Inside Willem Dafoe
Willem Dafoe in Inside courtesy of Focus Features

Willem Dafoe played Vincent van Gogh not long ago. But now, he’s exploring art from a different perspective.

The actor plays an art thief who goes completely feral when he becomes trapped in a luxury apartment he’s trying to rob in Vasilis Katsoupis’ feature directorial debut, Inside

In his long and impressive career, Dafoe has done almost everything. He’s played villains like the Green Goblin in Spider-Man and J.G. Jopling, the enforcer in The Grand Budapest Hotel. He’s played heroes like Bobby, the gruff but kindly manager in The Florida Project, and Marcus, the assassin-mentor in John Wick.

He’s embodied writer T.S. Eliot in Tom & Viv, Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini in Pasolini, and even Jesus Christ in The Last Temptation of Christ. In The Lighthouse, he and Robert Pattinson shouldered an entire film in a two-man contest of wills. 

But for Inside, Dafoe does something he’s never done before: carry a movie almost entirely on his own. 

Willem Dafoe on the making of Inside

Willem Dafoe’s only supporting actors are a voice on the other end of a walkie-talkie, a woman he watches through a security camera, and a pigeon on the other side of the glass. He also talks with various inanimate objects as he goes mad from isolation. 

His art-thief character, Nemo, eventually embraces his own artistic impulses. To try to cope with his predicament, he begins drawing on the apartment walls. Dafoe created one of the wall drawings in collaboration with a professional artist on set. It started with Dafoe’s memory of a piece of art he’d seen long ago, on the wall of his brother’s college dorm room.

“The one with all the people jumping off the cliff… that one was important,” Willem Dafoe tells MovieMaker. “I remember when my brother was in college, I went to visit him. College students tended to take stuff from head shops and decorate their little dorm rooms with them, and he had a drawing of a man sitting on a rock — a little naked, emaciated guy.

“He was throwing pebbles into the water and they were making ripples, and unbeknownst to him, he’s sitting on a rock that has eroded away completely. So he’s participating in his own death, because out of boredom, he’s tossing these pebbles that are making ripples that are coming up against the rock, and eating it away. I thought that was a very interesting predicament, and kind of a parallel predicament” to the one in the film.”

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Dafoe took a leap of faith by working with Katsoupis, a Greek director who makes his dramatic feature directorial debut with Inside following his 2016 music documentary My Friend Larry Gus

“He slowly won me over and was tenacious and persistent. I was always interested, but it took a long time for it to come together,” Dafoe says. “Even though he didn’t have a lot of work to show me to make me confident of, ‘Oh, this guy knows how to shoot a movie,’ I felt like we were into something that had an interesting impulse behind it.”

Inside is produced by Giorgos Karnavas of the Greek production company Heretic, which is also behind Cannes’ Palme d’Or winner Triangle of Sadness

“The way they invited me to collaborate was the kind of situation that I like a lot,” Willem Dafoe says. “So it was really born out of practical problem-solving.”

Dafoe was intrigued by the challenge of being an almost totally solo performer in the film, in which he spends most of his time in silence, or just talking to himself.

Inside Willem Dafoe
Willem Dafoe and director Vasilis Katsoupis behind the scenes of Inside courtesy of Focus Features

“I liked very much the idea that it was a film basically without dialogue,” Dafoe says, adding that he enjoyed the solitary nature of his character, who has “a dialogue with a thing — with a house — with an environment.”

But even though Dafoe delivers a mostly solo performance, he doesn’t consider it a one-man show.

“I was talking to myself and I was talking to objects. I had dialogues going all the time,” he says. “When you’re the solitary performer and you have an idea for a movie that has a good script, the reality of it can’t be tested until you get there. So you’re also acting like a filmmaker. It’s really a collaboration.”

Dafoe also got the rare opportunity to shoot all of his scenes in chronological order. 

“We would have to shoot in sequence, given the nature of what happens in the movie. And that was interesting to me because I thought, yes, we have a pretty good idea of what has to happen. But also, there are some questions, and we won’t know the answers until we get there,” he says. “It was a blueprint. We were going to be in that room, and we were going to see what happened. And that was a beautiful parallel to what actually happens in the movie.”

Even though he earned an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Van Gogh in Julian Schnabel’s 2018 film At Eternity’s Gate, Dafoe says the painter wasn’t often on his mind.

​​“Not at all,” Dafoe says. “Because the truth is, I start out being a guy that appraises, that likes art. But I’m not necessarily an artist. That kind of comes out in the process of the movie. So that’s not my identity – my identity is more that I’m a guy that steals art.”

And despite the ordeal his character goes through, Willem Dafoe says he didn’t do much mental or physical preparation before filming.

“Here’s a real case of not knowing until you get there,” he says. “What’s beautiful is — because the circumstances don’t exist until I’m there — it’s a totally reactive performance. There’s no way to prepare. Really, what can you imagine I would do? Because where I start out in the movie, I’m a thief. So all I try to do is try to be elegant in how I put this art in a bag.”

His true transformation happened in real time over the course of production.

“I knew that I would let my hair grow, I’d let my nails grow, I would certainly just naturally lose a little weight. I always do anyway when I work, particularly if I’m working every day. So I just let that happen,” he says.

“The biggest challenge was probably not to get ahead of myself, and not create expectations of how I was supposed to react to things. I really try to imagine: If I was in this situation, what would go down?”

He says the whole plot of the movie is a metaphor for something greater.

“I never thought about pacing myself or where I was in the story. I was wherever I was at. And how would I gauge that? I’d gauge that with what I had to do that day to survive, because it’s not a straight slide into something. He has his moments where he feels like he can get on top of it. And then he has setbacks, and then something else happens and he adjusts to that. Then he overcomes that, but then something else becomes a problem. And then he overcomes that and then he’s feeling pretty good. And then he has another setback. Kind of like life.”

Inside arrives in theaters on March 17.

Main Image: Willem Dafoe in Inside courtesy of Focus Features.

A version of this story originally appeared in the Winter 2023 issue of MovieMaker Magazine.