Interview with Willem Dafoe: ‘I like to play characters that are on the outside because it feels romantic and sexier to me’

Noel Phillips
willem dafoe 2 300x168 Interview with Willem Dafoe: I like to play characters that are on the outside because it feels romantic and sexier to me

Willem Dafoe and Ellen Page in psychological action thriller 'Beyond: Two Souls'

It cannot be said that Willem Dafoe has not taken an unreasonable amount of pounding early on in his career, unless you’ve forgotten his iconic demise in Oliver Stone’s 1986 battlefield classic Platoon, where he was repeatedly fired upon by Vietnamese soldiers. It is not because the actor is seen as a cross between a heroic demigod and a bitterly self-mocking bad guy; it’s his string of critically lauded performances that have earned him instant fame.

The 58-year-old—perhaps best known for his menacing style of acting—has since accumulated a filmography playing a wide variety of roles. “I can usually tell a lot about the films people watch by the way they respond to me,” Dafoe says, eyebrow arching slightly.

He’s so controlled and gracious you sense he’s acutely uncomfortable, talking about himself. Could that be his secret to playing such great villains? In a lot of his roles, he embodies the kind of grimness in a way that Jon Voight, John Malkovich and Anthony Hopkins do. For a large part of his career, he’s often been cast as a dark villain. I tested my theory cautiously.

Looking at your film credits, it’s clear that you’ve developed a niche playing sinister characters. Is that image really part of you? “I don’t think of them as bad guys so much, maybe it’s because actors are protective of the characters they play,” he said.

“In order to inhabit a character you’ve got to embrace and empathise with them. I do know that I like to play characters that are sometimes a little on the outside – that’s because it feels kind of romantic and sexier to me. I really think they are the people that we learn lessons from.”

There were the various villains, say, Speed 2: Cruise Control and 2011 thriller The Hunter. It was like he was saying, “I’m not going to play this character because this is me”. “I don’t know about that,” he laughs.

“What you’ve said is interesting, but on a whole I tend to see the project and the people who I’m working with.” In person Dafoe is an appealing combination of calmness and upbeat energy. That struck me as an attractive quality, considering how many actors tend to get lost—or in some cases have their characters take them hostage.

Are there any performances or roles where you feel like you turned a corner in your career?. “It depends because that’s an interpretive thing. In some ways, the first thing, I ever did I turned a corner because that’s what got me started. For example, I could say that this specific film introduced me to an international audience, while another one is maybe considered as a ground-breaking performance. It’s always a combination. I mean in the beginning…” He pauses. “I could’ve been clear about this, but now I’m not so sure.”

It would be facetious to say that he manoeuvres on pure impulse, but his latest project— Beyond: Two Souls is a triumph to the way he thrives to explore, both as an actor and as a performer. Dafoe ventures further afield, playing an inquisitive scientist in David Cage’s thrilling PlayStation 3 game, which stars Ellen Page as Jodie Holmes, a young girl with the ability to communicate with a mysterious entity.

“It was the writing and the fact that David Cage was doing something really interesting. It felt like a movie with a motion capture performance with an interactive element to it. It also has a story that really allows the player to be involved. I’m not a video game guy but from my perspective, it seemed exciting,” Defoe says, as his eyes darts around the room.

It is an ambitious endeavour, painstakingly captured in motion picture, but there is something significant about Dafoe, too, an ability to freely adjust and nurture a three-decade long career without displeasure. Not surprisingly, when he received the 2,000 page script, he was eager to educate himself.

“It’s a big project and having said that Ellen is really the principle character. I received my own scenes first just so I could get a taste before seeing the bigger script. I also had to educate myself, as I didn’t know much about the video game world.”

Dafoe appears to be pleased with the overall direction taken by David Cage, you get the sense of a Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese sort of mating. The brilliance of this game resides in its authenticity, its invention, and its compelling narrative. It interlocks stories and takes you on a journey in search of the truth. “I’m always excited about working with actor-directors because of the authority they have over their material. I like to attach myself and help them accomplish what they want to do,” he said with his head pumping up and down.

There is a kind of sincere quality to Dafoe that you also see in his character Nathan Dawkins. He is happy to be involved, and he doesn’t always seem to fit in, but that adds to the interest. He’s even more convincing in wanting to help keep Ellen Page’s character out of trouble. I saw what he meant when he talked about actors being able to trust their material. His breakthrough to a larger international audience came as the Green Goblin in the Spider-Man franchise. What was it like to be in a movie like that? I bet you grew up watching it, too, I asked.

“I actually didn’t. I knew very little about Spider-Man,” he says, slowly but thoughtfully with a husky growl. “I grew up more in the Superman generation. Spider-Man – I didn’t know so much. But it is a really successful franchise and I’m happy to be involved with it.” Defoe’s acting approach is similar off-screen, if you make allowances for the different characteristics.  To almost all of his roles, he brings along a sense of complexity, the sense that this is almost an exterior to his self-effacing trademark.

Willem Dafoe stars in Beyond: Two Souls, available on PlayStation 3 from October 11

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  • Sarfaraz

    Excellent interview of an excellent person

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