Shapeshifter Willem Dafoe
Friday, March 23, 2012
Over 30 years and 80 films, Willem Dafoe has played a vampire and Jesus Christ; a drug dealer and an FBI agent; the Green Goblin and a tropical fish. This spring, he’s particularly prolific, appearing in three new movies: the big-budget sci-fi epic John Carter, and indies 4:44 Last Day on Earth and The Hunter.
In The Hunter, Dafoe plays a mercenary hired by a bio-tech firm to stalk a rare tiger. Dafoe learned how to hunt and trap for the role, and spent much of the production filming in the Tasmanian wilderness. “I like those intense locations,” he tells Kurt Andersen. “The world drops away and it really invites you to be transformed." And Dafoe is physically transformed as the Martian warrior king Tars Tarkas in John Carter. He performed on three-foot stilts and in a motion-capture suit, later becoming a fully animated character.
Dafoe has worked with the pantheon of great directors including Martin Scorsese, Spike Lee, Lars von Trier, and Werner Herzog. He was also a founding member of the pioneering experimental theater ensemble The Wooster Group, and it shaped his approach even to blockbuster films. “I’m not that attracted to conventional acting scenes with psychology and great writing,” he says. “I like the event.”
Dafoe grew up in Appleton, Wisconsin, where he describes his childhood home as "a beautiful chaos," and got kicked out of high school. He was making a film about “outsiders” for his media class, but when a teacher saw footage of a nudist, that was it. His parents hit the roof: “You were making porno films at school!”
Dafoe went on to cause higher-profile controversies with boundary-testing roles in Last Temptation of Christ (1988) and Antichrist (2009), which sparked outrage at Cannes for its disturbing scenes of sexual violence. But Dafoe believes ruffling feathers comes with the job. "That's what art does," he says. "It keeps us away from the lies. It wakes us up. It's a slap in the face."
Bonus Track: Kurt Andersen's extended conversation with Willem Dafoe
Slideshow: Dafoe on screen this spring