It was all lined up. Willem Dafoe was going to win an Academy Award, his first, for a stellar (and frankly conventionally rewarded type) performance as the kind but strict motel manager Bobby in Sean Baker’s The Florida Project. But a late run in the category by Sam Rockwell in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri saw Dafoe clinch defeat from the jaws of victory, resigned to wait again for his turn at the coveted prize and de facto lifetime achievement award he’s deserved for some time.
Well, luck may now be on his side. Dafoe is in three films this year — which often helps actors, allowing a name and face to be as well-known to wavering Academy voters as it can be — and of those, Robert Eggers’ genre-transcending buddy (?) drama The Lighthouse is fuelling this particular run. A jolly and disturbed turn as the keeper Thomas Wake, opposite a career-best Robert Pattinson in the lead role of Winslow, has taken Dafoe from applause and murmurs at Cannes all the way to the post of Serious Contender, albeit alongside Serious Company including Brad Pitt, Al Pacino and Tom Hanks.
The primary observation made by the critic Francine Stock at BAFTA’s Life in Pictures event with Dafoe in Soho is that the parts he tends to play are frequently, well — idiosyncratic is the polite word. With iconic roles including TS Eliot, Vincent van Gogh, the Green Goblin and Jesus Christ, Dafoe has become something of a specialist in bringing an impassioned, sometimes obsessive humanity to characters defined by their status on the fringes of society. So why does he embody oddness so often and so well?
“I think I’m attracted to the other. I have quite a normal life in a funny way, I live in this world. We get a mirror held up to us all the time, you know, to live a certain way; I basically live that way. The socialised, lockstep, get ahead, have the good life, search for happiness. We can learn a lot from the people who live on the margins, who have a completely different life. It costs me nothing to try and understand that, to try to inhabit that. Why try to illustrate something we already know?
He continues on this thought, “Also, politically, it gets us out of what we think to be certain, out of the things we hold to absolutely true. Those are the good things to attack sometimes. Not because I’m a crazy, transgressive guy or anything like that, I just find that a certain kind of liberation, a certain joy, that there is another way. Some people do live — what’s the expression? — tired and desperate lives. And culture in general and movies in particular are a way for us to come together, to feel seen and to see hope.” He pauses. “I’m listening to myself and I sound like a preacher.”
It becomes clear that Dafoe is extremely adept at talking about acting, a skill not necessarily held by even the greats. He could be an acting teacher if his 120-plus acting credits didn’t already serve as an education themselves. Dafoe is also refreshingly straightforward in the way he recalls the trials and tribulations of his career, seemingly reaching conclusions and coming to judgments about his life’s work in the moments he addresses us. “When you look at [a part], you have to have a curiosity about it, you have to feel it piques your interest and you have to feel capable of bringing something to it,” he says. “In the best circumstances, you feel you’re the only guy who can play this role. That’s not egotism, it’s the feeling that you have some sort of connection to it. It’s not that you — well it can be — it’s not necessarily something that you recognise and say, ‘That’s what the result is.’ It calls you. You know, you look at a script and you think, ‘Do I want to do these things? Do they mean something to me? Is this going to change the way I think? Is this going to challenge my sense of the way things are?”
Dafoe is an expert in the near-mystical rhetorical question. His one-in-a-million, throaty voice is reminiscent of the late Martin Landau, whose best parts were defined by the same capacity to really think deeply. Someone next to me asks their companion whether Dafoe is a religious man, something I’d given little thought. Though you must have some willingness to engage in the divine in order to play Jesus Christ, I realise. Later I search it up: his father was a preacher.
Stock continues that line of questioning. “One thing which seems true of all your performances is that, although we may be startled by the turn the character takes, it never seems implausible.” “Oh, good”, Dafoe says, sounding genuinely surprised. She quickly adds, “This is really important, and it’s not always true. How do you do that?” He says he doesn’t know. “I play the scenes.”
What ones does when they act, Dafoe says in a half-answer that avoids the compliment behind the question, “is develop the full character in a balance. You have to find the shadow side. You don’t point to that, you don’t even have to show that. But you have to have that if you want to feel like you aren’t [just] representing. You’ve got to build something that’s as complete as your sense of self, but you’ve got to leave yourself behind.
“If you’re playing a character that’s perceived as threatening, you have to develop the shadow of that, the other side. I really enjoy that. That’s my sense of the world. What you see usually isn’t what you get.”
Dafoe leans on his experience co-founding the New York City theatre company the Wooster Group to explain further, gesticulating as he does. “If you just think about what’s in front of you, you become top-heavy. You also have to think about what’s behind you. There aren’t people there, but there is a world there. So, to be in your feet, to really be there, to be present, you have to…” He makes a whoosh sound, his arms moving above his head. “You have to take it all in.”
When Dafoe was BAFTA and Oscar-nominated for The Florida Project, Stock remembers, there was some commentary along the lines of “‘Wow, Willem Dafoe is playing quite a normal guy.’ I know it’s not that simple.”
As with everything Dafoe, it isn’t. He uses the chance to recall the experience of working on something so down-to-earth and realistic, a contrast to much of his typically fantastical recent work. “Working with children and people in the actual place we were filming,” he says — “Sean Baker didn’t like me calling them non-actors” — “really appealed to me. I’m doing something more naturalistic than I’m used to. I feel like I’m always wanting to get away from feeling like an actor.
“When I was young, I always liked actors who didn’t seem like actors. You know, people like Warren Oates and Harry Dean Stanton. There’s a kind of grace in that. Obviously, they’re actors, but it didn’t feel that way. As a kid, I’d watch them and think ‘Ah, they got a truck driver to play that role.’ They bring a humanity, a kind of lack of narcissism. I felt, ‘Wow, that’s the way to tell stories.’ To not make it about you: to have an experience and have it transparent enough for other people to have that experience with you. That’s a difficult thing to achieve when you’re trained to think, ‘Hey, look at me.’”
The modesty Dafoe exudes in conversation doesn’t seem at all like a false one. He advises that actors stay in touch with the rest of the production on any piece of work. “I like to take the drama out of going from your rest area to the set, you know, like ‘Here comes the actor.’ Be like one of the workers! It’ll help you relax.” An A-List actor who spends lots of time on set seems like a welcome presence, Stock says, but how does he avoid becoming a nuisance or a distraction, for the director especially? “It’s like anything: if you’re around, they get used to you.” Whether or not Dafoe is finally rewarded by major film academies on both sides of the Atlantic, we can be grateful that we’ve got used to him all over again.