Jeff Goldblum and Willem Dafoe spill the beans on Wes

The actors explain why it's a dream to be part of the obsessive filmmaker's world

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Courtesy of Fox UK

Jeff Goldblum and Willem Dafoe are no strangers to Wes Anderson's otherwordly breed of filmmaking. With Dafoe as a stone-faced killer in The Grand Budapest Hotel, (he played the villainous rat from Anderson's Fantastic Mr. Fox) Goldblum carries off a dashing lawyer, and the pair appeared together, with Bill Murray, in Anderson's 2004 seafaring opus, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. We got the two together to discuss working on set with Wes. 

Dazed Digital: Would you accept any part in a Wes Anderson film just to be a part of his world?

Willem Dafoe: I think so. Yes.

Jeff Goldblum: He's terrific, come on. It's a dream job. It's just a very unusual, wonderful experience making a movie with Wes Anderson. He's spectacular.

DD: Does it take time to adapt to his style the first time you work with him?

Willem Dafoe: I have worked with Wes three times and sometimes you just bounce off each other, and he has a very clear idea of what he wants. Sometimes you imitate him and sometimes you give something. I remember in Mr Fox, even though it was voice work, it was still basically the same process. It would go back and forth. He would take my role. I would take his role. We'd go back and forth. We'd copy each other. I'd throw him a curve ball. It's playful. He showed me this animated storyboard [for The Grand Budapest Hotel] that was beautiful.

“Wes's approach is deeply personal and weirdly artisanal. Handmade” – Willem Dafoe

When I saw that I thought, 'You don't need the actors, you got the movie right here.' Wes did all the voices. And for me, to hear him speak the text was a guide. There's this kind of assumption that the highest thing actors can do, or the most creative things actors can do, is improvise or make their own choices. But that's the easy part. The really difficult part, I think, is the quality of being there. The quality of listening. The quality of reacting. So for Wes to give a line reading, for example, I have no problem with that. And he will.

DD: Is he open to creative discussions about the work?

Willem Dafoe: Always. Because he's as clear as he is about what he wants, if he sees something unexpected he will go with it. He'll go with it.

DD: There are many stars in this. How does it work for you guys when you have had so many leading roles in your own careers?

Willem Dafoe: Show up and do your job.

Jeff Goldblum: Same here. No matter how much you got, you're still trying to make it good in the same way.

DD: Wes said that that actors were always together. You'd always eat together, for instance...

Willem Dafoe: Like a family or theatre company. And it's also practical because Görlitz is a lovely place, but there's not a lot to do there. There were some nice places to eat but not lots. The dinners at night were sweet. It was like we were making a little parallel life that helped us with the pretending.

DD: Willem, how do you think things have changed in the film industry since you started out?

Willem Dafoe: That's a whole conversation, but when the character says, 'Oh, that world probably disappeared but he nobly was keeping it up' – that's a little bit like Wes. Because Wes's approach is deeply personal and weirdly artisanal. Handmade. His attention to detail, his obsessiveness and his care about the detail, is not something that is any more accepted. Everybody wants to make good movies. Everybody wants to make good things. The level of practicality cancels that kind of care and everything in our modern living conspires against that. So naturally this is reflected in the movie-making business.

DD: Because of this obsessiveness, is Wes slow?

Jeff Goldblum: He's careful. You see that the movie has (snaps fingers quickly) and he gave us an animated version of the movie where he plays all the parts and you can see what he intended. The whole thing is orchestrated. But he is not rushed or manic in any way because he's made enough time to be thorough, and everything is prepared, and he did a lot of takes, you know? You sculpt, sculpt, sculpt until, 'Okay, we can leave this for the last time.' So there's both fast and slow, you know?

“He's terrific, come on. It's a dream job. It's just a very unusual, wonderful experience making a movie with Wes Anderson” – Jeff Goldblum 

DD: How did it feel walking around with a beard, Jeff?

Jeff Goldblum: It's fun. I like being an actor so I like to try on different things. So for a while I go, 'Oh, I'm supposed to grow my beard.' So I went around growing the whole thing and every part of it was good and I liked the way it finally came out. And then I was glad to shave it off.

DD: Both of you have made unusual choices in terms of the films you have done. Do you feel like aliens in the American film industry?

Willem Dafoe: Yeah, when anyone says 'Hollywood actor', I think, 'Who is that?' Sometimes I make movies there but it's not where I live and it's not where most of my projects come from. I never use the terms 'industry' or 'being in the business'. That's partly because of working in the theatre for many years, even more than movies. The theatre world and the film world aren't really aware of each other. So if I go off and do a Bob Wilson piece for six months, people just assume I have been sitting by the pool some place, you know?

Jeff Goldblum: I had a good teacher who said it takes 20 years to even call yourself an actor, and then a long life of potential and, hopefully, study to keep getting better. So I do these things as graduate projects, and I'm very enthused learning more and getting better. You can't be that strategic. I've never had much of a plan. You kind of surf opportunities as they come. But given your orientation and taste, you somehow, luckily, get magnetised to the right things at the right time. But I look at Willem's body of work and I aspire to be an artist like that. He is a stage animal.

“I like to play these characters that have a meanness to them, sometimes, because I'm not mean. It's a guilty pleasure” – Willem Dafoe

DD: This is Wes's most brutal movie and your character, Willem, is the film's most brutal character. Did you talk about that?

Willem Dafoe: We mostly laughed. It's so brutal what he does with the fingers, but you don't see a lot of the violence, it's only a threat of violence. It's not like I had to do a big method thing to arrive at the intensity of the brutality of this character. It's mostly fun. 

DD: But you seem suited to playing villains. You have this quality . . .

Willem Dafoe: That's a perception. It depends what movies, you know? I mean I'm always struck that I play fewer villains than you think. 'Villain' kind of describes what your function is in a movie. But I like playing these characters who are troubled because I'm not troubled. I like to play these characters that have a meanness to them, sometimes, because I'm not mean. It's a guilty pleasure.

DD: Willem, you've worked with Lars von Trier, who said that working with actors is more difficult than working with actresses because actors tend to protect themselves more. What do you think?

Willem Dafoe: I think that's true.

Jeff Goldblum: No kidding? Men are more difficult than ladies?

Willem Dafoe: Well, women have different career problems but as far as their nature of giving themselves over to something, I think men are more protected.

So what is your key to dropping your guard?

Willem Dafoe: I've got a developed female side.

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