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Willem Dafoe on Willem Dafoe

The consummate craftsman breaks down his craft

Willem Dafoe's remarkable range as an actor has earned him acclaim both as the villain (most famously as Green Goblin in the Spider-Man movies) and as the good guy (Jesus in Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ, a soldier with a conscience in Oliver Stone's Vietnam classic Platoon). His most recent movie, Daybreakers—in which he plays a vampire in a world where almost everyone is a vampire—is in theaters now.

Listen to a clip from this interview.

JD: This is the second time you've played a vampire?

WD: Probably more times than that, technically speaking. There was Shadow of the Vampire, then I did a small role in The Vampire's Assistant. And when I first started out I did a little cameo in The Hunger.

JD: You've played a lot of vampires.

WD: No I don't play a lot of vampires! I've made 80 movies so that's four movies. That's nothing!

JD: OK, a small fraction. How about this: You've played a lot of villains.

WD: Probably less villains! OK, give me the villains!

JD: Barillo in Once Upon a Time in Mexico. Green Goblin. You were considered for the role of the Joker, which eventually went to Jack Nicholson.

WD: Yeah.

JD: I think—it seems to me, tell me if I'm wrong—people sometimes perceive you as being a person who's good at playing villains—

WD: Popularly! I think cinephiles and people who know cinema don't have that so much. Because there's a tendency for me to play villains in bigger movies, movies where there's generally less experimentation. If you have success with something, they want you to repeat that. From the way people react to me and their perception of me, I can tell what movies they've seen. There are other people who are more arthouse inclined, and they have a different sense of me entirely.

JD: What do you feel like the perception of you is? You once said you feel like you've missed out on mainstream roles because people perceive you as this dark, eccentric type.

WD: I probably said that 25 years ago. That's the fucker of the Internet. Once a quote gets in there, it doesn't have a date on it.

JD: Well how do you feel about it now? About how people perceive you?

WD: I say it's a mixed bag. It depends on them.

JD: I get a sense that you're kind of a nice, normal, non-weird guy. How does it feel to have some people perceive you as an eccentric, dark actor, given that that's not who you really are?

WD: I try not to think about these things. This is not my job. My job is to do what interests me and do it well.

JD: At the same time you played Jesus Christ—kind of the opposite of a villain. What gives you that range?

WD: I'm just game. I'm game and I want to disappear and I want to be transformed. Sometimes it happens, sometimes it doesn't. But that's my interest.

JD: To disappear into a role?

WD: No. Disappear, you know... Take on a different set of thoughts, a different set of impulses, a different set of imaginings—a different way of thinking. When the situation's right, you can really go deep. That doesn't mean I lose myself. It means I reorder or I redirect myself to this situation. I like that.

JD: You also have an intensity and presence that I feel is unique. Where does that come from?

WD: It's all drawn from your real life. I have fun doing roles, but somewhere deeply I'm very serious about what I do. It approaches an almost spiritual intensity, when I'm making something. It's a kind of high. At its very best, it's an almost sacred calling. But that's next to also the low impulses—the goofy guy who likes to have fun and show his ass and show off and make some money and make something fun and popular. They're both in the mix.

JD: In Antichrist you played a cognitive-behavioral therapist. Your sister is a psychologist. I work for Psychology Today magazine. How does your understanding of psychology affect the way you look at the world? How does it affect your roles, your work?

WD: In my work I don't think about psychology so much. I approach it much more in terms of action. I approach my roles much more as an athlete or a dancer. Psychology is useful but it's one way of understanding. From my theater background I have a much different tradition.

As far as playing the cognitive therapist, it was important that I was a rationalist and I really believed in the power of thinking—if you adjust your thinking you could control these things. Whereas she was more of a... whatever the opposite of a rationalist is...

JD: Emotive? A feeler?

WD: Yeah, yeah, a feeler! And she was totally susceptible to her feelings and had no way to distance herself from certain phobias, from certain fears, and she went into them deeply when this accident happened with their child.

So psychology in that particular role was very important. I studied, sat in on some sessions, read some things about cognitive therapy. I got this idea of not only exposure therapy but also this idea of thinking errors. And the labels you give, that you attach or identify to certain places your thinking is going.

That's something I relate to very much because I experience it. I do that naturally when I'm performing, and I also do it to some degree in yoga practice. You see where your mind goes. And then you see what the patterns are and then you see what you're inventing and what is really based on your experience and what isn't. I notice what my tendencies are.

JD: Being mindful and watching your thoughts.

WD: They aren't the character's thoughts, they're my thoughts, the performer's thoughts, in relationship to the character.

JD: The dichotomy you drew between thinking and instinct is interesting. How do you think about those two things as an actor?

WD: I always approach it in the most tangible way I can. And the easiest thing you do is you break things down into actions. You say, "I know I walk in the door." "I know I sit down here." "I know I want to eat." "I know I want to touch."

You shape it that way and you reflect on those things as you're doing them with varying degrees of consciousness—or not—depending on character you're playing. That becomes the dialogue and inner life of the character.

JD: You once said it's the most horrendous experiences that can translate into your best work.

WD: I still believe that. Feeling secure or feeling pleasure is overrated. Sometimes things that are very awkward or when you're off-balance are the most interesting things.

You can trick yourself into these places of discomfort and not knowing, but it's tricky because of course you can't initiate anything from that place. When you feel lost and you feel uncomfortable, and a director asks you to be brave and take the leap anyway—even though you don't feel comfortable—sometimes it's better to just do it. Just do it and not wait to be comfortable.

I've seen in my time of performing, a lot of actors don't make a move until they feel comfortable, and I think that kills a lot of impulse. So you have to entertain this idea of, sometimes when you're lost, sometimes when you don't feel so great, sometimes when you're making that choice that's counter to your impulses—go with it. See where it takes you.

JD: What's an interview question that no one's ever asked you but you feel they should have or that you've always wanted to talk about?

WD: There is no should! I don't have that. The joke is, I'm here for you. I can't imagine what you want. I'm here to publicize the movie and for my own pleasure to talk about what I do. I want people to like what I do, but I don't have a need for people to see me in a particular way.

JD: Well how about this. Can you give an example of a life experience—even a negative life experience—that you feel like you've drawn on and translated into good work that you're proud of?

WD: Not so much. Because that's different. Because I'm a believer in pretending and I don't believe you can use substitution. You can't take something from your life and apply it to fuel something else. You can, but I think it's a cheat. Because you don't sit with the real situation and you have to make an expectation about what your reaction should be.

If there's a funeral scene and you're standing in front of the coffin, the normal thing would be—funerals are sad—people cry. "I don't feel like crying? Well, let me think of something sad from my life so I can cry." So you cry and everybody says, clap, clap, "Oh, God, that's so emotional, he's so sensitive! He's crying at somebody's funeral!" They project onto you. Because they see it and they identify. "Oh, he's crying! The character is really moved!"

But there's another part of you that says you're missing something. It's better to sit there, look at the character, look at the face, look at the skin, put yourself... think of who you are, who they are in the context of the fiction that you're making, and sometimes you can get an unexpected and truer response.

And that is when you're making something—as opposed to illustrating "People crying at funerals because they're sad." You may find something more interesting where people don't—I mean, obviously, this is quite broad—people don't cry at funerals because they're sad. That may be more resonant.

Listen to a clip from this interview.