King of the quirky part Willem Dafoe brings an offbeat element to the Feature Films Jury. His breathtaking agility as an actor across a staggering spectrum of more than 80 roles has seen him go from playing Jesus to befriending a Nymphomaniac. Wes Anderson and Lars Von Trier are among the top directors clamouring to work with him. We spoke to a surprisingly down-to-earth member of the Jury.
Willem Dafoe © AFP / L. Venance
You often play eccentric roles. Are you an eccentric in real life?
I don’t think I only play eccentric roles. When someone says I recognize it. But I’m not eccentric. I am perfectly normal.
What side of Willem Dafoe do we see in Pasolini by Abel Ferrara?
The film is about the last days of the life of Pier Paolo Pasolini. I adore him as a figure, I adore what he did. He was very prescient of what was happening, about globalization, economically, culturally, socially about what was happening in Europe before it happened. It is not a biopic, it is a portrait and we used that form to try to give a sense to the things that were on his mind.
How did you prepare for the role?
There is so much material and he created so much work, he was really prolific. There is much to read, critical stuffs, poetry, films, marvels... Do I know Him? I tried to just know his material as best as I could and habit this character.
You’ve worked with directors with very distinctive and opposing styles: Abel Ferrara, Lars Von Trier, Wes Anderson… How do you transition from one role to the next?
All of them are directors that I have worked with more than once. They are very different but I think I’m supposed just to interpret a role. A huge part of my job is getting there and serving the director and trying to, as Michel Piccoli said, “be the perfect marionette”, to really come to their ideas, being the flesh, being their thing in front of the camera. And I enjoy that. Interesting things happen when you don’t serve your own interpretation and serve someone else’s interpretation.
Lars Von Trier has offered you some extreme parts. Is he tougher to work with than other directors?
When you are inside, you don’t make those judgments. The only general thing that I can say is I enjoy having some kind of masks. Because I think it always helps you to go deeper. You need those triggers for your imagination. If I have a good mask, I become more flexible. If the task is exotic or removed from your regular pattern of thinking, you lose a kind of self-consciousness and you are more able to find patterns of behavior then you couldn’t find if you were using yourself at the base. I think it taps more into deeply imagination and the subconscious. Those are the things that make you free and more flexible in your mind.
You’re currently touring internationally with a theatre production, The Old Woman. How has that experience been for you?
I had worked with Bob Wilson before, the theater director, in a pieced called The Life and Death of Marina Abramović. I enjoyed that so much he asked me to do another piece, a two-hander, with just me and Mikhail Baryshnikov. The text comes from Daniil Kharms who is a Russian observist from the 30s’ known a little in Europe now, hardly, almost unknown in the US. The text primarily comes from his short story, The Old Woman. It is absurd, there is a lot of movement in it, definitely about blessing peace and the respect of the languages.. Bob’s piece is quite formal, the text is quite lean.
In conversation with Tarik Khaldi