Actor Willem Dafoe Reflects On A Career Of Being A 'Good Bad Guy'

Nov 13, 2019
Originally published on November 15, 2019 9:43 am
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Our guest, actor Willem Dafoe, is known for his intense performances, often as villains. Dafoe has appeared in more than a hundred films over the past four decades, earning four Oscar nominations for best supporting actor. Among his films are "Platoon," "To Live And Die In L.A.," "The Last Temptation Of Christ," "Grand Budapest Hotel," "The Florida Project" and "At Eternity's Gate," in which he portrayed Vincent Van Gogh. Dafoe currently stars with Robert Pattinson in the new film "The Lighthouse." He also appears in "Motherless Brooklyn," which was adapted from a Jonathan Lethem novel by the film's star, Edward Norton.

Dafoe spoke with FRESH AIR's Dave Davies, and they began with a clip from "Motherless Brooklyn." It's a film noir set in the '50s involving corruption in New York City land redevelopment. Norton plays a private eye who has Tourette's syndrome. He's investigating this corruption because the people behind it seem connected to the murder of the head of the detective agency where he works. The person behind the redevelopment plans is a ruthless power broker named Moses Randolph, clearly based on the real-life figure of Robert Moses. Dafoe's character is one of the people opposing the redevelopment plan because he and just about everyone else in his neighborhood will be forced out of their homes by the new construction.

In this scene, Dafoe is in a diner talking with Norton's character, who's posing as a reporter to get people to reveal information. Dafoe's character, Paul, speaks first to the waiter at the diner.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN")

WILLEM DAFOE: (As Paul) Hey. Excuse me? Could I get a slice of cheesecake? Could you make it warm? I'd like it warm. Half of the city is getting a ride on one of his horses. For God's sakes, he controls every construction job in the city.

EDWARD NORTON: (As Lionel Essrog) He said they just created the position.

DAFOE: (As Paul) No. Construction, slums, parks. He's got 14 appointments. It's all just ink on a glass door. None of it matters. It's all BA.

NORTON: (As Lionel Essrog) BA?

DAFOE: (As Paul) Borough authority. You call yourself a reporter - on what? The arts beat?

NORTON: (As Lionel Essrog, unintelligible).

DAFOE: (As Paul) You read Emerson?

NORTON: (As Lionel Essrog) Should I?

DAFOE: (As Paul) Yeah, you [expletive] should.

NORTON: (As Lionel Essrog) All right.

DAFOE: (As Paul) Emerson said that an institution is the lengthened shadow of one man. This town is run by the borough authority, and the borough authority is Moses Randolph.

DAVE DAVIES, BYLINE: And that is our guest, Willem Dafoe, in "Motherless Brooklyn." Well Willem Dafoe, welcome to FRESH AIR.

DAFOE: Thank you.

DAVIES: I notice that your character begins by asking for cheesecake served warm.

DAFOE: Right.

DAVIES: Bit of a character, right?

DAFOE: (Laughter) Yes.

DAVIES: Bit of an oddball.

DAFOE: (Laughter) Yes. Yes.

DAVIES: We first meet him when he's kind of shouting out stuff at Moses Randolph in a meeting. Tell us how you saw this character.

DAFOE: One of the beauties of this character is he's not as he appears. When you first see him, he - you think maybe he's a homeless guy, unstable, with an ax to grind, paranoid. And then you learn he really holds the secrets, that he knows intimately about corruption in the city because Moses Randolph is his brother. And there's almost a Shakespearean backstory to how they both arrived to where they are when we see them in the movie. And they basically started out brothers - wealthy family with a deep sense of noblesse oblige, that they wanted to help make the world a better place.

But then there's a real split because my brother, all of a sudden, as I say in the story, I say, he gets tired of losing to lesser minds. And he gets frustrated and becomes obsessed with accumulating power and winning. And if that has any resonance, you know, in this day and age - that word winning. And they have a split. But at the same time, this isn't strict, you know, polemic.

I mean, really, the Moses Randolph character - beautifully played by Alec Baldwin - also expresses some interesting things. He talks about - he uses Central Park as an example, that there was resistance to Central Park when they wanted to create a private park. They displaced some farmers. They moved some trees. He says that people have to be forward-thinking. And sometimes it's the man of action that, you know, must make progress. But, of course, there's great corruption in this story. And in the name of progress, a lot of people are just considered collateral damage, and that's accepted.

DAVIES: Right. And even your character, who seems to stand for justice and fairness all the time, doesn't fully commit because he has his own ambitions. And nobody is all one thing.

DAFOE: Yes, it's true. It's true. And that was important, I think, so, you know - to make him just, you know, this little crusader. He has his own agenda, and he's protecting that as well. And he can't fully commit to justice because he's reserved a part, hoping that he'll have a reconciliation with his brother to help him realize his particular agenda that is not totally altruistic.

DAVIES: You know, Edward Norton said your character, Paul, is the moral core of the movie. Did you talk to him about why he wanted you for this role?

DAFOE: No, I didn't. He just said he wanted me to play it.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVIES: And you're an actor, and you can do it.

DAFOE: Well, you know, we know each other. And I have a lot of respect for him. And it was clearly a passion project. And it's something he'd been working on for a long time and something that he felt deeply about. So I'm attracted to that kind of passion. And when he says he needed me to do it, I respond to that.

I remember a curious thing was I was growing a beard for a film that I was going to do called "The Lighthouse." And I said, Edward, I don't think I can do it because I'm growing this beard. No one in the '50s had a beard. I mean, I'll stick out. It'll seem strange. Also, somehow, you know, you feel like psychically that beard is reserved for that character in "The Lighthouse." It doesn't feel right. Maybe I can't do it.

And he paused for a second then thought about it for a day. And he said, no, no, it'll work fine. And, in fact, it was helpful because in a very quick shorthand, when you first see him, it does marginalize him. It does make him stick out but in a good way. And that kind of sets up the fact that he's an outsider. You see it immediately. A lot gets accomplished just by the visuals.

DAVIES: You know, Edward Norton wrote and directed this. As you say, he worked on it for many years. And his is an interesting character. He's a private eye, but he has Tourette's and will just occasionally, like, say these things, turn his head to the side and just bark out these words that are - kind of have some random connection to the conversation.

He was directing you while he was acting in the scenes with you. And I'm just wondering. I've always wondered kind of what that experience is like - taking direction from someone who is also in the scene with you. And in his case, you have the Tourette's. And I'm just wondering if it affects what - the pacing, what's it like?

DAFOE: It's nice because it makes things very fluid. So it makes it very efficient. And making this period film on a tight budget, it was probably the only way to do it. Also, he's surrounded himself by people that he worked with before and people that really understood his mission.

So there was something beautiful about it because we could be so light on our feet. You know, there's no checking the monitor. There's no - you're not reflecting on it, which could be dangerous. But as I say, he knew the material so well, and he knew his collaborators so well that I think it had an energy and an urgency that you don't always get when the director isn't playing as an actor across from you.

DAVIES: We are speaking with Willem Dafoe. He stars in new films "Motherless Brooklyn" and in "The Lighthouse." I wanted to talk about "The Florida Project," which...

DAFOE: Sure.

DAVIES: ...You earned an Oscar nomination for your role in. This is a really interesting film from director Sean Baker about kids, like, young kids, like, 6, 7-year-olds, who live with their parents in some cheesy motels near Disney World in Florida. And they kind of have this world of these tacky souvenir shops and ice cream stands and run around. And their parents are - you know, they're struggling. They're living in a motel, not not always making the best decisions, but trying to make it work. This was actually filmed in a working motel, right? This was not a set.

DAFOE: Well, the story was really the people that were living that life where we filmed. In fact, the people that were there really - Sean hung out there and really took on that world, was embedded in that world, became - and the people that were there really showed us how to tell our story, kept us from, you know, romanticizing it or...

DAVIES: You're saying the people who actually lived in this hotel, the Magic Castle?

DAFOE: Oh, yeah.

DAVIES: (Laughter) Yeah.

DAFOE: Because we were mixing people that lived there with first-time actors, with nonactors, with actors. What dictated what we did was what was there, and we took our cues from that. I mean, the interesting thing for me was it - I'm always interested in not being an actor, being an actor that doesn't seem like an actor. And I'm not just talking about naturalism. I'm talking about you want to melt into the fabric of the world. And we took our cues from the people that lived there.

I didn't perform a manager as much as I did the duties of a manager, and that was the way into the character because that was practical. And I've always felt like, you know, you don't think - characters are revealed through the action. And if - it's the quality of how you commit to the actions, how you commit to what these people do, that reveals who they are. So my job was really to be the best manager of a hotel I could be. And that's what I did in the movie.

DAVIES: And did you hang out there and do the things that a motel manager does? I mean, you know...

DAFOE: That's all I did.

DAVIES: (Laughter).

DAFOE: That's all I did. That's...

DAVIES: Turn on the breaker box...

DAFOE: ...The movie for me.

DAVIES: ...And paint and...

DAFOE: Oh, yeah.

DAVIES: Yeah. Yeah.

DAFOE: Oh, yeah. I didn't live there, but I had my room there. And, you know, you'd be there pretty much all day.

DAVIES: Right. And I want to play a clip here because your character, Bobby, is - you know, he's not just a guy who checks people in and out. He's kind of the mayor of this little community in a way.

DAFOE: Right. Right.

DAVIES: You're not looking out for people. And in this case, this scene begins where you notice that the kids are playing in a park nearby with some picnic benches. And you notice an older man in shorts walk up and engage the kids.

DAFOE: Right.

DAVIES: And you suspect he's a predator, and you intervene. I'll note, as the scene progresses, we're going to hear you knock a soda out of this guy's hand and then kind of grab him so you can muscle his wallet away and get his driver's license to ID him. But it begins with you approaching this man who's trying to engage the kids. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE FLORIDA PROJECT")

DAFOE: (As Bobby) Excuse me, can I help you?

CARL BRADFIELD: (As Charlie Coachman) No, that's OK.

DAFOE: (As Bobby) What's OK? Moonee, get off that picnic table. People eat on that thing. Come on, girl. You a guest here?

BRADFIELD: (As Charlie Coachman) No, I'm looking for a soda machine.

DAFOE: (As Bobby) Yeah. Come to a motel to get a soda?

BRADFIELD: (As Charlie Coachman) Yeah. It's OK. Pretty sure there's an exit...

DAFOE: (As Bobby) No, no, no. Come on, come on. Come with me. Come with me.

BRADFIELD: (As Charlie Coachman) No - no, you don't understand...

DAFOE: (As Bobby) Yeah, I know where there's a soda machine.

BRADFIELD: (As Charlie Coachman) No - no, no...

DAFOE: (As Bobby) Just come with me.

BRADFIELD: (As Charlie Coachman) You don't...

DAFOE: (As Bobby) You want a soda, right?

BRADFIELD: (As Charlie Coachman) Yeah - yeah. I came here - I was passing by on the high - on the road...

DAFOE: (As Bobby) Get off that picnic table. Yeah.

BRADFIELD: (As Charlie Coachman) I was just passing by.

DAFOE: (As Bobby) Yeah.

BRADFIELD: (As Charlie Coachman) And I wanted to get a soda because I need a soda.

DAFOE: (As Bobby) You were parched, huh?

BRADFIELD: (As Charlie Coachman) Oh, yeah.

DAFOE: (As Bobby) Yeah.

BRADFIELD: (As Charlie Coachman) Yeah, yeah.

DAFOE: (As Bobby) Yeah, you wanted to wet that palate, right?

BRADFIELD: (As Charlie Coachman) Yeah.

DAFOE: (As Bobby) No, no. It's right up here, just a little more ways. You came for a soda. We're going to get you a soda, right?

(SOUNDBITE OF SODA CAN FALLING)

DAFOE: (As Bobby) What a choice.

BRADFIELD: (As Charlie Coachman) OK. Thank you.

DAFOE: (As Bobby) Hey, I thought you were thirsty.

BRADFIELD: (As Charlie Coachman) Yeah.

DAFOE: (As Bobby) Aren't you going to drink it now?

BRADFIELD: (As Charlie Coachman) Yes. Yes, sir.

DAFOE: (As Bobby) Good?

BRADFIELD: (As Charlie Coachman) Sure.

(SOUNDBITE OF SODA CAN FALLING)

DAFOE: (As Bobby) You come on this property again, and you won't be leaving it, you understand?

BRADFIELD: (As Charlie Coachman) I don't know what you're talking about.

DAFOE: (As Bobby) You don't know what I'm talking about? You're going to play it that way, huh?

BRADFIELD: (As Charlie Coachman) Hey, hey.

DAFOE: (As Bobby) All right.

BRADFIELD: (As Charlie Coachman) Give me...

DAFOE: (As Bobby) Charlie Coachman of Cherry Hill, N.J.

BRADFIELD: (As Charlie Coachman) You can't kick me out. That's my license.

DAFOE: (As Bobby) I'm going to call your name into the county sheriff. Now you get the [expletive] out of here.

BRADFIELD: (As Charlie Coachman) It wasn't what you're thinking.

DAVIES: And that is our guest Willem Dafoe in the film "The Florida Project" with Carl Bradfield as your co-actor there. He was not an actor, right?

DAFOE: I think he's...

DAVIES: Wasn't...

DAFOE: ...Been in some movies.

DAVIES: Oh.

DAFOE: He's a retired, I believe, Army veteran, older guy. I think he does things here and there. But basically, not a - not an actor by profession.

DAVIES: Right. And the woman who played Halley, the - this - the - kind of the central adult in the character, Bria Vinaite, I think the director recruited from an - from Instagram posts.

DAFOE: Right.

DAVIES: She - and then, with some training, did just an amazing job in this.

DAFOE: Yeah, she's fantastic. Yeah.

DAVIES: How was your role different when you're dealing with folks who kind of don't know the conventions of acting?

DAFOE: Sean Baker made them very comfortable, made a world that they could live in. And there wasn't a lot of pressure to perform, I'd say, for them. So they were very relaxed and living the life. And there's a sort of truth and clarity and practicality to what they're doing. They aren't swinging for the fences. They're not trying to deliver a big performance. The kids are just having fun, and the adults are just trying to make the scenes make sense to them. So there's a practicality to it that's beautiful. And you hop on that, and you kind of get over yourself. And you leave that actor ego behind, and you try to contribute to that world and be in that world.

DAVIES: We're speaking with actor Willem Dafoe. He appears with Edward Norton in the film that Edward Norton wrote and directed, "Motherless Brooklyn." He also stars in the new film "The Lighthouse." We'll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with actor Willem Dafoe. He appears with Edward Norton in the new film "Motherless Brooklyn," written and directed by Edward Norton. He also stars in the new drama "The Lighthouse."

You grew up in Wisconsin to - in a really big family, right?

DAFOE: Right.

DAVIES: Dad was a doctor. Mom was a nurse.

DAFOE: Yeah.

DAVIES: You went to the University of Wisconsin and...

DAFOE: Briefly.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVIES: Right. Made your way to New York and co-founded an experimental theater called The Wooster Group, which ended up being something you were involved in for decades, right?

DAFOE: Right. For, like, 27 years. And to be fair, I didn't actually co-found it.

DAVIES: OK.

DAFOE: It really existed - it grew out of a company called The Performance Group. So technically speaking, I'm not a founder, but I'm one of the earliest members.

DAVIES: How did you get from theater to film?

DAFOE: You know, I think the most significant thing was I - people would see me at the theater initially because I didn't have a manager. I didn't have an agent. And it was a downtown avant-garde theater, so it didn't have the same kind of aspirations and ambitions that most, you know, actors working off-Broadway or off-off-Broadway had. It defied that categorization. It was a thing by itself. It was a community theater for that community, but the community happened to be SoHo and the East Village in the time that there was a lot of cross-fertilization and a lot of, you know, great music invention, a lot of independent film, a lot of new dance and theater. So it was a very fertile time.

DAVIES: You got into film, I guess, around 1980, and it seems like it went quite well. By 1985, you have a leading role in "To Live And Die In LA," which is a great action film. And you know, all actors, besides the skill they bring, bring their physical characteristics - you know, their build, their ethnicity, their face. You have a distinct face, I think, a lot of people say. I'm wondering as you did - started doing auditions, how did you think you were perceived? What kind of roles did you fit in?

DAFOE: Well, it was clear - you know, it's - when you do something and a few people respond to it, they want you to do it again. So then they attribute the attributes of your character to you. So I played a lot of kind of dark characters, kind of villainous characters. So in the beginning, I guess I was very conscious of - that they were casting me as villains. You know, he's a good bad guy. And I - you know, I found that fun for a little while, but then I was on guard and, you know, didn't want to be required to go to the same well all the time.

I wanted - not that versatility is, you know, the end-all to acting, but I just felt like it was a little restrictive. There are beautiful villain roles, but some of them are written very shallowly are just really devices for the most interesting parts of the story to happen.

DAVIES: Right. Well, in '86, you did "Platoon," the Vietnam War film with Oliver Stone. And in that case, you're the good guy in the platoon and, I mean, the kind of voice of conscience. Tom Berenger's character is the really bad sergeant. You know, you said that acting is, in a lot of ways, about doing, and boy - and when you're in that film, and there's just a lot of combat footage, and you are carrying weapons and using weapons and covered in gear.

DAFOE: Right.

DAVIES: Was that a way into that kind of a role for you?

DAFOE: Yes, absolutely. Do the things - learn to do the things that you do in the film, practice then, have them become second nature, get them in your body, get them in your muscle memory, own them, feel comfortable with that. That was very important. And for that film, we had a lot of training. And it was great because it was done in isolation. It was done with very serious people and to honor, you know, the content of the film because the beautiful thing about that film was it was a personal film. It was a passion film for Oliver Stone. He wanted to tell a story that was drawn very much from his experience.

So to honor that and to get to some sort of - approximate some sort of truth as we tell that story, the least you could do is submerge yourself in learning how to do the things that soldiers do. Now, come on - it's make believe. We're not - (laughter) we've got no allusions about what we're risking here. But...

DAVIES: You do have a soft bed at night (laughter).

DAFOE: Yeah, we do. We do.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview Dave Davies recorded with Willem Dafoe, who co-stars in the new film "Motherless Brooklyn" and stars in the eerie new film "The Lighthouse." They'll talk about shooting "The Lighthouse" after we take a short break. Also, book critic Maureen Corrigan will review "The Great Pretender" by Susannah Cahalan, and music critic Ken Tucker will review the new album "Kirk" by hip-hop artist DaBaby. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview FRESH AIR's Dave Davies recorded with actor Willem Dafoe. Dafoe has made more than 100 movies and earned four Oscar nominations. He's in two new films, "Motherless Brooklyn," starring Edward Norton - who also directed the film - and "The Lighthouse," where he stars with Robert Pattinson as lighthouse keepers trapped together battling storms. When we left off, they were talking about Dafoe's performance in the 1986 Vietnam War film "Platoon."

DAVIES: Well, in '86, you did "Platoon." That earned you your first Oscar nomination and, I gather, probably opened up a lot of other roles for you, didn't it?

DAFOE: It did (laughter). But the irony was - I remember this very well. It was a period of, you know, a lot of people making proposals to me. But whether it was timing or whatever or - I just didn't find the right project for almost a year. So you get attention because you're lifted out of the pack for a moment because when you do get a nomination, it shines a light on you, particularly if you're not well-known. So it was a big leap in - you know, careerwise, I suppose. But, you know, it was funny that I couldn't find the right piece to do for, like, a year.

And then finally, when I did find something, a very interesting script with a new director, it was a Vietnam thing. Like, the worst - you know, talk about repeating yourself. On paper, it was a terrible thing to - you know, to follow up "Platoon" with. But - very different kind of movie, but it was a film called "Off Limits," and it was a studio film at Fox. And that was the next thing I did. And it was very difficult because I think it - without judging the movie because some people really loved that movie, it wasn't a big success, I don't think, and it came in under one regime, and the next regime really wanted to kill it.

So it was my first experience of being in a studio film where there were some studio politics at play. So the director was always fighting with production. And it was a difficult time. And that was the follow-up to this beautiful experience of "Platoon." There were pleasures in it, but it was tough. And then I thought, wow, I got to rethink this. So I went back and - as I always did, went back to the theater and thought, well, I better dig in here (laughter). I don't know about this film stuff.

And then I was teaching in - with the company, doing workshops at a university in Massachusetts. And it was summertime, and I was staying at a very modest, like, bed-and-breakfast. And I got a call one day - Martin Scorsese wants to see you. And I said, cool. What about? And they said, well, this "Last Temptation Of Christ," which I had heard about, but I had never gone in on. Everybody and their mother went in on this movie, but not not me. And I thought, really? What role? And my agent says, idiot - Jesus. (Laughter) So I read the script...

DAVIES: Well, if you want to break out of playing villains, I guess that's going to the other end, isn't it?

(LAUGHTER)

DAFOE: Yeah, it is. It is. And I thought it was strange. I thought, really? And then I read the script, and it made sense to me because the nature of how the story is told, in an exploration of the human part of this divine character. So yeah, I hopped on board, and that kind of slapped me out of the - you know, the...

DAVIES: The doldrums there, yeah.

DAFOE: The doldrums, yeah.

DAVIES: I want to talk about "The Lighthouse," which is...

DAFOE: Good.

DAVIES: ...A film. This is intense (laughter).

DAFOE: OK.

DAVIES: You play, like, this crusty veteran lighthouse keeper - a wickie in the vernacular - who sets in for a four-week tour maintaining a lighthouse on a rocky island in New England with a new, inexperienced guy, played by Robert Pattinson. How did you prepare for this role?

DAFOE: Oh, God. It's a very simple story. I knew I had to do some things, some - there's an accent. There's a beautiful, elevated poetic language because it's 1890s. So Rob Eggers and his brother Max built this beautiful language. They looked at Milton. They looked at Melville. They looked at Coleridge. They looked at a Maine woman, Sarah Orne Jewett, who did a study of fishermans' accents, farmers' accents of that period.

And they stitched together this beautiful language, so I had to deal with that language because it is special. It's poetic. It's full of images and full of slang. So I had to deal with that first - find the music, find the rhythm, find a way to use those to good effect in the scenes so they didn't pop out and feel like a show or, you know - they felt perfectly natural, even though it's elevated language. That I had to deal with pretty quickly.

DAVIES: You mentioned Rob Eggers. He was the writer and director of the film.

DAFOE: Yeah. Right.

DAVIES: Yeah.

DAFOE: And a real talent. I mean, I saw his first film, "The Witch," and I said to my representatives, I want to meet this guy. And I met him, and we got along fabulously, and I said, let's do something together. And this is really the result of that. He's a real talent. You're going to see some great films from him.

DAVIES: You want to hear a clip of the language, I thought? Because there's a clip which I think really, beautifully illustrates this.

DAFOE: OK.

DAVIES: This is a point in the film where the conflict between you and your character, you know, has really begun to ripen, and you're telling him off. This is - you play Thomas Wake, the veteran lighthouse keeper. Robert Pattinson is the younger one. And I'll just note that near the end of this dialogue, the other character begins to weep, and your character, Tom, mocks him. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE LIGHTHOUSE")

DAFOE: (As Thomas Wake) Ye handsome lad with eyes bright as a lady (ph), come to this rock, playing the tough (ph). You make me laugh with your false grum (ph). You pretended there's some mystery in your quietudes (ph), but there ain't no mystery. You're an open book - a picture, says I, a painted actress screaming in the footlights, a [expletive] what wants to be covered in and for nothing but being born, crying about the silver spoon, what should've been yours. Now look at you, crying. What you going to do?

DAVIES: And that is our guest Willem Dafoe in the new film "The Lighthouse." The language is powerful. The voice is powerful. I mean, it does sound like your voice is at a lower register.

DAFOE: It's like - I speak Italian and, like, my voice changes. You know, you always adjust register for a different way of expressing yourself. I think even listening to these clips today, they're slightly different.

DAVIES: Yes.

DAFOE: And it's not just that I'm getting older. Even when I'm doing this interview, I've got headphones on, and I go towards a certain sound. You react, you know, you adapt to see what feels correct for the situation. And that's what the process is. You can prepare. You can have a plan. You can have an intention. But really, the real work comes when you're there and you're taking in what's there. You've got to get things in movement.

But once you get in movement, you can't just press on. You have to take everything in while at the same time going forward. And that's always the challenge of acting because if you're too rigid about what you have to accomplish, it gets tight. And it doesn't live. And it's not alive. If you get too loose, you know, you're not coming up against anything. You have to get going. You have to present something in order to find out where you are.

DAVIES: You were saying earlier that preparing involved getting the language and the voice.

DAFOE: And then there's external things as well. You know, we know - because he talks about it - that there's some sort of limp. The costumes are very important. I mean, they're practical because we're shooting in really horrible weather. So it's about wearing it well and getting comfortable in it. And then other than that, little things - learning how to knit, how to keep a pipe lit, these sorts of things.

DAVIES: You had to knit? (Laughter).

DAFOE: Oh, yeah. You only see it for about 20 seconds, but it was very key. And I felt like it connected me to something because my grandfather was a champion knitter, which I remember my father telling me about. And that was - that would be very much of that era. Yeah. But, you know, you're sitting around. How do you deal with time?

And something about knit - and the fact that knitting is so meditative. That activity was - held some key to how people spent free time in another age. You know, one of the great things about Robert Eggers is he and also his DP, Jarin Blaschke, they work so precisely because they were doing very difficult things with the camera. And the camera language was very, very specific. So we really had to bend to those images.

But that became the structure. That became the discipline - but very, very precise because they were doing things sort of beyond their experience. They were reaching in a beautiful way, but they were very clear about what they were doing. So it was exciting to serve that kind of reach, a language that there's a kind of classical aspect to, you know. It's kind of a throwback to films of the - of an earlier time, but then also experimental to do that in this day and age. The film's black and white.

DAVIES: Right.

DAFOE: It's in a very particular aspect ratio. It's...

DAVIES: It appears as a square on the screen.

DAFOE: Right. Right. This film, I, think is very - it's elevated film. It's really - it's really beautiful, I think.

DAVIES: Willem Dafoe, thanks so much for speaking with us.

DAFOE: Thank you for having me.

GROSS: Willem Dafoe spoke with FRESH AIR's Dave Davies. Dafoe is in two new films, "Motherless Brooklyn" and "The Lighthouse" in which he stars with Robert Pattinson. I'll speak with Pattinson next week on our show. Coming up, rock critic Ken Tucker reviews a new album by the rapper DaBaby. This is FRESH AIR.

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