It's 2:30 pm and I’m talking to Willem Dafoe on Skype. My body shudders as his laughter cracks out through the speakers; a Pavlovian betrayal of a fearful thrill, given the plethora of villainous acts that typically preempt the sound. Speaking from New York, Dafoe recounts the circumstances that guided his choices from the beginning of his career to the here and now, recollecting his bafflingly conventional upbringing in the Lynchian-sounding Wisconsin town of Appleton, to his rise in theatre and film.
Paul: You have been involved in many theatre projects from Theatre X and The Wooster Group to your work in The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic. Did every shift feel like a natural progression and did film seem like a medium you’d inevitably move towards?
Willem: it always felt like things flowed into the next. There were never really any big moments where I noticed a shift, it was just about going towards people, and situations, and then reacting. When I was young, where I grew up, I didn’t know any actors. no one that I knew made their living making theatre or films. Films seemed very far away, very much a thing that only happened in California. So when I started out performing, my identity was formed more as a theatre actor, and I thought that was what I was interested in. I always liked movies, but when I was younger I was always more interested in theatre. When someone saw me and said, “would you like to be in this movie?”, it was really just something that I tried and enjoyed. I felt like the two different mediums fed each other in my interest in performing, so it felt quite natural.
I’ve rarely heard you talk about the origins of the connections you had with art and performance. Was there any kind of seminal moment for you to finding that acting was what you wanted to dedicate your life to?
I think it was slow. I grew up in a big family, and you develop a kind of a character within that family to get the attention you need, to have an identity within this group. I think as a child I grew up being kind of a comedian, the prankster. That was the beginning of my performing life and the beginning of making things. I never thought of being an actor as a career, and I didn’t really formally train for it very much, so I always assumed I would do something else. Things were much more fluid when I was younger, I didn’t care, I wasn’t thinking about tomorrow; I was just interested in the company I kept, and the adventures I was having in the moment. I just went to where the action was, and where the action was, there was always a lot of interesting stuff going on downtown so I started to work with a group there.
In respect to the notion of being typecast within a group, you spent many years being typecast as “the villain”...
You know it’s kind of funny that I started out my career playing villains. I suppose it has to do with what I was presenting, and how I looked. The truth is when you’re young if you’ve got a look that isn’t terrifically conventional, and you’re interested in saying things that are sort of off-center, you cultivate an interest in the outlaw culture. I think that’s what I was doing. From a very young age, I was more interested in art than I was in entertainment. I think that I developed this presentation, this persona, as I was surviving in life, because as a child I was more like the comedian, a little goofy, a little sweet fat kid, and that part is still in me, but that villain thing was just really a mask that I think was attracted to.
On one hand, I grew up in Appleton, which was very white-picket Americana, and on the other hand, it was also a very dynamic time when there was a clear shift away from that. I was born in 1955, and come from a large family with lots of older brothers and sisters; so I grew up in, not necessarily a conservative time, but in an “American” town in the ‘50s and ‘60s. I also saw my older brothers and sisters go to the University of Wisconsin- Madison, where there was a lot of antiwar movement. I would go down and visit them, and police would break down the door where I was staying. So I had this kind of mix because I was younger than the generation that established my community, but I was very close to the counter-culture youth generation that I lived through, through my brothers and sisters.
You come from a large family of professionals. What was the lack of appeal to a life of a typical profession, and the attraction to one that was so unconventional?
I think I always loved physical jobs. Growing up middle class, and then moving to New York and falling a couple of social classes, made me identify more with working-class people than I did when I was growing up. I grew up not aspiring so much as to have a career, as to have a life. When I got to New York, because of that more working-class environment, I kind of had a shift politically, and I started being interested in what it meant to be an artist. That was a very fertile time for a lot of experimentation in New York City. I'd look around and see things that excited me, and gave me lots of energy, and piqued my curiosity. I very much a product of my background, but at the same time, i was lucky to be in New York in a very inspiring time. it was like I was busy being turned on by the people and events too much to think about having a career or getting a job (laughs)! I think I moved away from home, as many people do, to create a new identity; I think it’s a normal thing, you know? I was an adolescent going out in a world, which I was very ill-prepared for. one thing I did learn is that the experiences and education I had was really good emotionally, but not so good, really, to let me know what the world was. Good training for being a decent human being, and knowing how to function in a group is something I've sought out over and over again in the form of a theatre company or making a film.
I’ve read that you don’t really go method with a role. How much does it help you, when you’re playing a role, having that kind of anonymity enshrouding your identity?
I've always been task-oriented. You apply yourself in action and something happens. if you’re not looking for an effect, and you’re really open and flexible, there can be real transformation, a real shift in how you see things. That’s when you enter the character, that’s when you become another person, that’s when you function in the context of the story that makes a character. as far as anonymity, I think it just gives you flexibility, flexibility for yourself and flexibility for the audience, because if they know too much, it’s information that works against their ability to be flexible in how they see you. also, if you’re in the business of selling yourself as a persona, and presenting it to the world, that contributes to an egocentricity that kind of works against you as a performer. The irony is you want to work for yourself, but you want to lose yourself in the respect that you want a full range of impulses and opinions, to apply yourself to being other people, to take other people’s points of view, to take a different set of impulses, and really the best way to do that is to trick yourself into not serving your ego. if you can do that, then it can be incredibly liberating.
With your history of working in theatre and film, is there any temptation to break from the two, and find a loose hybrid, such as a regular series like those on HBO?
I'm not attracted to television. I think that all the energy and all the attention is going to television now, which is interesting. People are very excited at the fact that the writing is very good, and they can have long character arcs, but the most beautiful things about performing don’t always have to do with writing. The most beautiful things about film don’t have to do necessarily with story or character. I like the poetry of cinema. I like the poetry and the formalness of theatre. Television, I don’t know it well enough to get into it. I've heard a lot of great work is being done with it, but I just don’t know it so much. I still work very much from a place of fantasy, and I'd much rather be in an art gallery or watching dance recitals than watching TV. Now keep in mind, the emphasis is not really on movies right now, and the opportunities are kind of sliding around, so who knows what will happen? never say never. at this point, as long as I have interest in theatre and film, I wouldn’t want to be tied to one place and one character and involved in the whole selling of a television show. Whether you like it or not it’s still creatively driven by writers, and ultimately advertisers in some fashion, and you can say that about the film too, but you feel it in a different way. also, call me old-fashioned, and I may be a sucker, but I still enjoy the kind of relationship you have with a director as creator, director as auteur. I often seek out these people that are making something that’s personal and specific to them, and I like to attach myself to them, and I like to be their creature, to be the doer of their dreams. not only is that good for me, but it’s the only way to make things that aren’t calculated in a way that they suffocate themselves. I think you have to make stuff from a deep intuition, and a deep sense of what you need. You can’t be thinking about the audience, you just have to trust that you’re not a Martian, and if it’s of value it’ll find its way. There will be like-minded people that will relate to what you’re dealing with, or not. But as far as having contact with what you’re making, I think that you can’t have one eye on the outside and one eye on what you’re doing. You can’t do this to get that, I mean of course you can in life-we do it all the time but I think if you do it too much, you get drawn away from the task at hand, and that opens the door for corruption. Then you start doing things, not for themselves, but you start doing them for something down the road. I think when you start to do that then you’ll never do anything where you’re really present, and you really lose yourself in a way where you’re fully engaged.
You’ve worked with a number of directors widely accepted as visionaries. What is your process when it comes to finding projects?
I read a fair amount of scripts. I do love movies, but I don’t see them nearly as much as I would like. as I get older, time gets faster and faster and faster. I never have enough hours in the day, so there’s never enough time to read what I want to read, to see the movies that I want to see, to meet the people I want to meet, to do the things that I want to do in my personal life. That’s a beautiful thing, and sometimes you get caught up in this kind of anxiety about how you spend your time. But back to your question, you know I don’t know how I find projects (laughs). I mean, sometimes your appetite changes, sometimes you have to balance things out, sometimes you cultivate things, and sometimes there are directors who I'd love to work with, but I can see why I wouldn’t be in one of their movies. There’s a practical aspect to it. You don’t just work with someone; it has to be a convergence of the role, the director, the situation. it all has to come together. it’s not like I sit there and go, “oh I have to work with this person and I'm going to do anything I can just to work with him or her.” it just doesn’t work that way. also, it sounds crazy, but really, you have to have a sense that you’re needed, that you have a function, that you’re the guy to do the role, that’s important. Sometimes I read things, and I think it’s interesting, but a lot of people can do this. I always feel most comfortable when I read something, and think, “Wow it's the guy, I'm the guy to do this.” That’s not always the case, but that’s when I feel most turned on.
As incredible as the film industry is, it is rife with contradictions and flaws. As an actor, what are some of the largest changes in the industry that stand out?
Many things stand out. it’s amazing— for how much work I've done in film, it's so ignorant about the film industry. I’m not the wisest person to say this, but I can state some obvious things. When I started out, directors still had power, and that power has been marginalized more over time. Right now studios don’t even make money; companies make money that is funneled through the studio system. also, culturally, films do not have the same kind of cachet as they did in the past, they’re just part of a bigger system. Films are just content that gets fed into this system, but the interest is not in film itself, but on all the stuff that comes off of film. There’s more energy for promoting films than making films. That’s very funny to me. it’s a world where the importance of actors is measured more by social media tweets than they are by anything else. There was a very interesting article in The New York Times a couple of weeks ago about how hard it is to gauge popularity now because there are so many delivery systems. The advertisement people have become where the real power is. it’s the selling of the movie that gets more resources, and creative energy than the actual making of the movie. Those are some of the things that I think have changed. I can’t talk broadly about the movie business but those are just some of the fragmentary thoughts I have.
Is there anything you find more interesting about being an actor now? Using technology as a lynchpin?
not really. I don’t want to be an old crank and say, “oh, things used to be so much better,” because that’s not exactly true. But there is, you know, a depression around popular culture now, we can’t underestimate what the internet has done to us as human beings. I think there is a greater need for culture because we’re getting all this information, and we feel smarter and more empowered, but the truth is, at the center, people aren’t in their bodies in the same way. People don’t know how to deal with each other in the same way anymore; there’s more depression and neuroses than there ever was, and that’s kind of backed up by drug company profits, you know? I think culture is still a place where we can have a community, and still have an exchange of ideas, and still do things that can surprise and remind us of things that we’ve forgotten, and give us a new view, and hopefully see what cuts across cultural conditioning and politics. I think that’s the only way that we can survive.
In the context of The Wooster Group, what was it like being a part of something from the ground floor?
That was a very exciting time. People were making things with very little money, and they created their own community, their own audience. one of the interesting things about The Wooster Group was, as it started out, it wasn’t a group of theatre people. They came from other disciplines, but they were making theatre. I think that was true of a lot of places in the downtown scene in the ‘70s and ‘80s, particularly the ‘70s. You had musicians making films, you had dancers making theatre, there was this cross-fertilization that was very immediate. You had a lot of experimentation. it was a lot of fun; people were social, people were motivated. it was a sexy time; people were mixing it up, people were trying to create worlds, that’s what I remember. With The Wooster Group, in particular, Liz was really the engine of it from the very beginning. But the truth is, we always thought the show that we were doing was the last and we were lucky to have a space, and that’s what really helped us survive. also, the commitment of the core people, but in the end, we were making things from our own curiosity, and for our own pleasure, not so much conditioned by career aspirations. We weren’t thinking about money, we weren’t thinking about being famous. In fact, the mainstream culture was shitting on us all the time saying what we were doing was bullshit. it was only many years later that we got to be accepted. now The Wooster Group, which I am no longer involved in, is quite respected all around the world and is something of an institution. although I must say, a lot of the original people are not there anymore because they have either moved on, or passed away, or for various reasons. So now it’s Liz with a new generation of younger actors.
With The Wooster group what’s so fascinating, I think, is the depth of innovation of what you were all establishing. How much do you think it helps or hurts collaborating when it is with someone you know personally?
You know, it can be all those things. all I know is I find I make things, and I work with people that I like being around. More than a script, more than a character, more than an idea, more than anything else, what I'm attracted to are people, and I like to be in the room with people that inspire me, turn me on. I don’t have to like them, but there are people who trigger something in me that I feel engaged in a way that is free and feels fluid, and that’s always what I'm searching for.
You once commented about directors, that you, “like the crazy ones better than the well-behaved ones.” Having worked with so many notable personalities, do you see a connection between creativity, chaos, and desire?
Yes. a beautiful place for me as an actor is when you’re really able to give yourself to someone as material, as a thing, as energy, as a series of impulses. if you’re able to give yourself to someone, and they need someone’s complicity and trust, you make something together that is great because you’re better than you could ever be by yourself. You’ve had impulses that you’d never make by yourself, you’re stronger together, and those are the sorts of situations you seek out. You offer yourself in a sort of pure way, and someone needs you to do something, and you do something together without dragging your feet or worrying about what it means, or what is in it for you. Those are when the most beautiful things happen.
Have you ever been tempted to direct?
No. Because I don’t want to watch, I want to do.
You’ve had your fair share of controversy, notably with Body of Evidence, Antichrist, and The Last Temptation of Christ. Is controversy something you think about in relation to a performance? How important do you think it is to push societal boundaries?
No, I don’t think about that. Sometimes you think, “oh this could be a popular movie, or this is commercial.” You do have those instincts, but, I mean, I don’t sit with them very long and I don’t think about them too much because that’s not my job.
You’ve talked about going back to theatre when the time is right. Is the right situation an offshoot of your personality, or of career aspirations, or both?
It’s a marriage of those two things. I do try to keep opportunities coming, but also my tastes are not necessarily popular tastes, so I always have to be careful not to marginalize myself because I need resources. Even though I'm not thinking about the audience while I am making things, I do want the audience to see what I'm doing, particularly when I think it’s beautiful.
At this stage of your life, it’s obvious that you’re not remotely close to the twilight of your career, is legacy something you think about?
No, I don’t look back so much. and I think that’s one of the things of being busy. I like to work because I think as an actor you need to work. We’re like animals: we need to eat, we’ve got to stay in shape to pull that cart. I usually have enough problems and pleasures and anxieties and excitement about what I'm doing to keep me from looking back too often.