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 about 30 years of film acting. 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 Lars von Trier, whom Dafoe has actually worked with twice (the notorious ANTICHRIST followed 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 played the bizarre Klaus in Wes Anderson's THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU, continuing on with Spike Lee's INSIDE MAN, AMERICAN DREAMZ, a juicy supporting role in DAYBREAKERS, and great evil voice work in Wes Anderson's THE FANTASTIC MR. FOX.
However, his ultimate film geek role may be that of the peace-loving Martian Tars Tarkas in Disney/Pixar's JOHN CARTER. And for the record Dafoe has two other films coming out in the immediate future, including THE HUNTER and Ferrara's 4:44 LAST DAY ON EARTH, and I'm really curious about his upcoming work in ODD THOMAS, opposite the likes of Anton Yelchin and Patton Oswalt, set for release later in the year.
But on this day, we sat down to talk JOHN CARTER and walking on stilts. So please enjoy Willem Dafoe…
Willem Dafoe: Hey, how’s it going? We've met before, right?
Capone: Yes, we met before in Chicago. I think you were there for the film festival, and I believe you received a career achievement award.
WD: Okay, yeah, that’s right.
Capone: I think it was about a month after…
Capone: Right. ANTICHRIST had played at Frantastic Fest and "Chaos Reigns" became the slogan of the year.
WD: Love that fox.
Capone: Oh yeah. I’m sure at this point you’re sick of talking about stilts, but…
WD: That’s a good thing to talk about, though; it’s something I know something about. [laughs]
Capone: When I was watching the film, I couldn't help but wonder, “What does that do to a person's disposition, being taller than everybody else?”
WD: It’s huge. You know, it’s just physically you can’t get over that, I won’t call it a feeling of superiority, but just spatially, it really has a huge affect to look down on people. It’s huge. You’re sense of the world… Just doing this, I mean even sitting down you know the difference between this [from a sitting position] and this [he stands up], you feel it so deeply, and if you're doing this all the time, that colors who you are.
Capone: And you literally are seeing more than everybody else.
WD: You’re up above them. That’s true.
Capone: So was it a difficult process to not just be wearing all the time, but to make it look more or less effortless.
WD: That takes a while, but I think the hardest time is when you have a lot of technical responsibilities, and I like those things, but it’s hard to be spontaneous. It’s hard to keep the spark, because you’ve got so many marks, you’ve got so many technical responsibilities and you still have to keep the scene alive. I guess that’s the biggest challenge, not to lose your way and embracing the technical limitations, turning them to help you rather than wear you down and surrender and say, “Okay, I’m going to do this like a good soldier.” You’ve got to use it and say, “Hey, this is cool. We got that and we’re going to go to the next step.”
Capone: Yeah. In the roundtable, you were talking about the challenge of also acting like you have an extra set of arms, which of course to Tars it’s not an extra set of arms, it’s just his arms. Was there ever a point where you had to strap on an actual extra set of arms?
WD: There was usually someone behind me. It was a practical thing. I always thought of these [raises his arms] as being the dominant arms, and then you have the secondary arms. So usually those secondary arms were used not for force of gesture so much, but more to hold things. There’s a scene I think where he’s drinking, and the secondary hands are cutting the food or something like that. I think these two hands are covering someone’s mouth, and these are applying the knife and holding them down. It’s that kind of thing, but there was always a stunt person behind me. And if we didn’t anticipate there would be a use for the second set of arms, I just wouldn't have them.
Capone: Right, and you said you had to wear extensions on your real arms too? What was that for?
WD: Because Tars’s arms are longer than mine. When he stands, you know my knees are in a different place than his knees are. Yeah, so if in the scene, I’ve got to reach that paper [point to paper on the table], I physically can’t reach it, so you’re dead in the water. You can’t continue with the scene, because photographically you’ve got to see that paper go from here to there. So you know, you use those extenders to get the paper. You may need help as you don’t have great dexterity, so then when it comes over to the other hand you can continue the scene without breaks. It was all practical just to try to play the scenes. There’s no mystery about it, it was like the most practical thing to give the animators what they need and to shoot the scenes.
Capone: Yeah, but there has to be some consideration just to how easy it is for you to make it look natural too.
WD: Well that’s my job, but that’s one of the things that’s special about this movie. I don’t think there’s a movie where the live characters are integrated so much with the motion capture. It’s usually separated out. You had a lot in [RISE OF THE] PLANET OF THE APES.
Capone: Right, PLANET OF THE APES is really the first one that they had that much, and I was going to ask you about that. I’m aware of certain actors who are about to enter into a motion capture situation actually contacting Andy Serkis and saying, “What’s the key?” Did you talk to anybody about it?
WD: I didn’t talk to anybody, because it’s all performing, they're just recording it differently. I’m still playing the same scene.
Capone: In terms of just the relationship between Tars and John Carter, in a lot of ways we are seeing this situation through Tars’ eyes. We are seeing Carter as this mysterious figure. He’s not mysterious to us, but he’s mysterious to Tars. At leastm I felt like I was identifying a lot more with Tars than I was with Carter at first.
WD: I think that’s just how it’s built. That’s not something I have to do. I think that’s an interesting observation.
Capone: But the relationship between the two of them has to be convincing for the movie to work at all.
WD: I think it’s an important relationship, and it’s interesting, because they couldn’t be more different, but they have some sort of common ground. I think that’s why they find a kind of trust. When you think about it, they both are struggling with this inner-outer thing--know how much to get involved in other people’s lives, how much to get involved in the planet.
Capone: I think Tars learns a lot about being a leader. I know in the books at least he learns something about compassion that is not a part of the Martian culture at all.
WD: In this, there’s some hint that they are in decline, that he knew a time of greatness. In fact, without the spoiler, his attachment to Sola is partly; I think he has a line that she’s the last spark of what her mother was.
Capone: You’re the only major cast member that has worked with Andrew before [in FINDING NEMO].
WD: That’s true.
Capone: Was there a difference in how he directed you this time around?
WD: He’s really good with actors and he’s really good I think because of his work in animation, he’s good at exhausting possibilities. If an actor doesn’t give him lots of choices, he’ll direct them to those choices. He’s very good at trying to realize a scene as he imagines it, and then once he gets that maybe goes totally against that impulse.
He approaches the scene from lots of different angles, and I think that has to do with when he’s got an actor in when he’s animating for the animations, before he wants all the material, so he can go any way, so he can remake the scene, so he has a wealth of material to work with. He can shift it anyway, and the scene can move anyway. He’s very good with story. In this case, it’s a little different, because he’s got to realize the story on the day, because you can’t separate the motion-capture stuff from the live-action stuff; it’s marries already on the day, you just have to realize the scene and give the animators what they need. That’s the mantra.
Capone: Yeah. When you first saw a finished scene with your character in it and how beautifully integrated it looks, did anything surprise you?
WD: When I first saw it, I didn’t see it, but when I saw the film I saw it, because it’s a long process, and they do lots of tweaks. I remember the first time I thought, “That’s good. That’s really good,” but they weren’t finished. I don’t know enough about animation to know what happened in that last round, but it made all the difference in the world.
Capone: It looks great on the big screen. I think when I saw you before we talked a little bit about your history with directors that have an antagonistic reputation; you seem to have this ability to get along with all of them. Is it a nice break to work with someone like Andrew where you don’t have to worry about finding that way to work around somebody's temper or hang ups?
WD: It is. I mean, I like to work all kinds of ways, but it is. He is a very sweet guy and he’s very calm. There’s no craziness there, just great passion. But also where I fit in this movie is slightly different, you know? I was like a conspirator, so it was important to have that relationship with him before.
Capone: He told me when this first became his movie to make, Tars was the first thing that he was excited about doing.
WD: Cool. I like the design, I mean it makes a lot of sense. When I first saw that, I always remember, I thought “They look sort of like Masai,” you know? It makes sense, because they are in the desert, kind of lean, but muscled.
Capone: Are you excited that FINDING NEMO is coming back out this year into theaters?
WD: [whispers] I didn't know until someone else mentioned it today. [laughs]
Capone: What? Last night before the screening, I said to Andrew, “You’ve got two 3-D movies coming out this year,” and he’s like, “Oh yeah, we’ve got BRAVE,” the new Pixar film. And I said “No, an actual film that you directed.” He’s like “Oh yeah…”
WD: Is it in 3-D?
Capone: It is in 3-D. I’m excited to see it.
WD: That’s a good movie.
Capone: It’s a great movie and it already looks so full of depth; I can't imagine how it will look in 3-D.
WD: Cool. When does it come out?
Capone: Fall. September, I believe. They're already showing trailers for it. Anyway, it was great to see you again. Thank you so much.