Willem Dafoe interview: “I feel more like a dancer than an actor”

Adam Forrest Oct 23, 2013
Willem Dafoe

Starring in the new video game Beyond: Two Souls, Willem Dafoe talks regret, nudity and why the film industry is "screwed"

Willem Dafoe has a curious face and intriguing voice. Both are so difficult to pin down. Early in his film career the demonically intense stare and faintly vulpine features left him typecast as a villain. The Village Voice once described his face as the “pallidly beautiful embodiment of pure evil”.

But don’t forget Martin Scorsese looked at Dafoe and saw Jesus (he took the lead role in The Last Temptation of Christ), and the actor was nominated for a Best Supporting Oscar in 1986 for his saint-like portrayal of Sergeant Elias in Platoon.

I meet Dafoe in a west London hotel. He is curled up on the sofa, dressed in black, wiry and coiled, every bit the earnest actor waiting for his next role. His voice is very pleasing on the ear: half honey, half sandpaper.

Dafoe’s latest project is the ambitiously cinematic, motion-capture video game Beyond: Two Souls (also starring Ellen Page), which he has thrown himself into with the same enthusiasm as experimental theatre. Dafoe says he “doesn’t really work in Hollywood any more” and has some intriguing views on the future of film…

So, why does an A-list actor sign up for a video game? Maybe I’m simple-minded but as I look back on it… definitely there was a snobbery because there’s no precedent for actors doing anything other than voicing video games, and my association with games is that they’ve been about killing people and blowing stuff up. So there was some snobbery, until I saw what this was. I thought, wow, and found myself approaching it like a film. It seemed like [developer] David Cage was making a very different kind of video game. This is more psychological, participating in the narrative. It’s compelling, evocative. It’s a good story.

Did you never play video games? No, I never really did.

Not even Donkey Kong or Pac-Man? Wasn’t how my leisure time was spent. Maybe I’m just an old dude but when I get the time I prefer to look at a movie or read. I don’t even watch television.

What do you make of the state of the film industry? I think film is in crisis. I know a lot of energy is going to television – movie stars are coming from television. Everybody praises television. It hasn’t been my experience because I’m still very much in love with movies, but the movie business has got so screwed. Our creative people aren’t in charge any more. Maybe they never were but it’s more difficult than ever to create. All the energy is on the selling of something rather than the making of something.

Why is that? With so many delivery systems… the movie industry is so freaked out that the classic young audience hasn’t grown up with movies. They haven’t had the relationship with movies. They have a relationship with their computers and social networking. That’s where they live, so movies have to be spectacular and have to try to appeal to so many people. They get more and more calculated and it squeezes the experimenters. Something will give. I don’t think movies will flat-out die. I don’t want to be an old fart that says [croaky voice] “Well, it was good in the old days” because it wasn’t even good in the old days. It’s always a struggle. But definitely, now, movies are a little flat.

So what about television? You don’t fancy something like Game of Thrones or Breaking Bad? Well, a lot of that stuff is escapist, too. I feel the experimenters have been shut out. Poets have been shut out. Not everything has to be high art but you need the experimenters and poets to fuel creative change. For me, I always like to do new, different kinds of things. It’s difficult to find good opportunities but some of the fragmentation at the moment allows you to consider things like video games in another world. But I don’t intend to do television unless it’s something special.

So it’s not about the money? Well, it’s part of the real world but it’s not what motivates me. Money can’t buy you love and money can’t save you [laughs].

I sense you love a new adventure so long as it involves interesting people… You said it. Sometimes you really don’t know what’s going on and so you just look at the people and ask yourself: are they going to be interesting to be in a room with? Are we going to allow ourselves to be challenged? Everybody speaks very brave but most people don’t like to be challenged, so sometimes you have to… trick yourself into challenges.

Like nudity? You’ve rolled around with Madonna (Body of Evidence) and Charlotte Gainsbourg (Antichrist)… Well, yeah [laughs], you find challenges in all kinds of places. I trust my body more than anything else, actually. I’ve always been someone who feels more like a dancer than an actor. It’s pure performance rather than psychology or literature. I’ve always been interested in light and space and bodies moving.

Are there any films or roles you regret? Things that were a little too experimental? I’m sure I do but I don’t allow for regrets. Your lessons are learned intuitively. I think maybe the failures are the things that bring you to better places, that feed growth. Successes can corrupt you and make you lazy and stupid.

So you don’t watch Platoon or Mississippi Burning or The Last Temptation of Christ? When I do a film I watch it once to know what it is, then that’s it. If they’re on TV or somebody else is watching, I don’t go, “I can’t watch! I can’t watch!” I’ll look at it like a home movie – it’s full of associations and memories. And those films you mention, they were great experiences but they’re a long time ago now.

Beyond: Two Souls, a Quantic Dream studio game, is out now on PlayStation 3

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