In Conversation with Willem Dafoe

The great Willem Dafoe came to London ahead of the UK premiere of his latest critically-acclaimed film ‘The Lighthouse’. The flick is hopeful for the award season nominations and the cast are seemingly very busy globe-trotting ahead of the nominations’ announcements.

Willem Defoe 67 Cannes Film Festival 2014 © Joe Alvarez

Willem Dafoe at the 67th cannes Film Festival © JOE ALVAREZ

Ikon London Magazine caught up with the award-winning actor at the Intelligence Squared event and popped a few questions, both controversial and not so much. Cool, calm and collected, the actor was in good spirits. His voice – as charismatic as ever, distinctly gravelly and melodic. Dafoe loves talking about his work. A consummate professional, he has decades of experience to share. The smile hasn’t left his face throughout the entire discussion.

We start by talking about the new generation of filmmakers and what advice would he give to the aspiring moviemakers out there. Willem admits that he is a great believer in apprenticeships: “Find the filmmakers you like and get inspired by and be as close to them as possible. You will learn a lot and things will rub off… You know, just ’Feed your beast’. Know what feeds you and don’t compromise with yourself.”

The actor doesn’t just say that. His very successful career began at the experimental theatre The Wooster Group.

“…so I found myself less and less interested in pursuing my career path…”

“I went to New York with a full intention to be a commercial actor. But when I arrived there, I found myself always going downtown, always watching loft performances; being attracted to those people. […] I was attracted that they were not careerists and were living their lives like… artists, you know,” his shoulders elevated and he gained an extra inch in height. It’s obvious just how taken in he was by that lifestyle. He continues, “…so I found myself less and less interested in pursuing my career path and more and more interested in just being with these people. I’d spent there twenty-seven years and it really shaped who I am as an actor”

“I don’t know how much you know about The Wooster Group, but that was the time in New York City when a lot of companies went bankrupt. It was dangerous and rough. And there was a huge movement of people just making things. Dancers were making films, filmmakers were making music, actors were dancing… It was all mixed up. The Wooster Group was in fact not a company of actors or people who were trained in the theatre, but there were architects, poets, technicians, seamstresses…”

The experimental theatre was indeed infamous. From viewers walking out from the performances to the actors sharing their stories of LSD consumption during rehearsals, The Wooster Group ‘reinvented’ the experimental theatre.

Variety and AT&T Party Celebrating Robert Pattinson

Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe during the Toronto Film Festival

Experimenting with LSD

“We had unusual rehearsal techniques,” he struggles to hold back cheeky laughter. “For that particular show, we dropped acid and rehearsed the scene. As you can imagine it didn’t go so well. But we filmed it and when we watched it back it was interesting enough that we timecoded it and reproduced that as part of the performance. We turned it into a dance, second by second. […] It was very interesting to perform later.”

Willem Dafoe’s controversial films

“I don’t get any particular pleasure out of controversy.”

Controversy and unconventionality seemingly accompanied Willem throughout his career. From ‘The Antichrist’ (Directed by Lars Von Trier) to ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’ (Directed by Martin Scorsese), the actor’s career drew a lot of attention throughout the years. In the film ‘The Antichrist’, Lars went deep into the exploration of sexuality and motherhood and was subsequently accused of being a misogynist. While ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’ was hailed blasphemous and likes of Mother Teresa and even Greek Orthodox Church damned the film and wanted it to be banned from screening.

But speaking about the controversies and being part of such films, Dafoe admits, “I don’t get any particular pleasure out of controversy. For example, ‘Last Temptation of Christ’ was a beautiful movie and it broke my heart to see that its reception was overshadowed by the debate about the movie by people that haven’t seen it.”

“Why would you want someone to make love with your wife – that’s the fun part,”

Staying on the subject of controversies, I’m curious to know Willem’s thought on the editorial by Martin Scorsese in which he mercilessly pans all superhero movies. Refreshingly grounded and humble, the actor stays away from lecturing and virtue-signalling and found the perfect medium.

“I know what he means. But I would not say that because that’s not my experience. Because also I worked at these movies (Spiderman, Aqua Man) and I found pleasure in them. I know their limitations but you can’t judge one kind of movie by standards of another. It’s always different.” The part Willem enjoyed most was the special effects. With almost childish excitement he told us: “You get to fly around on wires. For weeks at a time. And not just like a boyish type thing; it’s also challenging. We are talking about as high at that ceiling,” he says pointing to the ceiling about 30 feet (10 meters) above our heads. “And then you are dropped down – in a harness of course – then turn…” he waves his left hand to show the movements. “you know, it’s fun.”

Willem Dafoe on making his own stunts and keeping in good shape

Willem Dafoe The BAFTAS arrivals © Joe Alvarez 13921

Willem Dafoe © JOE ALVAREZ

How come you want to do your own stunts? “Why would you want someone to make love with your wife – that’s the fun part,” he says with a guilty smile. “But in seriousness, that’s my job. And if I step out, someone else will do it and then I have to reclaim it, get back to it. I’m there to have an experience and the audience to have that experience with me. And if it gets too fragmented, it’s hard to feel that.”

At the age of 64, the actor looks in good shape, full of energy and vitality. Dafoe shares his secret with a laugh: “Try not to be a jerk… Follow a daily practice to set the tone for the day – I do yoga for 35 years and I’m also vegetarian.” He also admits he “always finds ways to break the rigidness.” Be it a habit of how filming – or theatre production – should be done or portraying only one type of character.

Willem’s story is one of a devoted actor who loves his craft and is on a lookout for new challenges. His down-to-earth approach to life and to work is something a lot of us can learn from indeed. I look forward to seeing you at the BAFTAs in February.

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Willem Dafoe The BAFTAS arrivals © Joe Alvarez 13921

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