The Green Goblin. Bobby Peru. Nosferatu (sort of). Jesus Christ. Willem Dafoe has played his share of icons — and after nearly three decades in the movie business he himself has become emblematic of the actor as committed chameleon, versatile, dedicated and always convincing. If Dafoe is best known for portraying scenery-chewing villains, that’s because his intense, impish persona makes his heavies so memorable — not because he hasn’t played his share of nice guys. (His breakout role was the kind-hearted Sgt. Elias in Oliver Stone’s Platoon, for which he received the first of two Oscar nominations. And then there was that martyr guy.) Whether playing the bad, the good or the crazy, Dafoe’s characters have little more in common than searing intensity and an endearing gap between their two front teeth.
“When I was younger, I was much more careful about choosing my roles. I was nervous. Hollywood in the ’80s was a horrible place. Now that I feel less stressed, I can take more risks,” he says while sipping a Pilsner in Manhattan’s West Village. This winter, the 54-year-old yoga-trim thespian will display his range, voicing the debonair, gleefully wicked rat in Wes Anderson’s animated The Fantastic Mr. Fox; playing creatures of the night in the vampire thriller Daybreaker and the comedic coming-of-age tale The Vampire’s Assistant; and, most notably, starring alongside Charlotte Gainsbourg in the divisive Antichrist, directed by Danish firestarter Lars von Trier.
Antichrist is Dafoe’s second film with von Trier. The Fantastic Mr. Fox is his second with Anderson (Dafoe appeared, clad in baby-blue swim trunks, in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou). One could safely say that Dafoe, who has also worked with directors Martin Scorsese, David Lynch and the late Anthony Minghella, among others, has a thing for auteurs. “I find myself being attracted to directors for two reasons that are kind of contradictory,” he says. “I like movies that are personal and made by someone with a very particular vision. But on the other hand, I think actors are creative artists in their own right. So if someone is an auteur and likes to collaborate with an actor, that’s my sweet spot.”
The Wisconsin native’s collaborative instinct was fostered by his tenure with experimental theater troupe The Wooster Group, which he co-founded in 1975. Long before making his film debut (a part in 1980’s infamous flop Heaven’s Gate that ended up on the cutting room floor), Dafoe was an integral part of the SoHo-based company, notorious for staging avant-garde, mixed-media interpretations of new and classic plays. His decades-long affiliation with the group ended in 2004, when he and the company’s director, MacArthur genius Elizabeth LeCompte, split up. (He is now married to Italian actress and filmmaker Giada Colagrande.) “In the end, I’m not an actor. I’m not an interpreter. I’m just a guy who likes to make stuff,” says Dafoe, who giddily returned to the stage this fall in the experimental Idiot Savant at New York’s Public Theater.
Of the things he’s made lately, Antichrist will be the film that gets people talking—and possibly screaming. It is likely the first searing psychological profile of grief to include a possessed, talking fox, a gory hand-job and an even gorier self-clitorectomy. “There were some very funny initial conversations,” he says, about filming these particular scenes. “Lars, how are we going to do this?” Praised and despised in almost equal measure since its heated premiere at Cannes, the film recently inspired projectile vomiting when it was screened at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Dafoe isn’t new to controversy. This is, after all, the man who played a fornicating, sinning Jesus in Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ. That 1988 film, passionately protested by Christian organizations when it was released, is still banned in the Philippines, Singapore and South Africa, and provoked a fundamentalist group to throw Molotov cocktails into a Parisian theater, injuring 13 moviegoers. The experience has made Dafoe extremely suspicious of the prevailing wisdom that all publicity is good publicity. “With Last Temptation, people said, ‘You should be happy about this controversy because it allows people to see the movie,’” Dafoe recalls. “No. People don’t like problems.”
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He also worries about the work being overshadowed. “There are some really shocking things in Antichrist. They are important and they are part of the film, but they are not the film,” he says. “It’s like with The Crying Game. Everything hung on those two seconds, but there was so much more to the story than that. I hope Lars hasn’t shot himself in the foot by being provocative.”
To prepare for the film, in which Dafoe plays a psychotherapist trying to help his bereaved wife, the actor put himself in a totally new situation: therapy. Despite living in New York City for a number of decades, he had never been. When asked if his reluctance to see a therapist might have something to do with getting all his demons out on stage, Dafoe shrugs. “Look, I’ll do whatever it takes to get what I think I need to feel well, but I’m deeply Midwestern and it feels very strange to expect someone else to solve your problems,” he says. “I have never been that attracted to it. Although many people have told me, ‘Believe me, you need it!’ In the heat of fights, that always comes up: ‘You need to see somebody!’”
WILLEM’S FAVORITE FRESH PRODUCE: CHELSEA MARKET, NEW YORK CITY
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Photography by Martin Schoeller, Styling by Bryan Levandowski. Grooming by Amy Komorowski for Yon-Ka/Celestine Agency. Photographer’s Assistants: Nigel Ho-Sang, Ivory Serra, Emily Wettstein, Michael Wilson. Location: The Space