Interview: Willem Dafoe


When Willem Dafoe entered the hotel room for the interview, he made his way straight to the bathroom. He apologized and said with mock menace, “And nobody listen!” We assembled journalists laughed, already charmed in an odd way. He joked about sound-proofing the door jamb with towels and toilet paper and then politely excused himself. While we waited, one of the other journalists talked about how she once had to interview Huey Lewis in a bathroom because of noise issues.

Dafoe’s two most recent films seem worlds apart: Abel Ferrara’s 4:44 Last Day on Earth is a low-budget apocalypse filmed on the Lower East Side; The Hunter is a quest for an extinct beast in the wilds of Tasmania. There’s an environmental aspect to each, however, and Dafoe brings authenticity to the two roles. In yesterday’s interview with director Daniel Nettheim, he mentioned that Dafoe was “like a heat-seeking missile for anything that reeked of untruth.”

In the brief time we had to talk with him, Dafoe seemed entirely real — no pretenses, no artifice, just a genuine joy to be doing what he does. I was also struck by how much younger he looked in person and how funny he could be. It made sense that this was a guy who could convincingly play a Jesus, Green Goblin, an isolated hunter, an actor convinced he’s a vampire, or even a stuffed polar bear in those brilliantly surreal Birds Eye commercials.

When he came out of the bathroom and sat down with everybody, one of us jokingly asked, “Have you ever done an interview in a bathroom?”

“Uh,” he smiled, “I’m trying to think.”

The producers of The Hunter said that you were the perfect choice for this role — that you embody this character so well. Why do you think they think that?

[laughs] I don’t know. I can only talk about why I was interested in it, I suppose. They talked about how they needed a guy that was old enough so you could imagine he was at the end of his career, but also fit enough to be able to do some of the physical stuff that I had to do. [They also wanted] a guy you’re not sure about, you don’t know who he is — I guess he’s a mystery. That’s what they told me about what they liked about who I was.


But when I read the set-up I was attracted to it, the kind of character it is, the basic theme. One aspect certainly is about a guy that’s very misanthropic and cut-off at the beginning, and he comes back to his humanity through a kind of compassion. And now he’s at the end of this career: his career is so tied up in his identity, his identity is so tied up in his career, so he’s kind of reflective. And then these things happen to him and it opens the door for some compassion that he hasn’t felt in a long time. I think that’s an interesting story. We can all relate to it because life beats us up and we close down, and we forget that the value of life can be found in what we give to others.

In preparation for the role, did you actually go to some mountains and stay there for a couple days in the atmosphere?

I didn’t quite do that, but what I did do is [the producers] set me up with some hunters. Some old-fashioned, outback, kangaroo-shooting guys that knew how to hunt and trap and knew that environment really well. And more importantly they set me up with a bushcraft guy. He’s a survivalist and he knows how to — you know, with very little — make those snares and traps, and he taught me how to butcher a wallaby. All those things. Not only did I learn those things because I had to practically — because I do it in the movie and I had to look graceful, it had to look second nature — but it was important to learn those things [because] it becomes a key to the character. And also, being with this guy, his relationship to nature was an important thing to explore. This model, this survivalist, his way of being in the bush was something I wanted to emulate.

Sort of related, one of the most beautiful things about the film is the isolation in it. You, by yourself, in the wilderness. What was it like being there in that wilderness? Did that affect you in any way?

One of the big things, first of all, I’m not alone. I’ve got a small crew with me.


Um, but, you know, I was playing those scenes with nature. Nature was a character. And one of the things about Tasmania, not only is it quite wild — and sometimes we were in really quite remote places — but the weather is very changeable, so you always had to play with a big old partner, you know? Nature. So that was interesting, and that rooted the movie for me.

You say you’re there in nature alone but you’ve got a pod of people who are following you around. In your mind when you’re working, what is the camera? What is your relationship to it?

That’s a great question. You know, it changes — depending on the scene, depending on the style of the film. Sometimes I’m very conscious of the camera, sometimes I’m not. Here… Actually I go in between those two things here because I have very strong, specific actions. And we’re making choices, particularly because in the screenplay it’s written, “He sets a trap.” Why do we have to show that? What’s important here? What part of the storytelling? So we have to talk and say, “What is this shot about?” Is it about the trap? Is it about the bad weather? Is about how he’s cold? You have to consider all those things. So you become a real collaborator and an integral part of setting up the shots. So I’m more conscious than I am usually with that. So I guess I was pretty conscious, but at the same time, I have very concrete actions, and that always allows you to forget about the camera because of your concentration. You may know the frame’s here and you know that if you block this, they’re not see you tie that knot or they’re not going to see you notch that thing that shows how that snare works. So you do have a little consciousness outside of the scene, but to some degree you always do.

And how is that different from performing in front of an audience?

It’s not — it’s not. One of the biggest differences, though, is in theater, one of the fairly consistent things is that you have some sort of score and your main job is reanimating something that you’ve scored out. It’s playing the music. The music is already there, and even if it’s improvised, you know what the parameters are, right? Whereas in film, you’re always dealing with first impulse. Almost always. Not with all films, but almost every film, because you visit a location, you shoot the scene, you move on. You don’t go back. You’re not visiting the same material over and over again. That’s the biggest difference, so that really affects what you’re conscious of. You always have a type of double focus, but I’d say in film — because of how I described setting the traps — once the shot is set, that’s what you’re doing. Your concentration is totally there. Whereas in theater somehow — because you’re driving, you’re setting the scene, and you’ve got the audience reacting — you’re in the scene, but you also have an idea where it’s going.

Why do you think that Martin, even though he’s a mercenary, starts to feel so much compassion for his host family?

I think it’s well mixed in his job just trying to figure out where this Tasmanian tiger is. He’s doing a little sleuthing. Someone called this an “eco-noir,” which I though was [great]. [laughs]


But what’s nice is you have the two tracks: you have the very tightly focused narrative of him trying to find this tiger, and with that is all the stuff of the missing husband, and it keeps on sending him to the family. He needs something from the family, and clearly the family needs something from him. And he’s also in a very special place because, as I said before, he’s a little bit in crisis. Not only is he pressured to pull off this job, which is difficult, but he’s getting pressure from his employer. They’re going to [claps] retire him, he’s going to be done. He’s reaching the end. So he’s in this place where his identity is a little up for grabs. Then he has a relationship with someone that he’s kind of forced into. He’s only forced into it because of the nature of the job: he needs this base to have in order to go out into the bush. He can’t stay out in the bush all the time, it’s not practical. He’s got to get back to deal with the technical stuff and all that. So, normally in a job — we don’t know this absolutely — but I always imagined he could work solitarily. In fact, that’s said. But here, he has to deal with these people, and in dealing with them, his humanity is reawakened.

Speaking of film noir and ecology, what attracted you to the character or the story of 4:44 Last Day on Earth?

First of all, it was Abel [Ferrara]. I’m very I guess you could say director driven. I’m very attracted to people that have a very specific way of working and have a very specific vision, and I like to attach myself to them. And my job becomes to realize them — I’m the doer who realizes what they see, and also in the process of doing that, it becomes what I see. That’s the creative part. I like Abel. He came to me, he told me the scenario. The scenario didn’t resonate necessarily immediately, and then we started working on what’s under [the surface]. We started fleshing out some of the sequences of the scenario, we started writing back and forth, and I got sucked in. It’s interesting in the respect that it’s a movie where the audience participates. If you don’t get hung up on what the science is or what the story is about the end of the world; if you accept the conditions of the story that everybody accepts [the end of the world is immanent] and this is just a story about two people that are just deciding how to spend their time in this last period — I think it’s interesting. Me, as an actor and as a person, keeps on going back to the question “What is our relationship to each other? How do we spend our time? What kind of consciousness do I want to have in how I live my life?” I think the audience is doing that too. They can’t help it. And I think that’s interesting. It opened in Venice — where Abel is quite respected, much more than here. He tends to have more of a following in Italy and France. And I was at this screening, and it was beautiful. Because you felt the audience… When the end comes, it was kind of a communal [thing]. You know, they could have linked arms and done “Kumbaya.” [laughs]


It was really — and I mean, you know, you can guess whether I’m projecting, but I didn’t expect it. And I was very moved, not just by the movie, but by the audience. You felt people recognize that everybody struggles and they recognize the struggle in everybody else. I think that’s very important. I think that’s one of the biggest functions of telling stories, of making art, making entertainment: to find the common ground. So, long answer for a very simple question, but all that stuff is in the mix.

Abel mentioned how he felt that fiction is a way to sort of refine or make the truth more concrete. Could you speak about that notion and how you feel about it.

Well, my guess is that he’s referring to this weird convention of the world is going to end and everyone accepts it. And, you know, the movie only works if you say “Okay, I’m good.” If you’re like, “Well, how did this happen? Who’s responsible? Is it really scientific? Is it really global warming?” That all gets shorthand in this story. If you accept it, then I think you can concentrate on the truth of these people just dealing with their lives. The heat is turned up. It’s a way to intensify the struggle we all have about what’s to do. What gives your life meaning? What’s important? I mean, the fact that you know your life is going to end so you’ve got 24 hours to scramble for the meaning — it’s pretty interesting. And people do what you’d think they’d do: they start to say goodbyes, they make amends, they try to enjoy the people they’re with, they try to have some pleasure. All those things are happening in the movie.

Willem, a million years ago we bumped into each other in the lobby of a theater where your film — a motorcycle film — was opening.

Which motorcycle film, I’ve made a few. [laughs] It’s either–

It was an early one when you were beginning to emerge. And I can’t remember which one it was.

It may have been Kathryn Bigelow’s movie The Loveless? Or was it Streets of Fire?

I think it was Streets of Fire. And you said to me that you were dying to play a hero, but you thought you would never get cast that way because you have a face that reads as mean. Where did you–

When did that change?


Five minutes after I said it. [laughs]


I think that probably reflected a worry that I was going to be typecast. Because at the beginning of the career, you’re seen as a character actor because you’re not charming, you’re not a smoothie, you’ve got some power, you don’t look like the boy next door. So the opportunities tend to be the strong character parts when you’re young, usually bad guys. And you know then, and for many years, movies were the sideline. My bread an– well, not my bread and butter. My place that I was [comfortable] was the theater, it still is to some degree. When I would do movies, I was a little concerned about just being typecast, that the opportunities would always draw from the same well. I’m less concerned about that now because in a funny way, even though movies aren’t in a particularly good place right now, the kinds of things I get offered are more wide ranging. There’s more possibilities.

[We’re told our interview time’s running short. Everyone looks politely to a journalist who hasn’t asked a question yet.] I have a question!

Pull the trigger! [laughs] We can even do two.

The first press day I actually did was with you for Daybreakers. I remember how you said you did theater in Amsterdam back in the 80s. Would you be interested in doing theater again?

In April, I open a show in Madrid. Robert Wilson’s The Life and Death of Marina Abramović. And we tour with it afterwards. [Editor’s note: Robert Wilson is one of the world’s most highly regarded avant-garde stage directors and playwrights. Willem Dafoe has strong ties to avant-garde theater. He was one off the founding members of The Wooster Group in New York City, an experimental theater company.]

Where are you touring with it?

How long?

Yeah, and where?

Well, you know, it’s a big piece. The first installment is just Madrid, Basel for the art fair, Antwerp, and Amsterdam. And there we go.

When do you start rehearsing it?

We start rehearsing at the beginning of April, but we already made it. We started the workshop in Madrid a long time ago, then we showed it in Manchester at [the Manchester International Festival] in the summertime. We showed in July and now we’ll get back together in April.

Will you be doing it here [in New York City]?

We don’t have dates yet.

Is Robert Wilson staying in Madrid now?

No, no. It’s just Gerard Mortier, the head of the Teatro Real, is one of the big producers on it.

Hubert Vigilla
Brooklyn-based fiction writer, film critic, and long-time editor and contributor for Flixist. A booster of all things passionate and idiosyncratic.