Willem Dafoe is that rare breed of actor who glides effortlessly from one role to the other, from mainstream Hollywood (2002’s Spiderman) to independent fare, such as his latest film, Shadow of the Vampire. Whether he’s Jesus or Nosferatu, he remains credible in the role. While publicising Vampire during the 2000 Toronto Film Festival, Dafoe spoke to Paul Fischer.
Willem Dafoe is one of those actors who can literally sink his teeth into a role. As absorbing and hypnotic as he is as a vampire, off screen there is a gentle introspection about him. “This is not my favourite part of the process., Dafoe quietly remarks, referring to the publicity he is engaging in. But at least he is able to talk about a film about which he is justifiably proud. In Shadow of the Vampire, Dafoe is overpowering and unrecognisable. His Max Schreck represents a desire on Dafoe’s part to shun the world of mainstream Hollywood, to a point, he insists. “Any actor who tells you that he makes choices, ABSOLUTELY, is wrong. YOU find work and work finds YOU”.
The kind of work that has found Dafoe, he muses, has often been the kind in the independent arena. “That world, broadly speaking, sees me in a broader way,” while in Hollywood he remains divided yet philosophical. “Sometimes I envy their power and money, and other times I feel sorry for them since they have a gun to their head. They have so much to protect that they have to be very careful, thus very certain every step of the way, and that leaves out a lot of work of any freshness. I don’t want to do that – I’m not that kind of actor”. The kind of actor he is, Dafoe further elucidates, is the kind who “can only work from instinct, curiosity and adventure”.
And, surprisingly Dafoe admits, that sense of adventure is an easier road the older he becomes. “You see the patterns and you get less flappable, becomes you see things come and go and see them come around again. So in terms of career stuff I feel more patient and a little easier, because the movie business is filled with hysterics and I don’t think I’m particularly hysterical”. However put Dafoe in a room with hysterics, “and eventually I’ll lose my cool”. Which is why, the actor adds, he takes it all a lot less seriously these days. “I do have more of a sense of humour about all of this now, yet I also enjoy the work a lot more”. Dafoe, who made his film debut in 1981’s disastrous Heaven’s Gate, recalls that when he started out, there were “expectations that I had, which is a young man thing. I think, ironically, you have to have a different kind of ambition when you’re younger; that’s since been tempered by experiences”.
Although his screen persona may suggest otherwise, Dafoe is the product of a fairly conventional Midwestern upbringing. The son of a surgeon and one of seven siblings, he was born in a small Wisconsin town. Dafoe began acting as a teenager, and at the age of seventeen he enrolled at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. Growing weary of the university’s theatre department, where he found that temperament was all too often a substitute for talent, he joined Milwaukee’s experimental Theatre X troupe. After touring stateside and throughout Europe with the group, Dafoe moved to New York in 1977, where he joined the avant-garde Wooster Group.
Dafoe’s 1981 film debut was a decidedly mixed blessing, as it consisted of a minor role in Michael Cimino’s now infamous Heaven’s Gate . Ultimately, Dafoe’s screen time was cut from the film’s final release print, saving him the embarrassment of being associated with the film but also making him something of a nonentity. He went on to appear in such films as The Hunger (1983) and To Live and Die in L.A. (1985) before making his breakthrough in Platoon (1986). His portrayal of the pot-smoking Sgt. Elias earned him Hollywood recognition and a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination.
Choosing his projects based on artistic merit rather than box office potential, Dafoe subsequently appeared in a number of widely divergent films, often taking roles that enhanced his reputation as one of the American cinema’s most predictably unpredictable actors. After starring as an idealistic FBI agent in Mississippi Burning (1988), he took on one of his most memorable and controversial roles as Jesus in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988). Dafoe then portrayed a paralysed, tormented Vietnam vet in Born on the Fourth of July (1989), his second collaboration with Oliver Stone. Homicidal tendencies and a mouthful of rotting teeth followed when he played an ex-marine in David Lynch’s Wild at Heart (1990), before he got really weird and allowed Madonna to drip hot wax on his naked body in Body of Evidence (1992).
Following a turn in Wim Wenders’ Faraway, So Close in 1993, Dafoe entered the realm of the blockbuster with his role as a mercenary in Clear and Present Danger (1994). That same year, he earned acclaim for his portrayal of T.S. Eliot in Tom and Viv, one of the few roles that didn’t paint the actor as a contemporary head case. His appearance as a mysterious, thumbless World War II intelligence agent in The English Patient (1996) followed in a similar vein. In 1998, Dafoe returned to the contemporary milieu, playing an anthropologist in Paul Auster’s Lulu on the Bridge and a member of a ragingly dysfunctional family in Paul Schrader’s powerful, highly acclaimed Affliction. He then extended his study of dysfunction as a creepy gas station attendant in David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ (1999), prior to working on Shadow of the Vampire.
Shadow of the Vampire casts John Malkovich as legendary 1920s German director F W Murnau, who is making the Gothic vampire film Nosferatu on location in Eastern Europe. This obsessive director is determined to make this the most authentic vampire movie ever. To this end Murnau has employed a real vampire, Max Schreck (Dafoe). He explains Schreck’s weird behaviour by saying that he is a fastidious method actor. As payment Schreck has been promised drug-addicted beauty Greta – Nosferatu’s leading-lady. She is to be his at the end of filming. But it seems that Schreck cannot wait that long to taste the blood of the crew, and a battle of wills between .actor’ and director ensues.
When one looks at Dafoe’s skilful manifestation of this strange character, it is no surprise that mainstream Hollywood doesn’t know how to place him nor what to do with him. As he freely admits, “I’m not a movie star and what I have the most fun with, is bending myself to the material while I think movie stars have to bend the material to THEM”. This is more evident than ever in Shadow of the Vampire, in which Dafoe is totally immersed in the character of the twisted Schreck. Dealing with the extreme physicality of this character, Dafoe says it wasn’t as difficult coping with that as one might think. “You’re really dealing here with a very strong mask, both literally and figuratively and that frees me up., Dafoe explains. “There was a physical language already in place, if I take the original Nosferatu as a model and that was the starting point. A lot of the time, actors struggle to find the authority to play a character; here, much of that process is handed to me on a silver platter. I have the clothes, the look and finally the movements. Then it was very much about just investing that and doing it”.
Though inspired by Murnau’s original vampire classic, Dafoe didn’t have the need to do any strong research. While little is known about the real Schreck, that is irrelevant in the context of this film, Dafoe points out, “Because our Schreck is total invention”.
Dafoe’s extraordinarily diverse 20-year old film career has afforded Dafoe the unique opportunity to work with some of American cinema’s most iconoclastic directors. Trying to coax him into revealing whom he might have learned from the most, Dafoe is nervously hesitant. “When you look back at your experiences, it’s true that sometimes the most horrendous experiences can translate in being your best work”. But he won’t kiss and tell. “On principle I don’t have favourites. To pass judgement on something you’ve done is a face-saving act, and I think it kinda stinks. There are all kinds of movies, all kinds of impulses and all kinds of needs for people watching movies, and sometimes I’ll do a movie that I don’t particularly care for, but then I’ll run into someone that it speaks to and they love it. So for ME, to give MY personal take on it, could mean ruining that movie for someone else, because they can find pleasure where I can’t.’
While Dafoe has no clear interest in rising to movie stardom, he may have no choice after Spiderman hits theatres in the US summer of 2002. “Some of the writing I like very much,” Dafoe said. “I like the fact that it’s a double character, a character with a dark alter ego and that’s what attracted me, because we all can relate to that.” Perhaps his Green Goblin won’t be so far removed from Vampire’s Max Schreck after all. As for Dafoe, his journey into complex characters continues.
Shadow of the Vampire opens in NY and LA on December 29.