Willem Dafoe: Venice 2012 interview in full (transcript)

NY: You’re from Appleton, Wisconsin — also the home town of another very physical “performer”, Harry Houdini.

WD: I was fascinated with Houdini before I even knew he was [from] Appleton, because it’s not something that they really exploit. I think now there’s a little statue of him. It has universities, it’s not a backwater, but people did not connect with that. But I knew about him growing up, I always liked the idea of him training for these physical feats, finding this kind of yogic power…

And of course in your new film, Bob Wilson’s Life and Death of Marina Abramovic,  your role as the narrator requires considerable physical feats of a different kind. You’ve worked with many people who have gone from tjhe cultural margins to become more celebrated in the general cultural landscape. What is it about these people that allows them to do that – is there a kind of “tipping point?” Specifically with Marina, why is it now that she’s “breaking through?”

It’s probably got a simple answer. It’s people that obviously have some talent, and she’s quite unique, she doesn’t come from a school, necessarily. She studied, that’s not what I mean. She found her own way. It’s fun to imagine her when she grew up in Tito’s Yugoslavia, entertaining these ideas and acting out these performances. If that was happening in C you’d understand it. Maybe I don’t know enough about it, but how she grew up and what she made is kind of extraordinary. She’s made a lot of work over the years, and  that work has been documented, and now they’re appreciating it. And also she was very influential just because of the strength of what she did.  Basically I think it’s someone who has a really strong calling and makes work that’s singular, and not reductive, and has a real personal stamp on it. And if they continue doing that for many years as she did with and without support, enough time goes by and a body of work is created and people start to point at it and recognise it. I think that’s what happens.

So is it a case that persistence pays off, that if the “avant garde” knocks on the door long enough, a breakthrough can be made?

A little bit, a little bit, I think we’ve seen that over and over again. That world’s always changing, but think of all the people who posthumously have been appreciated, that made a huge body of work and basically were ignored. If they have a unique voice and people can’t hear them at a certain time, and then things shift,  and then they get their little hearing, and if it rings true and it’s strong, it amplifies and people run with it.

You seem particularly drawn to people who might be perceived as being on the “margins” of filmmaking.

I am. I like being in a room with people that burn hot or have a real personal calling, or there’s something that attracts me about them in the respect that they stimulate me. Because if I’m stimulated obviously then I feel engaged in a way that the world drops away and I feel like the best part of me comes out. Particularly since I’m a performer that really enjoys taking someone else’s agenda and making it mine. You’ll misfire a lot but at least you’ll like the company you have (!) and it’ll be an experience and there will be some sort of enrichment even if you didn’t quite get together the thing that you were trying to make. But I’d rather do that – be kind of an adventurer with interesting personalities than be a stylist or a crafstman that interprets things or builds a language of their own. I want to learn all different kinds of languages, I want to have all different kinds of experiences, I wanna kind of lose myself and find myself in the doing. I think that’s what it’s about for me.

In the Abramovic film we see you on stage as the Narrator, and you have a very rasping, New York style accent quite at odds with the other vocal aspects of the piece. Did that come from you or from Bob Wilson, the director?

Combination, combination. You know I have all the text in the piece, and it’s a two and a half hour piece, and a lot of the text is very factual. So we had the challenge of how to present this in an interesting way. It was important to lift it up and play with it and find the humour because so much of the actual material is very dark and pessimistic. It was important to find different modes – different modes of performing different voices, different accents, different attitudes. That’s what’s fun about the piece for me, because the character goes in and out and slides around, and even within a speech a character may change.

There’s a moment where Antony Hegarty has to deliver a song standing stock-still, wearing a corset. You’re much more uninhibited and free in what you can do on stage… 

That’s also a reflection of our personalities as well (!!) I’m a jack-rabbit, he’s more a … I don’t know what he is… Lovely guy!

As well as your latest film, Venice is showing your very first. It’s a new cut of Heaven’s Gate – are you actually in it, this time? In some versions you’re not, I believe.

I was even when it’s cut, but only my mother and I might recognise me. I shot for three months on that movie and I basically enjoyed it. I really liked working on it but it was a movie that was under a lot of strain, a lot of pressure.

And it was your first film?

Basically. I mean I made little art movies, Downtown things, but it was my first movie that actually played in theatres. HG is an important part of my history definitely, because… I was fired

Because of a dirty joke, yes?

Yah, which brings us full circle because Marina’s greatest talent is telling dirty jokes [cackles]. We were in a lighting setup for a very long time. And I’m a pretty patient person, and I was patient, but you’re sitting there for eight hours in place, in period costume,  in full make-up and you’re probably not even gonna shoot. But they were tweaking the light in a very meticulous way, so it was important for them for us to be there. I’m fine with that. But you sit there for eight hours and people are gonna start whispering to each other. And the girl next to me told me a dirty joke, and I laughed, and stuck out my tongue. [Mimes]. Michael Cimino turned around, saw that out of the corner of his eye. And I don’t know – because I’ve talked to him since then but I’ve never talked to him about this – I think he thought I was making fun… or I wasn’t being “present”. I think by that time he had so much pressure on him he just saw someone that didn’t seem to be with the programme, and he told me to step out and that was it. And I had shot scenes and things, so.

Did you expect to be in the finished version?

There were some scenes that were important story points that I would be in. But it was also clear that he works in great detail and it was clear that the film was being over-shot in the respect that he was a gathering lot of material, and I was a glorified extra. But once we got there he started developing stories and scenarios about this faceless group of immigrants, he wanted to weave them through the story so you’d see them, so when they die at the end you’d go – you’s say, there goes that guy who helped him on his horse, oh, there goes that woman that we saw doing this with the kid. So he planted things all around he planted all these stories, so I worked a lot, I didn’t have an expectation. Anyway, that’s a long time ago.

Not so long after that you played ‘Second phone booth youth’ in The Hunger, directed by Tony Scott who’s just passed away.

Very sad story. Very sad. I didn’t know him well. I remember very well that my son was about to be born, and I had no money. I think I had insurance but no money. I was working in theater at the time, and I wasn’t soliciting that much movie work, and a friend called up and said, would you like to come and do a day on this movie that I’m producing. He told me what it was, and I said sure, so I did it, it was fun, Tony Scott was cool. I also did the cameo with John Pankow, who later would be one of the stars of To Live and Die in LA. So. We were kids coming up – I look at a picture of me in that film and I look like my son… I look so baby faced, it’s hard to believe I would ever look that way. As far as Tony Scott, I think that’s the last time I saw him, so, obviously we weren’t close friends, but I had a good time on the movie. Shortly after I think i did Streets of Fire – I think of that as my first studio film.

So do you see independent film and Hollywood film as two sides of an art-form or as cinema as more of a continuum? Do you try to “yin-yang” from one to the other?

Both… I’m not that clever, it kind of happens naturally, anyway. That habit was formed very much when I was at the theatre all the time, and it was a real hardship for me to go away and make a movie. If I made a lot of money I could bring back money and give it to the theatre, and that was done, because it was a collective, and politically it’s how felt, I wanted to share. And then occasionally would come, the beautiful project that I wanted to do, it didn’t pay so much.

It kind of happened naturally, and I think when I was younger I was very careful about how I chose things because I was so afraid of a certain kind of typecasting, and to be away from the theatre was a hardship and I had to make sure that my time was well spent. Now I have more opportunities – so, the level of scrutiny is the same, it just doesn’t feel as torturous, because I think once you’ve been working for a while you can be more reckless. I think there’s a good side to it, because you don’t get stuck, and you’re always learning different ways of working, so you don’t develop bad habits. It’s a way to beat corruption, artistic corruption. But on the other hand it always keeps you a little off balance and always keeps you a little outside any system. It’s like you dip your toe in all these different worlds, but no world owns you. So, that can be liberating but it also can be lonely. So when you have a dearth of interesting projects, you feel like you’re nowhere.

One particularly interesting project that I felt was very much underappreciated was Go Go Tales from 2007, by Abel Ferrara, which is among your best performances I think, and maybe also one of the best films you’ve done lately.

Good for you – bless you, because I think it’s an underrated movie, and an unseen movie. I’m happy you say that. Working with Abel… I’ve worked with him three times. First time was hard… because I think the production was in shambles. We had a good script, we a good cast. New Rose Hotel. The movie – some people like it very much, and I don’t tend to judge my movies, but I think it wasn’t… There were… problems. But not so much to scare me off Abel. And then Go Go Tales, I really collaborated with him on that one. And I felt like that was one of his most personal films. He jokes, he says it’s his first intentional comedy. Filmed here in Italy. And I felt that this was a movie about him, I was playing his alter ego, and I love being in that position where I’m a creature of the filmmaker in the movie. I love that position, because I’m the go between. I get the experience but I have to go toward their experience and embody it. I find that really satisfying. And because it’s kind of comic and it’s a beautiful portrait of a dreamer, and an artist – a kind man that’s out of step with everyone else, it’s kind of bittersweet. And I’ve just made this 4.44 with him, which was made very quickly, it was experimentally made… we really worked from the scenario and I felt like that for Abel was also a personal film. We created a collaboration in Go Go Tales that made me know his mind, and it was interesting how fast – not how fast, but how fluid it became between us. Much was unspoken, but we made the thing on the spot and we shot it.

And then you’re working with Lars Von Trier again after Antichrist, on his new film Nymphomaniac.

Quite a small role, but a nice role, and I’m glad to be a part of Lars’s work.

Is he in any way like Abel Ferrara, in terms of how he’s able to work viably on his own terms?

All different because Abel’s living in the cruel world of American capitalism and Lars has built up being an important part of the Danish film industry. It’s much different – culturally where they fit, and different personalities. They’re both self-starters but they have different obstacles. And Lars has been able to build up his associates and his world over the years – where Abel is pitching camp, pulling it up, running to that place where he can still fight the next battle. I really admire Abel. I mean he struggles – a lot, but I admire the fact that he is a self-starter, he’s making things, by himself, he’s a fighter, and he’s made some beautiful movies. And I think people reduce him to just a couple of movies and I think it’s not fair at all, because his influence has been very important, not just in Europe where he’s more revered than in the States, but also in the States.

So, to wrap up, perhaps you could say a little bit more about Bob Wilson’s Life and Death of Marina Abramovic…

You can imagine, it was an interesting meeting of people making a piece – I’ve always loved Bob Wilson, I had a personal relationship to Marina, and I’ve always admired her, same with Antony. Bob Wilson I grew up on him, I’ve always loved him so I always imagined working with him, and I was very happy to work with him. Giada was very good at laying back and letting a point of view about that process get made, she didn’t push it, she was there, she watched, she collected, and then she made something that… has air, doesn’t have a hard point of view, I don’t think it’s a typical “making of” – I think it’s an interesting portrait of people collaborating and making something. People that all have their histories and their language, and then they come together to adjust those things, to find a common ground.

Interview conducted at the Venice Lido, during the Venice Film Festival, September 2012 – with thanks to Willem Dafoe and Claudia Thomassini.


Willem Dafoe photographed by Maurizio Galimberti, Impossible 8×10 Inch Film