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Willem Dafoe: high resolution

Balancing pathos and tragic-comedy in this year’s The Florida Project and with more bracing roles ahead, Patrik Sandberg meets Hollywood’s master of morphosis

Taken from the winter issue of Dazed. You can buy a copy of our latest issue here

“It’s a boring story,” he insists.

In 1979, on the set of his first film, Heaven’s Gate, Willem Dafoe was fired. “I laughed at a joke during the lighting set-up. (Director) Michael Cimino was very tense as he had a lot of pressure on him, and in a split moment he said, ‘Willem, step out.’ And that was that, I was finished with the film.”

An experience that should have been devastating for any first-time film actor is now, of course, a quaint footnote. Even looking back, Dafoe conjures a sense of relief. Cimino famously became nicknamed ‘The Ayatollah’ on the set of that film, due to his uncompromising demands. Also, Dafoe was excited to get back to his obligations with The Wooster Group, the experimental theatre company he helped establish in downtown New York in the late 70s, along with directors Elizabeth LeCompte and Spalding Gray. (He would go on to appear in all of the group’s productions until 2005.) “It was a mixed blessing because, although I was humiliated, I was happy to come home. My identity was being a theatre actor at that point, so I thought, ‘I’m no longer working for the wrong company now.’”

Nearly 40 years later, Dafoe has worked with the best of them – Scorsese, Ferrara, Lynch, Friedkin, Cronenberg and Bigelow, to name only a handful. He’s played ghouls, messiahs, criminals, vampires, drug lords, priests, a goblin and, on at least one occasion, an actual rat. But at the time of our conversation, around the close of the 55th annual New York Film Festival, the beloved character actor is garnering some of the loudest buzz of his sprawling career. It wouldn’t come as such a surprise if it weren’t for the role at the centre of it: Dafoe plays Bobby, a struggling motel manager, in the modestly budgeted indie movie The Florida Project.

“The interesting thing about Bobby is that he has no big scenes,” Dafoe points out. “There’s no big transformation. He is a very perplexed character. The way he functions is that he kind of creeps up on you. I like that very much. The viewer makes the movie as they watch it. They complete it.”

The film is Sean Baker’s follow-up to his much-heralded breakthrough, Tangerine, the Hollywood sex worker dramedy filmed entirely on an iPhone 5S. The Florida Project, shot on 35mm, is decidedly more cinematic, but maintains much of Baker’s street-cast, improvisational edge. It chronicles a trio of young children as they make mischief amid the sun-bleached strip malls and faded fairytale inns on the outskirts of Disney World. Suffused with a nostalgia for childhood escapism, the story is an experiential look into what Baker calls the “hidden homeless”, families who pay week-to-week rent at motels because they can’t afford apartments. The kids in the movie dangle precariously on the edge of some harrowing adult situations, and Bobby becomes a de facto father figure in their lives. Dafoe’s performance is a feat of naturalism. He effortlessly exhibits sorrow, regret, concern and a determined sense of obligation in the wake of some unseen past mistakes. It’s a performance that leaves a mark, and as it’s ambled its way through the festival circuit, the film has left more and more critics and audiences in tears – as well as cheering “Oscar” for Dafoe.

“Personal films do well. It’s not something I calculate, but it’s something I notice,” Dafoe observes. “Some movies are never conceived as Oscarbait, but when there is press, of course I hear about it. I would be a liar if I didn’t tell you that I am trying to nurture that interest because it’s good for the film and it’s good for me. You always want to disappear and let people see you differently.”

When Dafoe’s name came across the table during a casting meeting, Baker, who usually favours working with unknowns, jumped at the chance to work with him. “First of all, I adore him as an actor,” says the director. “I grew up on Willem. When I saw (his name) I said, ‘Is he serious?’” When he found out Dafoe would be in New York for 24 hours, Baker jumped on a red- eye to meet with him over coffee. The connection was instant, and the role was his. Dafoe flew down a week before production to meet with motel managers and absorb the environment in Orlando. His preparation, according to Baker, was meticulous: “He came to set one day with accessories he needed – the glasses, the watch, the necklace, stuff that wouldn’t even be seen on camera – which was great because it meant he was developing the character in his head and using material items to go to that place. It was very interesting to watch.”

As Dafoe explains it, he actually eschews the oft-touted practice of creating an elaborate backstory for his characters, relying instead on his vast experience in theatre to use his bodily, physical instincts on screen. “I have a natural resistance to backstories,” he explains. “That’s not useful. You can’t play that. If you make a whole story, you have a lot of pressure to pay off all the psychological understandings that you have. I think your body is more intelligent. Your instincts are more intelligent. Your reactions to things, if you are really present, are more important than anything you could construct in a backstory. But then I remember Sean wanted more texture, so he invented this character of the son (played by Caleb Landry Jones). Those small (scenes), when they are moving the ice machine or taking apart the bed, they convey a sense of disappointment and darkness about his history. It lets you know he’s not that different from (the residents). He’s a paycheque away from their situation. He’s been through some shit.”

“It’s been so long since we’ve seen Willem as a protagonist, as the one to root for and feel for,” Baker says. In fact, there is something particularly villainous about Dafoe’s appearance and physicality, which has earned him a career as distinctively demoniacal as any of the medium’s greatest – Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff spring to mind. But the earnest way he delivers his lines imparts an almost comical humanism to each role, whether he’s playing Jopling, a henchman assassin, in Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) or Max Schreck disappearing a bit too far into the part of Nosferatu in Shadow of the Vampire (2000), which earned him his second Oscar nomination. His first came in 1987, for his performance as the idealistic Sergeant Elias in Oliver Stone’s Platoon. The brightness of that character makes it all the more tragic when he is ultimately gunned down by his fellow sergeant and left for dead. “He’s the sweet angel in that movie,” Baker says. “So I had seen him do this in the past. (In The Florida Project) he’s playing somebody who doesn’t have big, dramatic scenes, he’s just getting by. He’s the everyman. It’s interesting to see him do it at this age.”

“I have a natural resistance to backstories... Your instincts are more intelligent. Your reactions to things are more important than anything you could construct” — Willem Dafoe

Part of Dafoe’s enduring allure is his singular onscreen presence and simultaneous ability to disappear into character. He’s a movie star hiding in plain sight. His nearly 30-year run as a key member of The Wooster Group seems to have equipped him with the nimble ability to jump into any performance with a spontaneous, improvisational spirit. “I like to trick myself into being unbalanced,” he explains. “When you’re unbalanced, you find the possibilities that you wouldn’t normally feel if you were more secure.” Scan his filmography and you’ll find as many underground ventures as blockbuster hits, but it’s part of his dynamic approach to his craft as an actor. It’s what keeps him returning to directors like Abel Ferrara, who cast Dafoe in a series of films beginning with 1998’s New Rose Hotel. “You don’t build a career working with Abel,” he says, “but he is someone I love working with and will continue to work with because I enjoy it so much and I love the films we make. Do we have the finances knocking at our door? No. But I get another pleasure out of that.”

Dafoe’s next release will be Kenneth Branagh’s star-studded Agatha Christie adventure, Murder on the Orient Express, and, come 2018, he’ll join the DC universe with Aquaman, his first superhero flick since he embodied the Green Goblin in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy. When asked what it’s like to balance his arthouse career with these big-budget projects, he is disarmingly frank. “There is a consideration that you want to stay in the game,” he says. “It’s so people don’t think you’re dead. It’s nice to check into Hollywood. Hollywood films are very fun to make, and this helps to finance the smaller movies. It’s the full package... like a balanced diet.” After so much success, I can’t help asking if he still finds himself navigating rejection. “Of course!” he says emphatically. “Sometimes (directors) need different things. Sometimes they need a movie star, sometimes they need an actor, sometimes they need a box-office name, prestige, flash, or a bum...”

One lasting effect of the Heaven’s Gate fiasco is that Dafoe still hasn’t worked with one of his favourite actresses, who happened to star in that film. “I adore Isabelle Huppert,” he says. “She is one of my favourite performers in the world.” Late last year, it was announced that Dafoe and Huppert may finally unite in Ferrara’s next film, Siberia. When reached for his thoughts on working with Dafoe, Ferrara sent an enthralling missive detailing specifics of that film, which has yet to enter any legitimate phase of production. He mentions dogsleds, blizzards, Pasolini (subject of the pair’s last collaboration in 2014) and the fact that he wants Dafoe to play himself – or some fake version, at any rate.

“It feels different than a lot of films we have done, but a new film always seems different,” Ferrara writes. “But now, because of our shared experiences and friendship and time spent together, there are certain things we are sure about, so we can go after the things we are not sure about – to learn something we don’t already know. (We) always talk about people making those around them better – well, (Willem) is one of those people. He has a remarkable energy that comes from his practice and I have to match his intensity, his clarity in order to maintain the balance that keeps the work moving forward. And to find, like he said (in a recent interview), ‘that place where you feel full, where you’ve escaped some human hole. It has a lot to do with curiosity and believing in the wisdom of the body’.”

Today, Dafoe puts it differently. “Your job is always different,” he says. “You’re not shooting in the same place, or playing the same kind of role, or you’re in different conditions. It’s not for the sake of variety – to show that you can do all sorts of things. It’s not really that. I just need it to keep me awake, you know? There are no prizes here. You have to keep working from a place of not knowing because performing is all about a degree of tension versus liberation and release. You go back and forth between those poles, and I sense that this is what keeps you alive.”

The Florida Project is in UK cinemas now

Grooming Kristan Serafino at Tracey Mattingly, photography assistant Nick Krasznai, styling assistant Stella Evans, retouching Chroma New York