Hollywood Flashback: Willem Dafoe Helped Cronenberg Land a Silver Bear in 1999

Willem Dafoe at a press event for 'eXistenZ' — Publicity — H 2020
UPI Photos

When the actor starred in David Cronenberg’s 'eXistenZ,' the film marked his first and only collaboration with cinema’s premier body horror maestro.

Willem Dafoe has to date had a long and diverse acting career that’s seen him work with some of the world’s most renowned filmmakers, among them Martin Scorsese, Zhang Yimou, William Friedkin, Oliver Stone and Dee Rees. Dafoe has a fondness for playing misunderstood oddballs and men who march to their own beat, which somewhat explains why his turn as a kind, generous motel manager in Sean Baker’s The Florida Project was greeted with surprise. Dafoe is rarely described as the "nice guy."

That artistic tendency could also explain the long relationship he’s had with directors who are considered envelope pushers, such as Paul Schrader (they’re currently shooting their seventh film together), gleeful agitator Lars von Trier and Abel Ferrara. In 1999, he starred in David Cronenberg’s eventual Silver Bear winner, eXistenZ, his first and only collaboration with cinema’s premier body horror maestro. The film, easily the squishiest, most intestinal virtual-reality-game nightmare yet put to screens, isn’t really something to be adored, but Cronenberg was peaking artistically at the time, and watching Dafoe as Gas, a black market bio-port dealer, attach a puckered, fleshy game port to Jude Law’s spine seems entirely in character for both director and actor.

Dafoe returns to Berlin this year in his sixth film with Ferrara, the competition entry Siberia. Always provocative, Ferrara and his alter ego/muse have dabbled in Cronenbergian sci-fi before (New Rose Hotel, 4:44 Last Day on Earth), but it was the personal — the last days of controversial filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini’s life in Pasolini, the incendiary life of an American artist in Rome in Tommaso — where the duo worked best. In Siberia, a man sequestered in a cave wrestles with his memories and his demons, but where Cronenberg explored the self through the language of technology, Ferrara does it through the language of dreams.

This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter's Feb. 21 daily issue at the Berlin Film Festival.