Capone: But, they [were] printed up in a huge hurry when that sort of became the chant of any gathering. So, yeah, that was pretty great. So, have you been surprised with the initial critical response to ANTICHRIST?
WD: It's a hard question to answer, because what is that? Because, if you’re talking about the initial Cannes response…
Capone: Let's start with that.
WD: [laughs] I couldn’t take it seriously, 'cause, you know, the truth is, I was at the premiere, and it was a dream screening--attentive, supportive, people listened. There was no walking out, there was no screaming. And then, the next day, we read that the press screening was this bedlam, and then we had a funky press conference kind of fueled from that press screening. So, it was all about the press, writing about themselves.
Now, Cannes is a hothouse environment. That's good, you know, it's good that the movie gets some play. But, it's a little wrong to say, you know …It didn’t match my experience. This… "In France, they screamed, and they booed and cheered and booed and cheered. And, people were fighting." That’s not what it was about, so it was a little hyped.
I think it's a strong movie. It's going to get strong responses. And, it will. I’m not surprised by that, but I thought, How trashy. And, I just think it's because now, you know, the entertainment reporters outnumber the cinema reporters so much that when you take something, like a movie like this, that you have to have a thoughtful response to, you know, there are going to be problems.
Capone: I've was wracking my brains trying to figure out why this film was called ANTICHRIST, and all I could come up with--and it’s a total surface-level explanation--is that you played Jesus [in THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST] and this is about as far away from that as you can get. But that would assume that the film was untitled before you got involved.
WD: [laughs] No, because it was named that before [director] Lars [von Trier] even invited me to be in the movie. And, I think he kind of surprised himself by asking me to be in the movie, because he asked me after I responded to the script that I asked to read, just as a friend. He's enough of a showman and enough of an artist that it's a good title. And, even though there is no Antichrist in the movie and it doesn't quite get neatly wrapped up, it sets the tone, because it sort of sounds like a horror film, but it's not a horror film. It kind of flirts with religious stuff--you don't know quite what it is. So, I think it's a good title.
The other thing is, you know, he said for many years as a young man, he had the Nietzsche Antichrist on his bedside table. He never read it, but he always had it. He always liked the title, so I think that's probably your biggest case.
Capone: I like that explanation better. There you go. You've worked with a lot of directors whose reported reputations have been that they're temperamental at times. You must be the most patient…or, I don't know what the right word is…
WD: I am. [Laughs]
Capone: And not only do they work with you, they come back to work with you again. What is your secret?
WD: I think I am patient--and not because I’m a good guy, but, sometimes these volatile people are the best rewards. They're the most exciting to be around, and they're usually the best thinkers and sometimes the best filmmakers. Passion splats, you know?
But, to be fair, Lars has a reputation for being a monster, and he doesn't deserve it. He's a sweetheart. I love him. He's great to work with, and he's great to work with for actors. He's very tough, but, it's the kind of tough that most actors would welcome, to tell you the truth …just that he's not a schmoozer, and he’s a little perverse, but I enjoy that. His commitment is enormous. I'm also thinking of Abel Ferrara, for example. His commitment is enormous. These are guys that shoot their blood into the movie. And, you know, if you're going to give yourself to something, you might as well be with those guys, rather some guy that is just a stylist, and has a huge distance from what he's doing, and is just making a career.
Capone: I was going to ask you, Are you more comfortable in an environment like that?
WD: I think so.
Capone: There's no doubting that the director is passionate about whatever you're there to create.
WD: I do, because then, even if it fails, you know why you're there. You were there to be with him, to try to make something. And, I'll do that any day, rather than do something that's a little more measured and calculated. I mean, we congratulate well-crafted things too much and don't give enough attention to these really passionate attempts--successful and unsuccessful--to take us to new places. That's all.
Capone: Right. Von Trier's level of depression while he was making this film was pretty well documented. How did you--or did you--have to sort of compensate for that? And, if so, how?
WD: Huge, huge. It gave us a lot of responsibility. It really made us be patient, and, yeah, made us be there in a very flexible way. But, the rewards of that are you give what you get, and you get what you give. That freed us up, because he needed us. It kind of leveled the playing field, in a funny way. The irony is he needed us so much to be patient with him that it made him more patient with us. I don't know whether that quite works…Did I say that right?
Capone: I think you did, actually.
WD: Then, you got the concept.
Capone: I absolutely did.
WD: Okay, it's easy to kind of dismiss it or trivialize it, but, yeah, he was really sick. And, imagine working on a film where you're never quite sure whether he's going to be there the next day. And, the truth was, he was there every day. But, many days, he would come up and say, "Listen, tomorrow, I probably won't be there. I'll be in my camper," because he's very phobic about many things. "I'll be in my camper, and we'll communicate through…" It never happened, but the camper was always there, just looming, not far from the set, as a possibility. So, imagine that kind of tension and those kind of stakes.
Capone: I can’t.
WD: Well, but, you can also imagine what that does. It elevates the experience and makes it more kind of dramatic and turns up the heat on things. It's like if someone was really cynical, they could say, "Lars is so smart, he invented this to motivate you guys." [Laughs]
Capone: The sense of accomplishment, just getting through it, must have been pretty elevated as well.
WD: A little bit. You kind of feel like, the sense of purpose is so huge.
Capone: Yeah. I don't know if it's a result of the way he was feeling, but this is certainly, his most emotionally raw film. And, the fact that he could get that raw emotion in a film that has so much psychobabble, for lack of a better word, is really impressive, because the language of therapy seems almost designed to bleed the emotion right out of an experience.
WD: That’s true. I think the language of that psychobabble is stuff he struggles with, because a lot of that comes from his therapy. The movie was really built on, was initiated by a series of fragments, of dreams, images, anxieties, and his therapy. And, then, he structured this narrative around it.
But, I like that because out of seemingly nothing, very specific--because he's such a good artist--very specific things are made. I mean, I thrill to see those little miniatures of "grief"…whatever it is, grief, whatever the three things are…in the opening shot. It's so specific. It's so peculiar. It's so of a world, that when I'm reading the screenplay, there are so many details like that, that I'm there.
Capone: Having that cabin in the misty woods and talking animals made it feel almost like a fairy tale for me sometimes, like I wasn't supposed to be looking at these evens literally. I'm not sure I could pass a test on the deeper meaning of ANTICHRIST but, it seemed symbolic of something beyond what appeared on the screen.
WD: [laughs] I helped make it and I feel the same way, I feel the same way.
Capone: What was it about reading the script--especially after reading the ending--that made you say, “Count me in”?
WD: Lots of things, lots of things. First of all, it's got a lot of adult content, I mean, 'adult,' not like the adult world, but, you know, I mean, things that a 54-year-old man thinks about, maybe, or has thought about. It had these beautiful details, as I said, these images that were really disturbing--the stillborn fetus coming out of the deer, the talking fox--things like that that are real strong and poetic. Yeah, maybe a little goofy, maybe a little strange, but they speak to me. I don’t know why, exactly, but as I’m reading, I feel, I want to see this movie, I want to do this movie.
And, then, also just how he mixed very formal stuff, very aestheticized moments--dropping acorns, and these beauty shots in the forest, and these nature close-ups with his kind of seasick cam, loose camera with those very in-your-face scenes without traditional coverage, without traditional cutting style.
I thought, This plays to his strengths, because he does very 'beautiful' with very formal things, and he does 'beautiful' with very informal things. So, you have kind of the DOGVILLE, MANDERLAY, ELEMENT OF CRIME, you know, formal-ness. And then, you have BREAKING THE WAVES, DANCER IN THE DARK, THE IDIOTS stuff. And, he kind of married those two modes and integrated them in a way that I thought, This is playing with film language, and I think it probably works. Also, you have two actors. And, it's nice to be every day on a set and have so much responsibility, because you can go more profoundly into the movie, I think. Because, the world drops away, because that becomes your world. [Laughs]
Capone: With Charlotte [Gainsbourg], did you determine going into the film that it was better that you two were close or that you were not close?
WD: It was unspoken. But, we didn't play around with any kind of playing house. It was neither of our impulse to have a special relationship, so we could have a chemistry in the movie. We were actors that went in and did these difficult personal scenes and looked in each other's eyes and said nothing, but knew. You don't say, "Hey, can I reach down there?" [gestures like he's about to grab my crotch]. You look in the eyes, and you know you can reach down there. And, if it's done with the right spirit, you don't have to ask. It was like that. There was such kind of unspoken understanding. I mean, she was a beautiful, beautiful partner to have in this, but I feel like I barely know her. But, we got along very well, because we lived in the same place. My wife would make dinner. She'd come down for dinner, we'd eat, we'd drink some wine, talk about anything but the film, then, "See you in the morning." [Laughs] So, it's not what people think, you know? It's not like we did a huge preparation. But, some people think you would do a huge preparation, and you would hang out together and talk about the scenes. And, nothing!
Capone: She's in another film at this festival. I just watched it yesterday.
WD: How is it?
Capone: PERSECUTION. She's great.
WD: Good. Who is it?
Capone: Patrice Chéreau.
WD: She made it after ANTICHRIST, I think.
Capone: I get the sense that you are pretty much up for anything, because you accept at the outset the artistry of the director. And if you've accepted that, you will go along with them wherever they want to take you.
WD: In principle, yeah.
Capone: It's a fearless quality you don't see in a lot of people.
WD: It’s just where I get my inspiration. Personally, that's where I've had some of my best experiences. And, you know, it's the most freeing way, too.
Capone: Sometimes, it manifests itself as serious drama or outrageous character creation, but there's no holds barred.
WD: Yeah, part of it has to do with--and I'm never good at describing this--but I really love taking someone else's thing and going toward it, trying to understand it, you know? Particularly, in the crudest terms, the director has this basic idea, or he's working with these things. Then, he brings some people to help him do it. He can't do it--he or she can't do it--so, I love it when I'm kind of like the director's tool; I become the thing in the story.
It's like you've got to get in someone else's head. And, when it's not getting in your own head, when it's not serving yourself--at least, not in a direct way--I find [myself] more liberated and, ultimately, I serve myself better that way, through someone else. Because, if you serve your own impulses and your own ideas, there's always a self-limitation. You always skip to the resolution. You always skip and go that place of, Well, that means this, and this is going to get me this, and if I do this, then da-da-da-da-da…Where when you're going through someone else, you break down that kind of value system, and you just do it.
And, also, they sort of order things. They're kind of responsible, so you're allowed to be irresponsible. And, you're allowed to address, even go beyond their vision, because you get the template from them, but you have no responsibility to it. You can go beyond it. So, I always feel most comfortable, even when you fail--even when you fail, because you're gonna fail, because of the collaborative nature of film. Get me in a room with people that I like being with, and they have interesting things to do, and, yeah, I'll pretty much do anything.
Capone: And, you can’t help but learn from even a failure.
WD: Oh, absolutely.
Capone: Maybe even more from a failure.
WD: I think probably, probably. As Beckett used to say, "Fail, fail again--fail, fail again--fail, fail again—fail better!"
Capone: As someone who seems to go out of your way not to repeat yourself, two of the films that I saw at Fantastic Fest were vampire films. And, obviously, you got an Oscar nomination for playing a vampire [in SHADOW OF THE VAMPIRE]. So, let me just talk a little bit about those two films--first CIRQUE DU FREAK: VAMPIRE'S ASSISTANT. I don't know anything about those books [Darren Shan series]…
WD: I haven't seen it yet, unfortunately. I mean, I looped the scene, so I kind of know what they look like, yeah.
Capone: It's not a huge part, but it seems like a person that we're going to see, if they continue making these.
WD: If they do, yeah.
Capone: It seems like someone who will become a bigger presence down the road.
WD: Yeah. I mean, I basically did it…I don't think I would have done it normally, except that it was Paul Weitz, who I’ve worked with before. And, actually, I had a good time working with him.
Capone: AMERICAN DREAMZ, right? I really loved that movie.
WD: Yeah, it's a movie I think is interesting, but it didn't get its day in court, I don't think. And, what I did in that was really fun. I had a good time with him. And, he's fun to work with, so when he asked me to do this thing, that got my interest very much. And then, he said, if they do a sequel, the next one is mostly about Crepsley [John C. Reilly's character] and my character. I mean, he's one of the major characters. So, I thought, Okay, let's do this.
Capone: So, you're committed to that, if it happens?
WD: If it happens.
Capone: Okay, that’s good to know. And then, DAYBREAKERS, which has been pushed to January. What an awesome movie!
WD: [Laughs] Good.
Capone: I really had no idea what to expect.
WD: They're really good, the Spierig brothers.
Capone: They are. And, we saw UNDEAD way before it came out in the States at a festival.
WD: It has its limitations, but had stuff, too.
Capone: No, it does, there's definitely potential there. But, DAYBREAKERS is such a complete vision of a future. It's one of the few films I have watched where I wished it had been 20 to 30 minutes longer because I really wanted to see more of that world.
WD: Wow. Yeah, it's pretty economical.
Capone: And, your character is so pivotal.
WD: Good. I just saw it recently, and I think it works very well. It's very balanced, you know. It's got a good sense of humor, but it kind of also gets you going…It's a good balance.
Capone: Anything that can make me think of the world in a different way like that has my vote, for sure.
WD: Cool. Yeah, I hope that does well.
Capone: And, then, you're in Werner Herzog's new film [MY SON, MY SON, WHAT HAVE YE DONE], which I have not seen yet.
WD: Nor have I. Yeah, I haven't heard a lot about it.
Capone: Actually, both his films, I'm hearing pretty good things about.
WD: Really? Yeah, good.
Capone: I've got to ask you about JOHN CARTER OF MARS.
WD: Yes, sure. I don't know that much. I mean, I'm very excited, and all I can tell you is I worked with [director] Andrew Stanton before on FINDING NEMO. He's great. But you'd think would just be a guy going in a studio and recording some lines. But, it's much more than that, because those Pixar guys are very thorough.
Capone: I've talked to quite a few of them, I love talking to them because they have the best stories.
WD: The best stories and they're fantastic. Have you ever been to that Pixar place?
Capone: No, I never have. I'd love to, believe me.
WD: But, you've heard about it. You must go. Get an excuse to go! I mean, I guess everything's changing for them. This is Disney, anyway, but it's Andrew Stanton. And, I've seen a lot of the designs and things, and I’ve just started to do prep work now. I'm doing a play in New York, so I’m kind of preoccupied by that, but I'm starting doing scans and things like that, but it's going to be a real full-on… Well, I'm nine feet tall with four arms, but, just from the scheduling, I'm going to do the stuff.
Capone: There's a performance there.
WD: Well, we hope. And, also, they'll use my face, but they'll enhance it in a way--both after and before--in a way that I may not be recognizable. But, I'm good with that. It's particularly cool, because he's a creature, but he's got this huge range of character. And, he does cool things in the movies. Do you know the original?
Capone: Yeah. Do you have a voice for him yet? Have they worked that out for you yet?
WD: No, but there’s a whole period where we're going to work with the language and the movement, and find out how I'm going to be nine feet tall, and all that stuff…like, a long period of time where we're going to go to Thark school, you know what I mean? We're going to create our culture. So, it's going to be very cool. These guys know how to do this, and they've got great people. And, the designs and things are just mind-blowing.
Capone: The last time I spoke to Andrew, when he was doing press for WALL-E, they hadn't even made the decision whether it was going to be animated, or live action, or a combination.
WD: Well, it is going to be a combination.
Capone: Yeah, we've been waiting for a long time for this story to get made, and I'm tripley excited it’s Pixar.
WD: Well, they are the people to do it.
Capone: Absolutely. It was really great to meet you. Thank you so much.
Sure thing. Be well.
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