FILM / Calling for the leading lady's man: Willem Dafoe might have learned his lesson when playing second fiddle to Madonna, but now he has been cast in the shadows of Miranda Richardson. That's fine by him. Interview by John Lyttle

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The Independent Culture
Willem Dafoe is intense. Whether playing the ultimate good guy in Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ or Bobby Peru, the ultimate bad guy, in David Lynch's Wild At Heart, Dafoe's movie appearances have been marked by a ferocity that can nail audiences to their seats. It's probably an optical illusion, but when those bright blue eyes stare out in Cinemascope, he seems to be looking at (or for) you, the wimpy individual cowering behind the tub of popcorn. He never lets up: dying nobly in Platoon, bullying racists in Mississipi Burning, surviving the concentration camps in Triumph of the Spirit . . . Dafoe always appears ready to leap from the screen, right into your lap.

Now, a mere foot away, he's just as ardent, just as 'on'. The blue eyes lock on like heat- seeking missiles, and it's difficult to hold his gaze. The late Sergio Leone's complaint after watching Last Temptation comes to mind: 'This is the face of a psychopathic killer, not the face of Our Lord.'

Ah, the face. The open secret of Dafoe's success. While it's hardly psychopathic, it is - like the talent behind it - extreme, an extraordinary fusion of beauty and ugliness. Close-up, the cheekbones are impossibly high, the chin elongated, the skin a whiter shade of pale, the mouth a blunt slash. The mouth starts to move: 'No, I wasn't always Willem. I was born William. My father is William too. Willem became a nickname when I was a child. It has nothing to do with being an actor. The idea of a name change for professional reasons is not something that . . . if that's what people think I've done, I'm a little embarrassed.

'I don't want to read too much into it, but I will say I remember consciously, actively seeking out a nickname. When I was younger I always wanted to be older than I was. 'Willem' represented freedom.'

Dafoe grins a vaguely guilty grin. 'I'm 38 years old but I still get a little worried that my parents will read what I've said and get the wrong idea.'

On to safer subjects, then. Dafoe is in town to promote Tom and Viv, the story of T S Eliot's tortured relationship with his first wife, Vivienne Haigh-Wood, played by Miranda Richardson (see review opposite). It's his second movie on the trot in which the female lead dwarfs the male. The first was last year's Body of Evidence, Madonna's hysterical attempt to best Basic Instinct. The Material Girl's nakedness got most of the (appalling) notices and gossip column mentions: introduced to Dafoe for the first time she opened her fur coat and flashed at him, just to let him know who was boss. This time around, Richardson has the showier part by virtue of the writing of Michael Hastings and Adrian Hodges. She's the extreme personality here - not Dafoe, who gives an impeccably low-key performance, undoubtedly destined to be overlooked.

You would have thought that the Body Of Evidence experience would have warned Dafoe off roles that Hollywood views as thankless, but this is to misunderstand his motives. He wants his films to be box office successes, of course, simply because 'it helps if I have some currency out there. I want people to give me the money to do things.' So he's upset when told that US magazine has hinted that he's in Europe making movies because Body of Evidence has blotted his copybook in America. 'Yes, that gets me. They're intimating that I'm a failure. I try not to read that stuff, actually.'

On the other hand, he's a method actor before he's a studio star, dividing his time between the avant-garde theatrics of the Wooster Group and the languid blandishments of LA-LA Land. He tries to negotiate the demands of each, this year rushing from the big-budget Clear and Present Danger in Mexico to staging O'Neill's The Emperor Jones in New York. But he nurses a dread of having his persona fixed and sold (though he's amusingly aware that his physiognomy works against matinee-idol status). 'My choices are totally governed by intuition. I don't read roles and go, 'Oh, I could really do something with that.' It's always more, 'Hmm, let's try that on and see how it feels.'

'Yes, I'm interested in having a good career. Yes, I'm interested in people getting excited about what I do. I guess I'm a human being, I like to be praised but I felt like it was an interesting challenge to play Eliot and work inside of those restraints.

'I was very aware that this was a great role for Miranda and that I was going to be . . . the bass line. I don't mind that. It takes two to tango. To let her do her aria is my job. It's all about collaboration. If Miranda's performance is good, I'll take credit for it. If people like her performance, they can thank me.' Dafoe laughs his Bobby Peru laugh. It's close to a bark.

Still, it's strange - and oddly exciting - to see him in a British film, his energy level way down, his manner formal, doing an accent eerily close to the American-born Eliot's own sepulchrous stab at cut-class English as She is Spoken. Dafoe knows it's a stretch. 'Initially, I wasn't so sure I was the right person for the role. Sometimes it's a real actor's conceit to think you can play all kinds of things. I wasn't sure if I wasn't asking too much of myself - since I've done the film, I don't want to make it sound as if I'm complimenting myself for courage or anything like that.

'But people have been saying to me, 'Oh, it must have been horribly difficult to play this repressed, stiff character. And no, it wasn't. It didn't occur to me. When you're doing it you're not aware of the exterior you represent. I felt very lively, I felt very emotional, I felt very engaged.'

In fact, Dafoe found the experience a restful change from the hurly-burly of Hollywood. 'One thing that was very different was that when you come on a set like Tom and Viv there's a kind of polite understanding that the actors know what they're doing. And the actors have a quiet self-confidence: this is their job, they do their jobs and the atmosphere's nice. People say 'That's fine' and get on with it.'

Dafoe pauses and lets Bobby Peru loose one last time. 'Let's just say it made a change from the States and the who's-hot- and-who's-not mentality.'

(Photograph omitted)