HomeMoviesWillem Dafoe interview on the “inside” and acting tips
Willem Dafoe interview on the “inside” and acting tips
March 17, 2023
The “Inside” actor is one of the most versatile performers working today. What’s your secret? Here, he shares some with IndieWire.
With his wry grin and piercing eyes, Willem Dafoe is often the most distinctive face in any film he appears in. In “Inside,” however, he’s pretty much the only one. His character, a desperate art thief, is the focus of director Vasilis Katsoupis’ first film, and he finds himself trapped in an elegant New York penthouse in the middle of a heist. With no obvious way out, he becomes a sort of island rabies as the walls—and the artworks that contain them—slowly close in on him. It’s a vintage Dafoe performance, filled with the eerie subjectivity of a man who may or may not be losing his mind.
It is also one of the best displays of Dafoe’s craft in recent times, as he is there in every scene as he conveys the complex psychology of a criminal forced to face an unexpected fate. However, you’d be hard-pressed to find a film where Dafoe doesn’t bring everything he’s got.
He still pops up in blockbusters like “Spider-Man: No Way Home” and the upcoming “Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom,” but he’s more often seen in the auteur visions of Robert Eggers (The Lighthouse, “The Lighthouse”). The Northman” and the upcoming “Nosferatu”) and Wes Anderson (“The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou”, “The French Dispatch” and this year’s “Asteroid City”).
He’s also a four-time Oscar nominee for projects ranging from “Platoon” to “The Florida Project,” played Jesus in “The Last Temptation of Christ,” and has numerous collaborations with his close friend Abel Ferrara. Overall, Dafoe stands out as one of the hardest working actors today who never seems to be on the phone.
No matter what project Dafoe takes on, his total commitment to the role stands out. This skill, honed from his early years at the experimental theater company Wooster Group, has helped him maintain an authentic connection to his creativity even as his profile has grown.
Here, in his own words, he shares some of the key factors that influence his approach today.
Forget the backstory and live in the moment.
During my years at Wooster Group, the one thing that was instilled in me was that I was responsive to things to be done—task-oriented things. You do things: move the chair and so on. When you do things, you let things happen to you. It increases with each action, and as you move, it affects your mind. But first you really deal with the body. This was the perfect time for it. There is something concrete, factual and practical about what you do. Once the decisions are made, things open up and a narrative begins to develop along with the character. He is not conscious of forcing it. It’s something that happens when you deal with the situation.
In this movie, it wasn’t important who this character was before the movie started. You just know he’s a thief, he goes into the building and gets stuck there. It is revealed through action – like all characters – through the things they choose to do or not do.
Perform your own stunts, both big and small.
I always do my own stunts. In general, the tendency is for stuntmen to do it as well. They tend to do it both ways, so they have options. However, if you can, they will let you. I’m a beast. I’m used to physical things. No way back. You go forward, forward, forward. This has a beautiful effect. You focus on what you’re doing. You don’t think outside of where you are. It’s important to be present with these things when typing your character.
Look for the deeper meaning of the story around you.
Wolfgang Ennenbach / Focus Featu
In this film, the meanings of the paintings change from beginning, middle and end. Nothing has changed in the paintings, but the situation has changed. The thing itself has no inherent properties. When we are forced to not take things at face value, it opens up our understanding of how things are connected, where things fit, and what defines them. When you are in such a situation, you can think much more wisely than when you just accept borrowed concepts and values from your hands that you have inherited.
Money matters, but only in the right context.
Listen, money is a consideration of course, but that’s not why you do the work. This is because it often tells you what people’s intentions are and what they value. This is a hint. If you work like I do, you’ll be fine, but I’ve never been solely motivated by money. I never took a job just for that reason. It’s just a fact. Not because I’m moral or because I’m clean. It just doesn’t make sense. Good work begets good work and opportunities. You’re trying to do the best job, and sometimes the best paying jobs aren’t the best. Sometimes low-paying jobs are.
If you’re successful, don’t worry about which roles bring you the most fame.
People are usually tuned in to their tastes and what interests them the most. I run into people on the street who think I only did ‘Spiderman’ and ‘Aquaman’. There are also those who only know him from smaller films. It is none of my business; my job is to get the job done. He hopes there will be enough interest to keep doing what he’s doing. But the measure is somewhat ridiculous. The aim of the measure is to enable you to do more work.
If you make a film that you think is beautiful, of course you want to show it. But I wouldn’t even go so far as to say you’re proud of it, because what you feel about a film doesn’t guarantee what other people think about it.
Worry about the project, not its commercial viability.
Willem Dafoe and Brooklynn Prince in ‘The Florida Project’
Courtesy of A24
If I work with a new filmmaker, the project has to be different – the premise of how they approach me, a producer with excellent taste. What I liked about “Inside” was that it required a special performance that I hadn’t done before. I like to work in all kinds of situations. New people are always coming, but to what extent, I don’t know. I’m in it so I don’t have a broad view. Turned around.
It is no coincidence that sometimes interesting films come from places where we have never seen a film before. My participation in some of these is severely limited by language and culture. How films are made, how they are distributed, what the economics of these things are—those are big questions, but I shoot myself thinking too much about these things. Do not worry. I will not. I don’t have that kind of mind.
Hide behind work.
I don’t publicly condemn my films, or even other people’s films. Let others figure that out for themselves. I often watch movies because people introduce things to me. Sometimes I know their work. I watch a lot. I can talk about making something, but I don’t like to talk about my taste. I don’t want people to know what I think. Knowing everything about someone’s likes and dislikes gets in the way. It colors the way they see you. They get a picture of you, it will be less flexible if they watch it in a movie.
Focus Functions’ release “Inside” is now in cinemas.