The first image that pops into my head when I think of Willem Dafoe is the scene in David Lynch's 1990 dark comedy Wild at Heart in which Dafoe, as the white-trash criminal Bobby Peru, proceeds to simultaneously repulse, terrorize, and even seduce Laura Dern's naïve character, Lula, in a seedy Texas motel room. To watch Dafoe, with his sinister pencil mustache, (fake) rotten teeth, serpentine smile, greasy garb, psychotic rage, and sick humor, in action in this film is to witness an actor fearlessly embracing the worst in human behavior.
Yet when I spoke to Dafoe recently, he admitted that fear actually plays a crucial factor in his decisions as an actor—that in order for him to get excited about taking a role, he must sense a bit of terror and a great deal of curiosity before he sets out on his journey. Indeed, his best work is marked by an element of mystery—whether it be Jesus Christ in Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ, betrayed Sergeant Elias in Oliver Stone's Platoon, or most recently, his characters in Steve Buscemi's Animal Factory, in which he played a hardened convict, and Shadow of the Vampire.
In the latter picture, Dafoe gives an Oscar-worthy (it would be a crime if he's not nominated), tour-de-force performance as Max Schreck, an alleged real-life vampire and star of F.W. Murnau's 1922 film Nosferatu, a now-classic example of German Expressionist cinema. Though barely recognizable behind the makeup he wears for this role, Dafoe is clearly following his quintessential path of choosing the unobvious road and taking risks that, in this case, pay off greatly.
Raised in Wisconsin, Dafoe got his start acting with the experimental Theatre X in Milwaukee in the mid-1970s. After touring with the company for two years in the U.S. and Europe, he set out for Manhattan, where, in 1977, Dafoe landed a promising role in a production with the Performance Group, where he met director Elizabeth LeCompte (who has shared a home with Dafoe ever since). The two joined an avant-garde theatre company, the Wooster Group (home to offbeat monologist Spalding Gray), where the actor continues to work between film jobs.
Dafoe made his film debut as a featured extra in Michael Cimino's ill-conceived Heaven's Gate and was subsequently cast as a poet/biker in Kathryn Bigelow's 1982 film The Loveless. In 1985, he landed his first sizable role in William Friedkin's To Live and Die in L.A., in which he infused his counterfeiter character with a depth and viciousness lacking in most screen villains. The following year, Oliver Stone tapped him for Platoon, for which Dafoe earned an Oscar nomination. His subsequent film credits include Mississippi Burning, Stone's Born on the Fourth of July, Triumph of the Spirit, Paul Schrader's Light Sleeper and Affliction, John Waters' Cry-Baby, the disappointing White Sands, the even more disappointing Body of Evidence (co-starring Madonna), Wim Wenders' Faraway, So Close!, Clear and Present Danger, Tom & Viv, Basquiat, The English Patient, Speed 2: Cruise Control, and American Psycho.
Back Stage West: It seems like you were having a great time playing Max Schreck in Shadow of the Vampire. You got to both terrify and tickle the audience with this part. Was this kind of a dream role for you?
Willem Dafoe: Well, let's put it this way: There was a lot to play with, and I knew that from the outset. Any role I do, I always seek out some sort of mask to work with, but here was a literal and metaphoric one, and it really freed me. It's nice to work with something that makes you feel so far from yourself and puts restrictions on you that point you into another way of being. So it was just full of opportunities.
And then on top of that, the film's world is such that it can hold a performance that goes beyond naturalism. There's a physicality and an extremeness that could still work in the role, that I could play with.
BSW: Had you done anything like this in your previous stage work?
Dafoe: Most of the work that we do at the theatre is quite physical.
BSW: Tell me more about the Wooster Group and the work you do there.
Dafoe: It always varies. It's easier to describe what we are broadly. We're a company of people—artists that make performance pieces. Sometimes we use text that's a play. Sometimes we invent the text. Sometimes we create the text through collage from different sources. It's different each time out. But we're interested in developing a theatre language that expresses our modern sensibility, as opposed to the representational literature-based, psychology-based theatre that basically has been unchanged for hundreds of years.
BSW: Many actors who find success in film or television leave stage careers behind or put their stage work on hold, but you haven't.
Dafoe: No. It seems like an impossibility. I really need to do both. There are things in theatre that I don't get from film, and I suppose there are things in film that I don't get from theatre. It's a balancing act. They feed each other. I think they exercise different muscles. And also I think a great pleasure is going from one world to the other, because their concerns and their rewards are very different. So it forces you not to form an absolute idea about what you do, or not to have an absolute fixed identity. It forces you to remain fluid and reinvent your process every time.
BSW: How did you originally wind up at the Wooster Group, which has had such a major influence in your life?
Dafoe: I saw the company, and I loved the work so much, and I made myself available. There was a company that was running at the same time called the Performance Group, and I was doing small roles in that. They were sharing a space and sharing even some performers, and I just said I loved the work so much that I wanted to be around these people. So I did small roles and worked as a carpenter to help pay for my small stipend. And then I slowly insinuated myself into the company. Basically I just found a body of work that I was attracted to, and I hung out.
BSW: When you were starting out as an actor, did you imagine yourself working in film?
Dafoe: Not really, and I think that was largely because it wasn't available to me. I didn't know anybody working in film. At that time, my idea of being an actor was being a theatre actor, and that seemed much more plausible. Back then, I didn't even know that I would have a career as a performer. I just knew that there were these people I loved to be around, and they were fitting their work very nicely into their lives in a way that their lives were enriched by the work and their work was enriched by how they lived their lives. There wasn't a separation. Certainly I don't want to make it sound like a commune or anything. There's terrific separation. Work is work, and that's what everybody is there for. But I like their passionate approach to the work.
BSW: So how did you enter into doing film work?
Dafoe: I suppose the short story is, I wasn't really actively seeking film work. I was working in theatre. Occasionally I'd go out on a call, but it was usually someone calling me. And then finally Kathryn Bigelow and Mont Montgomery saw me in a show at the Wooster Group and asked me if I wanted to do a movie, and I said, "Sure." I did this movie called The Loveless [co-written/directed by Bigelow and Montgomery]. It got a modest release and played at Film X, probably the last Film X, which was an L.A. film festival back in the late '70s and early '80s. A manager in L.A. saw the film, looked me up in the phone book, called me up, and said, "Did you have a good time doing that? Would you like to do more? Let's see what we can do." So then I started actively trying to find film work.
BSW: Is there such a thing, in your mind, as a "Willem Dafoe" character? You've really been all over the map in terms of the kinds of characters you've played—from the scum of the earth, if you don't mind me saying so, to the Son of God. Do you think you've managed to avoid being typed?
Dafoe: I think somewhat. I mean, I think in certain circles they still want me to do a particular kind of thing, but particularly in the independent world the kinds of roles people approach me for are quite varied. So without being too prideful about it, let's say I've tried to make it that way. But then there's also a downside to it, and that is on bigger movies I'm never the first guy they think of for anything, because I don't represent something.
You're right. It's freedom as an actor, but sometimes I think it's a career liability.
BSW: What drives you these days when it comes to your work?
Dafoe: I don't think I've gotten more or less picky. My instincts are just more defined, and my view of the world is wider just by age, really—by being around the block a couple of times. Basically, I'd say choosing roles is always sort of frightening. I'm always happy in my work—always. Even if it's difficult, I find a way. I mean, I love performing. I love working on movies. The tough part is dealing with the business and selecting your roles. Often I look toward the people. Often I look at the whole film. I seldom look just at the role.
Generally, I look at it in terms of a proposition for an adventure, and I don't mean that in a frivolous way. I love to work from a place of having a nose for something—like thinking there's something interesting there, but not exactly knowing what it is—really working from a place of not knowing and then going toward something. And you may end up not knowing, but you do take a journey, and that becomes the process of working on a film. And that I trust. Films are so collaborative that I try to put myself in a place where I can surrender to the material and surrender to collaborate with the other people—not be too controlling—because I think that's when your best impulses come alive.
So basically, I've given you a very, very long answer for one word—instinct—and the proposition for some sort of journey. I go a little cold if I know exactly what the process is going to be or what we have to do—if my work is cut out for me—because I don't trust that I'll be engaged in a way that will be vital enough. I feel like I do my best work when I'm a little off balance—when I'm working from curiosity and from a little bit of terror.
BSW: Speaking of terror, let's get back to Max Schreck. What frightened you about playing this part?
Dafoe: [He laughs]. See, I've got the right to contradict myself. Nothing!
BSW: But I imagine this role was a wonderful challenge. Where did you begin to build this character—a vampire who's pretending to be an actor?
Dafoe: I really didn't approach the character until I got in the makeup and the costume. Before that, I could do kind of obvious things, like see Murnau's films. Since we were working with the original film and we actually had to replicate sections, I became familiar with the original Nosferatu. I read background material. I learned an accent that helped me to find a way of speaking and a voice that I felt comfortable with. That was the preparation, and that was quite minimal.
The real action happened when I got in the makeup and the costume, because they were so specific that they informed what I was to do, and they guided me in their restrictions. That's where I could start the pretending, and that's really what it was about. That's always what it's about for me.
BSW: So is it a matter of losing yourself in the part?
Dafoe: A little bit. Yes. But ultimately, I think you lose yourself in order to find yourself. I think this sense of self—we give it too much credit as a static, fixed thing. We're always changing.
All I can say is I think the makeup and the costume were triggers for a sense of play and imagination—a way to begin the pretending. You don't look like yourself. You don't see the normal sense of who you are reflected back at you from the world. You start to think slightly differently. You start to address different kinds of impulses, and before you know it, they pick up a velocity and the character starts to be born and have a life of its own. It's born through the actions of telling the story.
You aren't losing yourself. You're just addressing a part of yourself arranged in a way that you don't necessarily recognize. As heavily masked as you are, the irony is you're probably revealing yourself and your sense of the world and your experiences much more deeply when you reveal it in another guise, because you're not doing anything to protect your idea of who you are. You aren't constantly checking in with your sense of right or wrong or your sense of your experience. This affords you a possibility—I'm not saying this always happens, but I aspire to go beyond my experience. You could argue, Well, you can only perform what you know, but I'm not sure that's true. If that's true, then what use is imagination?
BSW: Have you ever taught acting?
Dafoe: Not formally, no.
BSW: Because I feel like I'm getting an acting lesson right now, and I'm not even an actor.
Dafoe: You know, I'm embarrassed to say acting fascinates me. It's something that you can never get good at. You can never master it. The rules always change. It's a wonderful exercise. Although—don't get me wrong, I don't use it as therapy. It's like a thing that runs parallel to all my curiosities and struggles in living. And it's a wonderful way to work it out.
BSW: I sometimes ask actors if they think they're better now than when they were younger, but I'm not going to ask you that, because I'd imagine you'd say, "No. Just different." What I would like to know is whether you think your acting has become richer and more refined as you have matured in life?
Dafoe: I probably care less about what kind of actor I am now than I did when I was younger, and that in itself is, I think, probably a good thing. Some of the earnestness—some of the youthful hubris—is dropping away. It's just a product of getting older. I get self-conscious, because I don't want to sound as if I'm satisfied.
You know, there are tradeoffs. There was probably a naïveté and a directness that I'll never be able to capture again that I had when I was a younger actor, but I'm engaged, I think, in a fuller way now than I ever was.
BSW: Without naming specific titles, do you have any regrets when it comes to acting?
Dafoe: I don't have regrets, but I think I've made mistakes.
BSW: Do you feel like you needed to make those mistakes in order to learn something and move on to the next experience?
Dafoe: Well, that's the spin you put on it to make yourself go on, and it's not a bad spin, because the truth is—and it's an old, kind of sweet idea, but I think it's true—that your failures are as valuable as your successes. And God knows, you never go out there to fail.
BSW: Is there anything you'd tell a young actor starting out on his own journey?
Dafoe: Everybody has got to find their own way. I don't think I can give anybody advice. The only thing I can do is do what I do, and people can watch it, and it may or may not mean something to them. But everybody is so different, and we need different things in our development. I mean, just what we just said about failure and success—who knows what you need to go to the next point? And it's not necessarily going toward success.
BSW: You mentioned a moment ago that you never feel satisfied with acting. What, then, do you feel you achieve from acting?
Dafoe: I feel like acting is still very mysterious. It's a great nut to crack. It's a great game to play. So I'm engaged. I think that's all we really want to be. We want to be awake and we want to be working something out in a full, joyous way. That's what I want to approach. I deeply want to approach joy in my work. BSW