The iconic smirk. The unmistakable laugh. The quietly controlled, yet oddly compelling timbre of his voice. When it comes to characters that linger on the psyche long after you’ve left the cinema, Willem Dafoe is a master. His ability to disappear into a persona, and then slowly reveal intricate layers that shift your perspective entirely, is an art form of which most thespians can only dream. Willem’s latest work is in Australian director Daniel Nettheim’s The Hunter, where he plays a mercenary sent by a European biotech company to the Tasmanian wilderness on a dramatic hunt for the last Tasmanian Tiger.
What attracted you to The Hunter?
The fact that we were going to shoot it in Tasmania was very important. If they’d told me that they were going to shoot it anywhere else, I wouldn’t have been interested. It was a good opportunity to play the kind of character that I like, where there’s a clear transformation in the story. One of the things I like about the film is that there are elements where you don’t know what’s going to happen. And I think as you watch my character in particular, you don’t think you’re smarter than he is and you don’t know why he’s doing what he’s doing. It allows you to participate and wonder where things are going and what things mean. I think it puts you into a place where your imagination is rolling and you then start to see things through his eyes. You’re right there with him and it becomes your story.
As an actor, do you feel a pressure to connect with the audience?
I think that’s really the director’s responsibility. I was a real collaborator on this film but, normally speaking, an actor should be free to be a little irresponsible. I concentrate on the scene and on how I’m doing things – the quality of reacting to what’s going on. I try not to think about where I have to go, or what the audience is thinking, or even whom I’m telling the story to. You feel the freest when you’re doing it for your reasons and, if they’re true and you make something beautiful, it will make other people interested in it.
What do you love about going to see a film?
I go to a movie to be moved and to be inspired. Dramatically, or empathetically, when I watch movies I’m always most moved when I see people taking care of each other. That’s the thing that always moves me – human connection. And not in a sentimental way, or a tested and tough way. It’s when people come together and recognise their common bonds, and the fact that everybody has a hard time and we should help each other. It’s tapping into an expression of love.
What inspires you?
When I have a shift in perspective – when I’ve taken something for granted and then I have a shift and I really see it or I think of it differently. And it’s usually through other people or through stories that you see that. One of things I love doing is going to art galleries. It’s not because I’m so sophisticated in my taste of art, but to look at beautiful things that are sort of useless in function, but speak to you and take you out of a routine and make you consider a different set of circumstances.
Do you feel an affinity with nature?
I grew up in a town of 50,000 people and it was quite agricultural, but nearby there were a lot of forests, lakes and Indian reservations. I wasn’t really a country kid, but it was a big part of my growing up. When I was young I was always out in nature. Nature is very important to me now, even though my lifestyle is very urban.
You come from a family of eight kids. What was your childhood dream?
I never had one. I really bumped along in life – there’s no inspirational story about how I saw something and then went towards it!
What’s been the greatest challenge you’ve had to overcome?
In this modern world there’s a lot of cynicism, envy and anger – particularly with the internet and popular culture. I still am not very thick-skinned. I don’t read reviews because there are now a lot of entertainment writers writing as if they were critics and I don’t respect their point of view, so why give myself aggravation? But, at the same time, I’m curious so sometimes I do seek people’s opinion. I’m just disappointed when I find something that’s beautiful but other people don’t think it’s beautiful, because they can’t see it. That may be my arrogance or my ignorance, but it kills me, and sometimes the best things aren’t rewarded – maybe that’s the way it’s supposed to be. So in a way you aren’t encouraged to do the best things; you’re encouraged to do something else. It’s really a Paris Hilton world and, because information goes so viral so quickly and there’s no one overseeing the internet, it’s crazy how misrepresented things are.
Where do you find peace in life?
In my little rituals, in my friends, and in simple pleasures. I also find peace in performing – in good situations when I lose myself and I feel free. That’s a gift that performing can occasionally give you, particularly in the theatre. It’s kind of like dance – you forget yourself and you’re really in motion and you’re receptive and feel alive. I’m always seeking that and I think that it’s a particular kind of peace.
Do you consider yourself to be a success?
I don’t think about success. Even when I was young, I loved that Bob Dylan song that said: ‘There’s no success like failure and failure’s no success at all.’ I think success can corrupt, particularly in my profession. I do have an awareness of it, but I’m only successful in that sometimes I get to do things that I like to do and sometimes they’re rewarding. When I was a young actor, all I asked for was to be a working actor, but then you get spoiled and you want more. And there are challenges that make you feel like a schmuck and like a loser, so do I feel like a success? In fleeting moments. Do I feel like a loser? In fleeting moments. And the rest of the time, it’s something in between!
Do you believe in a god and, if so, which one?
I don’t even ask myself that, but I would say that I think about these things every day in the same way that I think about death every day. But I don’t have an answer. I’ve always been interested in religion and how people institutionalise their beliefs and organise them. And it’s also quite striking that a lot of the religions are very similar in their beliefs, but their manifestations are very different culturally. I’m not knowledgable about them, and I don’t speak to a god, but those are the things that interest me.
What are your words of wisdom?
Well, everybody’s path is different, but I think you need to get in the company of people who inspire you and excite you. I’m a firm believer in apprenticeship. I think it’s important to find out what you like and just get near it and not worry about what your function is. As an actor, if you see a great theatre and they aren’t hiring, offer to go out and get coffee for them so you can just be around those people and see what they’re about. And you’ll either get over it and you’ll learn about it and realise that you have a romantic view about it, or you’ll make yourself indispensable or maybe one day they’ll say: ‘Hey, we need somebody to come and read this, why don’t you come on tour with us next time.’ I believe you make those kinds of stories yourself through connections, and not through just studying and entering the job market.