Willem Dafoe: The ‘blank canvas’ approach, haunting roles, and the strain of acting – The Feed

Willem Dafoe: The ‘blank canvas’ approach, haunting roles, and the strain of acting  – The Feed


So, I had this look, and with this look it fit perfectly and uh, this kind of disgusting and aggressive lasciviousness. There is no face in Hollywood quite like his. So many iconic roles, so many iconic movies, you cannot miss the face of this man… except for his next movie, where you will. He’s lent his voice in the form of narration to an Australian documentary a sprawling, symphonic, cinematic examination of our obsession with climbing the highest peaks. It’s called: Mountain Willem Dafoe, thank you so much for talking to us. Really appreciate your time. So, having sat and witnessed the vertigo-inducing experience of this film, are you more or less likely to want to climb a mountain now? Oh god, in my mind. In your mind? In my mind. To certain people, the call to adventure is irresistible. Jen, the director, has sent me footage, and I looked at it and I was looking at it on my computer. You know, when she proposed doing the narration on this and I was in the other room, and my wife kept on coming in the room “Are you okay? Are you okay?” ‘Cause I was watching this in the privacy of my home. Oh, oh no! Woah! Lots of squawking. Do you feel like you have a better understanding of why people are attracted to mountains, what the appeal is? I do. It’s not what you think. I think people want contact they want contact with something out of the ordinary something where they feel their elevated selves. Where they get in contact with something beyond understanding, beyond experience. Can I jump back a little bit? ‘Cause I was curious about… Is it true that you were kicked out of school for making a pornographic film? Sort of. It was just when magazine shows, news magazine shows started. And I, it was also a new thing working with video. You know? This was 1972 or ’71. I was making this magazine show, and I interviewed some people, and when I was shooting I was quite free with what I was shooting and I was intending to edit it, but I went out to lunch left stuff in the editing room, and someone came in a teacher came in, and started looking at the footage. And was a little… gobsmacked. And right when I came back to the editing room, the door was locked and I was told to go to the principal’s office. Then I arrived at the principal’s office, and you know parents are there, the police are there, you know. And I’d been using public resources to make pornography. So, you’re like 16 at this point? I’m 17. Seventeen at that point. What were Mum and Dad’s reaction? The truth is, they sided with the authorities, in the first place. Which is something that was an issue for me. I can imagine. So I just left town. You left town? At 17? Yeah. I had a friend that worked at a university I slept on his couch, I started taking courses there. And I started working with a small theatre company. I read that you like to approach roles, and like to be seen as a bit of a blank canvas before you pick a role. Is that true? I think it’s true. Why is that important? You have to always start from zero. And that’s hard to do, you gotta trick yourself into it. How do you trick yourself into it? It’s like encouraging yourself to fall in love with something. You know? Give me a movie, do you know – One of your movies? Yeah, yeah. Okay, let’s just go with, Spiderman because – Spiderman. Okay. I’m not a CEO of a big company I’m not a guy that lives in a big mansion. These are things that are far away from me. So, I have to find ways where I can pretend and I can imagine. So, you do whatever it takes to put yourself in that place. Where you say, I am this guy, you know? And it can be different things, it can be a text, it can be a custume. I did a movie called Wild At Heart with David Lynch. Yeah! Bobby Peru, just like the country. He basically gave me a hanger with the costume on it. And then he said, “We gotta get you to a dentist.” And I said, “Why?” And in the script it says the character has you know, yellow stumpy teeth and I thought that they would just do some make up. But in fact, we made dentures that went over my teeth and they made me unable to close my mouth . So I had this look. And with this look, it fit perfectly. It became the key to kind of his lasciviousness. You know this kind of, disgusting and aggressive – I don’t know, it transformed. It was definitely disgusting and aggressive, no question. So that’s, that’s like a hook. Do you get haunted by roles? Do they stay with you after they’re done? They do. They do, and I used always to find it distasteful to have actors talk about that, it’s like get over it, you know? You’re paid, it’s a job, it’s a public job. So I used to say no, I think when people would ask me that. But I think the truth is, yeah they stay with you because when you’re doing something whether it’s pretend or not you’re addressing yourself to certain situations and certain impulses, you know, 14 hours a day. You go home, you start to dream about them they start to invade your subconscious or start to form things in your subconscious. So they stay with you. So yes, you may not really be killing that person but, that affects you. There’s a gypsy quality to the life of an actor where you are jumping from production to production country to country. What are the long term impacts of that kind of life? You know. You’ve made over a hundred movies. Failed marriages, problems, drug abuse, I don’t know! No I’m joking. But it’s an unstable life but it’s a satisfying life. You find yourself alone a lot, in places where you’re an outsider. And I love that very much, but it’s also painful sometimes. Because it’s deeply lonely. That’s the irony. You’re a public person, but at the same time you can feel outside of normal life. You do often make very big blockbusters where you’re part of a tapestry of effects and actors. And I’m wondering, is there something about being part of something huge and explosive for you? There is a pleasure to that. Maybe because I come from a big family, I love making families I love coming to projects where everybody has a role and you all come together and you make something. There’s a pleasure in that, and I think in collaboration, there’s an opportunity to lose yourself and even as an actor, I have nothing to express. But what I can do is, I can give my will to someone else’s idea. or something that they have to express, and inhabit it and I think for me, that’s a much cleaner way than trying to express myself. That’s interesting. Do you really think as an actor you have nothing to express? Really, I think that. My happiest experiences are when I’m doing something for someone else or at least that’s the illusion. Willem Dafoe, you are a lot of fun to talk to. Cool. Thanks so much. Alright. Have a great day.

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