In which I meet Willem Dafoe

The Cleveland Cinematheque just had a Willem Dafoe weekend, with screenings of his movies The Dust of Time, Platoon, Go Go Tales and Shadow of the Vampire. The actor himself appeared for Q&A with a sellout crowd after the showing of Shadow on Saturday night. These notes are from memory; all quotations are as accurate as I can recall.

Dafoe is from a large Wisconsin family and said he became an actor in part because, to get attention in his family, he had to sort of assume roles. He enjoyed the acting he did in school plays, and then worked in a community theatre in Milwaukee for two years. He went to New York City and was in the Wooster Group theatre company for thirty-some years, with no particular yen to be a film actor.

But some big-screen roles came his way, just the same. He was fired from the big-budget flop Heaven’s Gate – he didn’t say why - which would have been his screen debut. For his next movie role, in Kathryn Bigelow’s The Loveless, he was asked if he could ride a motorcycle. He couldn’t, but lied and said he could (“Sometimes it’s not the best thing to tell the truth”). In that pre-Internet age, living in New York City and knowing no bikers, he had to get a library book to find out how to ride a motorcycle. On his first day on the set, they showed him the beautifully-restored antique motorcycle he was to ride; he got on and promptly “drove over several nicely-manicured Connecticut lawns,” but wasn’t fired and eventually got the hang of it. When he was cast in Streets of Fire, which again required him to ride a motorcycle, he lied again, this time saying he didn’t know how. Many of the extras were bikers – members of a bike gang called the Heathens – and when he first mounted up and rode around, they said, “Hey, you’re a natural!”

An aspiring actress in the Cinematheque crowd asked Dafoe how to get started in acting, and he said, “I’m really not the kind of guy who gives advice,” but went on to say that she should do what she loved, be with people who were doing the kind of work she wanted to do, volunteer if necessary, and just work hard. (Jeff Goldblum told him that, as a struggling young actor, he would write every morning on his steam-fogged shower door, “Dear God, please make me a great actor.” Dafoe paused and said, deadpan, “I never did that”).

He likes working with strong directors he can trust, so that he can focus on his role and try to help the director realize his or her vision of the film. He’s been warned not to work with first-time directors, but has done that, too, with no regrets.

My friend Chris complimented him on his role in The Last Temptation of Christ, and asked what books he had found useful in studying to become an actor. Dafoe admitted he hadn’t had much formal training as an actor, but that Stanislavsky (“who is badly misunderstood in this country”), Stanislaus and another writer (whose name neither Chris nor I caught) had been most useful to him.

Dafoe was asked if he realizes, while he’s working on a film, that it might be controversial. He said no, but that he doesn’t pay too much attention to that kind of thing anyway. He focuses on the role and just tries to do the best he can; whatever happens later, happens. He actually didn’t expect that The Last Temptation of Christ would be controversial, since Nicos Kazantzakis’s book, which the movie closely followed, had been written many years earlier. He was also surprised to learn that Martin Scorsese decided to cast him as Jesus after seeing him as a violent, amoral counterfeiter in William Friedkin’s To Live and Die in L.A. (“He liked something he saw in that role, I guess”). Someone asked how he approached such an iconic role as Jesus, and he said, “I just tried to clear my head and forget all of the other takes on the part. It helped that he was essentially passive – or reactive, rather – in the script, and I just was reacting to situations. It was kind of weird filming that movie [in Morocco], though – healing the blind in the morning, being crucified in the afternoon!” He said he doesn’t like to pick favorites, but that the role of Jesus is one from which he learned a lot, and which he’ll always remember.

I asked if he had any good stories from behind the scenes of The Grand Budapest Hotel. He asked mischievously, “Now you want me to tell stories?” This was his fifth film with director Wes Anderson, who is always very, very well-prepared. Dafoe looked over Anderson’s meticulous storyboard for the movie beforehand and said, “You don’t need us – just shoot this!” The cast and crew took over a hotel near the German-Polish border and had a great time together (“There was a lot of drinking when you weren’t needed on set – not that I did, of course”). One night, he was startled by border guards who jumped out from underneath a bridge he was crossing after hours. They ordered him to stop and pointed their guns at him, thinking he might be a thief. Was he scared? “Only for a second,” he joked. He was soon released – not because they recognized him, he was sure, but because he spoke English and didn’t seem likely to be a thief.

Although Grand Budapest Hotel was very carefully written and prepped, Anderson’s earlier The Life Aquatic was not, and he enjoyed the improvisational nature of many of the scenes. “Wes would have you on the set, and would just say, ‘You stand there, and you stand there, and you… over here,’ and build a sort of landscape of actors, and then we just went from there.”

One woman in the crowd said, “I saw you in Body of Evidence with Madonna, and I’ve been waiting twenty years to ask someone: Where can I get my money back?” Some in the crowd gasped, others laughed, and some even booed, but Dafoe just chuckled and said, “That’s not the first time I’ve heard that.” Then he shrugged. “Not every movie is for everybody. Sometimes they work, and sometimes they don’t.”

He was surprised that John Carter flopped, for instance. He remembers hearing Hollywood gossip about a flawed Disney marketing campaign long before the movie even opened. It’s now clear there will be no sequel, “which is too bad,” he said, “because I had some more good things planned for my character,” Tars Tarkas.

He was asked how he ended up in the comedy Mr. Bean’s Holiday. “I’ve long enjoyed Rowan Atkinson’s work, especially Blackadder, and when the chance to work with him came up,” he said quite gleefully, “I said, ‘Sure!’”

Someone asked what it was like working with Christian Bale on American Psycho. He said Bale was very, very focused and “like a machine” on set. He decided he had to match Bale’s mindset and get into the role just as deeply. Dafoe ended up doing a better job in his role, he believed, because of Bale’s commitment to his. When they worked on another film several years later, Bale wasn’t nearly so laser-focused, but both times they worked well together.

A woman said it was on her bucket list to shake his hand, and asked if she could come up and do so. “Sure,” he said, with an aw-shucks tilt of his head; she then got a hug and a kiss, too.

A young actor stood and said he’d worked with Dafoe on a movie (I didn’t catch the title) a few years ago. Dafoe didn’t recognize him, apologized and said, “I have a terrible memory. I remember dialogue, not faces.”

When he was cast in Wild at Heart, he had noticed in the script that his character was supposed to have very unusual teeth. He presumed that it would be handled just by makeup, and was taken aback when director David Lynch asked him very earnestly in their first meeting, “Have you made an appointment with your dentist yet?” Lynch expected him to have molds made of his teeth for dentures, which were so weird when they finally arrived, and changed his mouth and his expression so much, that they made it easier for him to get into the role.

Dafoe said the makeup also played a big part in his Oscar-nominated role as Max Schreck in Shadow of the Vampire. He was in the makeup chair for three and a half hours every morning, being transformed into the vampire, and for just as long at the end of every shooting day, getting it all taken off. “Looking into the mirror, seeing yourself be transformed into a vampire, it can’t help but change how you see yourself.” He found it helpful in getting into character and becoming, for awhile, a very different person.

Had there been any tensions between him and Tom Berenger on the set of Oliver Stone’s Platoon (for which he was also nominated for an Oscar), since their characters were “such strong enemies,” someone asked? He laughed and said, “No, it’s just acting.” The cast and crew were out in the jungle for a long time, and the cast had a “boot camp” to learn how to behave like soldiers, and he and Berenger got along fine. “And although his character and mine were enemies,” he added, “I also think they had a common understanding.” He saw Berenger not long ago, as it happens.

Dafoe was recently a judge at the Cannes Film Festival, which he said was a lot of fun and he’d love to do again. The process demanded a lot from him, as he was among very top-flight film people and had to think through what he wanted to say particularly carefully, but he found it very stimulating and saw a lot of very good movies during the festival.

His next big movie is Pasolini, about the last day of Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini’s life. He’s wrapped his scenes and the movie is now in post-production.

Dafoe was dressed in dark clothes and cowboy boots during his Cinematheque appearance. He was by turns wry and funny, serious and thoughtful, but very friendly and engaging throughout.

The Q&A drew to a close, but Dafoe stayed for awhile afterwards to sign autographs and pose for selfies with his many fans. I had the chance to shake his hand and speak to him briefly, and he autographed a picture I brought of his thug character from Grand Budapest Hotel. Then he was off, along with his wife Giada Colagrande, an Italian director and actress (whom he met filming The Life Aquatic), and one of his sisters, who was also in town.

A great actor and a great night.

Cool stories. Was his appearance announced beforehand or a surprise?

Did you compare notes on him meeting Spider-Man and you meeting Loki?

His appearance was widely-publicized. It wouldn’t have been a sellout crowd otherwise.

Didn’t have the chance to discuss our respective superhero movie gigs, alas.

I adore him. He’s surprisingly sexy; check out The Night and The Moment if you doubt it. Other than the ridiculous wig, he is quite the cunning linguist…pun only partially intended. He speaks flawlessly and rapid fires dialogue and ripostes. I was entranced.

He was fantastic in that movie, as the filmmaker so completely in love with himself. A great film all round, in my opinion.

I well remember first seeing him in To Live and Die in LA and immediately knew he and Peterson both would be entertaining us for a long time to come.

Did he have a favorite movie of his?

Lucky! I’m so envious. He’s one of my favorites and yes, he is very sexy.

No questions about “The Fault In Our Stars”?

Apparently he laughed at an extra’s joke during a quiet scene, and Michael Cimino asked him to leave the set, and that was that. This blog post has a screenshot of him, being moody in the background:

He ended up directly a documentary, “Final Cut”, based on the film. I’ve read the book; it’s surprisingly melancholic.

The thing I always remember about Willem Dafoe? His name is Willem. Not William. Willem is Dutch. It is Dutch for “William”. Although apparently his name is William - he changed it because (a) he hated being called Billy (b) a random and perhaps Dutch stranger who he shared a house with kept calling him Willem.

No, I remember him in American Psycho. He looked a bit like a monkey in that film. He seems so happy!

No one asked, but he did say he doesn’t name favorite roles.

Not a one!

Good to know - thanks for the link!


Dafoe recently returned to Cleveland to give the commencement address at the Institute of Art: