Willem Dafoe’s dark charisma has helped him build a career on complicated, often villainous roles, but for his latest film he narrates a documentary about adventurers who climb and throw themselves off mountains. Such people push themselves to the edge, as Dafoe does. But he says he is not so brave – “I don’t even want to go in a hot-air balloon” – and admits to vertigo. By Susan Chenery.
Death-defying actor Willem Dafoe
Let’s get dying out of the way first. Willem Dafoe is known for dying in most of his films. “I have died more than anyone in cinema, I think,” the actor says.
Usually it is by gunshot, but sometimes his demise is particularly creative or even spectacular. Other times it is almost cartoonish.
There have been a few explosions, such as in xXx: State of the Union, when his train was hit by a missile, Speed 2: Cruise Control, when his hydroplane and an oil tanker collided; impalement by way of a giant statue in his head, as in Ripley Under Ground; being run over with his own car in Pasolini; a crucifixion for The Last Temptation of Christ; a couple of fatal falls – over a cliff in The Grand Budapest Hotel and off a balcony in Once Upon a Time in Mexico; and one spontaneous combustion, in Shadow of the Vampire.
“You need a good entrance and a good exit,” Dafoe says cheerfully. “It is also good practice – I will be really good when the time comes. I’ll say, ‘I’ve got this’.” He quickly qualifies: “In theory. Probably I will be screaming like everyone else.”
It might seem that directors go to him when they want someone people dislike enough to kill. “Or,” he says with an arched eyebrow, “that threaten people enough to kill.” But it is more to do with the roles he chooses and what happens in the films to which he’s attracted. Clearly Dafoe doesn’t do happy endings.
One of the world’s great character actors, he has always been an enigmatic presence on the screen: intense, morally questionable, yet charismatic. Dafoe films are shot in a muted, monochromatic palette – a lifetime of blue notes and noir – and even when they are not, he brings the darkness. When it comes to transgression, he’s your man. His characters are often ambiguous, crossing lines, living double lives. They are not one-dimensional villains, they’re flawed, alluring, complicated.
Given the dark worlds he seems to exist in, it is somewhat of a surprise to find him a sweet and sunny man. As soon as he ambles into the Golden Age bar in Sydney’s Surry Hills, the fun starts. He snuggles up to Jennifer Peedom, whose documentary Mountain he has narrated. “It needed to be a particular voice,” says Peedom, “the right person with the right associations. And he just kind of had all that. A big name and a reputation as a real artist, not just a Hollywood actor.”
At 62, with a huge body of work behind him, Dafoe’s famous face has hollowed out over the years. It’s a face that on screen holds depth and secrets, with an intensity in the hooded blue eyes, and expression in the lines that crisscross under the sharp cheekbones and the wide mouth. But today it is soft and lit with humour.
He speaks quietly, thoughtfully. While he is happy to agree that he chooses his roles for their artistic merit and not Hollywood box-office popularity, he is well aware of the absurdity of the hyperbole and disproportionate amount of attention that comes with pretending for a living.
“It is also a silly job. You know, talking right now is fun but it is also kind of egotistical and we are feeding the monster,” he says. “Sometimes I really think if I was a really decent person I would go off and do charity. I have done and I do. But making things is a way to contribute. If you make things they lift you up. They get you away from yourself, but they are a product of your life so it feels useful.”
Dafoe is no stranger to Australia. Currently filming Aquaman on the Gold Coast, he was here for the 2009 sci-fi vampire film Daybreakers, and The Hunter in 2011, a taut performance in the misty Tasmanian wilderness. “The climax builds brilliantly,” noted The Observer of the latter, “with Dafoe’s craggy face gradually becoming part of the rocks and trees, his sinewy, prowling presence increasingly animalistic and instinctual.” He also came to Adelaide back in 2001 with his Wooster theatre company for Eugene O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape.
“I always say that once you have taken that trip to Australia everything else feels like a little puddle jump.”
Dafoe must be one of the few actors to have played both Christ (The Last Temptation of Christ) and the Antichrist (in the titular role for the Lars von Trier horror film that shocked the Cannes Film Festival in 2009). He transforms and contorts – he has also been vampires, and the Green Goblin in Spider-Man (died on his own lethal glider in No. 3). “They are all the same man played by the same actor,” he says of this cohort of larger-than-life characters, “only one has a better hairdo or one has a better outfit. Working on location, which is often remote, there is nothing to remind you of who you are normally, it is total immersion.”
He finds such roles in everything from Hollywood blockbusters to foreign films to tiny independent productions.
“It is a tendency to want to vary your diet and exercise different muscles, I think. Partly for career health. I think if you keep going to the same place, you develop habits that are hard to break. And you kind of bore yourself. I guess I am somewhat reactive. Like, sometimes I will read a script and say, ‘I could really run with this, wow this is a great role for me’, then I step back and say, ‘Oh wait, wait, wait. Let’s really look at this.’ Because if it satisfies certain things it feels like you can just strut your stuff.
“I like to come in more through the back door. I trust that more, you know. If I know it already, you will arrive and you will be flat and all you have to do is craft your way to deliver up the goods. I am not that kind of performer.”
The foundation to all of this risk-taking can be found in his early acting days with the experimental Wooster Group, which he helped found in Manhattan in the 1970s to produce original work. “It is in that kind of physical theatre that I find most satisfaction. In the poetry of things.” The experimentalist has simply transferred to film.
Dafoe was born in Appleton, Wisconsin. His father, a surgeon, and his mother, a nurse, worked together and weren’t around much. One of seven, Willem was raised by his five older sisters in a kind of benign neglect. He was thrown out of Appleton high school for making a film about oddballs, which included nudity.
He studied drama at the University of Wisconsin but dropped out to join his first experimental theatre group. He was in a relationship with the Wooster Group director Elizabeth LeCompte for 27 years, and they have a son, Jack. Dafoe has since said they never married, although he wanted to, because to her it represented “ownership”. A year after they broke up he married Italian filmmaker Giada Colagrande, whom he met on a street in Rome in 2004. He knew her films and they had friends in common. As he recounts, they were having lunch one day when he asked, “Do you want to get married tomorrow?” Dafoe has since starred in all her films, and the couple lives between Rome, New York and Los Angeles. Once you are in an Italian family, I venture, that is it – you are in for life. “For better or worse,” he agrees. “For me they are very sweet people. I have friends and family there who take care of me.”
Dafoe’s big breakthrough came in 1986 with Oliver Stone’s Platoon (died after being riddled with bullets). It was followed by the unforgettably sleazy character of Bobby Peru in David Lynch’s Wild at Heart in 1990 (blew his own head off with a shotgun.)
Dafoe returns frequently to the same directors, some of them on the far side of stable. After being pounded by the media defending Antichrist, he went back to von Trier for Nymphomaniac (2013), his third film with the difficult, depressive Dane. He has worked on four films with Abel Ferrara, his neighbour in Rome, the most recent being Pasolini, about the last days of the brilliant, controversial Italian filmmaker and poet, killed by a rent boy in contested circumstances.
“If you read his writings, his critical writings,” Dafoe has said, “see his films, read his poetry – you flirt with some original thinking, and it inspires me to be braver.”
He has also worked with American auteur Wes Anderson several times.
“On some level I like to attach myself to someone who has a very strong vision and is highly articulate and you help them tell their stories and help them make their worlds. Also you don’t have to deal with issues of trust. If something goes well, you continue. You find people who turn you on, so why not go back to them? It is about being with those people and having them bring out the best in you. And having you once again feel as full and engaged.
“Also they use you as part of their language and once you learn their language then you are free because you can offer a lot of your energy towards execution rather than invention. The most beautiful part of performing for me is the execution.”
When he was watching footage for Mountain for the first time his wife kept asking if he was alright. “I was shouting ‘Oh no, oh no. Faark...” It’s a film that gives you vertigo – a soaring, sublime documentary about mountains and what draws people to attempt to conquer them. There’s an adrenalin rush in the vision of mountaineers, ice climbers, free soloists, speed flyers, snowboarders, mountain bikers and wingsuitors – all those who stand on narrow ledges above the world in these high, unforgiving places.
The film is a collaboration between Jennifer Peedom and Richard Tognetti’s Australian Chamber Orchestra, with the bulk of cinematography by Renan Ozturk, who also shot Peedom’s Sherpa.
Mountain people push themselves to the edge, as Dafoe does. But he says he is not so brave – “I don’t even want to go in a hot-air balloon” – and admits to vertigo.
“When I go over a very high bridge, it calls me in a disturbing way. ‘Come, come... You could change everything in one second. All you have to do is step over here.’ You have no idea how strong it is.”
Dafoe has never become blasé about filming on location, arriving at first light to join the circus of the film set. “I love to see the day starting. I just shot a movie in London. And I am going to work at five in the morning, it’s quiet, there is only the street cleaners, and I am one of them and I am going to work. It feels like I beat everybody to the punch, y’know. The day starts and it starts to find its rhythm, whereas if the day has started without you then you have kind of got to catch up. Whereas when I get up nobody is doing anything, so you can start from zero.”
If he gets stuck working up a character he remembers the words of American hard-boiled crime writer Raymond Chandler, even if he’s unsure of the attribution.
“I don’t know if it was Dashiell Hammett or one of those guys, but when he got stuck writing he would always have a man come to the door with a gun. And that would get to the new place and then he could erase it once he got through that knot and things were flowing again. He could dismantle that and rework it.
“Sometimes you need those things to push you to the next place.”
For Dafoe, of course, the man with the gun is likely to be about to kill him. Again.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 2, 2017 as "Willem the conqueror".
A free press is one you pay for. In the short term, the economic fallout from coronavirus has taken about a third of our revenue. We will survive this crisis, but we need the support of readers. Now is the time to subscribe.
Letters & Editorial