Actor Willem Dafoe travels and works abroad most of the year, but considers New York to be one of his home bases (the other being Rome), since arriving on the scene. in 1976.
He was a founding member of the experimental theater company The Wooster group, with whom he remained for over 25 years, becoming romantically involved with director Elizabeth LeCompte. The two separated in the early 2000s, and Dafoe left the company. “I could get sentimental but I just as coldly admit that it was my formative years and the people I worked with, especially Liz LeCompte, really shaped me,” says Dafoe, now 62.
Since then he has worked regularly in theater and film and this year was nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his turn as a low budget motel manager in Sean Baker’s film “The Florida Project”. the Berlin International Film Festival also awarded Dafoe the Honorary Golden Bear for Lifetime Achievement.
“I’m pretty proud and pretty flattered because it’s a very pure festival in a lot of ways, and I’ve seen a lot of great movies there,” Dafoe said.
The actor spoke to MarketWatch about his early days in the theater, being attracted to “the other” and juggling blockbuster movies. An edited transcript.
Is there a space in New York that has been one of your introductions to acting?
When I first came to New York, I intended to be a commercial theater actor, but found myself going downtown to places like The Kitchen or Collective for Living Cinema. Need these people, [being] activated by these people. Really, when I went to the Wooster group and saw the work there, I was sold. I just hung out there and crept into the fabric of the business because what they were doing turned me on.
“Going to something that you are not and then becoming it. This transformation, this change of understanding, this change of impulse is what is beautiful about performance.
Do you still attend from time to time?
I didn’t because I’m not in New York often. I still do theater, but not with them. I have been a life partner with director Elizabeth LeCompte for many years. And when we broke up personally, I thought we could continue to work together but it became too difficult. So I wouldn’t say I’m separated, but it’s not like I’m there often. I haven’t seen the work because I don’t want to disrupt anything, and the business has changed quite a bit as well. When I started, I was the youngest in the company. By the time I left, with the exception of Liz, I was the oldest. So that has changed a lot.
Is New York theater as experimental as it was then?
When I got to town there were a lot of bands that were really scruffy, artists who wanted to do work that would find factory spaces and convert them into performance spaces. It was a very exciting time. I think those days are over, in part thanks to real estate. This world still exists, but it has become more sophisticated. I started to see that even when I was in the Wooster Group, there were people who would come to do an internship with us and study the Wooster Group at school. We used to do plays and work that we thought was the last thing we were going to do. We did not see ourselves as an institution or a business. But over time, those that survived have become businesses and institutions. I think people study them and there is this feeling that you can have a career at the forefront.
It sounds a bit like what has happened in the art world. You know, when I got to town, SAMO, or Basquiat, was doing things in the streets. All of this, I don’t know if the word is “commodified”, and it has become a business. I’m not crying it’s bad development, it’s just naturalization of form. If there are still some scruffy little groups, I’m sure there are, but I don’t know them.
Was filming “The Florida Project” similar to working in the Wooster group?
Yes, for several reasons. Your resources are very limited. You shoot real things with things that you make up. You also work with a wide range of backgrounds and people. The casting is intergenerational. You have people who have never played next to people who have played for many years. You have people who really live the life of the story we’re talking about and who are involved in the production. So there is an almost neorealistic approach and there are parallels with what we have done in the Wooster Group.
“The Florida Project” shows restraint and much of the story is told in silence. Was it refreshing for you?
Very, because we do not sell anything. We let a story unfold. [Director Sean Baker] trusts the place, the people and the situation to make history. Keep in mind that he had a really strong script and the script was beautiful. But the filming process made those scenes, but it also invited accidents to happen and those silent moments to happen. Volumes can be spoken without words.
You have just finished “At Eternity’s Gate”, in the role of Vincent Van Gogh, which takes place in France. Is it right for you to work in Europe?
I love working in Hollywood, but I also find a lot of opportunities in independent cinema and in films outside of this country. Also, I think it’s worth saying that even the American films I make are often shot outside the country. I’m always interested in stories that aren’t culturally related, that aren’t specifically designed for a certain culture. What I like trying to do as an actor is focus on the essentials. I like films where you don’t need to have any other reference other than just watching them. I always think about the first time I saw a Satyajit Ray movie, what a mind-blowing experience it was, and how much projection and how much empathy I can go with the characters because I don’t know anything about them. It’s a world I don’t know. There is always an element of adventure, a part of the other and a part of foreigners that attracts me. A big part of creating is going to something you don’t know, getting close to it, and finding out what your relationship is to it. Go to something that you are not and then become it. This transformation, this change of understanding, this change of momentum is what is beautiful about performance.
Your career balances indies with blockbusters like “Aquaman” and “Justice League”. How do the projects differ for you?
Everything is efficient, everything pretends, everything makes things. With each shooting experience, you have to identify what you are doing and what the job is. You don’t have to articulate absolutely, but you have to recognize how you fit in the community. If a film set is a community, you need to know what your function is. Your function, your intention, its place in the culture and the intention of the film are always different. Partly that’s why I like to mix it up, so you don’t get stuck. So you challenge your own beliefs. If you keep changing functions I have found that you are more on the move and more flexible. I think flexibility is everything for an artist. It’s not just about doing a series of things, it’s about the ability to respond intuitively that is not a conditioned response.