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