Willem Dafoe: 'I have a charmed life'

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Willem Dafoe might be seared into our collective imagination for his baddie roles, but as the actor tells Geoffrey Macnab, he's also portrayed Jesus, starred with Mr Bean, and is currently playing a pin-headed Martian. Just don't mention the Birds Eye ads...

That dog," Willem Dafoe mutters as he remembers a previous occasion he was interviewed by a British journalist. The writer had asked him if it was true that he was the "most well-hung" star in Hollywood – a question that astounded him – and explains why now, more than a decade on, he remains suspicious of Brits bearing tape recorders. Dafoe is a very distinguished screen and stage actor with Oscar nominations and an extraordinarily varied list of credits behind him. He was speaking to someone from what he thought was a reputable newspaper – and then he had that grenade lobbed in his direction.

Dafoe's suspicion of the British press notwithstanding, he is a personable and friendly enough interviewee – as long as you steer clear of anatomical questions and don't go too near the frozen food. The only point in our conversation at which a distinct chill descends is when I have the temerity to ask about the Birds Eye advert in which he played a polar bear sitting in a fridge, extolling the virtues of frozen peas.

It's a testament to Dafoe's range that he can switch seemingly effortlessly from playing psychopathic villains (for example, in William Friedkin's To Live and Die in LA) to portraying outsiders (his drug dealer in Paul Schrader's Light Sleeper) and even to playing Jesus himself (in Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ). Just don't ask him about the polar bear role. "This is the last thing I want to talk about," he says frostily.

The 56-year-old actor is smaller than you might imagine. Then again, as anyone who remembers his spectacularly nasty performance as the toothsome villain Bobby Peru in David Lynch's Wild At Heart (1990) will remember, Laura Dern towered over him in that sequence when he brutally seduced her in the motel room. Dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, he is lean and fit. Even during a casual conversation, he has much of that grinning, predatory intensity that he regularly projects on screen. And he still seems surprisingly youthful, an extraordinary mix of teen-star good looks and Old Testament cragginess. His face has a lived-in look – two deep grooves neatly connect his nose to his mouth, and another is chiselled heavily between his eyebrows – but his sharp cheekbones and the upward sweep of the lines creasing out from his eyes seem to scorn the gravitational pull of middle age.

We are sitting in the lobby of an upmarket hotel in Copacabana, Rio – Dafoe is in town for the Rio Festival at which he has three new films screening.

He describes acting as a near-mystical craft. He talks of "losing himself" in roles (especially those for theatre) and of entering into "a different state of consciousness... a more graceful state than we normally have in life. That is one of the personal pleasures of it." The problem with movies (and presumably those frozen pea ads) as opposed to theatre is that there are so many more interruptions to the creative process. Nonetheless, he continually seeks out directors who will allow him to submerge himself in the parts he plays. "With very few exceptions, with films, the sequences of performing are much shorter. I've sought out those exceptions. For example, I've worked with Theo Angelopoulos and he is well-known for 20-minute takes," Dafoe reflects on The Dust of Time (2008), his film with the Palme D'Or-winning Greek art-house auteur.

Dafoe may be selective in his choices of roles but he's no snob. Scan his filmography and you'll find plenty of genre and mainstream fare alongside the more esoteric titles. He is the 'Green Goblin' in the Spider-Man films. He appeared alongside Rowan Atkinson in Mr Bean's Holiday (2007). This month, we will see him on screen in John Carter, the first 'live action' film directed by Pixar alumnus Andrew Stanton. The movie is a huge-budget, CGI-driven sci-fi fantasy in which Dafoe is barely recognisable as the green-skinned, giant-tusked Tars Tarkas – a Martian warrior.

The film was shot using motion-capture techniques. This effectively means Dafoe played his role with a camera fixed to his head to record his expressions. "I've got the grid of dots on my face to correspond to a model for the animators. Then, I've got the dots on my body. And I am wearing three-foot stilts," he cheerfully explains. "The thing to remember is that I initiate the performance and then they transform it on to a different form, basically. With a little abstraction, it's not unlike any other performance."

All in all, he concludes, appearing in John Carter isn't so different from his work over the years with the New York experimental theatre company, the Wooster Group. "With the Wooster Group, one of the great things I learnt and that was drummed into me is that it was a place where the technicians were like actors and the actors were like technicians. It was a place where you learnt to love technology and appreciate it. In no way should it get in the way of expressing yourself or [your] emotion."

By complete contrast, Dafoe is also starring in The Hunter, a low-budget Australian film in which he is a soldier of fortune trying to find DNA from the Tasmanian tiger. Another new film is 4:44 Last Day on Earth, Abel Ferrara's apocalyptic drama about a Manhattan couple trying to cope with the end of the world. In the film – the third he has made with Ferrara – he appears opposite the director's girlfriend, Shanyn Leigh. Which could have been a risky decision given that she and Dafoe share some fairly intimate scenes. But there was no tension: the director has apparently calmed down of late (thanks, it is said, to the influence of Leigh).

Dafoe's screen career began in less than propitious circumstances more than 30 years ago when he appeared in a minor role alongside Christopher Walken, John Hurt and Jeff Bridges in Michael Cimino's epic western, Heaven's Gate (1980), notorious as the movie that bankrupted United Artists. He wasn't credited for his performance – something that still rankles, as he talks about the film today with a mixture of affection and exasperation.

"The week before Cimino started shooting, he had just won the Academy Award for The Deer Hunter. We had a very high feeling going into it. We were making a western and a western had not been made for a long time, not an epic western. The preparations were exact. Cimino was celebrated for being such a perfectionist and a detail person and a person with vision. But what happened was that this started out as an $8 million movie and in a very short time, it blew up into a $40 million movie or whatever it was."

Dafoe was there for the first three months of what turned into a nightmarish eight-month shoot. Initially, the mood on set was upbeat and enthusiastic. Then, the pressure began to build and the stress levels rose. Gradually, the production began to implode as actors were kept sitting around for months, with nothing to do, while a sense of disaster mounted.

Despite the controversy, Dafoe acknowledges that Heaven's Gate had a transformative effect on his career. "Listen, I started out as a theatre actor and remained a theatre actor. That is where my identity was. But then I had the opportunity with Heaven's Gate to work on this Hollywood movie with this really charismatic director that had made some good movies."

For all his solemnity, Dafoe isn't precious. In his screen credits, you can't help but be struck by the jarring juxtapositions; one moment he voices a fish in Finding Nemo and the next he is enduring genital mutilation at the hands of Charlotte Gainsbourg in Lars von Trier's Antichrist. He is a big supporter of von Trier: "I adore him. I like his work but also I like being in the room with him," he says. This, in spite of the Danish director's foibles and tendency to make outrageous statements at Cannes press conferences. (Von Trier was banned from the film festival last year after declaring he had sympathy for Hitler.) "Of course, he can be very playful, antagonistic and perverse. Sometimes, I am a little taken aback by some things that I hear or by his behaviour but in the end, he is one of those people that gives so much to what he does. I appreciate that. Superficially you could see him as smug or clever or working it, but on some level, he's very sincere. He is just a very conflicted artist and he likes to challenge himself."

Is Dafoe going to be in von Trier's new film, The Nymphomaniac? The actor says he is not sure. "He mentioned it to me but he is still writing it."

Put it to Dafoe that he has a knack for playing bad guys – rapists, gimlet-eyed psychotics and vengeful thugs – and he protests. His tally of villains is, he insists, "less than you think". He then defies me to list the villains he has played. After naming Bobby Peru in Wild at Heart, the counterfeiter in To Live and Die in LA and one or two others, he is gratified to see that I am (as he puts it) "out of ammo".

Why, then, do audiences still think of him as the consummate screen villain? "I think more to the point is that I play not normal people, marginal people, people with a different way of thinking. They aren't always bad people." For some reason which he can't quite pinpoint, he is drawn to playing loners and outsiders. "I like that kind of character but my life is not like that. I have a charmed life. I am not dangerously lonely." As for the scene in Wild at Heart in which he preys on Laura Dern, he insists that "there was something natural about the combination of them in that scene. She let him in, you know what I am saying?".

Willem Dafoe was born in 1955 in Wisconsin. His father was a surgeon. There was nothing in his background to explain his drive to perform. "I was becoming a teenager. There was nobody around me who made their living as an artist or an entertainer. I grew up quite middle-class but I didn't have any of those actor fantasies."

As a young adult in the 1970s, he enjoyed being around actors and studied drama at university. "I was never thinking about a career. I was thinking I am going to ride this out and have a good time and then, some day, I'll decide what I want to do," he recalls of his early attempts at acting, with the avant garde group Theatre X and then The Wooster Group. He has had little formal training as such. For all the earnest detail with which he will discuss his preparation for a role, he didn't spend long years studying 'The Method' or steeping himself in the teachings of Sanford Meisner or Stella Adler.

"My training is really from doing. Ever since I was about 18 years old, I've been working at a theatre. I was there every day. It was not traditional theatre but a company where we were always generating work. When we were not generating work, we were running the theatre or planning a tour. That was my school."

In spite of his still blossoming film career, Dafoe spends much of the year in Europe (he is married to the 36-year-old Italian director and actress, Giada Colagrande). He says his "pleasures come from seeing dance companies and being in art galleries more than they do probably from Hollywood movies. I like to be in the company of those people and I like to be in those traditions."

He claims that when it comes to lifestyle, "I favour a community of people that is more interested in what they do than how much they make – what's sexy to them is their work, not their houses and their pools and all that kind of thing". Dafoe spends part of the year in New York and part in Rome and says he feels at home in both places. "I speak Italian, but not perfectly."

In the 1980s, Dafoe was working with directors like Scorsese, Friedkin and Cimino. Since then, the US film business has changed dramatically. He claims his own energy levels haven't dissipated. Nor is he "backing off" from taking demanding roles. However, he isn't especially optimistic about the way that Hollywood is going.

"I always get self-conscious about making these observations because I recognise that they are totally subjective and may not be that useful or that they may be terrifically prosaic," he prefaces his remarks about declining standards in Hollywood. "But the one thing that really I feel strongly is that in the time I've been an actor, there was a period where the director was the person behind everything. Then it was the studios. Then maybe it was the actor for a little while. Then, maybe, it was the writer. Then, we saw a period when all the energy came from TV. Now is really the period that it is so cynical that advertising and selling the movies has eclipsed making the movies themselves. That puts the director way, way behind. The people who can have careers are those willing to do what has been pre-sold, pre-advertised and pre-thought. Their job is to make the product. That weeds out auteurs and any people with a personal vision."

In Hollywood, Dafoe sees traces of the same "corporate greed" that has afflicted the economy as a whole. "There's a parallel there. If people would stop being so greedy and controlling and let things breathe a little ... they would take bigger risks. Usually the people who have something to say aren't the ones making movies."

Unlike many of his peers, Dafoe hasn't set up his own production company or tried to control the movies he works on. Instead, he is still following the same tack he always has – mixing and matching between mainstream and independent movies. "There are many different things you can consider when a project is presented to you but I can truly say that I've never done a project because someone solely told me it was going to be good for my career and that it was going to be profitable for me economically. That's never enough for me..."

It's tempting to bring up the frozen peas at this point. But when you've made over 80 movies and given intense, memorable performances in most of them, and when you've worked with many of the greatest US and European directors of the era, nobody is going to begrudge you playing a polar bear now and again.

'John Carter' is released on Friday

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