It is a perennial paradox. Studios spend vast sums of money bringing together the efforts of hundreds of skilled technicians, well-drilled actors and extras – yet cinema is often at its most compelling when simply showing an individual silently going about their business. There are countless examples: James Stewart stalking Kim Novak in Vertigo, David Hemmings poring over his prints in Blow-Up, Daniel Day-Lewis scrabbling underground in There Will Be Blood. We tend not to regard “just doing stuff” as acting – but perhaps making it all so absorbing is actually the hallmark of a great actor.
In his new movie The Hunter, released tomorrow, Willem Dafoe does ”stuff” very well. His character is searching for the last Tasmanian tiger, which he’s been assigned to kill by a pharmaceutical company that’s after its organs, fur and blood (the last real Tasmanian tiger died in 1936). People and politics chip away at Dafoe’s lone-predator persona – but the movie is at its finest when it just sits back and watches him track his semi-mythical prey through the misty Tasmanian wilderness. As he checks maps, skins marsupials, sets traps and examines paw prints, his stern face looks as etched and weathered as the landscape – and it’s somehow fascinating. Jean-Luc Godard said all you need for a movie is a girl and a gun; all The Hunter needs is Dafoe and a dead wallaby.
It’s not as easy as it looks, says Dafoe, who learned his bushcraft from a Tasmanian tracker. “When it came to skinning the wallaby,” he says, “I only had one chance at it, because they only had one animal. They said, ‘Listen, it’s been dead for a while. The gastric juices have been building up and it’s quite bloated. If you do this incorrectly, it’s gonna explode in your face.’ Luckily, there’s lots of surgeons in my family. I think it’s in my genes.”
You can see why The Hunter appealed to Dafoe. He is an unmistakable presence as an actor, with that wide, wolfish face and that low, chocolatey rasp of a voice; but somehow, he has never been conventional leading-man material. He’s not conventional anything material, really. He has explored the full breadth of cinema: he has played extremely good characters, from Jesus (in The Last Temptation of Christ) downwards; extremely bad characters (the villains in Spider-Man and Once Upon a Time in Mexico); and simply extreme characters (creepy Bobby Peru in Wild at Heart, Max Schreck in Shadow of the Vampire). But he’s rarely in every scene, like he is in The Hunter. “You can be intuitive when you’ve got a more expansive role,” he says. “You can get into the poetry of telling the story rather than just pushing buttons.”
Dafoe is never happier than when he’s off on an adventure, learning new skills in some far-flung place. He’s a man of action who likes to do his own stunts; and, even while just padding through the bush, there’s a natural grace to his movements, like a gymnast or a circus performer. In the flesh, he’s limber and compact, in remarkable shape for a 56-year-old. During our conversation, he stretches and shifts about on his chair like he’d rather be doing yoga or tightrope walking.
“I don’t interpret, I do,” he says. “Sometimes I say I feel more like a dancer than an actor, because there are things implied about being an actor that I don’t really like. I feel more comfortable with the word ‘performer’. I like being the thing. I like being the doer. There’s a factualness to it. And then certain resonances happen out of how you apply yourself physically.”
Dafoe’s theatre background undoubtedly shaped his approach – and his physique. He started out with New York’s renowned experimental company the Wooster Group in 1980, and was married to its artistic director, Elizabeth LeCompte. They divorced in 2004 and Dafoe is now married to Italian film-maker Giada Colagrande. He oscillates between New York and Rome, and between movies and theatre. He has just finished a Belgian run of The Life and Death of Marina Abramović, a stage show about and starring the godmother of performance art, in which he plays a very physical Joker-like narrator, in lipstick, white underwear and a shock of red hair. “It’s amazingly physical,” he says. “With theatre, you have to be ready for anything.”
Dafoe’s intrepid spirit has regularly taken him into dangerous – or simply dodgy – territory. He has notched up more than his fair share of turkeys, from action trash like Speed 2: Cruise Control and xXx2: The Next Level, to this year’s biggest flop, John Carter, in which Dafoe plays a 10ft CGI Martian warrior. Not to mention Body of Evidence – in which Madonna notoriously dripped candlewax on to his naked torso. There is also a suspicious number of “erotic thrillers” in Dafoe’s back catalogue, including one he recently made with his wife, called Before It Had a Name; the two wrote and starred in it. “If you mix it up, you’re going to fail a lot!” he laughs. “But I say it’s worth it. I think on some level, you do your best things when you’re a little off-balance, a little scared. You’ve got to work from mystery, from wonder, from not knowing. I like coming in the back door somehow. I like things that creep up on you. I like performances that you don’t see, you feel.”
Then there have been the big controversies, none bigger than Martin Scorsese‘s Last Temptation of Christ. Dafoe’s Jesus was an interpretation too far for some Christian groups. The depictions of the son of God succumbing to mortal sin, and having sex with Mary Magdalene, provoked outrage in 1988. Mass protests and media denunciations scared off some American cinema chains. There were bans around the world, assaults, vandalism and even arson attacks on cinemas in France. Dafoe had no inkling the film would be so provocative. “I thought, ‘This is a world where we have slasher movies and porn movies – why are people going to get upset about this?’ Of course, that was naive. Politically, it was used as a rallying point to satisfy an agenda that had nothing to do with the movie. I remember, at the time, I was still a smoker and Martin didn’t want anyone to get a picture of ‘Jesus’ with a cigarette. I thought, ‘That’s weird.’”
It clearly didn’t scare Dafoe off. Some 30 years later, he’s still open to risky movies most actors of his calibre wouldn’t touch, like Lars von Trier‘s Antichrist – an interesting counterpart to his Last Temptation role. Antichrist didn’t shock through sacrilege so much as lurid body horror, with its scenes of genital mutilation and ejaculating blood, not to mention unsimulated sex (using body doubles). Dafoe feels there’s little left to say. “I kind of go dead in the head on this. It’s not up to me. I made the movie, I stand behind it.” He’s working with Von Trier on his next movie, which the director promises will live up to its title: Nymphomaniac.
What Dafoe would prefer to focus on are the movies that were not well received but ought to be appreciated now. He has continued to work with a strand of film-makers who still carry the torch for that new Hollywood spirit of the 1970s: Scorsese; Paul Schrader (who wrote Last Temptation and directed Dafoe in Light Sleeper and Affliction); Abel Ferrara; William Friedkin; and (in his earlier, edgier years) Oliver Stone. Like the Tasmanian tiger, this breed of dark, downbeat, soul-searchers is in danger of extinction. Dafoe bemoans the takeover of the studio system by money people rather than movie people, and the corporate mentality for its lack of respect for auteurs pushing at boundaries. “It’s always been a business,” he says. “But before, there was always a sense of research and development. There was a culture. Now it’s just led by the bottom line.”
But hasn’t Dafoe been happy to take the corporate shilling, too, with movies like Spider-Man, Speed 2 and John Carter? Aren’t those part of the problem? For the first time, he’s at a loss for words. “Maybe, maybe. No, er, I don’t think … hmmm.” He pauses. “I don’t know. I’m not getting on a high horse, I’m just noticing something. It’s not very film-maker-friendly out there. For pleasure and survival, I have to mix it up. It’s no fun for an actor to keep repeating what you did before. It’s always changing. I’m changing. The target keeps moving. That’s the beauty of it.”
• The Hunter is on general release from tomorrow.
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