Willem Dafoe for “The Clearing”

Expect the unexpected from Willem Dafoe, because you rarely see the actor play the same character twice. Whether he is chewing the scenery in Spider-Man, or talking menacingly to Robert Redford in the woods in his latest film The Clearing, Willem Dafoe has a consistent knack of making you believe in his array of characters. Dafoe talked about his latest film to Paul Fischer earlier this year, following its work-in-progress premiere at the Sundance Film Festival.

Question: Was this character somebody you felt you had never seen before or was it the overall piece that’s appealed to you?

Answer: I think both. I don’t know whether I’d ever seen it. I’d never done anything like this before and it was exactly the kind – you know, your choices are often affected by what you’ve done previously, so I’m basically coming off Spiderman, so this was exactly the kind of thing that I was looking for, for balance. I just remember seeing the script and being struck by how the writing style was, I thought, I remember having the impression, I thought, ‘Whoever wrote this doesn’t write screen plays normally’ because, I can’t quite describe it, but it read like a novelist wrote it and as it turns out he is a young novelist and this was his first – actually, I don’t know if it was his first screenplay, but he’s primarily a novelist. The writing was so precise and didn’t have some of the conventional form as most of the screenplays. Very low description and the dialogue was very precise.

Question: One would imagine that you and Redford have very different approaches to acting?

Answer: I don’t know. I mean, basically on a film like this, on some level it is so stripped down, it’s 2 guys out in the woods talking to each other, so it’s really about speaking to the other person and letting certain things arise and I didn’t feel a terrific difference. He comes from a different tradition and he’s probably generally used to doing different kinds of movies than I do, but when I’m there with him, I don’t – you know, you kind of affect each other’s process, I think. You take from each other and since you’re trying to both live in the same world you try to find the common ground, and the common ground felt like it was always there. That’s not a Polly Anna answer, I don’t think, it just never occurred to me that – of course we’re different but it didn’t seem like something that I had to overcome or struggle with.

Question: Is that different tradition you’re talking about theatre and movies?

Answer: Actually he comes from theatre but I think I’m talking about a generational thing. I mean, lets face it; I was a kid when he was a movie star.

Question: Can you tell us a little bit about what appealed to you about the character?

Answer: Well, you read something and it’s all kind of instinct and you don’t really know until after. I mean, you kind of revise what your impression was initially. I liked the fact that your allegiances shift around. Who you empathize with shifts around in the movie. You see what looks like a pretty clear-cut criminal act, you see it from a lot of different perspectives and it shifts around. Sometimes you’re with Arnold sometimes you’re with Wayne; sometimes you’re with Eileen. I liked that. It’s a film that doesn’t have a lot of judgments. It suggests a lot of things and it is also – I think it is very adult and very smart. It deals with class; something that most films don’t deal with in, not a pedantic way but in just kind of in a natural way, in a way that we all feel all of the time but don’t have the front to speak about. It also deals with ambition and I think it has a lot of resonances about the American dream and what people sacrifice in the pursuit of that and when people fail in their pursuit of it, what happens to them emotionally. And in the case of my character, obviously a disappointment gets turned into something else.

Question: Can we get back to Redford a little bit? So here you are at Sundance, Redford’s festival, you’ve got a movie in here, what are your feelings and observations about what he’s done here?

Answer: You know, I don’t feel totally savvy about it. I’ve been here about 4 or 5 times and each time it’s a slightly differently experience. All I know is he started the thing and clearly it was a very home spun thing and then it by its success it developed into a much bigger thing and became a market, it became a destination, it became a thing that the studios put on their calendar and planned projects around and shopped at and got media attention, and careers were made here, deals were made here. That’s not what it started out as initially. But I think – but I don’t really know this – but I think because most of the key players are the same people, their intentions are the same and they’re just reacting to the aging of the festival. I would really love to lament that it’s drifted away from its humble roots because I think the roots are still there but there is just a lot of other stuff piled on top of it.

Question: You’ve been taking some shots, particularly in this movie, but what’s your sense about the kind of guy he is?

Answer: I just enjoyed the woods with him. He’s a very unpretentious guy. There were certain – he himself is a self-made man. He comes from very humble beginnings. I think he’s thoughtful, he’s curious and with me he was very generous. And he’s right over there and he should get his ass down here.

Question: Are you more comfortable, within the independent world, having gone through that whole Spiderman experience?

Answer: Spiderman was a good experience and what was unique about it – the big thing about independent films is that they tend to be more personal, just generally. They tend to be films that people really have to fight to get made and they’re made for personal reasons, where sometimes in the studio world, films are made to fill slots and are sort of exercises for careers and exercises in film, which isn’t a totally bad thing. Sometimes those are good experiences but they don’t have the same kind of specificity and personal stake that smaller films do have, generally.