There’s order and there’s chaos.
They are concepts but they are everywhere: the laminar flow of the smoke of an extinguished candle before it curls into random knots; individual six-branched ice crystals that make up the flurry of a snowstorm. Even our entropic universe is governed by the laws of thermodynamics.
Look up at the constellated wilderness—light from long-dead planets—but we can trace each seemingly randomly scattered pin-dropped star. Lo, there’s Orion, the mighty hunter. And over there we see Aquarius the cupbearer. And that distinct ‘W’? That’s the vain queen Cassiopeia. It’s human nature to divine patterns in disorder. In an act of hindsight, we connect the desultory dots to make sense of our lives.
Out of every random permutation, how did we end up with our own personal narrative?
Willem Dafoe wasn’t always Willem Dafoe.
He was William, born in the idyllic-sounding Appleton, Wisconsin. What can be easily found on the Internet is truncated as such: seventh of eight children; parents comprise a doctor dad and a nurse mother. His siblings acknowledge his creative flair until that got him into trouble when he was expelled from high school for ‘creating pornography’ (he wasn’t). Drama school at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee before dropping out; moved to New York and joined the experimental theatre company, the Wooster Group. Figure modelled for art classes on the side. Had his first film experience as an extra in Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate; had his first leading role for The Loveless. More films followed. Dafoe got an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor for his role as Sergeant Elias in Platoon; more films; Dafoe gets roles that lean towards ‘interesting’, ‘villainous’, ‘weird’. Another Oscar nomination for best supporting actor as Max Schreck in Shadow of the Vampire; even more films follow. A third Oscar nomination, once more for best supporting actor, for his role as Bobby in The Florida Project. This is a role that has Dafoe playing… well, normal. He’ll finally clinch an Oscar nomination for best actor for his portrayal as Vincent van Gogh in At Eternity’s Gate.
Now. He has upcoming films, Motherless Brooklyn and The Lighthouse will be released this year. The former is a crime noir set in the 1950s and the latter is a horror-thriller set in 19th-century Maine. In both films, the characters that Dafoe inhabits are no less intense or interesting than what he usually gets.
The Lighthouse sees him as Tom Wake, a lighthouse keeper who, along with Ephraim Winslow played by Robert Pattinson, operates a lighthouse while dealing with the encroaching solitude and eventual madness.
“For Motherless Brooklyn,” Dafoe says after his photoshoot, “Edward [Norton] said that it was a passion project of his. Something he was working on for the longest time and… it was pretty direct. I was in New York and he asked me to do this.”
Adapted from the Jonathan Lethem’s novel of the same name, Motherless Brooklyn follows Lionel Essrog (played by Edward Norton), a private investigator with Tourette syndrome. During the course of his investigation, he meets with Paul Randolph (Dafoe), whom Norton refers to as the “Obi-Wan Kenobi of the film”.
“Edward took liberties with certain aspects of the [source material] so there was a lot of invention going on,” Dafoe adds. “I supposed I could have read the book first but I was more content with reading certain histories about New York City… it's things like that that help in my imagining and my ability to simply speak the text with some authority.”
Paul Randolph is a character created specifically for the movie adaptation. Dafoe plays him wide-eyed, dishevelled like he’s a homeless paranoid, but he ends up helping Lionel Essrog solve the mystery.
“I didn't know if I had the time to do it. I read the script and thought the story was beautiful but during that time, I was engaged in [a multitude] of activities. But we worked it out and I’m happy that I did it.”
When the 19th-century French writer, Stendhal (the nom de plume of Marie-Henri Beyle, who doesn’t cotton to your polynym beliefs) visited Florence, he was filled with “celestial sensations” when he visited the Basilica of Santa Croce, where many of his heroes are interned.
Thus arose the term Stendhal Syndrome, where the recipient is exposed to such great beauty that he or she is bowled over, as though touched by God.
There was an early point in his career when Dafoe fretted about the roles he was getting. He has a mug that he once described as ‘read as mean’ or he likens it to someone from a Bruegel artwork. His mandible juts out with impudence; thin lips perimeter a wide mouth that seems to fill the lower half of his visage when he smiles. There’s electricity in his eyes; eyes that narrow to a menace or enlarge with a manic glint. This is a mug that etches itself into your unconscious, but it is what you do with it that matters. The harsh lines soften as Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ. His eyes brimmed with sadness as a grieving father in Antichrist. A smile, a mix of sadness and relief, spreads on Vincent van Gogh’s face as he’s in deep veneration of how the sun lights the natural landscape in At Eternity’s Gate.
You are moved by the versatility Dafoe would apply to his roles. And his tool, when his features are splashed across the big screen… that face is beguiling, it is a majesty.
"The less you know of me, the better you can accept the character on screen… I like a strong mask or where my physical self is hidden."
“I haven't been worried about typecasting for a long time,” Dafoe tells me. “That was more of a product from when I was younger. Now I feel more reckless and more free in my choices.”
I don't think that the roles that are given to you are villains per se. I think of them as ‘uncommon people’.
“I think that's an apt description. ‘Uncommon people’. But I'd also say that all characters are 'uncommon people’.”
Although a familiar face, Dafoe prefers keeping a sense of mystery to his personal life. “The less you know of me, the better you can accept the character on screen.” His awkwardness in engaging with “inquisitive journalists” runs contrary to this mindset, but he finds that it keeps him grounded.
“I don't mind speaking to the press because it allows me to figure out a way to talk about what I do. It's always a degree of self-analysis. It holds up a mirror to myself.”
Another reason is the promotion. Dafoe has see-sawed between blockbusters and art-house films; all are sacrosanct to him and he knows that in order to get the public into the seats, he needs to talk to people like me, to raise awareness, to get the movies he’s in the attention they deserve. “It's always difficult for movies, particularly independent cinema, to find their way into the marketplace.”
Do you fear that people might see you, the actor, on screen, rather than your character?
“That is always a problem, not only for me but for any actor,” Dafoe says. “It really depends on the role; I like a strong mask or where my physical self is hidden. Or play roles that are expansive enough that the audience has time to sit with the character and throughout the film, the story can evolve them, in a way, that they forget about the association they have with me from other movies.”
Dafoe admits his prolificness can be a hindrance, but he also thinks that the audience can use that familiarity to build an association. “In a way, that enhances their experience because it gives more depth to the character because they saw other aspects of you. And if you're able to unveil another aspect of the character, it can make them see him in a whole new light.”
That doesn't always happen but when it does, it's almost thrilling. Dafoe experienced that himself when he was watched Gloria Bell, an American adaptation of the Chilean-Spanish drama, Gloria. The movie version stars Julianne Moore in the titular role, a free-spirited divorcee who tears up the dance floor at clubs and soon finds herself embroiled in a romance. “I thought it was a great restrained performance,” Dafoe says, later citing Isabelle Huppert as another person whose work he admires, both on film and in theatre.
Dafoe is a nomad. Although he and his wife, the actor and director, Giada Colagrande, have homes in New York and Rome, Dafoe travels often, mostly for work. Spend enough time in a foreign land and you can see how it affects one as a person, let alone as an actor. He was spotted recently vacationing in Kerala, India, with his wife. “I’m very interested in what is the common thread in all cultures, what the bottom line is. Filming in different countries affords me the ability to explore that.”
When quizzed on where else he would like to go to next, he thinks to himself, perhaps wondering if he should proffer his next probable whereabouts. “It’s a big world,” he says. "There are many places that I want to go to. I think maybe central or southern Africa.”
"We make up narratives to create a sense of who we are but I'm always suspicious about that… I do everything that I can to not be attached to narratives."
There’s the method and there’s the madness.
The madness is how he approaches his roles by welcoming the unknown actors arrive with their own prepositions and baggage but for Dafoe, it’s crucial to cast off that conditioning. “It’s freeing. It allows you to play.”
I read to Dafoe about a quote he made, about when it comes to his roles, he’d think more about pretending than about the craft.
"No, I say a lot of stupid things." Dafoe laughs. It’s rich and inviting; each syllable feels like a pat on the back. "The point is that when it comes to performing there is no blueprint; each time it's different. When I say something like that, it's to demystify the process because acting is practical.”
Acting is much complicated on the onset. It’s a many-layered beast, often difficult to pin down, but Dafoe approaches things as a learning process. He reduces things to prepare himself for a role. He learns things; he has a shift of consciousness. “We have to give up the ego and bow to another person's narrative. And the best word that I know to do that is 'pretending' because it's just like a little kid who wants to play cops and robbers and believes in the scenarios that they have conjured up.
“On some level, that is what actors are trying to get to. Sure, it's a craft but there's not always going to be a logic to how we approach a character. A lot of intuition is involved. There are actors who are great at being present but no good at playing a scene and vice versa. Hopefully, we find that certain amount of control and balance that we have abandoned.”
Has anyone come up to you and asked, how can I be like you?
Again that signature laugh. "They don't wanna be like me. You can advise people but everybody has to find their own way. Everybody is unique.”
Dafoe has taught acting workshops on a couple of occasions and found it interesting for himself. He may have been at the game for about 40 years but it still frightens him a little every time he has to play a role.
“I don't want to be falsely modest or coy,” Dafoe says, “but each time I perform, I have to go through this process of what is required or how I feel and how I engaged.”
Take modelling for instance. It is a kind of performance for Dafoe. There are the collaborations with the photographer, with the stylist; the outfits are costumes. What the results are, he’s not always clear on that but it’s the experience that Dafoe is chasing for; that sublime ordered moment.
I put forth a theory: young William James Dafoe was kicked out of Appleton East High School, crashed on his friend’s couch, studied drama at university and left it prematurely to join an experimental theatre company before moving to New York. There, he decided to take on the persona of Willem. He didn’t want to be a William or a Bill or a Billy. Willem became that enduring role in years to come. One who readily embraced the chao-
“I think that's a fair theory,” Dafoe says. “We make up narratives to create a sense of who we are but I'm always suspicious about that. Of course, you need a sense of self, you need an ego to get through the day but it should be wildly flexible. I do everything that I can to not be attached to narratives.
“So, the moment when I changed my name… that's simply to break away from my growing up. It was a declaration of choosing a life that was [pliant] in its identity.”
Dafoe isn’t interested in the medium of television. He prefers the movie’s average running time—an hour-and-a-half, two hours. It’s that length of how the story plays out that requires you to jump off a cliff. “You have to live or die by your decision. You can't react by making friends with an audience, you gotta get down to it.
“There are never enough hours in the day to do the things that I want to do. It’s just a conscious decision to focus on movies or theatre. As long as there is interesting work for me to do, that's what I concentrate on. There’s fulfilment in what I do,” Dafoe continues. “My personal life is preparation to be receptive to what I have to do at work. I do yoga, I meditate. I have many great adventures. I'm very disciplined in my personal life.”
If a man is known by what he has done, Dafoe’s many-storied life will be measured by his films. Just then, his assistant chimes in, informing me that this would be my last question. I fire off that on the Day of Judgement, what movies would he want to be remembered for? What would remain standing in the collapse of an entropic universe?
A bark of laughter.
"I would say the good ones.”
Photographs by Michael Schwartz
Styling by Fabio Immediato
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