In “Poor Things,” Willem Dafoe plays God, bringing his devilish grin to the role of an ethically unbound surgeon who grafts body parts from one creature onto another, blending ducks and geese with dogs and goats — and, in the case of Emma Stone’s Bella Baxter, implanting a spare brain in the corpse of a drowned woman.
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The Dr. Frankenstein-like character is just the latest leap of faith for an actor who spoke to Variety, apropos of receiving a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. With more than 100 screen credits to his name, Dafoe — who hails from conservative, small-town Wisconsin — finds himself drawn to roles that would intimidate his peers, from “The Last Temptation of Christ” to “Antichrist.”
“I may live in Italy now, but I’m still that unsophisticated kid from Wisconsin,” he insists, distancing himself from his transgressive characters: “My father probably never had alcohol touch his lips. My parents didn’t drink coffee.” Dafoe’s parents were Eisenhower Republicans who instilled their work ethic in Willem, who’s been acting nonstop for nearly four decades.
“I’m always driven by directors,” Dafoe explains, crediting a handful of bold filmmakers for his most memorable roles. “I’m not an interpreter. I don’t have an idea about what I want to convey to you,” he insists. “I like to have an experience and then apply that experience to a fiction that hopefully is transparent enough that people go along on the ride with me. I feel like I’m freest when I’m given a set of circumstances.”
In the end, Dafoe may be the one to deliver a unique and unforgettable performance, but he relies on directors to steer him to that place. Here, the four-time Oscar nominee describes how his collaborations with several visionary auteurs helped shape such a remarkable filmography.
William Friedkin, ‘To Live and Die in L.A.’
“Billy was restless and deeply iconoclastic,” recalls Dafoe. “He was a huge, successful director, but this was a period where he’d had some movies that didn’t do so well,” so Friedkin scaled down and took a risk on several unknown actors, casting Dafoe as the counterfeiter. “I had this beautiful character of an artist criminal,” Dafoe says. “What a beautiful thing that is: a guy that makes things that he destroys. And Billy gave me lots of resources, you know, like he gave me some people and a studio just to make some art things, and I learned to paint, and it was a great adventure.”
Paul Schrader, ‘Light Sleeper’
In his first of seven films for Schrader (who wrote “Last Temptation”), Dafoe played a lowlife who delivers drugs to posh New York clients. “When I was playing that character, I felt like that could have been me if my life was different,” Dafoe says of one of his most introspective roles, the polar opposite from parts he played in “Auto Focus” or “Dog Eat Dog.” “God knows I’ve done some big performances, but I’ve only done it because that’s what it feels like it needs.”
Abel Ferrara, ‘Pasolini’
Dafoe lists Pier Paolo Pasolini among the directors for whom he wishes he could have worked — though he did get to play the Italian auteur in Ferrara’s 2014 biopic. That collaboration was a dry run for a revealing piece of autofiction that came five years later. “We did a movie called ‘Tommaso’ that was totally improvised,” Dafoe says. “It was also specific, because there were elements of biography in that — of his biography, and I suppose some of mine as well. Basically, he would tell me about something that happened and then we’d set it up with a very fluid camera, and I would try to imagine being him in that situation. And I was performing with his wife and his child in his house in real places that we both know, so it was very fluid.”
Wes Anderson, ‘The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou’
“That was a real collaboration because it wasn’t much of a scripted role and he kept on folding me in,” says Dafoe, who enjoyed the “call and response” aspect as Anderson kept suggesting new things for Dafoe to do on screen. “He’s evolved. He’s much more precise now, but ‘Life Aquatic’ felt more loose, as far as the text and everything that we did. He’d do a scene, and he’d say, ‘Willem, why don’t you go over near Bill [Murray]?’ and then, ‘Why don’t you guys do this?’ We were inventing stuff.”
Lars von Trier, ‘Antichrist’
“When I’m under the spell of the seduction of the proposition going somewhere, I don’t think about the work in terms of risk.” On working with the Danish provocateur, Dafoe says, “There’s a part of him that kicks the hornet’s nest, but it comes from some deep pain. He’s trying to sort things out, and ‘Antichrist’ stems so much from his therapy and his relationship with women: insanity, sex, grief. All that plays out in ‘Antichrist’ in a way that I think is really challenging. The prologue and the epilogue are high cinema.”
Sean Baker, ‘The Florida Project’
Dafoe was nominated a fourth time for his role in “The Florida Project.” “Sean Baker sets up the situation. He embeds himself in these people’s worlds, and then he makes a story based on his experience of being with them,” Dafoe says. “All his work made it possible for me to be the best hotel manager I could be.” Baker’s sister, who goes by Stephonik, served as the production designer on that film, as well as “Gonzo Girl,” where she surrounded Dafoe with details that aided his performance as a Hunter S. Thompson-type writer. “When I wasn’t shooting, I would just walk around, and there would be piles and piles of notebooks full of stuff. It was fantastic, and it really had a sense of place.”
Yorgos Lanthimos, ‘Poor Things’
Dafoe has made two films with the Greek director (the second, called “Kinds of Kindness,” is expected later this year). “He sets you up and tells you what he wants to see, and you do it,” explains Dafoe, who would sometimes work a scene more than it needed, at which point, Lanthimos would gently rein him in. “Anytime I’d get too clever with something, he’d bust me playfully. He’d say, ‘Oh, you did a Willem,’ which meant, ‘Come on, do it again. But don’t do that thing that you thought you needed to do but you don’t need to do,’” Dafoe recalls with a laugh.
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