Actor on the edge
Willem Dafoe is best known as the thinking person’s film star. In 1986 he was nominated for an Oscar for his work as Sergeant Elias in Platoon and has since played a wide range of intellecutally demanding roles, everything from T.S. Eliot (in Tom and Vic) to Jesus Christ (in The Last Temptation of Christ). But since 1977, Dafoe has also been a member of the Wooster Group, a New York-based theater company that won a MacArthur Genius grant last year for its innovative, multimedia staging performances. Dafoe, who starred over summer in the Wooster Group’s production of The Hairy Ape, says he finds inspiration “in situations where I lose myself, which comes when I’m in a group doing something, or I’m in a place where I really can’t figure anything out and I just kind of give up.” Film reviewer A.S. Hamrah spoke to Dafoe about his media diet in New York City, where he lives with Wooster Group director Elizabeth Lecompte and their 14-year-old son, Jack.
What magazines do you read?
I’ll read almost anything that’s sent to me, but the only magazines I actually subscribe to are Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, which I read cover to cover, and Yoga Journal, because I practice hatha yoga. Recently I’ve also been reading Brick, an English literary magazine. Back when I was into fishing, I subscribed to Maine Sportsman. I enjoyed it, but its in-your-face National Rifle Association bias was just too hard to deal with, so I dropped it.
What books are you reading now?
I’ve become very interested in Eastern religion, so I find myself in the amusing situation of reading books that a lot of people my age read 20 years ago: D. T. Suzuki, Thomas Merton, the Patanjali yoga sutras. I also read to prepare for my roles. For example, when I was shooting The English Patient, which is based on a novel by Michael Ondaatje set in postwar Italy, I read all of Ondaatje’s work and some histories of the period like Naples ’44 and The Skin by Curzio Malaparte. Beyond reading for roles, though, what I really love are reference books, especially dictionaries and encyclopedias.
Which artists in any medium have influenced you?
These days I find that I really like to watch dance, particularly modern dance. I like the Trisha Brown Company in particular. Also, last spring I saw a fabulous show of video artist Gary Hill. Beautiful stuff, really beautiful. Obviously, movement and video play a large role in our Wooster Group productions.
Is there a specific film that’s had a big influence on you?
When I was a kid I loved films like Pork Chop Hill, The Guns of Navarone, and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre purely for the storytelling. But when I was older, 2001: A Space Odyssey had a huge impact on me, mostly because I didn’t really understand what was going on but it still interested me. That was a turning point. For the same reason, foreign films have also had a major influence on me. The first one I saw was The Magician by Ingmar Bergman, and one of the best double bills I ever saw was Fassbinder’s Beware a Holy Whore and Wim Wenders’ The State of Things. They’re both about film—films within a film. I’m still interested in adventure, in the sort of grand transformations that happen in genre films, but when I first saw The Magician, Beware a Holy Whore, and The State of Things, I thought: I want to be in these movies.
Are there any current trends in the media that trouble you?
Now that the studios own multiplex theaters, it disturbs me that you’ll find ten Mission: Impossibles playing and only two other films. Foreign films in particular are getting squeezed out, even in their own countries sometimes. I was in Germany when Jurassic Park came out, and it was in practically every theater. Also, entertainment reporting is focused too much on what the films’ grosses are. People have stopped going to see art; they’re just going to see money. A lot of people go to see Twister or Mission: Impossible begrudgingly, but they have to see them! This sort of thing makes cinema top heavy. The directors are forced to take a back seat to stars and concept. That’s understandable from the studio’s perspective, but somewhere it bleeds the adventure out of it. There’s no sense of discovery or excitement anymore.
I’m also disturbed by our culture’s saturation with personalities as products. When you take a guy and put him so far forward so quick, he’s destroyed. Then you have no maturity in the artist. As a result, no one’s really interested in maturity, in growth or range. We just want the youngest, the newest, the hottest.
What are the sources of your best and most original ideas?
Being surrounded by creative people. It’s hard to trace these things because I never think in terms of ideas; I think of myself as a doer. If someone else has an idea and I’m the doer, I have fewer expectations and I can have more fun doing it because I don’t have an agenda. I feel more fluid and more open to impulse and everything around me. In the Wooster Group I don’t have a special place in the constellation, I’m just someone who helps get the stuff done. That can be very exhilarating.
When are you most creative?
Early in the morning. More philosophically, I guess I’d say I’m most creative when I’m in movement and slightly ahead of myself, when I’m reaching for something and don’t quite know what it is.