Interview with the Vampire
“Oh, the script girl. I’ll eat her later.” It’s a perfect moment. With that one delicious line from Shadow of the Vampire, Willem Dafoe bares his camp fangs, and, immediately, we’re at his mercy. The words are ridiculous, deliberately so. But as they spill from Dafoe’s crimson mouth, they are somehow elevated, not into the sacred, exactly, but far from the profane.
And this has always been his secret weapon. Throughout what has become a breathtaking career, the 52-year-old, two-time Academy Award nominee has managed to imbue even the most cartoonish of characters with cerebral depth. To wit: In Anamorph, a neo-noir inspired by the French policier genre, Dafoe plays a troubled cop trying to solve a series of murders based on the concept of anamorphosis. As one would expect, it’s a heady brew of introspection, epiphany, and J. Alfred Prufrock impotence. Below, Dafoe takes us on a trip to the dark side.
BLACKBOOK: Your directorial debut focused on a drug dealer, a Satanist, and a nudist. That’s pretty raw stuff for a high school student.
WILLEM DAFOE: Yeah, that’s probably the first thing I put together, these three-minute profiles of other students. I had stepped out of the editing room one day and someone found my material, not yet edited, and there was some rough stuff there. I got expelled from school for that film, so it wasn’t exactly an auspicious beginning.
BB: I think it’s a mistake when people reduce your oeuvre to a series of stock villains. It might be more appropriate to say that the projects you take on, the characters you play, are working through inner struggles. What about this type of conflict appeals to you as an artist?
WD: There’s a certain pressure to conform, to bend your experiences to what you think they should be. Often, people who are troubled explore what it’s like to be human more closely. I’m attracted to those stories. Also, I think truth lies in those dark places. While I certainly aspire to luminosity and light, the truth is, I’m pretty death-obsessed.
Dafoe with Lou Reed.
BB: Udo Kier once told me that he plays these eccentric characters precisely because he’s such a normal guy off camera.
WD: Udo stole my line! He stole my line!
BB: Does the same principle apply to you?
WD: I joke that I’m just a square boy from the Midwest, but it’s pretty true. Well, that sort of depends on who you talk to. Look, I don’t know who I am, okay?
BB: Fair enough. Anamorph is heavily rooted in art theory and art history, despite the fact that it’s a pulpy, noir film. Do you remember your first, legitimate inculcation into the world of art? WD: I don’t know about the first, but one of the places I’m happiest is at a gallery. I’m always inspired by visual art.
BB: Are you at all concerned about your image, about the way you’re perceived by audiences? WD: I like making movies, and I like people to like what I do—not only because I’m social and need the reinforcement, but because I like people to find pleasure in something that I make. On the other hand, my real creative drive is to please myself. I don’t function that well when I’m trying to guess what people need. I have to be engaged in my performance, and I can’t do that when I’m thinking of an audience. I make some movies that are clearly limited in their commercial appeal, and I make them because I assume that somewhere, someone will find pleasure in them. But, again, I’m interested in stories that don’t attract everyone. Having said that, however, I also enjoy doing big movies. So, to say I work just for myself is incorrect because I do think of the audience, but at that moment, no, the world kind of falls away.
BB: Have you ever realized halfway through production that the film you were working on had fallen short of your expectations?
WD: It happens all the time, because there are so many moving pieces in a film. I’m just one strand in the fabric. Sometimes you roll up your sleeves, and try to control the big picture. Other times, you just have to let it go.
BB: You’ve worked with almost every major contemporary director: David Lynch, Martin Scorsese, Oliver Stone, Wes Anderson, Lars Von Trier, Sam Raimi, and David Cronenberg are—literally and amazingly—just a few examples. Is it exciting, in a different way, to work with a first-time director? WD: It’s scary to work with a first-time director because you don’t know enough about them. And it goes without saying that one of the most important things is trust between the actor and the director. Somehow, you have to find confidence in that person and complicity with that person, all with very little information.
BB: You ran into Marissa McMahon, the film’s producer, in an airport after she’d been trying to hunt you down for the part. Have you ever found yourself on the other end of that type of serendipity?
WD: I met Wes Anderson socially, and I liked him very much, and he said we should work together sometime. I said, Great, what are you doing next? And he said, “Oh, I’m doing this film in Italy [The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou], but it’s already cast.” But then a guy dropped out, someone he’d originally cast. When he was in a pinch, Wes thought of me immediately, and called me up. Not quite the anecdotal story we were searching for…
BB: No, that’s perfect. I didn’t have any expectations.
WD: Well, I did. By now, I should have better stories. I’m terrible.
BB: In an interview—actually, it was with BlackBook about nine years ago—you said that you were really interested in transforming yourself.
WD: And I’m still saying it nine years later, which is why I was so interested in the way that Anamorph looked at one thing from so many different perspectives.
BB: What has been your most humbling experience as an actor?
WD: I’m constantly humbled because I’m trying to throw myself into something and I give it great importance. Also, performing is very mysterious, and if you reach, if you’re not playing it safe, you’re going to fall on your face a lot. Even doing this interview, I have a choice: I can either prepare my thoughts, or I can use this interview to try to figure something out. It’s just like approaching a role. I always want to have some tricks up my sleeve, but I also want to work from a place of vulnerability and curiosity. And, I mean, when things feel good, they go away—it’s really the hurt that remains. It’s more difficult to sustain good feelings than it is to sustain, you know, the darker side. Photos of Willem Dafoe courtesy Patrick McMullan Company