Antichrist's Willem Dafoe: 'We Summoned Something We Didn't Ask For'
On a warm, sunny afternoon at the legendary Hotel du Cap, about 30 minutes outside Cannes, Willem Dafoe sat down to discuss Antchrist, the press, Lars von Trier, and why he didn't notice much acting in his latest film.
A relaxed Dafoe was eager to divulge just how he got involved in the project. "I thought, 'What's Lars von Trier doing these days.' I really liked working with him [on Manderlay], and he was due for something. I had someone call his office and he got back to me and he said, 'Look I've had a rough time. I'm working on this thing, would you like to see the script?' But he said Bent [Froge, his wife] doesn't think I should do it. Maybe because it's extreme. On paper the violence and the sex...she just assumed this American actor who's been in big movies wouldn't want this role."
Thankfully Dafoe did it, and it's a great role to balance his career. "I think the dark stuff, the unspoken stuff is more potent for an actor. It's the stuff we don't talk about, so if you have the opportunity to apply yourself to that stuff in a playful, creative way, yes I'm attracted to it.
When asked the question, "What is the Antichrist to you," Dafoe replied, "Antichrist is a good title for this movie," to laughter. "That's the showman part of Lars. He may have his reasons but for me," he says, holding up the press kit, "graphically it's nice, it's a catchy title. The woman symbol with the 't'. It's good. But literally, who is the Antichrist? I don't know."
Antichrist marked a change in how Dafoe handles seeing his work on screen. "Normally, when I see a movie [I've been in], the making of the movie always eclipses the movie because that's an intense period of time. It's your creative period of time where you're making material. Generally, when I'm in a movie I can't see it because it conjures memories of the making of it. In this case, it's an exception. I saw it and I like this movie very much. It's also evocative to me in a way, that even though I helped make it and I'm in almost every frame of it...it's new to me in a funny way. I don't know why that is. I am able to watch it. It stays with me." He continues, "It's almost like we summoned something that we didn't ask for."
Though his role is a spare one -- he plays a grieving psychiatrist mourning the death of his son, while trying to treat his wife's extreme depression -- he did do some preparation. "I saw the Tarkovsky film The Mirror and also looked at The Idiots, because Lars wanted to show me how he does the porn inserts" -- an important element for an actor engaged in explicit sex scenes.
Dafoe also did research on the ways in which a therapist might try to treat a person suffering the loss of a child. "Lars also put me in touch with some cognitive-behavior therapy people from Columbia University," explained Dafoe. Then he got very technical. "They let me sit in on sessions, gave me material to read, and made me familiar with exposure therapy and the philosophy of cognitive-behavior therapy. Exposure therapy involves bringing the patient closer to the thing he or she is afraid of. Basically, you get close to it, you survive it; and once you survive it you get power over it and the fear tends to recede."
When fielding a question from Time Out New York's Stephen Garrett about the press' over-the-top reaction to the film, Dafoe said, "It's been a long time since I heard so many people pressing so much for justification and meaning, that guy from the tabloid [Baz Bamigboye]...it kills it if you always have to be accountable for what it means. This is poetry and storytelling. I was surprised at how righteous that guy felt. It's fine for him to feel like that. It's a very conservative, limiting view of how to view entertainment, art, anything. I think Lars's answer was very correct."
In the end, Dafoe believes strongly in art not being simply a commodity. "Your responsibility is to the integrity of what you do to yourself," he said. "If you take yourself out of it, you're making a product. You can make movies that way. I don't think Lars intends to make them that way. And I try to avoid that at all costs, because it robs me of my power to make something that is true and fresh and living. Leave that to the people making toilet bowl cleaner. That's not the game I'm in."
Dafoe also gave some insight into von Trier's mind as a director and his process. 'Sometimes, Lars's direction is like this,' he said, making the international gesture for sex, forefinger into hole. "Sometimes he says something like, 'You, 20 percent more, you 18 percent less.'"
The affable Dafoe also gave a critique of his performance in Antichrist. "When I saw this movie," he said, "one good sign from an actor's perspective...this is a big confession guys, you're getting me at a weak moment," he said to assembled journalists, with a smile, "I thought, ah, as extreme as the film is, there's very little acting in this movie. And I was happy with that."
When asked if he was critiquing his own performance, he said, "Everyone's, even the fox's, though vocally he needed some work." ♦