Willem Dafoe

Interview & Photography by: Mart Engelen


Mart Engelen: What for you is the joy of acting?
Willem Dafoe: I enjoy performing because, with each project, the challenges and aims are different. I like the kind of absorption I can sometimes arrive at when I am doing actions in making or performing scenarios. The world drops away and I become free of petty concerns and can enter into an other than normal consciousness and expression.
ME: Do you prefer film or theatre?
WD: They are different activities and I like them both. There is no reason to prefer one or the other. Having said that, I feel like theatre is more nourishing—the ritual, the athleticism, the fact that you get practiced at the art of reanimating a score every performance. It is
more demanding of your total self. Film-making is still mysterious to me and an adventure, so even though it is more a director’s medium than an actor’s, I always find shooting a movie stimulating. And they pay better and have more cultural/social cachet than theatre. That’s not what drives me, but the theatre world can sometimes be a pretty pathetic insular lot and a lot of it is trapped in an outdated tradition. ( Sir Anthony Hopkins once said, “I can’t work in theatre because it’s too serious, it’s like being in prison for me”. )
ME: What made you decide to accept the role of narrator in The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic?
WD: When Bob Wilson invited me to participate in the making of the piece, I didn’t know what it was going to be. I did know I’ve always wanted to work with Bob, I also knew and admired both Marina and Antony Hegarty. I liked the creative team and sometimes that’s enough to stimulate you. And in this case that was really all I had to go on, since this role I was to play had yet to be made. Even the text and the mise en scène was yet to be developed. When Bob said it was to be some kind of narrator, it didn’t sound very interesting in itself but, in the end the role, the function, I perform in this piece is very satisfying and very far from the function of a ‘narrator’.
ME: Does Amsterdam have a special meaning to you?
WD: Amsterdam is the first place I performed outside of the US. Starting at the age of 19, I made many trips to Amsterdam through the
years, mostly to perform at the Mickery Theater on the Rozengracht. It was an education, the Mickery was a presenting powerhouse bringing great theatre from all around the world to Amsterdam. The selections of Ritsaert ten Cate were inspired and varied. As well as performing in Amsterdam, first with Theatre X, after that with the Wooster Group and even once making a piece with Ritsaert, I saw some of the greatest theatre in the world.
At 19, I was a rather unsophisticated young American: my eyes were opened to different traditions. It had a profound effect on me. I have also performed at the Holland Festival on some occasions and I have some Dutch friends. So Amsterdam was a reoccurring stop in my nomadic life because I have spent so many years touring, particularly with the Wooster Group. As I walk the streets of Amsterdam these days, so many memories, so many ghosts, so many adventures recalled… So much has changed but, compared to New York, it’s pretty much still the same.
ME: Do you need to have a more powerful inner life as an actor or filmmaker?
WD: I don’t know what you need. I just know ideally being a performer for me is about stamina, being flexible, not afraid, curious and interested in things outside of your experience.
ME: If you look at all the films you have made, which character you have played was the most difficult?
WD: I don’t think about that. Your mind plays tricks with you, I really don’t remember. I remember the making, actual days of shooting, but I rarely recall my state of mind or think about what was easy or difficult. I trust I learn my lessons intuitively and I don’t have to really remember past experiences to guide future ones. It takes the fun out of it, besides, because as I approach a role I am always trying to pretend I’m doing it for the first time.
ME: Does yoga help you in the preparation of a role?
WD: Yoga, asana practice, helps me in life. It is a daily practice where I can see my tendencies, take inventory, see where my mind and body meet or don’t meet. Of course, it keeps you healthy, strong and flexible. It teaches me concentration, meditation and awareness of my breath. All of this is helpful for a performer. I practice in the morning, always groaning as I roll out my mat, but afterwards I am always happy for doing it. I think, “I have done my work, the rest of the day is for fun!”
ME: With 9/11, the credit crunch and the situation in Syria, etc, people have been very pessimistic for the last twelve years. How do you look at the current situation? And what can we do?
WD: I do what I do and I try to do it well. You’ve got to get your house in order before you can help others. Making films and theatre can be very powerful—help change how people think. I am always interested in what connects all of us, what are the common traits that are greater than cultural conditioning. If we can find our interdependence and connection and understand this, we are more empathetic and generous
and better creative problem solvers. We have to challenge how we think before we change anything or reverse negative trends. Of course, sometimes
I think this is delusional and have the romantic notion of joining an aid organisation. Then, I think I may be more useful doing what I am
ME: You divide your time between Italy and the US. What do you like best about Italy?
WD: I like Italians. Most of all, my wife!
ME: Do you collect art?
WD: I used to collect friends’ art and emerging artists that I thought were interesting. But lately, less so. I guess I am not a person that collects things, only beautiful books. One of my favourite things to do is to have a nice lunch and then to visit some galleries in the afternoon. I almost always find something that inspires me, even more so than seeing theatre or films.