Daybreakers‘ Willem Dafoe Says He’s a Natural Vampire” width=”560″/>
Willem Dafoe is no stranger to vampire movies — he was nominated for an Academy Award for Shadow of the Vampire, for his portrayal of Max Schreck as a way-beyond-Method actor during the filming of Nosferatu. In Daybreakers, his vampire Elvis (no, not that one) is a little more subdued if no less colorful. Dafoe explains what attracts him to the vampire myth, and how he picks his many eclectic parts.
Q: At the end of 2009, it was like you were popping up in a different movie every week.
A: Not every week! [Laughs] It doesn’t always feel that way to me, because depending on the film, my involvement can be very big or very small, and some I might have actually filmed a long time ago. Daybreakers, we shot in Australia, but the genesis of this movie started five years ago, and we shot it three years ago. A movie like Julian Schnabel’s Miral, I go to Israel for two weeks, and that’s it. Lately, there have been a lot of movies that have come out for me in a row, but then there will be a period where nothing comes out for a while, because some take a long time to make. It’s cyclical. John Carter of Mars, I start on next week.
Q: If someone looked at your body of work, from your appearance in The Hunger to Shadow of the Vampire to Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant to Daybreakers, they might think you have a vampire fixation.
A: Ah! You could also say I have a war fixation. That also recurs in
my work, soldiers. And religious people. But the vampire myth, it’s
durable, it’s flexible, so the myth gets recycled, reused. And there’s
lots of different kinds of vampire movies. I don’t have a fixation, but
let’s face it: I’m a guy who’s a good type for these kinds of things.
And this movie, while it’s not orchestrated to a particular message,
it’s got stuff. It’s got content. It’s evocative. The father/daughter
relationship, with all the vampirism, it’s all very sexual. There’s
stuff about the drug company. And running out of blood brings
everyone’s mind to oil. And even if you’re not talking about oil, on
some level, you’re talking about using stuff up. It’s part of our
fears, our psyche. So obviously the vampire myth can be used as a
metaphor for lots of things: Sex, politics, and immortality. These are
big themes for me!
Q: Is that why you take on these roles?
A: Well, we don’t act metaphors. And sometimes, when you attach
meaning to something, you miss the whole experience. It’s the
director’s job to make sure the meaning is on track. As an actor, I’m a
do-er, and the actors don’t have to account for what they’re doing.
They just have to do it with a certain kind of commitment, flexibility,
receptivity, and later, some sort of coherence is made. But to get to
the purity of it, I don’t want to say you resist interpretation, but
sometimes interpretation distracts from experience. How do you become
the thing if you’re worried about accounting for what the thing is?
Q: But for a movie like Antichrist, how can you “do” without thinking about the meaning? Like that infamous genital mutilation scene – that could be a metaphor…
A: Yes. Yes. Let’s just leave it at that! [Laughs]. There’s many
ways to interpret it, but people without a lot of sophistication will
fixate on [the genital mutilation] and ignore the real richness that
lies behind it. It’s a strong movie, so it gets strong reactions. But
when I start on a project, I really don’t know what it is, normally.
Usually when I see something too clearly, it reminds me of that famous
Samuel Johnson quote: “When you meet a passage you think is
particularly fine, strike it out.” It’s like, if you need something too
badly, you have to be careful about what your motivation is. I prefer
to have someone else’s motivation to express something, and I attach
myself to it.
Q: How do you choose to attach yourself then to directors like Lars Von Trier, or Werner Herzog, as you’ve done recently?
A: I saw Werner [Herzog]’s movies when I was a college student, Aguirre, The Wrath of God, things like that, and I re-found him through his documentaries. I’m a huge fan of Grizzly Man. I was a little late coming to Lars. It was only on the second viewing of Dogville
that I could become involved with it. Lars and Werner are both
directors I’ve always admired, and if they ask me to do something, I
want to do it.
Q: Any directors left you want to work with?
A: There are many directors I’d like to work with, but it’s got to be a
good fit for the material. I ran into Ang Lee on the street, and he
said his next movie [Life of Pi] is about an Indian and a tiger, so forget Ang Lee for about five years! [Laughs].