Willem Dafoe on How Acting is a “Service” and Why He Never Worked With an Acting Coach

Actor Willem Dafoe

Photo Courtesy of Deposit Photos

“One man’s over-the-top, crazy performance is another man’s committed performance. Another person’s natural, rooted performance is another person’s walk-through, lazy performance.” – Willem Dafoe

A really engaging feature of Interview magazine is how one well-known actor is assigned to interview another actor. Earlier this year, Mark Ruffalo conducted an extensive interview with Willem Dafoe about his career (the two recently worked together for the first time in the upcoming film Poor Things). While dishing on Dafoe’s long career, the two spoke about Dafoe’s tendency to frequently work with the same directors, how acting is a “service,” and why he never worked with an acting coach.

Ruffalo points out that Dafoe has frequently worked with a number of acclaimed directors on multiple films. Dafoe says that it’s something that he typically seeks out when he enjoys collaborating with a director, explaining, “When there’s a director who I like a lot, I want to be part of their work. Sometimes I make myself available, even if it’s a smaller role. Once I work with someone and I enjoy it, it’s nice to go back because you’ve got trust. I like to go towards directors that have a very particular point of view. If you really want to have a transparent adventure that an audience can dig, then you want to be with people that turn you on. And so, you go back… There’s no pattern. The only thing is, when I look at projects, the director’s very important.”

Regarding his prolific career — Dafoe has appeared in over 130 movies — Dafoe speaks of acting on an almost primeval energy level. He reveals, “The work ethic that I have is a good thing… There’s something about making things that gives you energy. Probably the scariest thing is a complacency or a kind of deep, deep depression about what your job is, what you’re here for. Somehow when you’re in a community of people making something, you feel useful, like you’re the storyteller in front of the campfire. You’re doing a service.”

Dafoe continues on the idea that acting is a “service” to others. He adds, “That service is playing up these stories. You’re putting yourself in a situation where you’re having an experience, and hopefully it’s transparent and truthful enough that people can go with you and have that experience, too. It’s a privileged position.”

Part of that drive also comes from ambition, which Dafoe appears to have a curious relationship with — as if he projects his ambition more than he feels it himself. He confesses, “It can kill ya [Laughs]. I’ve heard from people who’ve interviewed old friends of mine that say, ‘Willem always wanted to be a movie star.’ I want to strangle them! It’s not f—g true. But I noticed that I’ve heard it enough that I must have projected something that gave them that impression.”

What makes it all the more remarkable is that Dafoe has never worked with an acting coach. He credits that to his development as an actor in experimental theater. He explains:

“I’ve never worked with a coach… The stuff that shaped me was anti-established, anti-polished kind of performance. It wasn’t about being a professional actor, it was about f—g around. There was a real love for a kind of roughness and directness, the kind of amateur aesthetic that I grew up with when I first hit New York. I think a little bit of that stayed with me. To be like a child, not to refine it too much because that kind of—Refinement sometimes breaks things down, and becomes a show of your prowess. But there’s something to be said for controlling. Performing is always about those two extremes, the control and the abandon. I don’t think people know a lot about what goes into performance. It’s so subjective. One man’s over-the-top, crazy performance is another man’s committed performance. Another person’s natural, rooted performance is another person’s walk-through, lazy performance. You just gotta dress yourself and serve the director, and serve the world that you’re in.”

However, Dafoe believes that ultimately the “magic” of a performance happens in the heads of the individual audience members. He explains, “Magic happens in people’s heads. Yes, there’s intention, and yes, the directors and the producers have an idea about what they’re trying to convey, but as an actor, I think you have to be a little wilder than that. That’s why it’s so nice that I’m old-fashioned, that I like that theater experience of having a bunch of people in a dark room together with strangers.”

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