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Willem Dafoe, Oscar-nominated for his role as a motel manager in The Florida Project — and one of the most prolific actors in Hollywood — says he experienced direct fallout as recently as two years ago from playing Jesus in Martin Scorsese’s 1988 drama The Last Temptation of Christ.
The movie, which ends with Christ coming down from the cross and being tempted by Satan (in the form of an angelic girl) to live a comfortable life, was met with enormous controversy when it was released, mainly directed at Scorsese and Universal Pictures. But it had an impact on Dafoe, too, he says.
“When it initially happened, I wasn’t that that well known as an actor,” he told students at Loyola Marymount University’s School of Film & TV on Feb. 7, when he took part in the ongoing interview series The Hollywood Masters. “And they blamed the director. They blamed the studio. It was a political fight rather than a fight about [religion]. People think actors are whores, they will do anything, so they really did not blame me. But I will say, on a couple of occasions, as recent as a couple of years ago, people have not cast me because I did that role.”
One of those times, he explains: “I was actually cast in a role and I got a call from the head of the studio [who] said: ‘Over my dead body you are in this. Forget what the director said to you. You are not going to be in this movie, OK? You understand? Maybe another time, but not this one because … you played Jesus.’ ”
More recently, Dafoe noted, “There was another movie that was financed by people from the religious right that were not quite down with this movie, and the director was all set to go and they said, ‘No, we cannot do [it].’ ” He did not name the project or the financiers involved.
The three-time Oscar nominee, who was previously nominated for 1986’s Platoon and 2000’s Shadow of a Vampire, also spoke about playing the Green Goblin in 2002’s Spider-Man.
“That was a good experience,” he said. “But it breaks my heart that they never mention what is really the deal, and that is the father part. That’s the bulk of it. And the beautiful thing, the Goblin stuff, was fun, but you are quite limited obviously because of the costume and the effects and all that; but the father part was a really interesting. I love, love, love how it was able in the same scene to flip-flop back and forth between comedy and drama.”
As to Florida Project, for which he’s a best actor Oscar nominee, he noted: “It’s a small movie — and it should be a small movie, because if you tried to make this movie at a bigger budget with a bunch of stars, you could never get the trust of the people, you could never get the authenticity. There would be performances in the way. My job here was to not be an actor, [but] to kind of melt in. And somehow that is always my job. But this world, it was important to really let them lead and have me support. And that was a fun place to be.”
A transcript of the interview follows.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: It’s the late 1970s. You’re in your early 20s and you get your first movie gig. You’re shooting for three months, and then the director fires you. The movie was Heaven’s Gate. What happened?
WILLEM DAFOE: What happened with Heaven’s Gate or what happened with me being fired?
GALLOWAY: I’d love to know about Heaven’s Gate, it’s become an epic.
DAFOE: It’s actually pretty simple. But maybe it needs a little ramp up. I’m working at a theater company in New York, and I’m not really soliciting work. But someone says hey, you should audition, see these people for this movie. It’s a Michael Cimino movie. And I got a part as a glorified extra, really. And I went out there and I was supposed to go out there for two weeks, and then go away back to the theater, and then come back for like a week. Well when I got there, they ripped up my contract and said forget about that thing that we call a daily rate. We’re going to go with a weekly, and we don’t know how long you’re going to be here. Which was quite dramatic. Because I had obligations.
GALLOWAY: Where was it? Wyoming?
DAFOE: It was Kalispell, Montana. Anyway, so we get there, and of course famously, if you know the saga of Heaven’s Gate, it was supposed to be for an $8 million budget, and was supposed to shoot for I think maybe two months or something like that. It ended up being a $40 million budget, and that’s in ’78 or nine, and … went from $40 to 80 [million], and ended up being an eight-month shoot. So, by about the second month, there were lots of executives around. Michael Cimino was very nervous, things were very tense. We’d get these little directives on our call sheet that said things like, if you’re below number 13, please, do not converse with people above 13.
DAFOE: It was pretty heavy. But we managed to have a good time anyway. And one day we were standing in a lighting setup, Vilmos Zsigmond was the DP. A great DP, and he was really great. Cimino was great, too, but he was really stressed, and he is very demanding, and was fighting all kinds of fights on this. So, we’re standing there, and we’re not going to shoot. We’re there in full costume and makeup for like eight hours. That’s okay. I’m okay. It’s a little tedious, but we’re standing there. And you have to raise your hand to go to the toilet or whatever. And a woman just comes over and is next to me, the woman who was next to me, whispers a joke to me. And I laugh. A little too loud. Michael Cimino, you know, hears the laugh, just like this, he has got his back to me. And he turns around, and he says, “Willem, step out.” And that was it.
DAFOE: So it was very humiliating and confusing, because I’d said what happened, what happened? Mea culpa, mea culpa, you know? Sorry. You know? But they were like, “No. No. It’s all great. You’re going home.” “You did a great job.” You know? “You did a great job, and whether your character has just completed his” — I don’t know what they called it, arc or whatever, you know? So pretty traumatic. But, one thing that rescued me, of course, my identity at that point was still in the theater. And while you know, movies were attractive, it wasn’t something I was actively pursuing. And then of course, it’s easy to talk about now, because the movie itself had its own problems. So it’s not quite as humiliating. I don’t gloat, you know, about that, but, and Cimino…
GALLOWAY: I think you have a right to gloat.
DAFOE: Well, Cimino actually asked me to do a movie with him later.
GALLOWAY: Oh, which one?
DAFOE: It was The Desperate Hours.
GALLOWAY: And you said no? Oh, revenge is sweet.
DAFOE: There were reasons.
GALLOWAY: What did you learn from him?
DAFOE: Oh, he was very much about visuals, and the — and he wanted to give people, you know, he created a very charged atmosphere. I think just me personally, very crudely, I think Heaven’s Gate lost its way because they didn’t have a story. It kind of slid around. The basic idea was fantastic, and it looked beautiful. And he had some great actors. And it was big, and interesting, but, what did I learn from him? Don’t drink Blue Nun wine at lunch.
DAFOE: He has just passed recently, so I shouldn’t make jokes like that. But, no, he was very demanding, and very inspired, so I don’t say anything bad about him. He was a great director, and he made some beautiful films.
GALLOWAY: I know you’re a fan of Isabelle Huppert.
DAFOE: I am, and she is perhaps one of our best actresses. Punto. Exclamativo.
GALLOWAY: Why Isabelle Huppert? She has been here, and I’ve spoken to her. does she have such an impact?
DAFOE: Because first of all, to see her perform in the theater particularly, but also in films is a wonderful thing. And when she speaks about what she does, she is the only actor that I say, wow, she is–we’re the same. I mean, I don’t mean to flatter myself by creating an association too strong, she speaks a language that I understand. And also, she is adventurous, she is a worker, she is brave. I don’t know, there’s a lot of things I admire about her. She is articulate. And she is physically good. And mentally good, and she is just game. And she does what I try to do, too, and that is she mixes it up, you know? She works with young directors, she works with big directors. She is probably a little more motivated to find projects than I am. I mean I think she is a little clearer about what she needs. I don’t have that. But…
GALLOWAY: What is your goal — or what was your goal when you were starting? What was your vision of the future? What was your dream?
DAFOE: You know, it changes. Of course. But I’m trying to remember, but in the beginning, the thing I wanted to do is I wanted to be an artist, and I wanted to be around people, so people that I thought were smarter than me, cleverer than me, more interesting than me. And that I could learn from. And I enjoyed being with. I grew up middle class in the Midwest, and I didn’t have specific — I was always ambitious in general. Because I’m an entitled white guy from the middle class in America.
GALLOWAY: You are.
DAFOE: Got to be a slacker not to be. But I didn’t have a specific idea. I’m not one of those guys that had a picture of Marlon Brando on his bedroom wall. Raquel Welch, yes, but not Marlon Brando.
DAFOE: So, in the beginning I think it-I didn’t think of it as a career. It was just for now. It was just for now. When I went to New York I fully intended to try to be a commercial theater actor, but I found myself always going downtown, downtown, downtown. Because that’s what was happening. And I also was repelled a little bit by the — in those days, which was the classic thing of knocking on doors, slipping your 8×10’s under a door and doing lots of auditions. Not that that was a bad thing, but I could do things with people that I enjoyed. So, I wasn’t-yeah, I wasn’t worrying about tomorrow. And then I started working with this theater group, and that-and it ended up being a day to day thing for 27 years. A lot of touring as well, so it was a whole life experience thing.
GALLOWAY: This is what became the Wooster Group.
DAFOE: It was. It started out initially, it was a performance group, but then it morphed into the Wooster Group.
GALLOWAY: And that’s known for being somewhat avant garde and experimental.
DAFOE: Very. I’d say.
GALLOWAY: Do you think of yourself as an avant-garde person?
DAFOE: That’s a good one.
GALLOWAY: It’s so nice to have someone who laughs at these questions, you know? Because now I can ask even crazier questions.
DAFOE: I like it. But, avant-garde person? No, you know, it’s — I’m a mixed bag, I mean, I don’t know-I get-OK. Let me calm down. You really threw me with that. I like it, as I said, artists are interesting people. And the avant garde to me in general, I mean it’s a flexible word, I’m not even sure what it means anymore. But it does indicate something out of the main path. You know? So, that puts you outside of just a worker bee in the system that exists.
DAFOE: It implies that you’re making something that’s personal or kind of-not in opposition to that, but is different than that. And I think that’s true, because I think our job is kind of to challenge the ways we think, and the ways we see. That’s what movies do when they’re best, you know, they go oh my god, I never saw it like that. Or I never thought like that, or surprised…
GALLOWAY: Great art does that.
DAFOE: I mean, I watched A Fantastic Woman the other day. You know, I was with that trans woman in a way deeply, and that’s very moving, because it’s a flexibility. It’s not just empathy, it’s really-I was with her. There’s a scene where she is kissing this guy, you know, and I was there with that kiss. I had new understanding of a kiss. And that’s the stuff that keeps us alive. That kind of discovery, that kind of wonder that we keep on returning to. And I think you don’t find that so much in all-you don’t find it often in industry product. Because industry product is product, often. And it can be a beautiful thing, but it’s calculated. So, I think I find the greatest opportunities either with avant-garde people, or avant-garde situations.
DAFOE: Because you again, even in the industry, and I think I’ve been lucky this way, sometimes I’ve worked with people that are in the industry, but they still have a different take, or a different approach. In the day, while ago, when — before you were born. No, Olive Stone, I remember the things when I first met him, I thought this isn’t like any guy I’ve ever met in Hollywood. I think it’s very funny that he has maintained that kind of identity, but still he was —
GALLOWAY: Clearly Oliver is extraordinarily fragile.
GALLOWAY: Which is what I think all great artists are. And I want to talk to you a bit about him, because I’m an enormous admirer of his. But he is complicated.
DAFOE: Yeah, very.
GALLOWAY: Maybe all artists are. So, before we talk about him, let’s actually watch a clip from Platoon.
GALLOWAY: When did you last see that?
DAFOE: A long time ago. I think they did a screening maybe of 20 years after at Cannes. As a mea culpa, because the rejected it when it was submitted to them. It’s nice to remember these things.
GALLOWAY: So this was a role that was conceived of I think as a Native American, and they couldn’t find the right actor. And how did it come to you?
DAFOE: You know, Platoon took a long time to get made. It’s hard to imagine, but it was a very low budget movie. And they tried to make it several times. And they’d always have this group of actors that would come in. I wasn’t always in that group, because as I say, I wasn’t very actively — I didn’t have an agent or any of that stuff, I wasn’t actively —well maybe I did, but I was busy at the theater. But then eventually, I got a call to come in, and there was like a pool of these guys that would come in, and we’d read and we’d visit with Oliver, and we did a bunch of rounds of that. And at some point, he didn’t cast so much initially by roles, but he just wanted to get this group of guys together, and then he cast out of that group. That’s my understanding. The whole thing about him being native American, or Indian, or whatever the correct term is right now, I didn’t know. I knew that the character he was based on was, and Oliver was convinced that I could do that a little better, I’d have a little bit of that in me. So, I only read that recently that it was a-that you know, they couldn’t find a Native American.
DAFOE: But, you know, Platoon is one of those movies that because of this casting process, I can think of two actors, two well-known actors, and I won’t say their names, but have many times said “I was cast as Elias.”But then he got rid of me, you know?
GALLOWAY: How did you prepare for that, and how do you prepare for a role like this?
DAFOE: Well, that’s really quite easy, because we went through a really serious training period. And we learned how to do the things that we do in the movie. You know, emotionally, you don’t prepare for it. But what you can do is you can learn how to do soldier things. And then we created, and I love to work this way, we created a situation that was like a parallel thing to the fiction that we’re doing. Because we really were living out in the bush for two weeks without anything. And training really hard. And a little scared. We never slept, really slept very little. You know, I’m tempted to tell something…
GALLOWAY: Come on, tell us.
DAFOE: It’s a bunch of young guys, you know, and everybody’s so traumatized and so stressed, that after about a week, when there’s a little period where before you’re deciding what your day and your evening things are going to be, one guy screamed “hallelujah” or something like that. Because he woke up with an erection for the first time. And then everyone kind of joined in and said me too, oh wow. I was so nervous. Because-and I tell you that kind of off-color detail only because that shows how stressed people were. Of course I wasn’t in that group.
GALLOWAY: I thought there was an act two to this story, so…
DAFOE: I’m not the best storyteller. I inhabit stories, I don’t tell them.
GALLOWAY: What were you scared of when you did that?
DAFOE: Scared? No I’m just talking it was uncertain. You know, you had some Vietnam vets that had a huge stake in having us tell this story in an unromanticized as real as we could way. So, we became through kind of hard work and trying to train, and out of respect for them, we really tried to do them right. And you didn’t want to mess up. You wanted to learn how to do this stuff. And also, as conscientious actors, this really became the key. Because you wanted this stuff to become second nature. You want to get so comfortable with this weapon, that you’re sleeping with it. I mean, you really were. And actors always like to brag about their process. But when it’s tied to something practical, it’s really beautiful, because then it gets into your body, and it became second nature. And you are having experiences that open the door for you to think and feel differently. I always feel like the best experiences, I’m sure we’ll talk about it later, but The Florida Project, the way into that character is learn how to be a motel manager. You know? When you’re able to practice getting the things that you do in the movie to become second nature, that’s for me, everybody’s different, but for me that’s always the way in.
GALLOWAY: When you were studying acting, did you study Method acting? You went to University of Wisconsin, then dropped out.
DAFOE: Yes, it was very eclectic faculty. And it was great for that. It was also an eclectic student body, because it was a state university. And it was kind of considered a blue-collar suitcase campus. But around that time, they were trying to develop kind of a conservatory. So, they started getting more out of state people, and they started getting a wide range of people like women coming back to school after they had children. Guys coming back from Vietnam. So, in my class, there would be, you know, a 60 year old woman, and some guy that was just killing people not so long ago. So there was a wealth of experience, and it was a very production based theater department. So basically, I’m this kid that just wants to do, do, do. I’m not really that interested in being a student at that point. My mistake, but I just drew myself into the production stuff, and did a lot of work as a student, and then when I had to take all those, you know, psychology 101, I said, “I’m getting out of here.”
GALLOWAY: What did you learn from that?
DAFOE: It’s kind of sad, but true.
GALLOWAY: Did you learn to research? Did you learn to prepare in the sort of…
DAFOE: I learned many different things. I learned many different approaches. You know, we dealt with everything from bioenergetics to Stanislavski, to Bolaslavski, to Strasburg, to you know, Neighborhood Playhouse stuff. Many different approaches, but I think, and I tried to, you know you try to find your own way. You try to find what suits you. But, I think things didn’t really settle until I — well I worked with a company in Milwaukee, Wisconsin for about two years. And it was a little, you know, storefront theater. But the cool thing is we got picked up by a Dutch producer. And he brought us to his theater in Amsterdam called The Mickery, that was one of the greatest theaters in the world, because they had a lot of state money to bring in groups from all over the world. And I was there. This unsophisticated kid from Wisconsin seeing companies from Japan, Brazil, the UK, Africa. All kinds of things. And that really opened me up.
DAFOE: So I guess what I’m-I don’t mean to ramble, but I guess what I’m starting to realize is I had a very eclectic education. And really, what I settled on as far as actual training, was really more what I soaked up at the Wooster Group. And you know, we changed our approach for each show. But I guess basically, the most-the basic thing was, you know, it’s about doing. It’s about doing, and it’s about task. And it’s about quality of being there. And if you commit to doing the task in a committed way, something will happen to you. And then you direct, you know, you can direct that emotion to the next step. So it’s not about emotion, it’s about doing things. So my approach has always been, I feel, I’ve said this before, but it maintains true, I feel more like a dancer than an actor. I’m more comfortable with the word ‘performer’ than ‘actor,’ because actor has the baggage of character, text, and psychology. And sometimes those are the least important things in a performance. In movies, most beautiful things are not those things. And I think it also taught me, you know, being at the Wooster Group, making this work taught me how to personalize things. And also inhabit them. Wish to be transformed.
GALLOWAY: To personalize things, meaning what?
DAFOE: Have a personal stake in it, not to interpret, but to be it. You don’t tell people stuff, you do it, and then the other people that you are working with, and to some degree, you, frame it. Or you know, put it in a certain context. And that’s the performance. And people will see what they will see. And if you are going to dump your stuff on an audience, they feel it. Because it doesn’t let them in. We can appreciate the mastery of something sometimes, but it’s a little cold. I mean I think we like you know, you can’t build an imperfection. But imperfection’s important. I mean it’s like this basic idea that in our striving result-oriented society, we think that the biggest, the most beautiful, the most complete, the hardest, the ba, ba, ba, the est, est, est, est. That’s not always what we live with. That dies the second it becomes, you know? I think what most beautiful things are things that are in movement. Because they contain all things. Because they have the possibility of going different places. Now some people would say, “Well, you’re not, you know, you’re not caring what you” — no, I care deeply. Because I’m trying to find out that thing that I don’t know yet. And I think that you want to have that experience with the audience, to approach that thing you don’t know yet.
GALLOWAY: How do you get there? Do you read the script a hundred times?
DAFOE: You know, I’m speaking ideals. And sometimes you say, OK. I’ve got to go in there and shoot the guy, I get it, you know?
DAFOE: I mean, they’re all levels and all different functions, right?
GALLOWAY: Do you cover your script with notes? Do you bury yourself and think about it? Do you do lots of research?
DAFOE: It’s a boring response, but it’s different every time. Because I think what we don’t talk about enough is for every project it requires a different kind of performing. A different kind of approach. And that’s my joy actually, in finding that. That’s the excitement. I like movies sometimes — I tend to prefer movies that — where the movie reflects the process of doing it.
GALLOWAY: Such as?
DAFOE: Such as The Florida Project, such as Platoon. What are we doing? We’re playing soldier. We’re you know, we have scenes, we’re making things, we’re saying okay, we are these guys, and we’re doing these things, and stuff is happening. Florida Project is similar. As opposed to, you know, some movies where you make a contribution, and then it becomes something else through a process that you aren’t really involved in. I like both, but I think it’s thrilling to have this concrete reflection of something that happened.
GALLOWAY: But when you’re working with Oliver, who’s a pretty powerful and controlling director, how much…
DAFOE: I don’t know about controlling.
GALLOWAY: Oh, OK that’s interesting.
DAFOE: No, he flirts with —he wants stuff to happen. I haven’t worked with him for many years, and he has had a long career, and has probably changed quite a bit, so I’m no authority on Oliver Stone, but in those days, he was very committed to letting stuff go where it would go. But at the same time, he was also interested in the craft of writing and things like that.
GALLOWAY: When you did Platoon with him, did he rehearse a lot, or did he just do it?
GALLOWAY: Do you like to rehearse?
DAFOE: It depends on the movie. I mean, I think traditionally, what people — if you’re lucky enough to rehearse, I like to rehearse fine because it-there’s no downside to it. Really. What you can do is you can get some impressions, and you can find contact with what you’re doing. And then when you get there, it totally changes.
DAFOE: But you have a history, you know? You have a history, you have some kind of texture. You’ve gotten the ball rolling. I think that’s the hardest thing. Because nobody talks about it, but everybody when they start they don’t know where to start, and they are scared. Unless they go to such a well-worn playbook that they’re half dead, you know? No, really. Particularly for actors. The nature of it is you should be scared. Scared in the respect of you don’t know where it’s going to go.
GALLOWAY: Which role has scared you the most?
DAFOE: I don’t know. I think the ones that are close to you, you know? Something like Sleeper, the Paul Schrader movie. I kept on thinking if my life was different, I could be this guy. So it drags you in in a different way. When something’s very far away from you, you can go towards it in a kind of brave and reckless way. But when something’s close, you know, you feel a weird kind of, not accountability, but the reflection on it is different.
GALLOWAY: Who are the actors when you were growing up who most influenced you, or the roles, or the movies?
DAFOE: I’m probably more inspired by visual art, or dancers, other disciplines. Because I admire a lot of actors, but it always depends on the movie. I think there was a tendency when I was younger, I liked actors that didn’t seem like actors. Guys like Harry Dean Stanton, or Warren Oates. You can’t imagine that Warren Oates has ever been to an acting class in his life. He probably was, you know, in his way, I mean. But when he was onscreen, I saw a man there. I saw a person there. Even in, you know, kind of sometimes rough B movies, he was very present. And I liked those kind of performances.
GALLOWAY: Has any actor or filmmaker said something to you that’s changed your thinking about your art?
DAFOE: All the time. All the time. I’m sorry, I’m not good with specifics.
GALLOWAY: Well you said something, I want to read it, because it-I hope everyone here will, the actors especially, and directors, think about it. Because I love this line. You said, “the best part of being an actor is the opportunity to transform yourself superficially and deeply.” So deeply implies to me maybe permanently. Have your roles affected you in a way that’s really shaped who you are?
GALLOWAY: Absolutely. In fact, I really — to remember my life, I think about what movie or what theater piece I was doing at any given time. Not that that’s my life, but the associations are so strong, and what was I doing is somehow linked to you know, how I was living. So, it’s all, it’s a ribbon. Yeah, you’re always changed. Because it becomes sometimes you know, things happen to me, and even though I’m playing war here, I’m not going to die. I hope.
GALLOWAY: Well will Oliver it’s possible.
DAFOE: Yeah. Anything’s possible. But I have this kind of you know, fantasy, this kind of experience, because I’m willing myself to pretend. I have that in my memory. And in my body. And I learn things that give me a different perspective. And when you learn those things, you can’t go back. You can forget them, but they’re still in there somehow. So I feel like every movie changes you. Some more than others, obviously.
GALLOWAY: Well I want to talk about one that maybe did, maybe it didn’t. I know it was a very exhausting film for you to make, and it was extraordinarily controversial.
DAFOE: I know which one you’re talking about.
GALLOWAY: You guys, most of you are too young to know this, but when Last Temptation of Christ was released, it became massively controversial. A lot of actors didn’t want to play the role. I think…
DAFOE: Bullshit. Everybody wanted to play that role. We just scooped them.
GALLOWAY: Just because he is my guest, does not mean he knows what he is talking about. [LAUGHS] I think there was a bombing incident in Paris. And so I want to show you a clip of a scene from this, very powerful scene. Which is the resurrection of Lazarus.
GALLOWAY: Are you religious yourself?
DAFOE: Define religious.
GALLOWAY: OK. Do you believe in a god or gods as a controlling force?
DAFOE: Listen, the thing that I read a lot is I read—the thing that I read for pleasure is religious thought, basically. And I like you know, you’re given the world religions, and you see you know, I’m always searching for the thing that connects us, and I’m always searching for the thing that transcends cultural conditioning, that’s why I like to work in lots of different countries, lots of different situations. And through religion, you know, it’s customs, its impulses, it helps for me anyway, to see the bottom line. Plus it’s a way to direct myself. So yes, I suppose I am. But you know, it’s such a personal thing and such a specific thing to talk about it generally is not so nice, because for people that don’t feel like they’re religious, they feel excluded in a conversation, like you’ve got a little club or something. That’s not it at all. I mean, I love to read various things, you know? Lately I’ve been reading a lot of Thomas Merton. And it inspires me. It inspires me. Just as thinking, observations about, for example, Merton, there’s some things, when I read Martin that make me think of [director Pier Paolo] Pasolini. You know? Thought about you know, reflections on what they think is going on. You know? Where we’re going, what we’re here for. What’s, you know, how to make out, how we deal with each other. This is a good place to-I like reading that stuff.
GALLOWAY: Did working on this film change your spiritual thinking?
DAFOE: I think so. I know so. Yes. It woke me up a little bit. Not to any particular religion or anything, but I think I started reading more. I guess also around this time is when I started a yoga practice. An asana practice. I think yoga philosophy and the approach to the physical, you know, asana practice has really informed my approach to performing
GALLOWAY: In what way?
DAFOE: Oh just about various things, but how you-there’s always sort of a dual focus. You are in it, but you are also outside of it. Also, it helps a great deal with concentration. Knowing your body. Knowing thought patterns. Breathing. Seeing how emotions arise. Seeing how they go away. Concentration. Many things. Many things.
GALLOWAY: Were you intimidated at the thought of playing Jesus?
DAFOE: Strangely, I like saying, I must have been drunk. But —
DAFOE: No, I wasn’t. I wasn’t. I will say that I remember I think this is worth talking about, but I had done Platoon, just the for fun. I hope it’s worth it. I had done Platoon, and I got nominated for an Academy Award, which was really a big deal for me, and still is. But I mean, in this particular (context), this was the first time I was nominated. And after that, even though I didn’t win, I was nominated, and I got offered all kinds of things. And I was kind of overwhelmed by it. Because I kept on looking at stuff, and said, well this is great, this is a great opportunity, but I don’t feel it. It’s not right for me. And I waited a long time because I’d felt like they were indiscriminately throwing stuff at me because I was a new face. And they could get things going, because people were starting to talk about you as a new face. So, I held out for the right thing. And the scary part is, that almost a year went by. And I didn’t work.
DAFOE: Kind of an Oscar curse, you know? And then finally I thought, I’ve got to get back to work. I was working in theater every day, but I mean, you know, and touring, doing lots of stuff, but as far as the next film project. So finally I thought, I’ve got to get to work. And I found a script that was a very good script. It was a little bit of a risk, because the director was new, and I’m sorry, it was set in Vietnam. Which is like the worst thing to follow Platoon up with, but it was a very different movie. So I did that. It was a very challenging movie. It had a lot of problems with it quite frankly. A movie called Off Limits. It didn’t get a good reception. And that’s where I was, and I thought, okay, I’m back to square one, and I’m at the theater, and I’m in Massachusetts teaching with the theater company at a university. Little acting classes and things. And I get a call, Martin Scorsese wants to talk to you. He wants to send you a script. And I say yes, and they say, Last Temptation of Christ. And I’m like, really? What role? And they’re like, “oh, idiot.” And I say, OK. And I — and really, I’m secretly thinking, “what a nutty idea.” I really am. And then I read the script, and I say, I get it. And then when I met him, I thought, I get it. And when he said one of the things that he asked me to do before we started was to see Pasolini’s…
GALLOWAY: Yeah, Gospel According to Matthew. And I got it. And I said, I get what he is trying to do here. I get what this script is. I get the world that we’re trying to inhabit. And yes, I’m the right guy to do it. And on some level, I mean it sounds egotistical or arrogant, but on some level, that’s what I like to feel. I’ve got to feel like I’m the guy to do this. It sometimes if I feel like a million people could do it, I step away, you know?
GALLOWAY: What was Scorsese like?
DAFOE: Great, great. I mean, this was a low budget movie, and for all the stories you hear about you know, on the one with Liza Minnelli and Robert De Niro. New York, New York, 100 takes and all that. We were going two, three takes.
GALLOWAY: Oh really?
DAFOE: Yeah. Because it was a low budget movie. But, he is a master filmmaker and he had it all in his head. And even though we had very limited crew and resources, it was very clear in how to shoot it. So, I think the brisk pace actually helped us. Because it took us away from sitting on it, or developing too much pageantry. It really forced us to be essential and direct with what we were doing. He was great, thought. I loved him.
GALLOWAY: He’d thought of being a seminarian at one point. Did you have conversations with him about who was Jesus? How do I play this role?
DAFOE: No. No, because this story is really, the beautiful thing about this story, I had to cleanse myself of all that dialogue. Because that had to be a personal thing, and it had to be about a guy that, you know, “Stephen, I have something for you to do.” And you’re like, “who is that?” That’s basically where it starts.
GALLOWAY: Yes, yes.
DAFOE: “Listen, I’m writing here, I’m doing these talks, I’m teaching whatever,” no we have something else for you to do.
GALLOWAY: And this is about the human Christ.
DAFOE: And it’s reactive, it’s a passive role, stuff is being acted on him, and he is reacting. So, you want to not — I mean I — it was natural that you wanted to show up as blank as possible.
GALLOWAY: But did you think going in, to what for instance, the voice, how am I going to create the voice of Jesus or…
DAFOE: I didn’t think about that. I thought about playing the scenes, because I accepted that I was Jesus, you know? I wasn’t the Jesus. I was our Jesus in this exercise, in this structure, in this being in Morocco, with Harvey Keitel and Martin Scorsese and John Laurie and Barbara Hershey, this is what we were doing. And in this configuration, we were going to make something. We were going to make an event.
GALLOWAY: Was there any fallout for you personally when there was all the reaction against the film?
DAFOE: I think when it initially happened, I wasn’t that that well known as an actor, maybe. And they blamed the director. They blamed the studio. It was a political fight rather than a fight about [religion]]. So, you know, I always think, people think actors are whores, they will do anything, so they really did not blame me, I do not think. But I will say on a couple of occasions, as recent as a couple of years ago, people have not cast me because I did that role.
DAFOE: Two occasions. Two occasions. One where I was actually cast in a role and I got a call from the studio, the head of the studio said, “Over my dead body you are in this. Forget what you said to the director, forget what the director said to you, you are not going to be in this movie, okay? You understand? Maybe another time, but not this one because it is just not, since you played Jesus, you know,” bop bop bop. And recently, there was another move that was financed by people from the religious right that were not quite down with this movie and, yeah, the director was all set to go and they said, “No, we cannot do [it].”
DAFOE: But look, it is not.
GALLOWAY: Yeah, but it wasn’t Sam Raimi.
DAFOE: It was not. I was not blacklisted.
GALLOWAY: They said “Aquaman, you are not going to be able to do.” You spoke about teaching acting. How do you teach acting and do you still?
DAFOE: I was the youngest actor in The Wooster Group in that period so I was just kind of there to, you know, help. So I was not teaching, I was being a participant and a body and listening and also helping. I have taught a couple of times, but it is not my thing, but I loved it because it really forced me to, well, no, I like people and I like to see how people approach things and we made it very physical and lots of fun. I taught at, I did a thing at the Danish Theater School and recently I did thing in, not recently, a couple years ago, in Venice for the Biennale. And that was cool because I had actors from all around the world coming in and then we did the cut and then we just worked for like a week.
GALLOWAY: And how did you work with them or what was it you wanted them to understand?
DAFOE: I cued off of them. I looked and saw what I saw and thought how can I help them or what do I see? And I think the biggest thing is everybody comes loaded for bear. So you really wanted to strip them of all their tricks and get them into a place where they can be free. And I think that happened. So it was a lot of, I remember I worked with creating obstacles for them, so they would have to find, so that they would get thrown off their game. Not in a mean way, but just for them to find another path. And I also worked a lot with copying, which is great because there is no real such thing as copy, but if you take a model and then you try to inhabit that it is interesting to see what happens. It is amazing with very skilled actors, if I stand up here and do a series of actions and I ask you to repeat it, it is interesting to see what happens.
GALLOWAY: And what does happen?
DAFOE: It gets perverted. The way they see, they want it gets translated in their body. And which is okay, but people have to have an awareness, the gap between what they see and what the reality is. And it helps them if they have to discipline them self to copy something because it takes them out of the equation and opens a whole new world up to them because they are really submitting to something that is really happening, that they aren’t controlling, controlling absolutely or interpreting absolutely. So it makes them flexible. It makes them able to do anything. Once again, in movement, when you are in movement, you have the possibility for everything. If you get stuck, if you get rigid, you are not flexible, you know. You cannot let anything in and you don’t send anything out.
GALLOWAY: Do you work with an acting coach or how do you keep yourself flexible?
DAFOE: No. No. I do not know how people do that. Everyone is different.
GALLOWAY: Maybe. It is about time.
DAFOE: Yeah. You know a good one? No, listen, I should not say that really. Whatever works for people. I don’t care. But, you know, what I do not like about acting coaches like on sets or around sets, it creates a filter or, for me, something between the director and the actor that should be very personal. And there should be contact, there should be this mm-hmm, mm-hmm, OK.
DAFOE: Let me go off and work with it, with this other person. I do not like it. It is like, you know, it is like a threesome or something.
GALLOWAY: Do you find the same thing with directors looking at monitors of being so in the video tent?
DAFOE: Well, that can happen. That can happen. I do not mind that because they are the watcher, and they can watch it however they are going to watch it, as long as there is some contact with you. But I have worked through translators, I have worked through assistants. But as long as it is coming from them and as long as I have enough to work with then I am fine with that. I think it is bad generally for actors to look at monitors. I only look at monitors just to see if a shot, like if you have to dance with the camera or you have to see really what the shot is, look at it in a very broad way, not you know, you do not look, like to look at a close up is to kill yourself. I think it is stupid. But everyone is different. But for me, it does not help me. I can see things, but then I do not want to be thinking about that in the next take. And it creates problems sometimes. You know, like I had to laugh in a The Florida Project, Brooklyn said, “I don’t want an ugly cry.” You know?
GALLOWAY: That is the little girl, yeah.
DAFOE: You know. And “Whenever I cry in a movie I ugly cry.”
DAFOE: Because I am not thinking about how it is looking.
GALLOWAY: You seem incredibly nice. Have you ever not been on a set?
DAFOE: No, I am nice on the set.
GALLOWAY: Have you ever really fought with a director?
GALLOWAY: Over what?
DAFOE: Not much. You know, sometimes when I feel like, no, when you feel tight and you need something else, you know, and ask them to accommodate you, or if they are doing something dangerous or they are abusing someone. But no, I do not fight too often with directors. It is basically just to let them know if I get tight I am not going to be useful to them. So sometimes, you know. It is shifting. As I get older and I work with younger directors, you know, the relationships change, but I am all for submitting to a director’s vision and I like doing that because I always believe that, for me, it is best to go towards something, not do someone else’s bidding because when you do your own you will probably fall into the same things that you want all the time and go to a bag of tricks that is your security, you know. And not in itself is it to get out of your comfort zone, an important thing in performing. Not at all. But what it does is you are losing an opportunity to tap into a kind of play and a kind of surprise and find new impulses that you didn’t know you had.
GALLOWAY: Have you ever wanted to tackle the great classical roles?
DAFOE: Haven’t I?
GALLOWAY: Well, we are going to see one in a minute. Hamlet, King Lear?
DAFOE: Not really because those classical roles are usually identified as pieces of literature.
GALLOWAY: Not really, huh?
DAFOE: Well, if you are talking about Shakespeare. Are we talking about the Bard?
GALLOWAY: We are, yeah. I cannot stand that nickname, but…
DAFOE: You know, I want to and I will. I will. Soon.
GALLOWAY: Which one?
DAFOE: I am not sure. And as I get older, people start to talk to me. And I have done Shakespeare when I was young, but I see very few people that do it well.
GALLOWAY: Yeah, so do it.
DAFOE: It is such an obstacle. Well, and I am not sure I can, but in the right situation I will. But no, that is interesting, but it is a very particular kind of thing. And then one of the things is the mass. You talk about submitting, you submit to this poetry.
GALLOWAY: You know, I do not really agree with you.
DAFOE: Well, all I know is the problem is with, you know, it is beautiful writing and it is beautiful to read so how do you get it on its feet? So, you either mess with it or you honor it. And usually people try to mess with it, try to contextualize it in a way that it is like, you know, it feels like normal life. I think you accept it on its terms. You get into the music and you got to go to it. I mean that. There is too much winking, there is too much meaning, there is too much. It’s got to be more musical and more intuitive, the approach the Shakespeare. You always feel like, “Why is everybody shouting?”
GALLOWAY: You were talking about being in Amsterdam and the impact of what you saw and I remember being here for the Olympics and I’m not that interested in sport, but I was very interested in the Arts Festival, and they brought, well you lived in…
DAFOE: Peter Sellars.
GALLOWAY: That was the later one.
DAFOE: Oh, OK. Sorry. Smarty pants me.
GALLOWAY: Yeah, do not be so smart. Yeah. So they brought these great theater groups from around the world and I remember going to see, you know, you live in Italy so maybe you know Giorgio Strehler.
GALLOWAY: Who is one of the great Italian directors. And he brought the Goldoni, Servant of Two Masters.
DAFOE: Yes, yes. That is one of his signature pieces.
GALLOWAY: — which I thought at that point was one of the greatest that I had ever seen. And The Tempest. It was not lush, it was a grey place where Ariel is bright, but one of those puppets in white on strings that would come and go. It made me see that and theater anew, you know.
DAFOE: Cool. Sounds good.
GALLOWAY: And I would say the same thing about your Goblin in Spider-Man.
DAFOE: OK. Cool. No, that was a good experience. But it breaks my heart that they never mention what is really the deal and that is the father part. That’s the bulk of it. And the beautiful thing, the Goblin stuff was fun, but you are quite limited obviously because of the costume and the effects and all that, but the father part was a really interesting part because, and the movie in general, I love, love, love how it was able in the same scene to flip flop back and forth between comedy and drama, you know?
DAFOE: And there was something sincere and clean about it. It was not, I like this movie.
GALLOWAY: I did too. It was really lovely when that began and the credit sequence is one of the best credit sequences ever. It was fresh and fun.
DAFOE: Oh good.
GALLOWAY: So let us take a look at a clip. Here is Willem Defoe in Spider-Man.
GALLOWAY: What I love about that film is, here is a studio machine movie, but it is fun.
DAFOE: Yes, and it is personal. Sam Raimi made a personal film. I swear to God. It was beautiful.
GALLOWAY: In what way?
DAFOE: He cared so deeply. He was driven by this boyhood attachment to this comic. It had real meaning for him. These were important characters and they had important things to do and say.
GALLOWAY: Was it personal for you?
DAFOE: It became personal. This is my job.
GALLOWAY: So what is the challenge of doing a big studio machine film?
DAFOE: To keep it personal. I think that is the challenge, to not disconnect and get cynical because there are plenty of great movies made and even very technological movies made, but you have to stay on some, you have got to keep the human contact. Which is hard sometimes when you have so many obstacles, because it goes through so many baths, it goes through so many hands. I mean, I made this movie John Carter. I was five months busting my ass on three foot stilts with all this heavy equipment doing these scenes. I am just creating material so they can animate for the movie. Because I played a very big creature. That was fun, but it was always challenging to stay in it, have a personal stake in it.
GALLOWAY: And when you are doing this, do take after take after take, how long does it take to shoot a scene like that?
DAFOE: A fair amount. The whole sequence, I hope I am not lying, but I think like this probably takes like a day.
GALLOWAY: Oh, that whole sequence?
DAFOE: Maybe two.
DAFOE: And I remember it broke my heart. You see when I jump up at the end on that thing? I did one of the most fun things ever. They had me on wires and I jumped quite a ways, I mean like twice the size of this room, on these wires and landed in front of the camera into close up. Like a totally athletic and totally cool thing to do. I am bragging here. And we did it. And we got the shot. I mean we had to do it three or four times. By the end of the day, I had cuts here. But we did it and we got one that was like, I stuck it, you know? And very cool thing. They could not use it. You know why? The rhythm was wrong. The way they could get into the next scene or any of the next scenes, it did not work at all. It’s funny.
GALLOWAY: I understand that. Yes.
DAFOE: And I remember that as a lesson, you know? Sometimes you got to, you know, you got to be willing to let stuff go. Always when I first see a movie it is like “they chose that take? Really?”
GALLOWAY: Yeah. Oh wow.
DAFOE: Why did they cut that scene? This scene, they was no problem, you know. It is always surprising.
GALLOWAY: Finding the right tone is difficult for something like this and maintaining it. How do you do that?
DAFOE: I do not. I mean it is instinct and it is sort of the director’s job to watch and give you feedback. I think.
GALLOWAY: It has a slightly grand-guignol, larger than life quality.
DAFOE: This one?
GALLOWAY: Yes. Humorous quality.
DAFOE: Well, that was, with Sam, it was like a game. You know, we were entertaining him. I was trying to make him laugh. Or see how far I could push it. Because he wanted it lifted. He did’t want it too tight. You know, like if you go online, you know, they have like outtakes of a movie and you can see where we would take it sometimes. And some of those, they came very close to being in the movie, you know what I mean? So it was a kind of, it was sort of there were playful aspects to it where we would try to entertain him.
GALLOWAY: I want to take a look at a film that is really the opposite of this in many ways, which is The Florida Project. It is exceptional work. Watching for the mechanisms, the tricks, even seeing the scene several times, I don’t find it.
DAFOE: Right. It’s a small film, but it is a beautiful film.
GALLOWAY: It is so good.
DAFOE: And it seems to resonate with people.
GALLOWAY: I love the film. I love your performance in that.
DAFOE: Oh, good. Thanks.
GALLOWAY: And so now I have seen it many times and I still don’t see how you got there.
DAFOE: One interesting thing about these scenea was we were working with a very strong script. But in this case, it was kind of interesting that that walk, you know, we are working at a real motel, so it is a working motel. We’re just filming around everything that is going on there. And where the kids park was in relationship to the soda machine is quite a ways. That script, this scene, was written before we knew where we were going to shoot it. So it was just like the beginning and kind of the end.
DAFOE: So all the space in the middle is vamping really.
GALLOWAY: That is improvised?
DAFOE: And, of course, you have a very clear task because you’ve got to keep them on the hook, you know, and you got to bring them there, got to bring them to a private place, you know. I had a very clear task. There’s this guy, I know I got to check him out, confirm all my suspicions that he should not be there, I am trying to get him, trying to get a sense of him, getting him talking, getting him away from the kids. I’m going to scare him because I think he should not be around. So he wants to get a soda, this is my way to see him sweat. So I am sweating him. And then once I am, you know, sure because of various things that he does then I lower the boom. So that is a very clear action. So that is what I am thinking about, just accomplishing those things. I’m not thinking about mean to him, I am not thinking about judging him, you know, I am just trying to play, get a good result as a manager.
GALLOWAY: And who was the other actor?
DAFOE: He is a Vietnam vet, had a whole life and retired to that area and he is quite elderly, as you see, and just for fun he started doing little acting jobs and local things. But the movie is a mix of children, people that live there, some actors, some new actors. One of the main parts was found on Instagram and she is fantastic.
DAFOE: The woman that plays the mother, Bria Vinaite. Yeah, if you have not seen the movie it’s available on, just today or soon, it’s available on other platforms. You do not have to see it.
GALLOWAY: But see it in the movie theater.
DAFOE: Yeah, you should.
GALLOWAY: You become part of it.
DAFOE: But the problem is that it’s a small movie and it should be a small movie because if you tried to make this movie at a bigger budget with a bunch of stars you could never get the trust of the people, you could never get the authenticity, there would be performances in the way. My job here was to not be an actor, to kind of melt in. And somehow that is always my job. But this world, it was important to really let them lead and have me support. And that was a fun place to be.
GALLOWAY: So when you do this scene, do you tell that poor old guy that look I’m going to grab you and maybe hurt you or?
DAFOE: I do because I don’t want to be a jerk. I don’t want to brutalize this guy. I mean that was not bad. But I did say, you know, also, he is old, I do not want to hurt him so when I was going to grab him I did it like a dance. I said, “OK, I am going to grab you here and grab you here, I am going to turn you around, I am going to reach for this.” So we did it slow motion a couple of times. And, you know, we probably shot that twice.
GALLOWAY: You did not rehearse?
DAFOE: Just we danced through that thing.
GALLOWAY: I mean the whole scene?
DAFOE: We rehearsed a couple of times because also you probably notice that was a steadicam shot. Because it is quite a walk. We didn’t have track light, you know.
GALLOWAY: But I love that he held the shot and your emotion in it. And then there are those couple of moments where you kind of laugh.
DAFOE: I have not seen it in a while. It looked pretty good..
GALLOWAY: It is.
DAFOE: Usually I see stuff and I, well, I do, whenever I watch a movie that I have been in I have an immediately association, I remember the day, I remember, you know, I really remember everything. For some strange reason, I look at that and I half remember. And so I can kind of watch it like.
GALLOWAY: Oh yeah. And when something is really the truth it is very compelling, you know.
DAFOE: That’s the game, I think. Somewhere it all boils down to that. I mean truth is a slippery thing.
GALLOWAY: What is truth?
DAFOE: That is what everybody is looking for.
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