It’s 2019. The citizenry of our unnamed setting are pale, listless, and seem perpetually hung-over, garbed in Prada undertaker. You can smoke again on subway platforms, where you can also grab a coffee that’s 20% blood. A devastating pandemic has rendered nearly everyone a vampire. The non-vampire population, whose fluids are essential to vampire survival, is rapidly dwindling. Social commentary abounds in Daybreakers: sustainability, the erosion of civil rights, drug addiction, and health care are all carefully woven as key metaphors into what’s otherwise a pretty familiar narrative that fuses horror movie tropes with science-fiction’s grandiose scope and goofy expository dialogue.
Our hero, a vampire hematologist played by Ethan Hawke, is captured by renegade humans, led by the charismatic Lionel, who’ve devised a cure for the vampire disease. Dressed in baseball jacket, T-shirt and jeans, comfortably scarred and ready to kick undead ass, Lionel’s entrance literally breathes life into Daybreakers. It should come as no surprise that Lionel, who greatly helps to ensure this sophomore effort from the brothers Michael and Peter Spierig becomes something pretty fun, is played by Willem Dafoe. Both a character actor and an occasional leading man, Dafoe has one of the most interesting faces in movies, though those familiar with his extensive background in theatre, his long-time association with New York’s Wooster Group especially, or those who’ve seen his more flamboyantly physical performances in films like The Last Temptation of Christ, Wild at Heart, Body of Evidence, Shadow of the Vampire or Antichrist, know that Dafoe also inhabits one of the movies’ most extraordinary bodies, which at the age of 54 still seems capable of just about anything.
I had the great honour, and pleasure, of speaking with Dafoe about his work on Daybreakers and much more. An inspiring, unusually articulate and thoughtful yet utterly unpretentious actor, he was delightfully engaged and generous, making the most of the short time we had.
Shadow of the Vampire (00)
JB: What drew you to Daybreakers?
Willem Dafoe: It seemed like it would be fun. I was in the mood to do something like it. It’s always a combination of things that make you want to do something. I was very struck by the Spierigs. I saw their first film, Undead, and while I wouldn’t call it a masterpiece it certainly had some stuff in it. It was very inventive. I admired how they made it, practically self-financing it, doing all the effects in-house, by themselves. While the results aren’t always of the highest level technically, sometimes that homemade feeling has an immediacy I can really appreciate.
JB: Resourcefulness seems an especially attractive quality in your choice of collaborators.
WD: That’s true. A script or a character is not enough. Those are things you can only anticipate—I have more faith in people. I like being around people that are excited and passionate about what they do, and who are very clear about how I collaborate with them. With a horror movie, traditionally at least, the performances aren’t that important. You scratch your head and say you could get anybody to do this. But they way the Spierigs talked about the material was very specific and they wanted me to have some input, so it seemed like a creative proposal.
The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou (04)
JB: Your character, Lionel “Elvis” Cormac, has gone from being human to vampire and back again, he’s survived being roasted alive—nothing seems to get him too worked up. He’s about as cool as they come. Is it more fun to play these cocky, confident characters, or do you prefer playing someone more vulnerable, like Klaus Daimler from The Life Aquatic, for example?
WD: Klaus is pretty cocky in his own way; it’s just he caves in every once in a while. Basically, with Lionel, I liked the idea of this blue-collar custom car modification guy who’s working with a scientist and a woman to save the human race. That’s pretty good!
The Last Temptation of Christ (88)
JB: I’ve been watching your work since I was a kid, and I’ve been trying to decide which performances or collaborations have kept me the most engaged, and I find myself coming back to your work with Paul Schrader. If we count The Last Temptation of Christ you’ve worked with on six projects now. Would you describe your experiences with him as unique?
WD: Each one is very specific. You’re right that he’s the guy that I’ve worked with probably more than anyone else outside of the theatre. He always proposes something interesting to do. I like his writing. His approach is very pragmatic. He deals with very hot things in a very composed, clear way. That’s an interesting aesthetic.
JB: Do you have a sense as what it is he especially likes about you?
WD: I don’t. And I never pressed him on it. As I say, each time I’ve functioned differently. Three of the things that I did with him were quite small, because we’re friends and he knows I like to support his work and to be around him. With Affliction, I knew Russell Banks very well, the novelist. I liked the story very much. I liked the cast. That one I didn’t do so much for Paul but because of the whole project. With Adam Resurrected, he really needed me to do that to help get it financed. The Walker was just a quick thing, and I thought it was interesting. The more expansive ones, Light Sleeper and Auto-Focus, those were just flat-out good roles.
Light Sleeper (92), Auto-Focus (02), Adam Resurrected (08)
JB: I always felt like Light Sleeper was a sort of turning point in your career.
WD: It was important to me because it was a role that was very thinly veiled. I could have been that guy if my life was different.
JB: There seemed to be less of a mask.
WD: Yes, less of a mask. I enjoy working with a mask, but that was very sincere. As far as it being a turning point, it’s hard to say. It had its admirers, but it wasn’t widely seen.
Wild at Heart (90)
JB: I imagine Schrader as very clear. Do you find you’re able to respond to direction that’s more abstract? I recall another interview you did where you said that while working on Wild at Heart David Lynch once asked that a scene go from “a maroon to a deep brown.”
WD: [Laughs] I figure that’s the most interesting part of my job. Every time I do something, I adapt to the dominant way of working. I almost don’t have a preference. I know I have certain tendencies, but I like to fight those tendencies. The truth is every time you approach something you reinvent your process. I think of myself less as an actor sometimes than as a person who makes things. In order to do that I usually attach myself to a director with a very strong vision of what they want.
JB: You recently had the opportunity to work with Werner Herzog. He’s habitually worked with actors who are either infamously eccentric, such as Klaus Kinski, or who aren’t really actors at all, such as Bruno S. or the stars of his many documentaries. Was he an effective communicator?
WD: He was very clear. My role was very clear. It’s not that I don’t try to make it a full character, but the role I played in My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done is very much a device. It’s a case where I have to have a certain clarity, a certain tone, to enter the world and serve the story. Maybe it wasn’t the sexiest collaboration in the world, but he’s a very bright guy and he’s great to be around. I had a good time working with him and I hope to do it again in a more expansive way, where there’s more stakes emotionally for me.
My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? (09)
JB: I wonder how he directed you in that peculiar scene where you and Michael Peña are sort of hovering very still outside of suspected killer Brad McCullum’s house for a long while. I guess with your particular theatrical background your task in that scene can seem more straightforward than it might for other actors.
WD: I don’t ask. I try to be receptive. You’re right that because of my theatre background I’m a little more flexible. If you remember, there was that beautiful song playing, that spiritual. [Singing] “I was born to preach the gospel…” Remember? Now, that song is beautiful, and where he places it in the story is beautiful, so as an actor I can invest myself in the pretending, in the situation of being a cop out there, but at the same time there’s another part of me that’s listening to the song and taking in how beautiful it is. It’s a magical cinema moment that I can absolutely get behind.
Idiot Savant (09)
JB: You recently closed a show in New York with Richard Foreman. How was that?
WD: I worked with him 25 years ago. I’ve known him for years. He’s always been one of my favourite theatre-makers. He’s one of the great granddaddies of the American avant-garde as far as I’m concerned. Many people I know, including Elizabeth LeCompte, who I worked with for so many years at the Wooster Group, were influenced so much by his work. He says Idiot Savant will be his last show. Some people don’t quite believe him, but I sort of do. I felt honored that he chose me—the show very much hung on my character. He’s got a very rigid way. He’s very clear about what he likes and doesn’t like. But I found that it was one of the most satisfying collaborations I’ve ever had.
JB: Different as they are, do you find that your theatre and film work feed one another?
JB: Are you aware of learning tricks of the trade, so to speak?
WD: I don’t think those are necessarily what you learn. You learn a character thing, a personal philosophy of how you activate yourself. This thing I said about receptivity, that’s something I learned doing theatre. There’s a physicality that I’m reminded of when doing theatre that’s typically missing in film, where sometimes it seems that everything conspires against you using your body. Film is so influenced by television that the close-up has kind of polluted film language. There’s a tendency to act from the shoulders up. But to answer your question, I know nothing! [Laughs] All I know is that I feel stronger, more confident, very turned-on when I’m working in the theatre, and that helps my work in film.
JB: As you said, some of your strengths an actor are receptivity and flexibility, but have you ever had to fight for a choice you believe correct?
WD: Nope. It’s funny. When I’m approaching a scene I have certain things that I anticipate—those are usually the things you should let go. The stuff that you cling to or that you’re proud of sometimes is the stuff you should wriggle free of. Obviously I make choices, but I make them instinctively. When I don’t feel comfortable, or when I’m limited, I’m very vocal, very clear. I try to find out why I feel stuck. But I don’t think of conveying something. It’s more a feeling, a sense of being in a world, having the story work on you. When I fight for things I’m usually fighting for a feeling that I’m on the right track.
JB: Is it hard to watch yourself in movies?
WD: I go through phases. Sometimes I can’t stand it. Sometimes I sort of enjoy it. Generally I try not to dwell on things. When watching your work, if you like what you see it doesn’t necessarily help you, and if you don’t like what you see it doesn’t necessarily help you. There’s a part of you that wants to know how it turned out in a very practical way, but as far as learning lessons or studying it, I can’t do that. I’m too close to it. It’s a record. It prompts associations, and that’s all I can think about. The experience of making the movie, for me, is always stronger than the movie itself.
To Live and Die in L.A. (85)
JB: What about watching something you did say, 20 years ago?
WD: That’s even worse, because I’m thinking things like, my god, you look like such a little kid! Suddenly I have an onslaught of memories of my life that don’t even include the movie. It becomes the family album, a meditation, a stirring of memory that can be disturbing, can be pleasurable.
JB: I know Jim Jarmusch never watches his movies, not even when he’s asked to do audio commentaries.
WD: That makes sense. But if I’m at a film festival, let’s say, and something’s playing, I don’t close my eyes. On the other hand I don’t say, hey, I’ve got a little time on my hands—let’s take a look at Streets of Fire! Let’s see how that one holds up!
JB: Your work has been so diverse, but I wonder if you get a lot of scripts that seem to be trying to cater to a Willem Dafoe type, whatever that may be?
WD: I’ve been doing this long enough that hopefully there are different Willem Dafoe types for different people. I feel like as I get older the range of what gets offered to me is, oddly enough, broader. I shouldn’t brag, but even as movies are shrinking I feel like there’s actually more for me to do.
Inside Man (06)
JB: Do you think you’ll be doing this for the rest of your life?
WD: I do. You know, I’m an idiot! I love performing. I love the state it puts me in. It allows for this experience of working on something with people where you don’t know quite what it is. It parallels life. It’s a wonderful game, and the playing of it is a wonderful way to disappear into something greater than you. We all seek that in our different ways, but I’ve very much found it in this strange trade.