Shocking is the word that springs to mind when you meet Willem Dafoe. Not as in awful, but as in startling. He is standing with his back to me, staring out of the window over West Berlin at night. From behind, he is ordinarily trendy - faded black denims, bright blond hair tied in a pony tail. Then he turns round, holds out his hand and grins and you simply don't know where to look. The mouth is so wide, the teeth so oversized, the stare so intense. "I guess they often cast me as the bad guy, because I'm not, er, conventional looking. I look sort of violent. I'm the odd one out, the outsider," he says.
Wisconsin-born Dafoe, 41, who has played a string of evil characters, including the criminal who is fornicated to death by Madonna in Body Of Evidence, and the evil Bobby Peru in David Lynch's Wild At Heart, was at the Berlin Film Festival to promote Anthony Minghella's highly acclaimed film, The English Patient.
He plays the part of David Caravaggio: a seething, thieving, literally thumbless, morphine-shooting Canadian spy, determined to prove that the disfigured, dying and apparently amnesiac English patient (Ralph Fiennes) is morally responsible for the mutilation of his hands. "I know it was you," says Caravaggio. "I saw you... when I had thumbs and a face."
But, this time, it's not just the brutality of the character he plays that marginalises Dafoe. His co-actors, Kristin Scott Thomas, Ralph Fiennes and Juliette Binoche, have all been nominated for Oscars. Despite an excellent performance, he has not. "That's not what it was about for me," he says. "It was about playing the character of a man who came with murderous intentions and left with none. It was about helping him resolve his trauma and come to a place of healing, a resting place. A place we all need to find."
When Dafoe heard about Michael Ondaatje's novel, The English Patient, he refused to read it for months. "Everyone in my circles was reading it. It was dinner-party conversation. People were giving each other the book to seduce one another." Understandably, someone gave Dafoe the novel with similar intentions. "When I finally succumbed - to reading the book, I mean," he says, the mouth again breaking open into a vast smile, "I was taken by the poetry, the smells and touches of the narrative, the setting in Tuscany and the Sahara."
And what seduced him most about the story, set in the Second World War, of the English patient and his love affair with Katherine, played by Kristin Scott Thomas? Dafoe deliberates. He is a man of few words, but when he does talk it is as if he has weighed each one before opening his mouth. "'His penis,'" he says slowly, "'was like that of a sleeping sea lion.' It was lines like those that got to me the most. So precise, so exact, so deeply felt, don't you think?" I wanted to say, yes, yes absolutely, and while we're on the subject... Dafoe must have read my mind. He looked at me, laughed and turned scarlet. "Anyway," he said, clearing his throat, "I just fell in love with the book."
He heard that Anthony Minghella was writing a screenplay of the book and was planning to direct it himself. Ralph Fiennes ex-wife, Alex Kingston, suggested that Dafoe would fit the part and Dafoe let it be known that he was interested. "Audition? No. I didn't - I never audition," he says. "Anthony Minghella just came to my loft and we talked. A director either wants me or he doesn't. He just has to look at my past work and make up his mind."
Despite his highly respectable track record, Dafoe is a strange mixture of confidence and shyness. He might say something arrogant, such as, "I never audition," but the redness that starts at the base of his neck and creeps over his face belies him. When challenged, he admits to his insecurities. "I am confident only when I am constantly in motion. Between projects, the doubt creeps in. I didn't take it for granted that I would get the part of Carvaggio by any means."
Forty-five minutes with Dafoe is long enough to ascertain that he is a deeply complex character. On the one hand he makes no bones about needing the highs of Hollywood. On the other, he craves the downtown earthiness of the Wooster group, the experimental theatre company in SoHo, New York, where he works between films with his long-time lover, Elizabeth Lecompte. "Ah... Elizabeth. She is the bravest person I know. She's crazy, she's brilliant and she's... well, I'm not going to tell you the other stuff," he laughs.
Although Dafoe exudes a certain raw sexuality, he is capable of being incredibly romantic and waxes lyrical about the filming in Tuscany of The English Patient. "The quiet moments in the monastery between shoots were the moments I loved most - the sense of history. I have a deep fascination with the lives of monks. But, then, I'm fascinated by criminality, too."
The word "criminality" heralds a change of tack and the mystical expression on his face is gone in an instant. "I don't always like to be high minded. Sometimes, I like to act in something where I can drop my pants and shake my bare ass. That's the excitement of being a performer. Oh, sorry, am I being too trashy for you?"
A little perhaps, but not nearly as trashy as when I ask him if he mastered any Italian during filming and he enunciates every syllable of a sentence he has learnt. A sentence too vulgar for print. But before Dafoe's fleeting crudeness has time to register, he's muttering lines he's memorised from Dante's Inferno in Italian, about the abandonment of love and hope.
"The English Patient is about the coming together of a French-Canadian nurse, an English patient, a Sikh in a turban and me, Caravaggio, and each of us is seeking a resolution to our own problems," he says.
"Do you like Caravaggio?" I ask him. "Caravaggio is me and I am him," he replies. "But that means you're antagonistic and capable of being a thief and a murderer," I say. "We are all capable of everything. I could be a thief. I could be a murderer. I could be anything at all. But, above all, I think I am a seeker. Buddhism fascinates me for example, though I wouldn't want to be called a Buddhist."
Dafoe doesn't want to be called anything. He hates labels. He loves the idea that he can be one person one minute and another the next. That he can be convinced of one idea one minute and another the next. "I strive to have the opinion of no opinion," he says.
Just as he doesn't want to be pigeon-holed, he doesn't like to pigeon- hole others. "If you must hear it, it was Scott Thomas's wonderful acting that touched me the most during the filming, but I think that judgements about other actors are useless. It serves little purpose to talk about people in that way."
Being with Dafoe is like trying to catch a butterfly in a net. Just when you think you've got it, just when it has fooled you by keeping still for a moment, it flutters its wings and is off again in another direction.
'The English Patient' opens nationwide on 14 March.
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