Willem Dafoe: “I don’t think you can keep doing the same thing as an actor and be free”

Actor Willem Dafoe

“All performing is about control and discipline versus abandon and just letting go.” – Willem Dafoe

Willem Dafoe has worked with a variety of famous filmmakers and has played a gamut of roles from the serious to the silly — everything from Jesus Christ to the Green Goblin. The Florida Project — in which Dafoe is the only established actor among the entire cast — is another example of Dafoe’s maverick ability to attach himself to interesting projects. Speaking with Independent, Dafoe explains how he chooses his roles… and then explains why he might be on the wrong track.

As to how Dafoe picks roles, he explains what he looks for:

I think something that engages you. Something that either presents a challenge or a pleasure or an adventure or a really compelling question that puts you in a mindset where you’re like, “I don’t know what this is but I’m going to find out what it is.” Something that really taps into a sense of curiosity or wonder. I’d say the basic condition is to say you’re going to do something you’ve never done before and no matter how it turns out, it’s going to be interesting and if you’re open to it, something’s going to happen. You aren’t always guaranteed what that’s going to be but it’s going to be something – you’re not just going to make another movie, you’re going to make a movie you have a stake in. You can find a stake in different ways – your commitment to doing a film like Aquaman compared to a film I’m doing now with Julian Schnabel [a biopic of artist Vincent Van Gogh] is different but you don’t say one is greater than the other. They can be conditioned by different things. But don’t think, for me anyway – I’ve always got to remember to only talk for me – I don’t think you can keep doing the same thing as an actor and be free. Or at least I can’t. I feel better when I’m a little – I don’t want to say out of control, but yeah, I guess control’s a big issue. All performing is about control and discipline versus abandon and just letting go.

He points out that as an actor he has to work at convincing himself not to do what’s safe and comfortable. He continues, “You’ve got to trick yourself because that’s not human nature. People like to know what they’re getting but you’ve got to trick yourself into going away from that. Right now I’m just starting a movie and I’m scared to death, but I recognize the feeling and I know the elements and that I’m attracted to it. I don’t know what I’m fucking doing but I’m doing it and in a way with the energy of someone who is struggling or trying to find their way. That’s better than having conceptions of nailing it. I personally can’t do that.”

Surprisingly, Dafoe then goes on to say that he doesn’t know if he’s giving the right advice. He adds, “I don’t know whether I’m full of shit either. The first thing I do is identify the problem and make a challenge for yourself and whether you fall short or not, that’s for you to say, not me. But I like these ideas that I’m spouting right now and I think The Florida Project bears them out a little bit, because I’m not supposed to be in this movie… Traditional career wisdom and all that would not have me be in this movie. But I’ve never followed that really.”

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