For 25 years, Willem Dafoe has been one of cinema's most versatile character actors. A two-time Academy Award nominee for his performances in Platoon and Shadow Of The Vampire, Dafoe's list of memorable roles includes Jesus Christ in The Last Temptation Of Christ, The Green Goblin in the Spider-Man movies, the psychotic Bobby Peru in Wild At Heart, and the guy who got completely nude and performed cunnilingus on Madonna in Body Of Evidence. In recent years, Dafoe has split his time between successful studio projects like Finding Nemo and Inside Man and low-budget independent features seeking distributors on the festival circuit. Two recent Dafoe films—the serial-killer thriller Anamorph and Abel Ferrara's long-gestating comedy Go Go Tales—fall into the latter category, though he also recently appeared as a pretentious film director in the decidedly un-edgy Mr. Bean's Holiday. Dafoe recently spoke with The A.V. Club about his professional duality as a Hollywood insider who occasionally steps outside the system to rail against it.
The A.V. Club: You've been in blockbusters, and you've been in movies few people got the chance to see. Obviously, you can't control any of that, so do you try not to have expectations about whether a movie will find an audience?
Willem Dafoe: I'm an optimist. I hope if a movie's good that it will be a success, but as we know, that's not always true, just because of popular taste, advertising, distribution patterns—there's lots of reasons. When something doesn't do better than it deserves to in your mind, it's pretty transparent—you usually know why. Is that a comfort? Yes, because it's logical. Does it make you happy? No, because if you think a movie is beautiful or interesting, you want to share it. It's really true—there's no accounting for taste. Sometimes you make very interesting movies that aren't meant for everybody. But this is a capitalist society, so everything conspires to put value on whether it sells or not. While we have a very strong popular culture, the roots of our culture are very shallow, and we put emphasis on how a movie does as far as the box office goes. Many years ago, it would have been vulgar to print box-office grosses in the paper. Now The New York Times does it, and it's the big story for people interested in arts and entertainment on Monday. Which is why emphasis has shifted away from filmmakers and fallen on movie stars and business people.
That's all crybaby stuff, but that's the reality I live in. Sometimes I'm part of it, and sometimes I'm outside of it and I rail against it. It's all about the health of what's going on. Right now, the middle has dropped out. There are very big films and very tiny films. It's almost like a metaphor for society—when the middle class drops out, the stability gets a little shakier.
AVC: Perhaps the worst case in your career of a film not getting proper distribution is The Last Temptation Of Christ. What was it like to be in the middle of the media firestorm that film sparked?
WD: They don't blame the actor. They think actors are whores, and they don't hold them responsible. The weird thing is, I remember the Christian right calling the Jesus character effeminate and unmanly and a waffler, which really, of course, were fighting words. I thought they obviously were missing the point. It's an interesting movie, because Marty Scorsese is such a great filmmaker, and he thought of doing this movie for many, many years, and it was very clear in his head. But it was a very low-budget movie; we had very little resources, and we were out in the middle of Morocco doing this stuff the best we could. So it had this low-budget urgency to it, but also the sophistication of the material and Marty's take on it.
AVC: Can you sense whether a movie is going to be good or bad while you're working on it?
WD: That's a tough one. You can trick yourself, you can delude yourself, you can be an optimist. You don't trust it; you just concentrate on the days. Look, there are three huge stages. First prep, then the actual shooting, then the huge, huge, huge part when the actors generally walk away, and people take your work and manipulate it in any number of ways. Film is an editor's medium. You can create very good raw material and they can make it horrible, or you can do not so well and they can make it beautiful. You don't really know. You don't control it, and you don't want to control it! [Laughs.] You want it to have a life of its own, and you have to let it go a little bit. Just do the work and not ask yourself too much, "Is this good?" or "Is this bad?" You have to ask yourself, "Does this scene work?" "Do I feel good?" "Does this makeup look good?" "How's that accent sound?" It's all practical work that is very loaded with less-than-practical things.
AVC: You worked as an extra on Heaven's Gate. Was there a sense of impending doom on that set?
WD: Yes and no. But only because it started out as a small film that was going to shoot in eight weeks, and it became very apparent that that was not what it was any more. The week before shooting, Michael Cimino won an Academy Award for The Deer Hunter, and Chris Walken won, and there was a real euphoria. They thought they had given Michael the resources to make a great, great film. He's a perfectionist, and he went to very extreme measures to try to make the film he wanted to make. Everybody was excited by that—they thought this was a great opportunity to work on a commercially viable film made by an artist. I think people started to think there was a problem when there was a pressure put on him by the studio and the schedule started going longer. People who thought they were going to be home in two months, six months later they were home. That one, people knew after three months that this was not your ordinary movie. But Heaven's Gate was a whipping boy. If the timing was different, and there was different gossip surrounding the movie, it could have been a success. Plenty of bad movies are very successful, and plenty of good movies are not. And distribution is so crazy, some films won't even get their day in court.
AVC: A movie that hopefully will have its day is Abel Ferrara's Go Go Tales. How did that turn out?
WD: That's a great film. It's a comedy, and it has a Preston Sturges thing about it. It's sort of a metaphor for people in film. It's about an incorrigible dreamer, and he's worked every angle and all his IOUs are piling up and it looks like everybody is going to get him, and he slips the noose. I've worked with Abel before, and this was a much better experience, because he was so deeply involved in this world. We made it in Rome, even though we were shooting for New York—and the world he created on the set so much replicated the story, you didn't have to be a Method actor to step into this thing. That's why we could improvise in a real loose way. The camera could be loose. He created an environment we could really play with.
AVC: When is it coming out?
WD: I don't know. I don't think it has a distributor yet in the States, but I suspect it will. But the real difficulty for smaller films, when they're made independently and it's time to go for a distributor, sometimes if it's a tough film and the people who financed it need their money back right away, it's much easier and lucrative to take a DVD deal. You can be in the black like that. If you decide to go for a theatrical run, that costs money. So if the guy is thinking just as a pure businessman, and he's not patient, there's always that risk that these smaller movies will go to DVD. It used to never happen if you had a star. But it's happening all the time now, with movies with huge stars going straight to DVD.
AVC: You'd rather people see your movies on the big screen?
WD: I do. Most people see it on DVD, but it's nicer on the big screen. And socially, I like the idea of sitting in a theater with a bunch of people. With technology now, people are getting more and more isolated. I'm not making any great revelatory statement—many people talk about this. But I love theaters. I love the event of going there and seeing a movie with a lot of people. I like the community coming around the story. You don't have that with a DVD. People go home, they have dinner, they're tired from work, they can turn it off. It doesn't make you commit the same way, if you can control the movie. More difficult movies, it's too easy to turn them off. All the time, I see movies I know if I had seen it on DVD, I wouldn't have hung with it. If you see it on the screen, you hang with it and it pays off better than a movie you can easily sit through on DVD.
AVC: Go Go Tales is one of many comedies you've made in the last several years. That's a newer thing for you.
WD: Older people are funnier. [Laughs.] I've been in very few flat-out comedies. But I feel like I've always made comedies.
AVC: Wild At Heart is funny.
WD: Wild At Heart is very funny. That's high comedy, if you ask me. There's kind of a moronic thing where if a film is identified as a comedy, you usually cast it with comedians or TV people that do sketch stuff. I seek out material, and material seeks out me. For a while, no comedies came to me, and now a little bit more come.
AVC: You've said seeing the Kentucky Fried Theater at the University Of Wisconsin (founded by the future creative team behind Airplane and The Naked Gun) as a teenager inspired you to become an actor. Why is that?
WD: I was doing community theater, and I was always interested in acting, but I was also interested in sports. I was interested in a lot of things. I was a pretty normal guy. I wasn't like a guy who grew up in a dark theater watching movies. Kentucky Fried Theater was basically an improv group—they also used some video, some audience participation, a lot of it was satire, and it was very vital to me. Not only was it fun and social, but it was possible to be a creative artist and an actor.
AVC: You've been a fixture in movies for 25 years, but very little information about your personal life is available, presumably by design. Do you think keeping your life private makes you a more effective actor?
WD: I think that's true. But it's not by design. I'm just more interested in talking about what I do. And I don't think people are interested in my personal life. I've never had a Hollywood life. I've always been a worker, you know? But it's true: If you know something about a person outside of the movie that is really repulsive to you, it's hard to shake. So I prefer to do my speaking through the work. I don't want people to know anything about me, because that's not important. I'm more interested in the me that takes shape through these characters. The other stuff is personal and too easy to trivialize out of context. It's too easy to trivialize people. The Internet does it all the time.
AVC: So, you won't be posing for paparazzi shots with Paris Hilton over dinner at a Hollywood hotspot?
WD: Actually, I did go to a dinner with her once. The truth is, if you're around long enough, you have a story about everyone. But it's best to keep your mouth shut sometimes.
AVC: In Anamorph, your character keeps his emotions very close to the vest. When a role requires you to be so restrained, how do you make sure the audience knows what you're feeling?
WD: I don't worry so much about the audience. I want them very much to be involved and enjoy the movie, but I try to just inhabit the character in a full way, where I can create a personal stake. It's a character study, but the way you approach it is action—I don't mean car chases, I mean what the character does, and that's where you put your concentration. How you apply yourself to those things is really where the character is born.
AVC: Do you have a pretty good idea what your performance will be like before you start filming?
WD: Not at all. It's such a collaborative thing. If you know what it is before you even start, it's not as interesting. Central to being an actor is pretending, and the adventure of it all. That's why you become a junkie for different kinds of situations. I try to attach myself to people who really inspire me, and directors who are really passionate. That way, I can give myself more fully and trust the impulse behind why the film is being made, and I can be a little more irresponsible in finding out what the character is. I have to worry less about what the character means if I trust the director.
AVC: Your Anamorph character is also very obsessive. You've often played obsessives in your career, going back to Rick Masters in To Live And Die In L.A. Are you attracted to that kind of character, or do you just get offered those roles a lot?
WD: I don't know. My guess would be, I'm attracted to those things. I have some sort of affinity for compulsive behavior. The most interesting stories come up from the people on the outside. They don't waste energy marching to the same drummer most of us do. It gives us an opportunity to look at things in a different way, which is the purest thing cinema can do.
AVC: Anamorph is the second film from director Henry Miller. When you're working with young, relatively inexperienced directors, do you guide them as much as they guide you?
WD: It's fair to say that if you have a lot of experience, your power is greater. You have more of an opportunity to roll up your sleeves with younger directors. In the case of Henry, he was a total unknown quantity for me. But he wrote this screenplay, and when we worked on the screenplay and talked about how we were going to do it, he really won me over, and made me excited to make something with him.
AVC: When you're working with a legendary filmmaker like Martin Scorsese or David Lynch, are you more deferential?
WD: I aspire to be an instrument of the director. I'm happiest like that. The stronger the director, the more I'm willing to give them. It's not just about admiration for their films, it's how they deal with you, and whether they get you or the way you work. If they don't, you better adjust your way of working to suit them. I want to work with people who are good at what they do, and people who are passionate. As you get older, you suffer fools less easily. That's why there's all those cranky character actors. [Laughs.] I'm an exception. I'm a sweetheart.