I’m not going to try to sell you on an interview with Willem Dafoe talking about his acting in The Lighthouse and acting in general. I’m just going to tell you that he sold me.
When you do a Q&A, you have to go back and transcribe it, cutting out a lot of “ummmms” and fragmented sentences and some boring stuff. But transcribing Willem Dafoe was an unusual experience for me: To my ear, he didn’t say any boring stuff. In a warm voice over a pleasantly crackly phone line, he calmly laid out how he sees the profession of acting as a “structured adventure” in which challenges and blessings are the same. He said “um” no more than four times in 30 minutes. I transcribed almost every word, which is something I almost never do. Here’s what Willem Dafoe said.
Tim Molloy, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): I wonder if we could start by talking about The Lighthouse and why you chose to take on the role.
Willem Dafoe (WD): Sure. Okay. I had seen The Witch and I was a great admirer of it, and I had reached out to Robert Eggers just to meet him because I thought there was a special filmmaker there. So I met him and we got along fantastically, and we shared a lot of interests, and talked about ways of working. And I just thought it would be good to work with him. So we kind of made a pact with each other that we’d try to find something, and The Lighthouse was it. Basically, it was a very direct approach. Once he had written The Lighthouse with his brother, he sent it to me, and said “Look, we can make this film. You and Rob Pattinson. Do you want to do it or not?” And of course I did, for various reasons.
The language was beautiful, I liked the events, I was very much looking forward to shooting the way he shoots, at a very specific location. We were going to be isolated, we were going to build the lighthouse. I just imagined as soon as I read it, it was easy to imagine that I’d learn something and I’d have some sort of shift of understanding. So it was like an adventure and also it would be a chance to work with a young director that I thought was really interesting and had a very personal vision.
MM: I’d love to talk about that shift in understanding. Our sympathies change in The Lighthouse in such an interesting way, where we go from finding your character, Thomas Wake, kind of unpleasant. You’re deliberately playing him in kind of an unpleasant way. But by the end of it, we’re absolutely rooting for him. Can you talk about that transition and whether there were things you did to effect that change in us as an audience?
WD: Well, I think that’s really built into the screenplay. It’s beautifully written. The progression is good. The progression of the relationship between these two men is very specific. So I basically played the scenes and I’m not that conscious of where he starts and where he ends up. I tried to just be present for those scenes and inhabit that role. And the way it’s built is, at the very beginning he kind of lays down the law, because he’s establishing a way of life, a belief system. And when you see that they’re in trouble, that system of belief and that way of life starts to deteriorate and you see his various strategies to dominate or ameliorate or find some sort of… peace or sense of security. So you start to see his vulnerability after a while and that’s not really something that I designed—it’s more just submitting to the actions of the movie, the narrative, because it’s very beautifully built.
I don’t stand outside of that… My experience is I often don’t think of how an audience is viewing a character. I think you can’t. Otherwise you stand outside of it too much. Even running a clearly unpleasant character like [Wild at Heart’s] Bobby Peru. I’m in it, I’m taking his side. I’m not thinking about arching things for the audience.
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In the same way, when I’m playing Bobby in The Florida Project, I’m not thinking that he’s a nice guy, I’m just trying to be a man- ager, a hotel manager in the context of the story. So I felt a similar way about Thomas Wake. I’m not standing outside of him. I’m really trying to be there with his problems, with his strategies, with his relationship to the other character.
MM: I love The Florida Project, and I love the way you play that character. You seem to have gone back and forth between characters who are so menacing and so gentle and compassionate, like him. Do you approach both types of roles the same way?
WD: This kind of piggybacks on my a last answer a little bit, because you know when you play a character you have some sense of how they function in the overall story. So I think in order to not have them be a cartoon or not have them be just a mouthpiece to express a point of view or explain something, to really represent them, you have to take their side. And one of the ways to take their side is to try to find the complexity that goes beyond their function sometimes. And the best way to do that, usually what feels like the best way is natu- rally, if you have a guy that functions as an evil character, I think it’s the most natural thing in the world to try to find the shadow side of that… And that’s his sweetness, his kindness. So you aren’t just creating a polemic. You’re really creating a situation that lets the audience wonder about the character and think about the character and consider the character. It’s not that they’re just receiving a teaching or an explanation. They’re experiencing something that may change their view of how they look at things—politically, emotionally, empathetically. So I think it’s natural if you’re playing a bad character—or what’s perceived as a bad character, or a good character—you want to balance that with the other side that’s not seen, the side that’s not apparent. You don’t manufacture anything, it’s just normal. I really believe that we all are capable of any kind of behavior, and different behavior happens through circumstances and volition. So if you accept the fact that our stamp of a certain kind of behavior isn’t exclusively one way or another, to really be those characters you have to entertain the parts of them that maybe aren’t explicit in the screenplay.
MM: Is there any particular quality you look for in a role, or do you just look for good, well-written roles?
WD: You know, you don’t really know what the role is until you play it. I always have some inkling. I always look at the script and I say, do I want to do these things? Are they interesting to me? Will I learn something? Will these take me to some kind of discovery? Or is what may be expressed in the events interesting to me? That’s really what it is, more than anything else. I try to look at the whole thing and it’s very much colored by not only the director and the people involved but also the situation of how you’re shooting… I never think in terms solely of a character.
MM: The Lighthouse seems like it would be unusually challenging, not only because of the location, but also because the camera is on you or Robert Pattinson for almost the entire movie. There’s kind of nowhere to hide. Did you seek out that challenge? Did you make any adjustments because of that challenge?
WD: You know, the challenges are the blessings. The way of filming, the film language in The Lighthouse, was very clear. It was very clear in our actions and very clear how we were fraying. So that created a great structure for us to live in that world, to live in those situations, and to interact with each other. So “nowhere to hide”—there was nowhere else. We’re not thinking outside of the frame because the frame is so explicit, it’s so well-realized. We were shooting on film, we were shooting in very difficult circumstances, and Robert Eggers and his DP, Jarin Blaschke, had a very precise approach to how we were going to film. Things were framed very specifically. It’s not like we were doing a lot of cover- age to give lots of options to realize the movie in post, in the editing. We did have a great editor, [Louise Ford]—she did a beautiful job. But I think there wasn’t a lot of material to work with, because I think the shots were so designed. And when you have that kind of structure and you have that kind of clarity, sometimes it allows you to be in that place in a very full way. So this idea of “no place to hide” is a beautiful thing, because everything has its own logic, everything has its own truth.
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The nice thing when the world is so well-made, that you enter, it tells you what has to be done. You don’t stand outside of yourself. You feel almost like you’re making choices, bu those choices become practical. They become in your bones, they become in your body. They aren’t intellectual choices. They feel very practical, and that becomes liberating for an actor, I think, because then you are more fluid emotionally.
MM: Are there a few things that you’ve learned about acting or about moviemaking that you wish you’d known when you were beginning your career? Things that it’s taken a long time to discover?
WD: [Laughs.] Yeah, sure. Sure. The beauty of film is, every film is different and it’s colored by who’s making it, what the intention of the film is, where it comes from, where you’re shooting. That’s the beauty. Every time you approach a project it feels so new. I can’t think of many professions that are like that.
Yes, I learned things and yes, I think your instincts get refined. But I’m always interested in finding new ways.
So things that I’ve learned? Oh God. There are more questions of what I’ve learned in life. The things I keep on going back to are sort of character things, about how to approach your work and how to approach how you reflect on your experiences.
You learn to be flexible. You learn to be curious. You learn to be receptive. You learn to be tolerant.
Those are the things that are always consistent… The one thing that I have learned is it’s nice to have a plan and then to get yourself in motion, because you need action to inspire inspiration. It doesn’t work the other way around. You can’t wait for inspiration to make your action. So you get things moving and then you have to be receptive to change them as you feel them. That’s really the act of having a character come alive.
MM: One reason I really like your acting is you’re obviously working hard, but it also seems like you’re having fun. Is that true? Are you enjoying yourself ?
WD: It’s true. I’m glad you feel that because that’s what I feel. It’s all problem solving, it’s all an adventure, and it’s all a shift of how you think. You’re always learning things and that’s one of the pleasures of the profession. It is hard work, but it’s also fun because you never feel trapped. It’s always a process of—yes, sometimes it’s frustrating—but it’s usually frustrating because you have a tight idea about how things have to be. But in the best circumstances, working with great people, they inspire you and you have a shift of how you see the world and how you see yourself, and it’s not so much about explaining your experience as it is opening to experience and going to places you’ve never been before. And that’s when you are able to contact a sense of wonder and enjoyment and pleasure in life. No matter how dark the story… you can love having a new perspective on the challenges and the pleasures of having this human life.
The Lighthouse is a good example. That’s not fun, being out in the cold. That’s not fun, being at the bottom of a grave, having dirt thrown on you. It’s not fun to get banged around or to be in real brutal weather… [Laughs.] But what you’re doing has an engagement that you can’t always get in life, because it’s got a structured adventure and I love that.
Willem Dafoe won Best Supporting Actor at the Film Independent Spirit Awards this past weekend for his role as Thomas Wake in The Lighthouse.