Hollywood's Leading Outsider
Actor Willem Dafoe has had one hell of an interesting career. Originally part of an experimental theatre group, he then got his break on the legendary production disaster Heaven’s Gate from which he was fired for laughing on set.
Since then he has acted in over 100 films in his 30+ year career. From playing Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ to a grieving father in Lars von Trier’s experimental drama Antichrist, he is perhaps one of the most adaptable actors in the industry, even dabbling in blockbusters such as Spiderman and the upcoming Aquaman. Now living his life as an expat in Italy for most of the year, Dafoe remains very much an outsider of the system. The man with the most intriguing face in Hollywood talks to us about being accepted in LA LA Land, his passion for yoga, and the importance of never having a masterplan. Oh, and a little bit of wordplay.
So you’ve just come back from shooting on a remote location. How was that?
It was a beautiful place. It was a Mexican production so the place and people very much informed what we were doing and it was a great experience. It’s a movie called Opus Zero. The director and writer is an Australian called Daniel Graham and it’s his first feature. This place we were shooting, Real de Catorce, is very remote and very beautiful. It’s an old silver mining town but when that all shut down it became a ghost town. People started coming back to it in the 60s. It’s a very special place way in the mountains. According to the Huichol, the indigenous people there, there’s a sacred mountain, so you get a lot of tourists seeking that special energy. It’s also the land of peyote.
Have you tried peyote?
I’d rather not say.
I know you have an incredible work ethic.
[laughing] Who told you that?! No, it’s true actually.
How do you keep up your enthusiasm and energy for your work? You’ve mentioned before that you’re very into yoga.
It’s just a physical practise. Well its not just a physical practise but that’s what I feel comfortable talking about. Its Ashtanga practise, which is a series of postures and that’s linked by the breath. It’s a particular style of yoga systemised from classic texts by this guru who’s now dead called Pattabhi Jois. I studied with him and a student of his, Eddie Stern, and I’ve been practicing for many years daily. It’s a way to prepare for my day, a kind of meditation, a way to check in with my body and mind. It’s good preparation for an actor to clean the slate and start the day. I do that every day except for Saturdays, full moons and new moons.
You seem to live a very simple life off screen but you’re very complex on screen. You come across as incorruptible, a very hard worker, committed to your craft, earnest, cordial. Would you say that sums you up?
No. Good try though. That’s probably a version of myself. Most of it sounds pretty good, though a little boring. I think. . .you know interviews are ok because I think they’re a necessary thing, particularly if you’re making smaller films and you want to get attention for those films. So I do these interviews, and I think I’m a fairly social guy. I like people. I tend to be fairly easy. I don’t think I’m as guarded as some people think. But when I finish I always think, why did I do that? Why did I talk to them? Because I’m not really selling anything. I’m certainly not selling myself because whoever I am I don’t even know and don’t want other people to know because that inhibits the flexibility of how they can see you. I think most people want the world to know who they are but I’ve given up on that a long time ago.
"I don’t know the Hollywood community because I’ve never been a part of that. I’m always happy when they let me in the door for a little while, and I don’t have beef with anyone, but I also don’t live out there."
On being part of Hollywood
It seems lately that this liberal progressive bubble that is Hollywood has been slowly slipping away. A lot of disruption with technology, the notion of celebrity has changed, the industry seems devalued. Do you think that Hollywood has changed in the time that you’ve been in the industry?
Yes but lately I’ve spent so much time outside of the country that I’m not exactly up on what’s going down there. I’ve been away so much that when I come back I’m always kind of surprised. And I live in New York which is its own particular bubble in the United States. I shot a film last year in Florida but that’s also a very particular place. Of course I grew up here and in some ways I’m very much American, but I’ve also spent so much time outside of the country all of my life, working, and touring, and living, that sometimes I see America with a bit of distance.
I also don’t know the Hollywood community because I’ve never been a part of that. I’m always happy when they let me in the door for a little while and I don’t have beef with anyone but I also don’t live out there. I’ve only been out there to shoot movies. When I was working day-to-day in the theatre, I would always leave on the first plane after we wrapped. I never hung out in Hollywood.
You haven’t become homogenised by the system that’s for sure. It shows in the movie choices you make.
Right, although it’s not as much of a design as you might think. The truth is there’s a great defect in me that when I approach a project I kind of forget about all the projects before. I figure I learn my lessons intuitively and when I get in a tight spot I always find that intuition rescues me. When I enter projects I never know quite what it is until I get there. I like that feeling but it’s a risky feeling. That probably explains my choices better than a calculated thing about politics, or ambitions as an actor, or anything like that. It has more to do with me being intuitively attracted to people, or situations, or stories. Something calls me and I’m not sure exactly why. Making the movie explains the why. It’s sort of after the fact that you realise why you were attracted to them.
Well that reminds me of a quote Ai Wei Wei said that “all art is political.” Wold you agree with that sentiment?
Yeah I’d agree with Ai Wei Wei, sure why not. When you make things, not just art, or you tell stories and challenge how people think, that’s a political act.
I’m a big fan of some of the more collaborative films you’ve made such as A Most Wanted Man, Existenz, Inside Man, Grand Budapest Hotel. Do you enjoy these more collaborative projects?
Well these films are not necessarily more collaborative because sometimes when you’re in the principle role you’re kind of driving the whole project. Sometimes you’re as much a filmmaker as a director. It depends on the film. I’ve worked with some very strong directors and I still felt like I’m shoulder-to-shoulder with them making the movie. They have something in their head but I’m the one who really realises it, and that happens on all kinds of movies. Those movies you mentioned that are more ensemble movies, sometimes there’s a little less collaboration because your voice is one of many and you’ve got to know what your function is. Whenever you approach a project you have to sort of have some sense of what your job is. In ensemble movies you have to make space for other people. That cuts out the direct collaboration a little bit sometimes.
"I have no master plan and I trust that."
Speaking of collaboration, you’ve worked with so many different people and big names over the years. Do you ever think about some of the people you’ve worked with over the years and think about how they’re doing?
I sort of do. If you have a good experience with someone then you’re always keeping your eye out for whether they’re doing something that might make sense for you to get involved with. So yeah I keep track of people. I had a very happy reunion with Billy Friedkin in Cannes this year. I found him in great shape, and really on top of things, and a creative, fun person to be around. Obviously people like Schrader or Abel Ferrara, or Wes Anderson, I keep in touch with them and I’m always curious about what they’re doing.
You’re very much an actor who takes risks. You enjoy combining high art and populist entertainment. I’m always amazed by the next Willem Dafoe choice. Do these choices come from in-depth discussions with your agent or are they, as you mentioned, mainly intuitive decisions?
I never really have a plan. I see certain patterns in what I’m guided by but most of the things that I seek out. . . It’s case by case. I have no master plan and I trust that. Early on in my career I was probably much more careful and self-conscious in the choices I was making because I was conscious of typecasting. I also didn’t want to be away from the theatre so I knew I could only do so many movies a year. Now that I don’t work daily in the theatre I’m much more open to different kinds of things, and I like to mix it up because it throws you off your game. I think that’s the key to being happy, accepting that everything is always shifting, and being able to enjoy being in movement. That’s what it’s all about. There’s no arriving, there’s only going towards things, and as long as you’re going towards things with interest, and engagement, and good faith, then you can’t go wrong. I think doing things that way protects you from disappointments. Film is so collaborative that you can only hold up your end and try to be generous, and try to be involved with good people. But God knows there’s no justice. Sometimes the best things are punished and the worst things are rewarded, so if you weigh things too carefully I think you’re going to mess yourself up. You’ve just got to really make choices from a personal place.
I know this might be an unorthodox way to end an interview but lets try something different, a bit of wordplay?
Ok let’s try.