When Playing Real People, It’s All About Research and Interpretation for Willem Dafoe

“You’re not interpreting T.S. Eliot as you understand him. You’re inhabiting him. You’re imagining him. It’s not the T.S. Eliot. It’s your T.S. Eliot.” – Willem Dafoe on Portraying Real People

Four-time Academy Award nominee Willem Dafoe has worked with some of the most acclaimed directors in film history, including Martin Scorsese, Oliver Stone, Spike Lee and Wes Anderson, and often in multiple films. In an interview with Slash Film, Dafoe spoke about portraying real-life figures in many of his films and how Wes Anderson could probably convince him to play just about any role if he had faith in Dafoe’s ability to pull it off.

Dafoe has portrayed a number of real-life individuals in his career — from author T.S. Eliot in 1994’s Tom & Viv to Vincent Van Gogh in 2018’s At Eternity’s Gate — in addition to his other work. According to Dafoe, the wealth of sources on real-life figures are a great starting point for an actor. He explains:

In the end, it’s movies. In the end, it’s fiction. In the end, you’re creating something. But I’ll tell you, it’s really nice when you have a wealth of material to think about, because you learn things. And whenever you learn things, you have a shift in understanding, and a new part of your heart and a new part of your brain opens up. And that’s the part that you didn’t know existed, and that’s what you can apply to becoming this new person. So I remember vividly, certainly with Pasolini, certainly with Van Gogh, but also with T.S. Eliot a number of years ago – the fact that I could read his letters, read his diary, read his critical words, read what he was working on at any given time, you could approximate what his state of mind was according to your imagination. And that kind of specificity is really fun to play with, because you’re not interpreting it, but you’re learning things that give you an appetite to think a different way. And I love when that happens.

You’re not interpreting T.S. Eliot as you understand him. You’re inhabiting him. You’re imagining him. It’s not the T.S. Eliot. It’s your T.S. Eliot. And hopefully, it’ll be transparent enough that it’ll be resonant for people. And as long as you’re kind of pure in your investigation and pure in your flexibility, maybe something will be expressed that you might not be able to respond to just in fact. Because when you invent things, sometimes it opens the door to an understanding that you couldn’t have if you were slave to the facts.

Dafoe has long collaborated with filmmaker Wes Anderson, having appeared in Anderson’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Grand Budapest Hotel, and the upcoming The French Dispatch. When asked if there is any role he wouldn’t play in one of Anderson’s films, Dafoe admits that he wouldn’t if he didn’t feel he was right for the part unless Anderson believed he could do it:

“I wouldn’t play something if I thought someone else could do it better. You like to contribute. You like to have a connection. If you don’t have a connection to something, and you didn’t think you could find a connection, I’d say to him, “I don’t know. Does this make sense to you?” And if he said, “Yeah, it makes sense to me,” then I’d probably do it anyway. I’ve been in that situation before, where I’ve said to a director, “I don’t think I’m really liking this.” And they’ve basically convinced me that it’s worth the leap to try to find what it is, because often, you don’t know a character until you make it. It’s an interesting thing sometimes that you’re just not feeling it. But if you admire [a director’s]work and they’re very convincing that you’re the guy to play it, sometimes, I can be convinced to try to find the way.”

More: Willem Dafoe on the Pleasure of Acting and Why He Hates the Expression, “Nailing It”

About Author

In college, overachiever Christopher McKittrick double-majored in Film and English because he loves to read, write, and watch movies. Since then Chris – who was born and raised on Long Island, New York and currently lives in Queens – has become a published author of fiction and non-fiction, a contributor to entertainment websites, and has spoken about literature, film, and comic books at various conferences across the country when he’s not getting into trouble in New York City (apparently it’s illegal to sleep on street corners...) For more information about Chris, visit his website here!

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