Willem Dafoe Interview

The producers of The Hunter said you were the perfect choice for this role, that you embodied this character so well. Why do believe you were a good choice for this role?

Willem Dafoe: The producers and director told me they needed a guy that was old enough that you could believe he was at the end of his career, but also fit enough to be able to do some of the physical things required in the film. Also, they were looking for an actor that had a sense of mystery about him, and they felt I embodied the physicality and the mystery.

When I read the script I was attracted to the character, who is a kind of a misanthrope and cutoff from things, particularly at the beginning of the film. He is also at the end of his career and his identity is very tied up in his career, so you have that paradox. Things happen in the film that opens up some compassion in him.

Why do think that your character, Martin, who is a mercenary looking for this almost mythical Tasmanian tiger, through this quest starts to transform and feel compassion?

Willem Dafoe: Someone called this film an eco noir. You have two tracks in this film. On one hand you the narrative tightly focused on him trying to find this tiger, mixed in with the story of never being emotional or physically available for his family. He is also in crisis because he has pressure from his employer to retire after this last hunt. He in a place where is identity is up for grabs. All these things force his humanity to come out more.

Still from “The Hunter”

How did you prepare for this role?

Willem Dafoe: I worked with some old fashioned, outback kangaroo hunters who knew the Tasmanian terrain really well. And most of all I was set me up with a survivalist who knows how to live in the bush without modern conveniences and is very comfortable with nature. That was really important because having those survivalist skills was a key to the character and I also had to assume the attitude and posture of someone who hunts in the bush.

What is your relationship to the camera when you are working?

Willem Dafoe: My relationship with the camera changes according to the style of the film or the scene being shot. Sometimes I am very conscious of the camera, sometimes I am not. In The Hunter, I have very strong, specific actions so I am always making choices.

You could say in some way I was more of a collaborator and an integral part of setting the camera shots with this project than in some other films. And because of that I was more conscious of the camera. Still, I had very concrete actions that I had to play out because of the physicality of the role, which causes you to forget about the camera in those moments.

How is that different than performing in front of a live audience?

Willem Dafoe: In many ways it is not. In the theater your main job is to reanimate that character every performance, even if are improvising, you know what the perimeters are. While in film, you are almost always dealing with first impulses. You go to the location, you map out the scene, you shoot the scene, you move on; you don’t go back.

What attracted you to the story and your character in 4:44 Last Day on Earth?

Willem Dafoe: I was familiar with the director Abel Ferrara’s work and I am very attracted to directors that have a specific vision and way of working. Abel came to me with the scenario of the film, honestly, it didn’t resonate with me at first, but when we started fleshing out some of the sequences of the scenario, I started to get excited about the film. 4:44 Last Day on Earth is a movie where the audience participates; so, if you don’t get hang up on looking for action on this cataclysmic day, or what the signs are for the end of the world, then you accept the story of how two people decide to spend their last day on earth together.

When we screened the film in Venice, we could feel the audience join in this communal acceptance of togetherness of connecting to each other on Earth’s last day. I know that sounds hokey, but it was the general feeling that the audience recognizes that everybody struggles and that we have a commonality. I believe the function of art or telling stories is to find common ground.

Abel Ferrara stated that fiction was a way to make truth more concrete 4:44 Last Day on Earth. What is your take on that?

Willem Dafoe:  This film is Abel’s take on this convention that the world is going to end. If you ask too many questions about why the world is coming to an end, or who is responsible for destroying the earth, you miss the truth of this film, which is the how people access their lives, and what gives your life meaning. Everyone knows that their life is going to end, but if you only had 24 hours left, what would you do and how would you reflect on your existence.

Early on in your career, you said that you longed to play the hero, but you felt you would be cast as a villain or antihero because on camera your face read angry and mean. When did that change for you?

Willem Dafoe: Early on in my career because I wasn’t a smoothie and didn’t look like the boy next door I felt I would not be a romantic lead or a hero. For many years movie was a sideline for me, and I really made my career on stage. Now that I am older I am not concerned about that right now; I get offered very interesting roles, more wide-ranging roles now that really appeal to me.

 —William Gooch


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