Willem Dafoe Talks Working With Wes Anderson & ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’

Back in December, I had the chance to see Willem Dafoe star in Bob Wilson’s The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic. As an actor whose work has always fascinated me upon the screen, I was stunned at his presence on the stage—so alive with force and possessing a stamina and vitality that was staggering to watch. But whether its live performance, inhabiting the psychologically harrowing world of Lars von Trier, or casting a darkness on the aesthetically-pleasing and beautifully melancholy world of Wes Anderson, there isn’t a dull moment with Dafoe  on film.

And after working with Anderson on The Life Aquatic and The Fantastic Mr. Fox, the actor now appears in the meticulously-detailed and frosting-coated Europe-on-the brink-of-destruction caper story, The Grand Budapest Hotel as Jopling—a cold-blooded and sharp-toothed assassin, clad in all black leather, and working for Dmitri Desgoffe-und-Taxis (played by Adrien Brody).

“Set in a fictionalized European country on edge of World War II, Anderson’s Budapest Hotel gives you all the confectionary aesthetic delights that we’ve come to anticipate from him, as well as the melancholy interpersonal conflicts and frenetic excitement of his past work—yet feels steeped in a deeper sense of disillusionment with the state of the world than we’ve become accustomed to seeing in Wes’ films. There’s a boldness and necessity towards the sharper edge of the cake knife that comes with setting the film in a time when the world was on the precipice of despairing chaos, and it’s all the more wonderful for it.”

Last week, I sat down with Dafoe to discuss the wonder of working with Wes Anderson, the pleasure of dramatic choices, and palling around the hotel with the sprawling cast of characters.

What enjoyed so much about this film, is that it had more of a bite than a lot of his other films as of late—which as surely informed by the historical context, but it was great to see that beneath all the confectionary beauty of it all. You’ve worked with a good deal prior to this, so how did the experience of making this film differ for you?

Two things come to mind—first in the vein of what you said, you know, his movies, what I like about them is that they’re beautifully designed. They’re these little worlds and they seem like these little confections, and then they land. Like in The Life Aquatic, you’re having a great time watching it but you’re wondering what it’s all about, and then toward the end it can be really moving. A lot of the themes for his movies have to do with relationships—father, son, etc–but this has a slightly broader canvas. It’s more philosophical. So maybe that’s the bite that you talk about that is slightly different. He’s more adult in this. 

The second thing that strikes me, at the very beginning, he showed me this line-drawing animatic storyboard. It was so precise, it’s the movie that you see. It just showed that because of the experience working on Mr. Fox, where to do the animation he had to plan in such detail, I think he found that’s a very satisfying way to work. He’s obsessive, he’s controlling, he’s very clear, and in these beautiful line-drawings where he does all the voices and all the characters and all the shots are pretty much there, you have the movie. So his preparation has reached a level of such sophistication and such articulation that it’s wild.

And as an actor, how was it to drop into this already very well-crafted and established world?

One would assume that it would feel done or restrictive, but it’s great. It’s all worked out and then you get the pleasure of inhabiting it. But then, of course, you’re bringing things to it—you’re problem-solving and nothing’s exactly the same. But there’s a pleasure of not wasting certain kinds of energy or choices. The everyman’s idea of acting is thinking that’s where the meat is, but for me, it isn’t—the meat is presence and breathing energy and life into something.

The other stuff, that’s as shallow as psychology can be, this other thing is magical, it has much more to do with pretending and being and creating. So, I love it. And because he’s well known for creating an informal company, he makes things for people. I arrive and he says, this is your outfit—how do you like it? You could kick, but there’s no reason to kick because it’s beautiful. I’m a believer.

You also had some input into a very specific part of your character as well…

The teeth. He showed me these teeth and he was very insistent about them being sharp teeth. I thought I’d seen that done before and so I played around with it, and then got a really good result—one that was satisfying in my imagination. If I inverted them and wore them like a bulldog, that really created a mask and a way into something.

HIs preparation is so thorough and I’m sure the scripts are riveting to read, but how does it feel actually being there on set and watching everything come to life?

It’s good because it’s all doing, and you have the comfort of having the clarity, and then you do it. You forget that it’s made already and then you make it by the doing. So on the set, what’s nice is that there’s very little floundering. The base-line is very clear. You play around–and he’s quite obsessive, and that’s not to say he doesn’t change things, and that’s not to say he doesn’t take input, but there isn’t pressure for that, that comes easily and gracefully out of necessity. But it’s made and you just have to live it, which is pretty fun. Because it’s invented and so aestheticized and so fetishized, he can stand behind hallelujah artifice. The look of the pillow here next to me is everything, and there’s a pleasure in entering into that kind of language and that kind of detail.

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In thinking about the character of M. Gustave H., I imagine Wes is a little bit like that himself—an antiquated spirit, out of time, of an old world.

I think so. His life is filled with all this kind of, I don’t want to say eccentric, but very particular personal tastes, and he’s driven by that. Like a lot of artists, he sees things a certain way and he’s drawn to certain colors and shapes and ways of being and he invests his whole life in that.

And that’s why actors so gladly agree be to a part of anything he does.

He gives you fun things to do, he’s fun to be around, he’s together. He’s very obsessive, so he’s not easy, but his manner is very sweet and because he takes you and really makes something for you, people are very happy to work with him because it’s personal.

This was a reunion for your with Ralph Fiennes—how was working with him again?

I didn’t have too much stuff with him but we hung out a lot. It was great. This was a reunion for me with a lot of people, really, but Rafe particularly. We’ve kept in touch—I’ve come to see him in shows, he’s come to see me in shows. So that was just nice. And it’s fun to see him do a role like this.

Oh yes, he brought so much to this character. It’s always interesting to see such wonderful performances when Wes brings in someone who is not a recurring member of his company of actors. How as living on set with this cast?

Beautiful. I mean, that really made it. To give you the picture: we’re in this little, tiny town that’s very beautiful and very picturesque in a place that’s so beautiful that you think, wow, somehow they missed the war. It’s dead winter and it’s cold, cold, cold, and it’s in the former East, all the way on the Polish border. We would go to dinner in Poland and go back and forth over the river. Your cell phone would always go, “Boop, Welcome to Poland!,” and then you’d walk to this side of the room and it would  go, “Boop, Welcome to Germany!” It was nuts.

There was not a lot to do there, the only fun in town was the movie. Being at the hotel, it was a parallel experience. People would check in and then we’d see them leave. And even though I’m not one of the principles, I’m part of the ensemble, I was there for a long time because my part was a little bit here and a little bit there. Same thing with Jeff Goldblum, he was there for a long time. So you sit there and it’s a beautiful hotel, there’s nobody else there, and we take it over.  There’s a little library set up with all the films from the 1930s that Wes uses as reference, so you can study when you feel like it. People pad around. The make up room is off the lobby, where you get dressed is next to my room. People are padding around in the hallways, sometimes in their bathrobes, but sometimes in their costumes—you know, the line gets blurred. So it was very cool.

I recently saw Nymphomaniac, which you’re also part of the ensemble in. Throughout your work, you seem to be attracted to these directors with a very specific vision and agree to be a part of their different cinematic worlds no matter the role.

Yes. You have a relationship with them, and you like being a part of their work because they make good movies for you, movies that appeal to you. So if they ask you to do something, it’s an honor.

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