Why Willem Dafoe Can’t Slow Down

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WILLEM DAFOE, DRESSED in a black leather jacket, enters the downtown Manhattan restaurant where we’d planned to meet. He has his phone up to his ear, a look that’s almost a parody: In walks a Very Busy Guy. He sees me at the table, gestures at the phone extravagantly, rolls his eyes and grimaces at the absurdity of it. As the seconds go by, his apologetic demeanor morphs into something more like comedy — his head shaking, his hand waving in a vaguely Italian-style telegraph of exasperation, all of it coalescing into a fascinating improvisational bit.

He stood a few feet from our table as he finished the call, giving the staff at the Georgian cafe ample opportunity to take in the actor in their midst. Maybe the performance was for their benefit, too? Yet it didn’t feel showy: He was not too famous to hide, not too self-conscious to resist doing what he does almost unthinkingly, which is use his body to perform. Acting is not so much a job for Dafoe as a way of being in the world, a practice so essential he can’t go without it.

Dafoe, 67, is an unusual celebrity, perhaps the world’s most famous character actor — one who came up through New York experimental theater, who never intended to appeal to the masses. Like a Christopher Walken or a Ralph Fiennes, he suggests in his choices of roles as much as his performances that he thrives on parts that other actors might find distasteful or unflattering; he differentiates himself by a certain lack of discrimination. He’s been in nearly 150 films since his first starring role, as a young but hardened biker in Kathryn Bigelow’s “The Loveless” (1981). Many of them have been blockbusters, but some have never played in the United States and many were made by young directors about whom he knew little more than, as he puts it, that they gave him “a good feeling.”

This month, Dafoe stars in “Inside,” a debut feature by the Greek director Vasilis Katsoupis, 46, about an art thief trapped by an elaborate security system within a minimalist high-end apartment that’s dangerously low on life-sustaining necessities. For 90 minutes, the camera rarely strays from Dafoe, as his character, over the course of months, endures near-starvation, total isolation and the absence (no small thing) of a functioning toilet. Working on the project required the actor to live apart from his family and friends for six weeks, “like a monk,” he says, cooking for himself in a small rental in Cologne, Germany. In the film, he lays himself bare, physically and psychologically, burrowing deep into the humbling ugliness of true desperation. He was, Dafoe told me later, “in heaven.”

WILLEM DAFOE WAS born William Dafoe in Appleton, Wis., where he was drawn to community theater, the kid who’d do anything for a laugh. The second youngest of eight children, he made sure he would be seen, even amid the chaos of a home packed with older teenagers, their comings and goings barely monitored by his mother, a nurse, and his father, a surgeon (both now dead). “It doesn’t take a psychologist to figure out that when you’re in a big family, you gotta find your place,” he says. “I became the entertainer.” An extrovert with a transgressive streak, he dropped out of high school after being falsely accused, he says, of making a pornographic film for a communications class. He nonetheless briefly attended the University of Wisconsin and eventually joined an experimental troupe called Theatre X. (Along the way, the young man who’d been known as Billy decided to switch to Willem, a name a friend from college called him.)

At 21, Dafoe arrived in 1970s-era downtown Manhattan, a creative playground for artists attracted to its cheap, empty lofts. Here, he came to admire the work of Elizabeth LeCompte, the pioneering director known for her role shaping the work of Spalding Gray, the polymathic performance artist. Dafoe began collaborating with both and then helped the couple form the theater troupe that would become the Wooster Group in 1980. But his integration into their world started with a major disruption: He fell in love with LeCompte, who left Gray to embark upon a 26-year relationship with Dafoe. (He and LeCompte have one son, Jack, who’s 40.) The three ended up subdividing the loft LeCompte had shared with Gray with a wall and separate entrances so no one had to move out. A hothouse of talent, tension and creativity, the Wooster Group soon became one of the most influential theatrical companies in New York, central to downtown culture, in conversation with the city’s emergent dance and performance art scenes. Their work wasn’t linear, but there was nothing haphazard about their highly stylized, carefully rehearsed projects, which often ran on tight clockwork choreographies, integrating video and complicating ideas of plot.

Dafoe fell naturally into work that demanded both a strong ego and a spirit of collaboration. But the actor Kate Valk, another founding member who still performs with the Wooster Group, recalls Dafoe as providing the kind of energy associated with the frontman in a band: captivating and telegenic. “He was an important part of the charisma of the group,” she says. “He had that impish impulse always. He very much represented the id in the room.” Both Valk, now 65, and LeCompte, now 78, remember Dafoe as hungry to be looked at. “He wants very much to be needed,” says LeCompte. “And if he’s needed, he’ll give everything. He has to work.” 

Wooster also made experimental movies, in which it became clear that Dafoe — his chiseled face teetering between beautiful and gaunt — might have a future on film. (“Who needs the American West when you have all the planes on that face?” asks Valk.) He became known for taking on dark roles: the soulless killer in “To Live and Die in L.A.,” the 1985 William Friedkin thriller; a maniac with a surprising underlying pathos in E. Elias Merhige’s “Shadow of the Vampire,” for which he earned his second of four Academy Award nominations in 2001. But for many years, he toggled between two extremes: heartless freaks (“Wild at Heart,” 1990) and the near-saintly (Sergeant Elias in “Platoon,” 1986; Jesus Christ in Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ,” 1988). “When I saw him as Jesus, I thought, ‘Oy — Jesus,’” says LeCompte. “I realized, ‘He can be on a very big screen.’”

So much of Dafoe’s movie career reflects the expressionism he honed at Wooster, in performances that were highly physical. Those qualities endure in his depiction of the Green Goblin in Marvel’s “Spider-Man” films; he appears in four of them, but his operatic performance in the first one, from 2002, is considered essential to the success of the series. And yet, another of his most memorable performances is a study in understatement. In the 2017 independent film “The Florida Project,” he embodies a man who’s made many choices he regrets but is trying, nonetheless, to do right by those he can help, however modestly. The film relied on local Floridians without feature film experience; the director, Sean Baker, shot the ending on an iPhone. At this stage in his career, Dafoe says, he has the luxury of accepting assignments on instinct: “When you’re starting out, you feel like every film can ruin you. Now I can take more risks.”

IN “INSIDE,” THE burden of carrying the movie rests squarely on Dafoe, and on what he can still do with his body. A former student of karate, a daily practitioner of Ashtanga yoga, a skilled tango dancer, Dafoe, in one of the film’s memorable scenes, constructs a 28-foot-high tower of furniture, his breath labored as he lugs tables and breaks down chairs. In attempting to escape through a skylight, he crawls to the top of the structure and nimbly stands up before stretching his arms overhead. The athleticism on display from an actor in his late 60s is so striking that it’s almost distracting.

Watching the movie, I told Dafoe, I had the sense of him as an actor who — but he cut me off before I could finish: “Who’s not even entertaining the question of ‘Who’s going to see this, and what’s it going to do for me?’” He smiled.

I was going to say I had the sense of an actor who is intent on proving — to directors, but more so to himself — that he is still strong enough, still motivated enough psychologically, to do grueling work; who refuses to let age be an impediment. Dafoe’s longevity, says the director Abel Ferrara, 71, with whom he’s collaborated several times, reflects his two and a half decades with Wooster. The grounding with the theater meant he never left for Los Angeles, where so many actors hustle for the wrong things. And as long as he was with the company, he was acting most days, rather than waiting out empty stretches in between projects, as other stars do. “You can’t be an actor, not working,” says Ferrara. “He knows that.”

“Inside” was the kind of project that Dafoe relishes, one in which the role itself is a work in progress. “We had a pact,” says Katsoupis, the director, “that although we had a beautiful script, we would be discovering this character day by day.” Dafoe’s input was essential, down to the drawing he made of the mural his character would eventually create as he grasped for his own humanity within the unrelentingly hostile apartment. Stories he told Katsoupis over dinner — about a tuneless nursery rhyme that an ill patient of his mother’s used to sing, or about a particular hilarious but repetitive joke that a Bulgarian translator once told him — ended up in the film.

“You throw yourself into it,” Dafoe says. “And you have a beautiful day full of adventure and impressions that you don’t always get — and then you feel turned on.” He likens the experience of working with a director to being in love. “You feel energized and like your best self — you’re so enamored of this person that you want to be the best person possible. That’s the proposal: ‘We need you to do this thing, to go on this mission.’” 

The waiter at the restaurant brought a plate of Georgian desserts, including a rich honey cake, and, over oat vodka, Dafoe showed me some recent images on his phone: an ice skater he enjoyed watching on television; a digital clock in a cab showing the time 4:44 (part of the name of a 2011 film he made with Ferrara); a photo of him near a painting by the Brazilian artist Maxwell Alexandre, a copy of which is featured in “Inside.” He had been stunned to see the original in the lobby of the Shed, a Manhattan arts space, earlier that week and had someone take a photo of him in front of it — with his pants around his ankles. (“I told you, I like transgression!” he explains.) For Dafoe, performing for an audience, even a personal one, often involves high jinks and spontaneity. At some level, he’s clearly still driven by the desire to entertain, to shock, that drove him as a young actor. But interwoven with that is another motivation that takes more commitment: wringing the most meaning possible from inhabiting someone else’s story. He may get immediate satisfaction from the big laugh, but the truly hard days are justified by something else — finding significance in an object as simple as a glass filled with water, an example he gives from his latest film, how much it changes depending on who’s poured it, who’s drinking it, with what experience behind it. “Your curiosity in that moment — it’s not normal,” Dafoe says. “It’s hyperawareness.”

His intention is to try to bond with other confused humans, he says, by acting out versions of their stories. It’s an impulse, he adds, as old as dancing in front of the campfire: “I’m going to get up and do this for me and for you and for all of us.” Comfort, consolation, connection — what else matters? “Because really,” he says, “there’re only two events. There’s birth. And there’s death. And in between, it’s all —” Then Dafoe makes the kind of crazy eyes that render him riveting onscreen, and the spiral hand gesture for “nuts” with a hand on either side of his head, emitting the babbling sound — garbled, funny, unnerving — of a madman.

DURING THE 26 years that Dafoe collaborated with the Wooster Group, film was always something he did privately, on his own. His Hollywood income helped keep the company afloat; his colleagues supported the movies without being particularly interested in them. Eventually, he says, his absences — and then the fame that came after “Spider-Man,” in the aughts — took a toll on the relationships he had with his fellow company members. “They were a family,” he says matter-of-factly. “And I was like a man with many families.” In 2003, Dafoe, who was filming in Italy, fell in love with Giada Colagrande, an Italian director who was 27 at the time. A mutual friend had introduced them not long after she directed and starred in “Open My Heart” (2002), an erotic noir that had been a sensation at the Venice Film Festival. In a painful break with LeCompte — and therefore the Wooster Group — Dafoe moved part time to Rome to be with Colagrande, whom he married in 2005. The dissolution of that relationship was a shock not just to LeCompte but to the whole group. “I nearly had a nervous breakdown,” Valk says. And yet it somehow came as a surprise to Dafoe that he was exiled from the troupe.

“I was totally naïve,” he says now. Leaving LeCompte meant losing some of his closest friends — and it meant walking away from experimental theater. “I just took a different life,” he says. “I started seeking out other opportunities in the theater, but it was very difficult after working in the company.” This past decade, he performed in two Robert Wilson productions in New York City — “The Old Woman” (2014), opposite Mikhail Baryshnikov, and “The Life and Death of Marina Abramović” (2013) — and he continues to pursue ambitious avant-garde projects with the few well-known collaborators who can launch them on a prominent stage. But he has little interest in conventional theater, he says: “It has to be something that I’ve never done before.”

Now, when he’s not filming, he spends whatever time he has with Colagrande in New York and in Italy. During the pandemic, her mother moved into a farmhouse an hour’s drive outside of Rome, where the couple frequently join her. Over time, they’ve built it into a working farm, with goats, alpacas, a renegade ram, some showy turkeys (“They think they’re peacocks,” Colagrande says) and a vegetable garden big enough that they supply a nearby restaurant with cauliflowers, eggplants, tomatoes and lettuces.

The actor has discovered, relatively late in life, how much he loves animals — maybe even identifies with them. “Paul Schrader” — who directed him in “Light Sleeper” (1992) — “says that all actors are like farm animals,” Dafoe told me. “They like to work.” I had gone to see him in Italy, where we were now chatting in the house, over the din of a green monk parrot, Paco, whom Colagrande, now 47, had rescued off a Roman street. It seemed to me the farm is like one big ensemble group, a cast of characters — sacred, showy, chirpy, recalcitrant — who demand attention and time, and also, crucially, who need Dafoe.

Dafoe, for his part, seems perennially drawn to new troupes. He frequently works with the American directors Wes Anderson (five films together) and Robert Eggers (three). More recently, he has been drafted into the group of actors who collaborate with the Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos. He just finished filming, in New Orleans, a Lanthimos project with Emma Stone called “And,” the details of which have not been revealed; the two actors also recently wrapped another Lanthimos movie, “Poor Things,” based on a novel with a Victorian setting and a “Frankenstein”-inspired theme.  

On the Covers

While making “And,” Stone was struck by how much Dafoe loved being on set. The actors, she recalls, would often hear one assistant director announcing to another, over a walkie-talkie, that Dafoe was “self-motivating to set” — meaning, showing up even though there was no official reason to be there. “That’s what you want from actors,” says Lanthimos, 49. “To want to be part of it in any way.” In one scene, Stone’s character is seen slapping Dafoe’s, who’s meant to be off camera; ordinarily, Stone would make the gesture without an actor present, but Dafoe insisted that the move would look more genuine if he were actually being slapped, and then took the (staged) blow some 20 times.

“There’s this instinct to perform that many actors have — the ‘look at me, look at me!’ kind of performer,” says Stone. “He’s the opposite of that.” Her comment, notably, was the opposite of how LeCompte and Valk characterized his relationship to the audience — an apparent eagerness to delight the viewer. “Maybe it’s changed through the years,” Stone says. “A lot of actors I bond with have been doing this for a long time, and you know they’ve gone from ‘I’ to ‘We.’”

Dafoe says he saw his relationship to acting shift in tandem with the stages of life. He started out an extrovert, performing for the attention. Then it turned into an adult affair: “Once you start working, you use that as a means to survive.” For those who stick with it, the study of the craft takes over; the extroversion turns inward. “And then,” he says, “it becomes like a spiritual thing — to find your connection with all things.” He seems, in one sense, to be racing against time — to be seizing on his hard-won status to work as often as possible, in roles that are as physical and challenging as possible, while he still can. Other actors slow down over the years; for Dafoe, a sense of mortality makes all the more compelling his desire to “melt into things,” as he says, choosing parts that connect him to something bigger than himself.

At the farm, after bowls of pasta, I asked Colagrande what kind of role she’d like to see Dafoe try next. “The head of a cult,” she told me. They’re both fascinated by figures who could create an awakening in large groups of people — while using that talent possibly for evil. Dafoe was reluctant to answer the question himself — to him, it’s never about the role but the whole project. He acknowledged that he wanted to keep doing parts that were vital: physical ones, like being the captain of a ship, or performing love scenes or working with animals. Off the table are kindly or ailing grandfathers.

Colagrande and I had been talking privately for almost half an hour; we realized it was time to call me a taxi. Dafoe was — understandably — getting restless after all the leisure, the long lunch, the chores that had been put off. He had Italian to study, he had animals to feed, he had scripts to read — there was work to do, thank God, and he wanted, he needed, to go do it.

Hair by Adlena Dignam at Bryant Artists using Oribe. Grooming by Aya Iwakami. Set design by Robert Sumrell. Production: Hen’s Tooth. Digital tech: Jarrod Turner. Photo assistants: Ariel Sadok, Dylan Garcia, Terry Gifford. Set assistant: Erin Turner. Director of photography: Angel Zinovieff. Assistant camera: Erin Althaus. Tailor: Eugenio Solanillos. Stylist’s assistant: Verity Azario

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