Willem Dafoe
Photo by Alex de Brabant

Willem Dafoe: “You are not driving it”

 Listen to Audio Excerpt Listen to Audio Excerpt
Short Profile

Name: William J. Dafoe
DOB: 22 July 1955
Place of Birth: Appleton, Wisconsin, USA
Occupation: Actor

Mr. Dafoe, which movie changed your life the most?

That's hard to say. Probably the first one, The Loveless, or maybe To Live and Die in L.A. Obviously Platoon, but it's a little bit too obvious. It changed a certain amount of recognition and gave me a different status for a while, but it also brought some problems. After Platoon it was very hard to find good roles.

I would have thought the opposite.

You get everything offered to you and nothing is right. And you get somehow overwhelmed. Although I don't try to involve myself in regrets, there are some times when I think I should have kept it rolling. That’s what most people that are interested in movie careers do. Even if they fall on their face, once you get a break or a little attention you should go, go, go, go! But I was still working at the theater and I had a different kind of view of who I was and what I wanted to do and I was really waiting for the perfect role after I got this kind of recognition. It didn't come for a long time and then I finally got tired of waiting and I went back to work.

Do you still go through periods like that?

It’s hard because there are always lows. It’s weird because I do a lot of theater so I go in and out of things so much. But I think there are definitely periods where I have a lot of interesting things offered to me and periods where less interesting things are offered to me. I will say, as I get older the range of stuff gets wider and the offers are more consistent, so far. But that feels like that could change – things change. I am getting older and I am playing different kinds of roles.

“That’s my greatest pleasure – to disappear into material.”

A lot of different roles.

That's me, baby. I like to work, clearly. I like the engagement, I like that kind of problem solving, I like the ritual of getting up in the dark and figuring out what will happen in the day, the adventure of traveling.

Actors sometimes speak about how tough it is to leave certain roles behind after they’ve played them. How do you experience jumping from character to character?

It’s nothing. It’s easy, it’s all pretending. It’s not easy socially or professionally. It even confuses the public sometimes because it’s much easier to express yourself by building a career. On some level I want to perform and have a long career of course, but I also want to disappear. That’s my greatest pleasure – to disappear into material.

Do you regret much when you look back at your career?

I try not to at least. Sometimes I think, “Jesus, you have got to preserve certain things so that your opportunities remain.” I am aware of that. Like some people say to me, “Oh you do the big movies, so you can do the little ones.” Not exactly, but there is also some wisdom in that. In my case, I sign on movies and I don't look at the big picture. And all of the sudden I’ve shot three tiny movies that are interesting to me, but I realize they are not even intended for the big audience. I do have some awareness of that. Hopefully I’ve hired people who can help me with that.

Photos by Alex de Brabant

What do you usually look for in roles?

I've got this appetite for mixing things up. After a long enough time people’s perception of what your career is and who you are, what kind of actor you are, is widely different. You've got to remember that you can do six movies, but if they are really tiny they are only seen by a certain kind of people, like cineastes, maybe. And then comes a movie that is huge and people may not have seen you in two years because they connected you from like Spiderman to Mr. Bean. That's one part of your career and then there's another one here and it's only someone who is really a freak about movies who gets the full picture.

Do you have boundaries in regards to roles? I mean, your character did get his testicles crushed with a block of wood in Lars von Trier’s Antichrist…

I am sure there are, but I hope not to know them. (Laughs) I think an ambition as a performer, and maybe even in life, is to become less afraid. Some boundaries are necessary of course and some are accepted, but the ones that I don’t want, I want to remove.

I don’t suppose you would have had your testicles crushed for just any director, right?

No. I like his company. I like his work and what he proposed to me was an interesting project. But there are some people that I’d work with on almost anything if I could see that I could make a contribution and they needed me. And I felt like Lars needed me for that project.

Do you have a special relationship with him?

Personally it’s very intimate, like I know things about his sex life. (Laughs) Lars loves to talk about these things.

How is working with him? There are lots of crazy stories about him.

You feel like things are falling into place, there is kind of a natural order and nice little accidents happen, it starts to create momentum. When that momentum starts and you start making things, the story starts to form and characters start to emerge. That’s a beautiful place to be as a performer: when you know you’re with it, but you are not driving it in a way that you know what the outcome is going to be. So you’re not controlling it – and I love that.