the actor also know as Intensity Personified plumbs new depths for Wes Anderson's The Life Aquativ-and for Breathe's Aaron Gell.
Written by Aaron Gell
Photographer Mary Ellen Mark
WILLEM DAFOE, IT MUST BE SAID, has an incredible face- a craggy mug that looks liek soemthing carved from a petrified wood by a medieval artisan, with deep-set eyes and a crocodile smile that appears and disappears with little warning. The face darws us in time after time, but what has kept us riveted through more than 50 films from Platoon and Shadow of the Campire, for which he received Oscar nominations, to The Last Temptation of Christ and Spider-man- is soemthing harder to pin down, a soft-spoken intensity, a mysterious, profound calm.
The Wisconsin-born actor has kept a wary distance from Hollywood, making his creative home in the theather, as a member of New York's highly regarded Wooster Group. Known for its experimental reinventions of classic dramas such as Phaedra and The Hairy Ape, the avant-garde collective was founded by Dafoe's longtime partner, the director Elizabeth LeCompte, with who has has a grown son. (Another well-known member of the companys the late monologist Spalding Gray.) Dafoe and LeCompete recently split, and as a result, he says, his future with The Wooster Group is uncertain. But his film career is going strong. Currently Dafoe is inspiring smiles asKlaus, the comically devoted engineer in Wes Anderson's delirious new film The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, and he has a cameo as a tabloid editor in another high-profile winder realse, The Aviator. In a restaurant in Manhattan's Soho, a neighborhood Dafoe has long called home, the actor sat down with Breathe to talk about how he keeps his balance-and his ineffable cool.
Congratulations on 'The Life Aquatic.' It's great.
I saw it yesterday. It's very funny, and at the end...call me sentimental but I was moved.
How did you approach the role of Klaus? I didn't. I was just happy to go on this adventure with Wes and these other actors. I think characters are found through action and chemistry. On the page a character may be very thin, but if you put a hat with a pom pomon him,something happens. My big regret is, I did a stunt- the most exciting thing Idid on the whole movie- and it got cut. It was a fire gag...my back caught on fire from this explosion. It seems kind of silly, but I felt very macho and prideful about doing this stunt, and I obviously shouldn't have felt that way because for whatever reason it wasn't used.
It's rare to see you in a comic role.
People are like, "Wow, you're doing comedy." And I say, "what about Bobby Peru in Wild at Heart?" That was comedy. What about Shadow of the Vampire? Spider-Manwas comedy!" I got so self-conscious at onepoint about people saying. "oh, you're always thebad guy," that I wenthome and looked on the Internet for a list of my movies. And I counted good guy, bad guys-I don't beleive in those labels, but still. And the good guys outnumbered the bad guys by about two to one.
But you are really good at playing bad guys.
I understand you're a yogi. When did you start practicing?
Maybe 10, 15 years ago. I started going to a place called Jivamukti, and the people there were really great as far as teaching me a basic overview. But I was eager to find a practice that I could do myself, on the road, and I heard about Ashtanga, which is what I've been doing since. With yoga, it doesn't matter when you started. What matter is, I'm going to drop my mat tomorrow. What matters is I have a practice taht's integrated in my life. But the truth is, there are periods where I've gone through injury, and I think, Maybe this isn't for me...[laughs]. So you know-one day at at time.
What drew you to yoga in the first place?
It started out as a purely physical discipline. I was looking for something that would keep me flexible and strong, a source of relaxation and meditation. So I started with very simple intentions, and then I think it gets complex like anything, the more you get involved.
You've struck a remarkable balance between Hollywood and avant-garde theather. Is this intentional?
They feed each other, but there's no problem. You just go toward what attracts you. You go toward things and things come toward y ou. Of course, you've got to be aware. For example I think you have to mix things up for longevity. It's also a healthy way to approach your job as an actor, becasue if you keep changing what you do, you not only exercise different muscles but you exercise different perspectives. That's the way to keep yourself alive creatively and career-wise, if the gods are with you. One of the hardest things for people, after doing something for a long time, is they get cynical, You're got to keep attention and curiosity in the mix.
How did your colleagues in The Wooster Group feel about your film work?
The Wooster Group was very generous. IT was only a practice problem of how you share your time. Since we were making orginial pieces, we were working every day, so every time I left, it broke the continuity. Eventually I had to withdraw from the process and the company.
Was it difficult to switch gears?
I'm pretty good at...I mean, I'm bad at a lot of things, but one of the things I'm pretty good at is wherever I am, I try to be happy. Traveling between those two worlds is a certain pleasure, because you're always coming in as a stranger. And I think that's a good thing. It's always coming in as a stranger. And I think that's a good thing. It always forces you-talk about beginners mind-it forces you to be like the dope that has to find his way. And creativity I think that's a good place to start.
In what way?
Well, your agenda isn't formed yet. The concerns of those two worlds aren't the same, so you kind of have a morally and aesthetically and artistically changeable
universe. You keep getting thrown back on yourself and saying, Wow, what's going on here? And I think that's what roots me. it's like when you travel to another country. You can't rely on yuor habits, becasue one one recognizes them and they aren't supported, so you have to remake a life. As an actor, practically speaking, situations and new living dynamics, and that's been the adventure for me.
On the other hand, that lack of continuity can keeo you distant, can't it?
I think it's true. That is a great danger, and I think I probably suffer from it. But for many years, I did have continuity. I had a family in The Wooster Group. I worked there for almost 30 years, and I may continue to, but I've had a personal life change, so my relationship to the group is slightly different.
You and Liz LeCompte broke up.
Yeah. So I no longer have that stability. So now I'm really crazy! [laughs] I don't want to be dramatic, but it would be hishonest to pretend that nothing's changed. I'm very proud of my association with them, and it's been a very important part of my life and my work, but at the moment it's not continuing as it was.
Does your yoga practice help?
It's very important. I'm not sure I want to talk about yoga too much, though. I get self-conscious about being a cheerleader. And I want to have an option to not be a yogi, you know? There'sa little part of me always, when I put out my mat, that says, oh, fuck... Truly. Because it's a difficult practice. And you do deal with discomfort and often you don't feel like it and your body is sore. But always, every single time, by the end, I feel clear and exhilarated and cleansed, and also I feel like, Well, I've done my work for the day! Everything else is gravy! [laughs] I've had that private engagement with something outside of myself, which is not just physical, but it's also a laboratory to see how the mind works. I've done how many thousands of sun salutations in my lifetime/ It's a habit, but it feels like a healthy habit. Better than a beer for breakfast.
Is acting a spiritual endeavor too?
It can be. For me it has been. It's a horrible cliche, but sometimes everything drops away
and you truly are living in the moment. Performing affords you that because you have a structure where it's safe to direct your concentration and imagination in a very absorbing way. I love that point. I don't have to worry in the world, and everything is pure poetry. Even awkwardness is pure poetry.
That sounds powerful.
You don't even have to be a performer though. You can apply it to lovemaking, you can apply it to eating, you can apply it to all kinds of things-that moment where stuff drops away and you're intregrated and you're not thinking about being someplace else. You're not distracted by where you're coming from or where you're going to. Of course, the trick is extending that. Very few of us can extend it for very long.
Some actors say they get lost in their characters.
I think that's sorta of a myth. You really don't because every character is you, filtered through a series of circumstances. But you certainly can get lost in yourself.
Is it the same sort of feeling whether you're playing Jesus or the Green Goblin?
On one hand, performing and making things can be very high calling, and on the otehr hand it can be shaking-your-ass entertainment, some sort of tribal thing, helping us amplify and identify with who we are and wehre we're going. That can seem like a real vulgar thing sometimes, but I try not to make a distinction, I try to see the value of a film like Dumb and Dumber , say, next to something that appears to have much loftier aspirations. Ideally I'm interested in stories that aren't s much to support what we already know but that have us possibly take on different point of view than we had.
You played Jesus before it was cool, in 'The Last Temptation of Christ'
That was a great pleasure. It was a low, low budget movie, something like six million dollars, shot in Morocco, total isolation. Talk about the world dropping away. And we did it in terms that were meaningful to us. By the time we finished shooting, I really felt spent.
Did you see 'The Passion?'
You're not gonna get nothin' out of me on that. I remember meeting max von Sydow [who played Jesus in 1965's The Greatest Story Ever Told] and he said [in a low Scandanavian accent] "Pleasure to meet you. We are both memebers of a very exclusive club." And now I feel like I could say, "Not so exclusive anymore pal!" [laughs]
You're Always maintained a certain distance from Hollywood.
I live in New York City. I work every day. I don't go out much. I'm social, but when you go out and stay out either to pick up people, get high, or netowrk and those aren'tbig priorities for me.
Have you ever felt yourself drawn to the glamorous life?
I'm always suspicious of it. I still have romantic ideas that you've got to find a way to stay hungry. And it's a little hard when all the things in your life-from doing your dishes to cleaning your house to dealing wtih your loved ones-are delegated. And that's usually what happens with the good life.
You're turning 50 this year.
Do you think of that as a milestone?
Not really. I've got a bit for Peter Pan in me; I still really feel like a kid on one hand. But I like being older just because I think calmer is clearer. Some people say, "Oh, you lose your edge," but I think your edge gets sharper because you can own it a little bit better. The only problem with getting older is you're getting closer to...you know, time's up.
That is a problem.
Yeah. That's a big problem. But I think I've died in more movies than anyone I know. So i've got some practice at it.