Movieline Interviews Willem Dafoe: The Hardest-Working Man in Toronto


When browsing the program for this year's Toronto International Film Festival -- the 34th edition of which opens Thursday night -- one name pops up unusually often. Or at least four films at one fest might seem unusual for the majority of actors, filmmakers and other talent on the scene. But not so much for Willem Dafoe, the durable stage and screen figure whose notorious Cannes alum Antichrist joins Werner Herzog's My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done, the indie vampire thriller Daybreakers, and the Cold War-era drama L'Affaire Farewell to unspool within the next 10 days up north. If only Wes Anderson had The Fantastic Mr. Fox ready for early fall, Dafoe could have made it an even five.

But his Canadian itinerary should keep him busy enough for now. Movieline laced up its running shoes last week for a chat with the veteran actor about the outlook for Toronto, his role-selecting process, the appeal of maverick filmmakers, and how and when he takes vacations.

So: Four films in one festival. Ambitious!

Yeah. Well, it's kind of by accident. You make them, and then they all have different paths. It just so happens that four films I happen to have done are showing in Toronto.

True. But you still have six films total coming out in 2009 alone. That's a lot of work.

I think I've always worked a lot. Up until about five years ago, I was always with my theater company. When I stopped working with the Wooster Group, it gave me more time to do movies. It's a little distorted. I do have my downtime; it's just that with post-production schedules or what not, these four are arriving at one time. What can I say? But I guess after I'm done talking to you, I have to go back to rehearsal; I'm working in the theater again. It's really just sort of periods of development, and then periods where stuff comes out. I've always liked to work. A bunch of possibilities arose, and I took them.


[L-R]: Willem Dafoe as the anonymous He in Antichrist, CIA director Feeney in L'Affaire Farewell, and the rogue vampire-hunter Elvis in Daybreakers.

Obviously, Antichrist is the film most people will associate with you going into Toronto. How have the last four months of debate and hype and sensation affected your memory or perception of that film?

Very little. The experience of working on it and my feeling about the film are pretty strong. I try to listen to the discussion about it, but for me, I was there, and I know how I feel about the film. I feel like some of the discussion is based a little too much on the extreme elements of the film and then neglecting what the film really is. But that time will come; some people will get it, some people won't. Some people will enjoy it, and some people won't.

You say, "What the film really is." What is Antichrist to you?

I think it's a challenging film. I think it's a strong film. I think it takes you to a very dark place, but I always like movies that kind of challenge how I think, or are less a comfort than inspiring. They give me a new way of seeing. And I think this does, even though it's a glimpse into a very dark world. I think it flirts with and addresses some very taboo things that are part of our lives and that we don't talk about. And because Lars [von Trier] is who he is, he finds stories where he can access those things that most of us can tuck away.

You last worked with von Trier on Manderlay. How did that previous relationship help prepare you, if at all, for Antichrist?

It really just got me to know him. I like being in his company; he's very bright and a lot of fun to be around. He's very energetic in his filmmaking. In Manderlay, of course, my job was very different. I was an actor coming in for a couple weeks to do a part in an ensemble; it was a film where a lot of the style had already been pretty much established by Dogville. With Antichrist I felt like it was much different. I felt like like more of a collaborator; it was a more personal film, and Lars, by his own admission, was weaker. He needed someone to accept a very intense way of working -- with the possibility that we'd never finish the film. So it was a very challenging environment, but the kind of commitment he required of us became a source of strength and a source of great interest. An important part of any project is having trust in the director, and that was found very early. I felt like we could go really deep with the material.

Meanwhile, My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done is your first film with Herzog. How did this project come to you?

I've always liked Herzog. When I was student, films like The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser or Even Dwarfs Started Small and Aguirre: The Wrath of God had a very strong impact on me. Then, I must admit, I sort of lost track of him, and then I started picking him up again through his documentaries in particular. I was a great fan of Grizzly Man. I met him at the Telluride Film Festival; we got to talking some, and we became friendly. I think that little bit of knowing each other stuck in his head, and he simply called me up when he was doing this. He said he always wanted to do something with me, and this was a good occasion. I just jumped at it. In this case it was really just a matter of wanting to work with him; later, I came to the story.


So we know you're a collaboratively minded actor. How did that apply to your experience with Herzog?

His collaboration is probably more essential with Michael Shannon, who plays the principal character. That's the heart of the movie. So I'd say it was slightly different. But that's all right. And you're right: I do like to think of myself as a collaborator. I do like to think of myself as someone who makes things rather than interprets things or does characters. It's really about being in a room with people you want to be with and exploring things that interest you. That's really what motivates me so much of the time.

Is that why we see these types of mavericks pop up repeatedly in your career? Guys like Paul Schrader, Abel Ferrara, Von Trier, David Lynch, and now Herzog?

I'm a little schizophrenic with this, because I do adore filmmakers whose films have their personal stamps on them or who have a style or take on cinema that's very specific. All those people you mentioned are those kinds of people. I'm attracted to them. And yet those guys aren't stylists. They're making things, and they invite me to collaborate in ways that I don't always get to do in more conventionally minded movies. Again, they just have a very specific take. It's like you're chasing something. You're trying to find something that's there, but it's through them. It's through their particular vision that you make their story your story. I always feel most liberated when that's the case. It liberates you from yourself because you're serving a universe that's not yours. It's about entering that universe.

What specifically are you looking for the first time you read a script? Is there a philosophy, or a ratio of intellect to gut instinct when you're considering something?

I think it's all gut instinct. In a simple way, it's like, "Do I want to do these things? Does this excite me?" That's really it. Sometime I read scripts very quickly, I react on a gut level, and then I have to read them again to really see what the story is. But I really think it's just, "Do I want to do these things?" [Laughs] It sounds moronically simple. I don't ask myself what they mean, or necessarily who's going to see it, or if I'm going to see it. I really don't. It's more like, "Is this a good invitation to an adventure?"

How does that context pertain to your other films at Toronto, starting with Daybreakers?

With Daybreakers, I probably was a little slow with that. They presented it to me; I didn't know the Spierig brothers, and I had to look at the film they made (Undead). I wouldn't say it's a perfect film -- it's very strapped by its low-budget roots -- but at the same time, again, it's had a personal stamp. It had this beautiful homemadeness and ambition that I really admired. Even if I didn't adore the movie, I thought, "Wow, these guys are filmmakers." Then I got into dialogues with them, and for whatever reason, my taste at the time was to do something really different. So it was through those dialogues and them talking about what they were trying to do that they seduced me into joining them. And once I sign on, I'm there, and I really enjoyed them a lot. I admire how they work. I haven't seen the movie, but I think it'll be a fun movie.

And how about L'affaire Farewell?

It's slightly different. That's just someone calling up and saying, "We want you to do this thing." Again, I really enter as an actor to do not quite a cameo, but a couple of important scenes in a big Cold War-era thriller. I read the script, and it's very interesting; when I say "Cold War thriller," that's the genre, but it also has a beautiful human dimension to it. I had seen the director Christian Carion's film Joyeux Noël, and I also knew some of the other actors. It seemed like an interesting thing to do. And to go to Paris to play an American -- the head of the CIA! -- in a French production interests me. I'm always interested in different ways of working on different movies. I think that's the only way you can't be corrupted.


Corrupted or bored. You've got to make everything personal, but never make it about you. At least that's my take. Maybe that's a screwed-up, puritanical impulse, but I find that those are the situations where I forget myself -- where I feel most fluid. I take someone else's universe or identity or idea, and then I can run with it. I'm not prejudiced by my own thinking.

So when's vacation?

What I do isn't regular work. Right now I'm busy because I'm doing lots of things at the same time. [Laughs] But I'll take little vacations during the day.


  • Anna V. Carroll says:

    WIlem Dafoe & Cuba Gooding, Jr. have the best smiles in the business. Everyone already knows of my deep admiration & respect of Mr. Dafoe's craft. He is the man! Question: Does he have an artist brother in San Francisco? A guy used to frequent a Starbucks in the Business District who could be his twin. Always wondered if they were related.

  • Gallant Patsy says:

    Second hardest working man in Toronto. Honestly, I barely have time to log in here and say something these days.

  • Chuck says:

    Ms. Carroll, Dafoe is one of 7 kids so it's possible you may have seen a sibling of his. He rarely speaks of his family background or his childhood, so don't know how many of the other six are male or female. Do know he's the second child and he has an older brother.

  • SammyMaudlin says:

    I always thought it was an insane choice in Spider-Man to cover Dafoe's Green Goblin's face with a HELMET. I mean, this is Willem Dafoe!