Oscar Nominee Willem Dafoe Looks Back On His Avant Garde Roots And His Hollywood Career

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Actor Willem Dafoe travels and works abroad for most of the year, but he considers New York one of his two home bases (the other one being Rome), ever since he first arrived on the scene in 1976.

He was a founding member of the experimental-theater company The Wooster Group, which he stayed with for more than 25 years, becoming romantically involved with director Elizabeth LeCompte. The two went their separate ways in the early 2000s, and Dafoe left the company. “I could get sentimental but I also coldly recognize that those were my formative years and the people that I worked with, particularly Liz LeCompte, really shaped me,” says Dafoe, now 62.

He has worked steadily in both theater and film ever since, and is nominated this year for a best supporting Oscar for his turn as a low-budget motel manager in Sean Baker’s A24-released film “The Florida Project.” Last week, the Berlin International Film Festival also announced Dafoe would receive the Honorary Golden Bear for lifetime achievement.

“I’m quite proud and quite flattered because it’s a very pure festival in a lot of ways, and I’ve seen many great films there,” Dafoe says.

The actor spoke with MarketWatch about his start in theater, being attracted to playing “the other,” and juggling indies with blockbuster films. An edited transcript.

Is there a space in New York that was one of your introductions to acting?

When I came to New York, I fully intended to be a commercial theater actor but I found myself going downtown to places like The Kitchen or Collective for Living Cinema. Needing those people, [being] turned on by those people. Really, when I went to the Wooster Group and I saw the work there, I was sold. I just hung around there and insinuated myself into the fabric of the company because what they were doing excited me.

“To go toward something that you are not, and then become it. That transformation, that shift in understanding, that shift of impulse is what’s beautiful about performing.”
Willem Dafoe

Do you still get to catch a show there from time to time?

I haven’t because I’m not in New York that much. I’m still doing theater, but not with them. I was life-partnered with the director, Elizabeth LeCompte, for many years. And when we had a split personally, I thought we could continue to work together but it became too difficult. So, I wouldn’t say I’m estranged but it’s not like I’m down there a lot. I haven’t seen the work because I don’t want to disrupt anything, and also the company has changed quite a bit. When I started, I was the youngest one in the company. By the time I left, with the exception of Liz, I was the oldest one. So it’s changed a lot.

Is New York theater as experimental as it was back then?

When I came to the city there were a lot of groups that were really scruffy, artists that wanted to make work that would find factory spaces and convert them into performance spaces. It was a very exciting time. I think those days are over, partly thanks to real estate. That world still exists but it’s gotten more sophisticated. I started seeing even when I was at the Wooster Group, there would be people coming to intern with us that actually studied the Wooster Group in school. We used to do theater pieces and work that we thought was going to be the last thing that we were going to do. We didn’t think of ourselves as an institution or a company. But with time, the ones that did survive have become companies and institutions. I think people study them and there’s this sense that you can have a career in the avant-garde.

It kind of parallels what happened to the art world. You know, when I came to the city, SAMO, or Basquiat, was doing stuff on the street. All that stuff got, I don’t know if the word is “commodified,” and it became a business. I’m not crying that it’s a bad development, it’s just a naturalization of form. Whether there are scruffy little groups still, I’m sure there are but I don’t know them.

Was filming “The Florida Project” similar to working in the Wooster Group?

Yes, for several reasons. Your resources are very limited. You’re filming real things with things that you’re inventing. You’re also working with a wide range of experience and people. The cast is intergenerational. You’ve got people that have never performed next to people that have been performing for many years. You have people that are really living the life of the story we’re talking about and they’re participating in the production. So there’s almost a neorealist approach and there are parallels to what we did in the Wooster Group.

“The Florida Project” shows restraint and much of the story is told silently. Was that refreshing for you?

Very, because we’re not selling anything. We’re letting a story happen. [Director Sean Baker] is trusting the place, the people and the situation to make the story. Keep in mind, he had a very strong script, and the script was beautiful. But the filming process was doing those scenes, but it was also inviting accidents to happen and for those silent moments to happen. Volumes can be spoken without words.

You just wrapped “At Eternity’s Gate,” playing Vincent Van Gogh, set in France. Does it suit you to work in Europe?

I like working in Hollywood, but I also I find a lot of opportunities in independent film, and in films outside of this country. Also, I think it’s worth saying that even American films that I make are often made outside of the country. I’m always interested in stories that aren’t bound culturally, that aren’t specifically designed for a certain culture. The thing I love to try to do as an actor is get down to what the bottom line is. I love films that you don’t have to have any other reference than to just watch them. I always think of the first time I saw a Satyajit Ray movie, what a mind-blowing experience that is, and how much projection and how deeply empathetically I can go with the characters because I know nothing about them. It’s a world that I don’t know. There’s always an element of adventure, an element of the other, and the element of the foreign that attracts me. So much of making things is going toward something that you don’t know, and approaching it and finding out what your relationship is to it. To go toward something that you are not, and then become it. That transformation, that shift in understanding, that shift of impulse is what’s beautiful about performing.

Your career balances indies with blockbusters like “Aquaman” and “Justice League.” How do the projects differ to you?

It’s all performing, it’s all pretending, it’s all making things. With each experience of doing a film, you have to identify what you’re doing and what the job is. You don’t have to articulate absolutely, but you’ve got to recognize how you fit into the community. If a film set is a community, you have to know what your function is. Your function, your intention, and where it fits in the culture and what the intention of the movie is, is always different. So that’s partly why I like to mix it up, so you don’t get stuck. So you challenge your own beliefs. If you keep on changing your function, I found you’re more in movement and you’re more flexible. I think flexibility is everything for a performer. It’s not just about doing a range of things, it’s about the ability to react in an intuitive way that’s not a conditioned response.

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Source : https://www.marketwatch.com/story/oscar-nominee-willem-dafoe-looks-back-on-his-avant-garde-roots-and-his-hollywood-career-2018-02-12

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