Q&A Willem Dafoe on los­ing his ‘agenda,’

Toronto Star - - MOVIES & LIFE - Peter How­ell

“I never act,” Willem Dafoe once told an in­ter­viewer. “I sim­ply bring out the real an­i­mal that’s in me.”

That’s been true in more ways than one through­out his ster­ling screen ca­reer, which now stretches nearly four decades.

Lean as a grey­hound, Dafoe, 62, played a sneaky rat in Wes An­der­son’s Fan­tas­tic Mr. Fox and a schem­ing an­gelfish in Pixar’s Find­ing Dory.

But his beasts come in many guises: the Amer­i­can ac­tor did ne­far­i­ous dou­ble duty as the mon­strous Green Goblin and equally loath­some Nor­man Os­born in Sam Raimi’s Spi­derMan fran­chise, and he’ll be play­ing a du­plic­i­tous un­der­wa­ter fel­low in James Wan’s DC Comics block­buster Aqua­man, due next year, in which he co-stars as the war­mon­ger­ing Nuidis Vulko.

Dafoe is in con­stant de­mand to play badasses, roles for which he brings un­com­mon depth of char­ac­ter. He seems a lit­tle weary of it, though, when we meet for an in­ter­view dur­ing TIFF 2017 last month.

“You don’t like to go to your go-to place,” he says. “You want to find some­thing else.”

That some­thing else is The Flor­ida Project, Sean Baker’s lyri­cal drama of the “hid­den home­less” tran­sient peo­ple who live as per­ma­nent guests on the mo­tel strip ad­ja­cent to Dis­ney World in Or­lando, Fla. Dafoe plays Bobby, man­ager of the Magic Cas­tle, a $38-a-night mo­tel dive where ex­pec­ta­tions are low and the liv­ing is any­thing but easy. (Baker pre­vi­ously looked at the L.A. un­der­class in his crit­i­cally lauded drama Tan­ger­ine, which was shot guer­rilla-style on an iPhone.)

By rights, Bobby should be a real hard case, hav­ing to deal with guests who are more like squat­ters, con­stantly try­ing to scam him. But Dafoe brings in­cred­i­ble em­pa­thy to the role, treat­ing guests with re­spect and pa­tience, even when they dis­ap­point him, as they of­ten do.

He’s a fa­ther fig­ure to 6-year-old fire­cracker Moonee (Brook­lynn Prince) and her ma­noeu­vring 22year-old mom Hal­ley (Bria Vi­naite). Even when he’s scold­ing peo­ple, Bobby can’t bring him­self to be re­ally mean about it.

Now ar­riv­ing in the­atres, The Flor­ida Project has been a crit­i­cal hit since it de­buted at Cannes back in May, with Dafoe be­ing buzzed about since then as a likely Best Sup­port­ing Ac­tor nom­i­nee at the next Os­cars.

It’s the one role amongst his many in 2017 that he re­ally wants to talk about in our Q&A ses­sion. You man­aged to find so much hu­man­ity in the char­ac­ter of Bobby, who we might nor­mally ex­pect to be an of­fi­cious beast. How did you ap­proach the role?

You know that you want the guy to have some di­men­sions, so on pa­per, he’s yelling at peo­ple a lot of time, and he’s dis­ci­plin­ing peo­ple a lot of time. And in fact, that’s what hap­pens a lot.

But I think a lot of the em­pa­thy comes out of the fact that he’s chal­lenged in many ways to deal with th­ese peo­ple and he has to prac­ti­cally have dif­fer­ent strate­gies. And you see that, for ex­am­ple, the wo­man who sun­bathes to­p­less, he’s been through this with her, we see this so much in the scene. He’s been through this with her, he can’t force her, so he has to find out where he can speak to her. He has to go to her. And that hap­pens over and over in the movie. That is a kind of em­pa­thy that’s a kind of prob­lem-solv­ing. Bobby is a sur­pris­ingly like­able guy.

Yes, he’s a big-hearted guy, and a kind of nor­mal guy, and he wants to make the place a bet­ter place — and you could even say make the world a bet­ter place. But you’re not think­ing about that (as an ac­tor). You’re not think­ing, wow, we gotta re­ally make sure that Bobby’s thought­ful and sweet to peo­ple. Or em­pa­thetic. Sean and I never talked about it. A cou­ple of times, he’d say, “Lean on him a lit­tle, give Hal­ley a more hard time.” And I would say some­times, “Yeah, but I don’t want it to be yelling at her.” So there would be ad­just­ments. What made you want to work with Sean?

Tan­ger­ine was part of it, but we had a meet­ing, and he told me how this was go­ing to be done. I did not know about this “hid­den home­less” prob­lem, so to learn the re­al­i­ties of that, and to know that we were go­ing to shoot in one of th­ese mo­tels, it was ex­cit­ing. Sean’s way of work­ing with con­crete things — con­crete, real, ac­tual things — and mix­ing them with fic­tion is a good way to work, I think, be­cause it’s rooted (in re­al­ity). It’s not a doc­u­men­tary, but you get the best of both worlds. Af­ter all the fa­mous vet­eran di­rec­tors you’ve worked with, is it a leap of faith to go with a newer one like Sean Baker?

It’s a leap of a faith to work with a well-known, fa­mous di­rec­tor! Films are so col­lab­o­ra­tive, you just have to have an in­stinct and de­cide whether you like be­ing in the room with this per­son and if what they’re ask­ing you to do ei­ther chal­lenges you in a way that will raise your game or in­ter­est you, or you’ll learn some­thing that’ll turn you on and give you a kind of new en­ergy and a cre­ativ­ity and a fun, good en­ergy to make some­thing. That’s what you look for.

There are never any guar­an­tees, we know that, be­cause of the na­ture of film. It’s so col­lab­o­ra­tive. It can go south on you. So it’s al­ways a risk. You are by far the most ex­pe­ri­enced ac­tor in The Flor­ida Project, with many of the play­ers mak­ing their first screen ap­pear­ances. How did it feel be­ing the most sea­soned hand in the pro­duc­tion?

Clearly, in this mix of real peo­ple, new ac­tors, child ac­tors, ac­tors, I’m the old­est one and maybe the most ex­pe­ri­enced. Now, that doesn’t mean any­thing, ex­cept I know a lit­tle bit more about a cam­era, and things like that. But I want to for­get about that. I’ve got to fit into their world. I want to be in the kids’ world. They’re dic­tat­ing the world, and that’s in­ter­est­ing me.

And some­where that’s al­ways my am­bi­tion: to lose my agenda and find a new agenda through some­one else, be­cause that’s the only way you can make some­thing new and make some­thing alive. Be­cause if you keep on go­ing to the same place that sup­ports who you think you are . . . it be­comes a dead end. So you look for th­ese op­por­tu­ni­ties like this one, where you have this real mo­tel, you’ve got a good, thought­ful, smart di­rec­tor who’s writ­ten this beau­ti­ful script . . . see, I like this.

You can’t guar­an­tee how a movie’s go­ing to turn out, but I like the el­e­ments. Peter How­ell is the Star’s movie critic. His col­umn usu­ally runs Fri­days.


Willem Dafoe stars in The Flor­ida Project, a film about the hid­den home­less liv­ing hand-to-mouth in cheap mo­tels.

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