Great pretender ... Willem Dafoe. Photograph: Graeme Robertson
Willem Dafoe has never avoided controversy, but his latest role in Lars von Trier's graphic horror has given the critics their biggest shock yet. He tells Laura Barton how he humanises brutal characters and handles fame in a 'blockbuster world'
'Truth is, generally I like film festivals; somewhere at some level there's an exchange of ideas. So for me it's important." It is shortly before Cannes, and Willem Dafoe is sitting in a London hotel discussing his prospective trip to the festival to promote Antichrist, the latest film by Lars von Trier, who won the Palme d'Or in 2000 for Dancer in the Dark.Pegged as a psychological horror movie, Antichrist casts Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg as newly bereaved parents whose grief propels the film from graphically shot sex scenes to graphically shot torture scenes (leg-boring, genital mutilation, you know the drill).
"This was very full-on," says Dafoe of the filming process. "This was great." Unfortunately the critics did not concur, and the film has been greeted largely by revulsion and confusion. "There's no way Antichrist isn't a major career embarassment for co-stars Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg, and a possible career stopper for Von Trier," wrote one particularly shocked American reviewer. If nothing else, Cannes certainly gave the actor his exchange of ideas.
This must be a particularly strange week for Dafoe, because while the furore rages over Antichrist, he will simultaneously be seen in another movie, Fireflies in the Garden, in which he stars alongside Julia Roberts and Ryan Reynolds in a tale that spans 20 years, takes in father-son relationships, untimely death and the poetry of Robert Frost. This film has not, it should be said, garnered particularly favourable reviews either, though for entirely opposite reasons; many felt Fireflies lacked the boldness required to distinguish it from any common-or-garden family drama. Variety described the film as a "clumsy melodrama, which looks and sounds no better than an average made-for-cabler".
"Basically, when I hear the words 'family drama' I run in the opposite direction," Dafoe tells me. "But the script was like nothing that I felt I'd ever done before; this was not front-loaded dysfunction," he says. His voice is low and muttery and comes out kind of sideways, as if every thought is delivered from a barstool, chewing over the ballgame. "If anything, it's a kind of nostalgic, wholesome family ... and then you see what people do to each other."
It is rare for Dafoe to be attached to a movie that is in any way generic. Now 53, he has forged a career as a bold and diverse actor, and the roles and films with which he is most associated have been strong, undiluted creations - Platoon, Mississippi Burning, To Live and Die in LA; he played Jesus in Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ, TS Eliot in Tom & Viv, the Green Goblin in the Spider-Man movies. He was also a founding member of an avant-garde theatre troupe named the Wooster Group, and remains deeply committed to the theatre.
He explains his involvement with Fireflies simply enough: "I did some comedies, and I wanted to do something kind of small," he says. "Generally I like stuff that's pretty exotic, but I really think it's important to mix it up for me." Even the briefest glance at Dafoe's filmography, from his appearance as an extra in Heaven's Gate to Antichrist, will confirm his antipathy towards family drama; with the exception of 1997's Affliction he has largely circumvented the genre. "I'm not usually attracted to movies where the events are so recognisable to me," he laughs.
Shot in small-town Texas, Fireflies is in fact set in the American midwest. "The place we found really was a little out of time: big house, big porch, old Victorian. Something about this neighbourhood, it's like a shorthand for something that gets you into that world - although I don't know if that world actually exists."
Dafoe's character is Charles, the over-bearing patriarch who has a difficult relationship with his wife and children - notably his son Michael, who will grow up to be an author, writing a misery-lit novel about his childhood. "[The character] was an adult man with not a lot of stuff on it. He was a father, he had certain tendencies. But then you start to lay the scenes and you see where you're functioning in the family; it's clear that I'm the engine for some of the bad feeling in the family. But I didn't see that right away because my job, when I read it, is to humanise the guy and let him have his day in court. In the end, if some people find him really brutal, that's where I failed."
Humanising a character, even if it happens to be the Green Goblin, or Jesus Christ, is the part of his job that Dafoe seems to relish most. "You're pretending," he says of acting. "And the first leap of that pretending is you say, 'I am this guy.' You try to see all the possibilities of behaviour. When you work on anything, you want to find the range of impulses - which ones get portrayed is another question, but you want to have that complexity and that fullness, even if you're playing a cartoon character."
Dafoe looks, he says, for a hook, something to reel him in. "There's something that triggers you, a really strong physical thing, or an accent, or an occupation. You're always looking for that thing that triggers you, that makes you feel like you're in that world." He likes, you gather, to feel prepared, to read and swot up and immerse himself in the role from the very start. "You think, 'Wow, do I have the material to give me the authority to do this pretending?' I think you always have to have something prepared; you can throw it away, but you've got to have something to get you going, because if you wait for inspiration or that thing to hit you, you're dead. Action breeds inspiration more than inspiration breeds action."
Preparing to play TS Eliot in Tom & Viv, he was exceedingly studious. "Working on it gave me an excuse to read lots of Eliot: letters, critical essays, other people writing about him," he recalls. "It's a well-documented life, very rich for my imagination. You could say, 'On this day he was living here, he was writing this letter, he was working on this poem, he was working at the bank these hours ...' You could really reconstruct [his life]. And I was dealing with his voice and physical mask and lots of costumes."
When it came to Wes Anderson's The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, Defoe took a more carefree approach, seizing on a larger-than-life Germanness for his character. "It was totally goofy, off-the-top-of-my-head fake German accent," he laughs. "But this isn't class, there are no prizes here; if it functions, it functions. You've always got to be guided by something, something outside of yourself. And you're always looking for that trigger, to make you feel righteous in your pretending, so it's not frivolous or self-serving or just a show of what you can do as an actor.
"Some of my favourite performances are performances that disappear," he adds. "I aspire to that. They aren't the person that you talk about when the movie's over, but it stays with you, and they function beautifully and gracefully in the movie." You see it more often, he says, in B-movie actors, "because their identity isn't in being a great actor, so you don't see them flourish. They want to do the scene and get out of the room, because their approach to it is workmanlike. There can be a deadening part of that, but there's also a beauty about it; they're offering their efforts to something bigger than themselves. When a lot of attention is paid to actors, there's always a struggle to how they deal with that."
How does he deal with the attention? "I don't get a lot of attention!" He laughs loud and long. "I get enough! But I am lucky, half by design but probably more by circumstance. It's kind of an accidental strategy that I go towards people, towards characters, so I make little movies, I make big movies, I make foreign movies, I make Hollywood movies, I make little, dirty independent movies. So nobody can start tracking you and say, 'That! That is one of our great actors!' Because you disappear off their radar. If you're a Spider-Man fan, you may not see me for years because you're not going to these other movies. If you watch independent movies and I go and do Spider-Man, I'm going to jump off your radar for a couple of years."
Occasionally, just occasionally, this can prove frustrating. "Sometimes you wanna make money and sometimes you wanna come up against the culture. When you make things and they don't get seen it's just odd, especially when you are working in a popular art form." He hunches his shoulders. "But it is," he concedes, "a blockbuster world."
Source : The Guardian, [Thursday 28 May 2009]
By : Laura Barton
Khamis, Mei 28, 2009
Great pretender ... Willem Dafoe. Photograph: Graeme Robertson