LOS ANGELES—“To know me is to love me,” laughingly said the actor who can project evil with a capital “E” onscreen—but in person, he’s a sweet, smiling and gracious dude.
Willem Dafoe wanted to set the record straight: “The truth is, I make different kinds of movies. I’m always surprised by different directors when they approach me, how they see me. That’s a good thing, because it’s nice to be flexible. What people see when they want me to play a positive character, I think they know that I want to give myself to them.”
Case in point—Willem plays a good guy, Bobby, in Sean Baker’s “The Florida Project,” hailed as one of the best films in the Cannes Film Festival in May. Willem’s portrayal of a motel manager who has compassion for struggling families living in motels near Disney World is stirring best supporting actor buzz and is being praised as the most engaging work in his career.
Brooklynn Prince, as 6-year-old Moonee, and other kids with virtually no acting experience, play “almost homeless” children who seek shelter with their families in extended-stay motels. The ragtag playmates find adventures in the shadows of Disney World.
“Sean was surprised that I wanted to work with kids and in a fairly down and dirty situation on a low-budget movie,” said Willem, all cheerful and light in this interview in LA. “But, I’m not really a careerist. I do want to keep on working. When people sense that I’m game, that somehow makes them think I’m OK (laughs).”
He stressed, “I disagree with this thing that I don’t play heroes. For every ‘To Live and Die in LA,’ there’s ‘The Last Temptation of Christ.’ For every ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel,’ there’s ‘The Life Aquatic.’”
True, he did play no less than Jesus in Martin Scorsese’s 1988 film. “Sometimes, the perception is that I play only bad guys,” he said. “I don’t need to control what people think, but to play a hero, you don’t judge these characters. I don’t think about Bobby being a hero. If he’s positioned as a bad character, you try to find the good. If he’s positioned as a good character, you try to find the bad, just to get some complexity and fullness rather than a polemical one-dimensional character.
“So, this was a beautiful role because something unexpected happened. [Having] watched the movie, I’m proud that he is so humane in a very difficult situation. When people are kind to each other, it’s the thing that really moves and inspires me.”
As for his own childhood in Wisconsin, the 62-year-old recalled, “When you come from a big family, you have to learn how to cooperate with everyone. You have two brothers who will beat you up if you don’t cooperate with them, and five sisters.
“You learn cooperation but, at the same time, because both my parents worked, I was very free. I had a little Huck Finn in me. And growing up in a conservative paper mill town in Wisconsin in the 1950s, you had a sense that there was a bigger world out there. I was always trying to find that.”
He continued. “I grew up pretty middle class. My mother was a nurse. My father was a surgeon who could have had a Park Avenue (New York) practice, but I suppose he was a little bit of a country boy. So, he went back to where he was from, Wisconsin, and worked in a quite small town of 50,000 people.
“I never felt wealthy nor deprived. In that town, there was some poverty, but I didn’t connect with it as much. It probably scared me more because, in the 1950s Eisenhower era, there was such a sense of upward mobility and you had parents who grew up in the Depression. They’d point at those people and say, ‘If you don’t work hard, this is where you’re going.’
“So, I grew up with that heaviness. I was God-fearing and a pretty straight kid on one hand, because of that fear. But I also knew that was an untrue equation.
“As I got older, I wanted to become an actor,” added the thespian who would go on to earn a Golden Globe nod and two Oscar nominations. “I didn’t have any money then. Even working as a young actor in the theater for many years, I was poor and living in bad neighborhoods. That opened me up. There was a big shift politically and in my sense of what my relationship was to other people.
“I loved performing, even when I was young. But, I never thought of it as a profession, because I grew up in a place where nobody I knew made their living that way. So, it was an unrealistic aspiration.
“I worked with a theater company for 27 years. Every day when I wasn’t on a film set, every show we did felt like it was going to be our last. I’m very happy being an actor. I think it’s what I’m supposed to do. It’s what gives me pleasure.”
He recalled vividly his first pay as a film actor. “The first movie paycheck was on Kathryn Bigelow’s first movie called ‘The Loveless.’ I remember it so well, because I was working in avant-garde theater, earning very little money. When they asked me to do a contract, I started calling up friends who worked in the theater and movies, saying, ‘How much should I ask for (laughs)?”
The strikingly purple motel setting of “The Florida Project” and the other colorful locations weren’t some production designer’s ultracolorful vision. “The motel that you see in the movie does exist, even to this day,” Willem said with a grin. “Those colors—I couldn’t believe it. I said, ‘Guys, did we do this?’ They said, ‘No, they did it. We had no choice.’ But in fact, there’s a whole strip of motels that has this theme-park feeling. That place exists.”
He’s had his own experience staying in seedy motels. “When I was about 17 years old, I did a tour with a traveling theater company. I remember a motel in a place called South Euclid, Ohio. I didn’t sleep the whole night, because I was scared (laughs). There was so much going on in the other rooms.”
On what could be done to improve the plight of real-life, itinerant families staying in motels, Willem said, “I’m not a politician, and I don’t want to get on a soapbox. But, it seems wildly clear to me that we’ve got to spend more on education. Also, we have to reconsider our relationship with other countries. The fact that our military budget is the size that it is in comparison to other countries is something to think about.”
Willem himself talked about where he lives—or doesn’t live—to keep his grounded nature. “I don’t live in Hollywood. That helps. And I work. Idle hands are the devil’s workshop.”
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