Willem Dafoe: The Man Behind The Mask

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JOHN CARTER, the Sci-Fi action adventure, from Walt Disney Studio Pictures, and Academy Award winning Director Andrew Stanton recently hosted the global media day in advance of the March 9th opening.

Willem Dafoe stars in DISNEY’s epic JOHN CARTER as tribal leader Tars Takas.  His role as an indigenous Martian species with sharp curling protruding cheek horns, double arms, and a highly evolved sense of humor, a man/beast, was filmed on stilts, and at times with crew members holding up a second set of arms to help the acclaimed actor maintain the momentum of the role.

Dafoe, a veteran of over seventy films including The Last Temptation of Christ, Mississippi Burning, Born on the Fourth of July, Clear and Present Danger, Spider-Man (franchise), Wild at Heart, The Aviator and, of course, Sgt. Elias in Oliver Stone’s Platoon, for which he received one of his two Academy Award nomination, was waiting near the door of the hacienda, during the press junket held at The Boulders Resort, for our ten minutes. He shook my hand, smiled and said, “I remember Janet. We met this morning.”  He put me at ease.

He seemed genuinely kind, punctuated his responses with a nice smile and gentle laughter, and allowed, a least, a monetary glimpse into himself.  He wasn’t aware my prepared questions were tossed after hearing his responses during the morning session and new ones created. His responses resonated, having been exposed to Master Acting Classes, at least for me, with truth. It was a pleasure to interview him.

The following is our exchange: 

Janet Walker:  What drives you as an actor?

Willem Dafoe: The adventure; Like most people would tell you the adventure of taking someone else’s point of view and seeing it a new way and it’s an ability to take on the character to have a different life in fiction gives you some keys to helps explain your experiences to the world. That.

Janet Walker: Okay.

Willem Dafoe: And also in performing [there] is a sense of giving yourself over to something bigger than you; where the world drops away and you can be sort of a more ideal person. Ideal in the sense of your sensitivity, your presence is much stronger than you can usually sustain in life so I think you seek that kind of sensation.

Janet Walker: This morning you said – you like to disappear in your roles?

Willem Dafoe: It’s related to that a little bit.

Janet Walker: Why and How?

William Dafoe: Disappear in the sense of, you know when you do something you enjoy or find really fascinating, time doesn’t matter, money doesn’t matter all the trivial things don’t matter. You are you are living full, and it feels like, that’s the only thing I can say. And when I say disappear it’s I think you have to do a certain amount of forgetting this idea of who you are in order to not serve your smaller self and when I say smaller self I’m not taking about (grand) individually I’m talking about petty things. How nice it is when you’re not thinking about the daily worries, that we’re all conditioned to worry about in everything from health to bills to career to ‘does she love me?’, ‘does he love me?’, all those things when you’re in motion and when you’re really playing out some actions there’s a kind of super consciousness that you don’t normally have.

Janet Walker. Okay. Um . . . Describe your . . .

Willem Dafoe: In its best.

Janet Walker: Okay. (laughter)

Willem Dafoe: Because sometimes you perform and that doesn’t happen.

Janet Walker: Okay then, I’d like to jump ahead with this. This is a little off point, but certainly having to do with your career. I would say of all of your roles, you’re probably immortalized as the post Apocalypse Now horror stories of the Vietnam Veteran in Platoon. Describe that experience and how that made you feel? 

Willem Dafoe: Well, that was a great experience because you had this movie that was very hard to make. It was a passion project. Oliver Stone was not celebrated then; it’s hard to remember that but he wasn’t. Bunch of young actors some of them had never made movies before. We went to the Philippines. We were trained by Vietnam Vets who had a real stake in telling the story correctly and of course, Oliver was one of them.  And we made this story that you know I thought was going to be a little movie that would never see the light of day.  Not because that was a judgment about what I thought of it, not at all, I wouldn’t do it if that was the judgment. I just thought it was a limited appeal because in those days Rambo was our idea of a Vietnam movie. And then what happens is that it got some critical response and then it got popular response and for Vietnam Vets, because they really responded and they spoke to me, it was a very important film for them because it helped them come home, sort of. What’s nice, you known, is when you’re involved in telling a story that resonates with the people and they project things onto you and there’s a coming together and I think, that movie, like it or not, some people still argue it’s still a glorification of war and but in the end for many people it had a healing effect and it had it opened a dialogue again that was kind of taboo. So to be a part of that felt it was very nice and to play a character that we feel for so deeply is a privilege. You know, I’m the guy that tells the story in front of the campfire, in that case, you really feel your connection. In those moments, you feel films can do something beyond entertain.

Janet Walker: Absolutely. Now to John Carter, describe your experience making the film. We talked this morning about how you were on stilts, with arm extensions, and all of that.

Willem Dafoe: That was great. It’s mostly about working on a big film that isn’t bloated that really something’s going on that is character driven, story driven, even the action sequences they don’t stand by themselves. Which usually, in these days, the technology has reached a point, it did actually quite some years ago for me, where you can make these fabulous action sequences and it be like wow, wow, wow but you feel nothing, you don’t engage, we’re so used to it. And what’s special about this is it’s not one of those movies. There were sequences that were too much like that and if they didn’t serve the story and didn’t develop the character he cut them. (Amazed laugh) He cut them!  You know, He’s very disciplined. He’s no dope this Andrew Stanton. (Laughing)

Janet Walker: Well let’s lead into that. Tell me about working with him.

Willem Dafoe: He’s really good; a nice fellow. Like any smart director he works slightly different with each person because he knows he has good instincts about what they need. I trusted him. I become like one of his guys to get what he needs because he’s very clear. And not only do you have to realize the scene but you have to get the information for the animators. He’s very clear about that he has to educate me on the process is and sometimes he has to take me in and tell me what has to be accomplished in the scene on top of my normal job as an actor. So I become sort of a collaborator with him, on a different level, which I’m used to but not used to in a big, big, movie like this.

Janet Walker: Your role in this film as moments of comedy but clearly the comedy overshadows his particular purpose. Did you find the humor was written into the character?

Willem Dafoe: It was. It was such odd.   . . I mean you put John Carter and Tars next to each other; they’re such an odd couple. And they share a lot of things but they’re quite different (laughter) and that really opens the door for a lot of misunderstandings to come. So it was there. I don’t think we had to force it. And also, Andrew has a natural, has a little perverse streak in him that keeps him from getting to serious or self-serious he likes to break things with humor to get them to re-enter the story to give you a little perspective.

Janet Walker: Do you watch yourself in dailies or playbacks?

Willem Dafoe: No. I watch myself in playbacks only if it is a very technical shot. And I can see that to understand what I have to do for the camera better or if a director says come here I want you watch this. I don’t watch it to study to tell me what to do. Because I think A) that’s what the director’s for and if you like want you see, particularly in the dailies, if you like what you see it doesn’t help you. If you don’t like what you see, it doesn’t help you.  If you like what you see, they’re maybe some anxiety about how do I keep it up, a self-consciousness enters,’ oh we’re on the right track’, you get excited you start to focus on the wrong thing and if you don’t like what you see it can put you in a depression or lack of confidence.

Janet Walker: Sure. If there was one character in your life that you relate to more than any other who would it be? and why?

Willem Dafoe: Oh. As a fantasy, Bobby Peru, in Wild at Heart just because he was pure like nature, that’s not who I am, but I mean as a fantasy, I liked how bad he was. 

And other than that, many and moments, you know I always think of a Paul Schrader movie called Light Sleeper, when I did that, I don’t know whether you know the movie or not , it was an independent movie but when I did that I always felt like if my life was different I could have been this guy. So I don’t know it was a feature role I feel like that.

And with that our ten minutes were over and Willem Dafoe was off to another set of interviews.

John Carter opens March 9 in theaters everywhere. Check your local listings.

For more information visit: http://disney.com/johncarter



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