Cannes 2019: an interview with Willem Dafoe

One of the people who most caught our (and everyone else’s) eye in Cannes was Willem Dafoe, who presented two highly praised films on the Croisette: Abel Ferrara’s Tommaso, which screened in the Official Selection of the festival, and Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse, which blew up the Directors’ Fortnight. After Dafoe’s highly successful festival, Cédric Succivalli talked with him about both films, their directors, and working with his Lighthouse co-star Robert Pattinson.

CS: With Tommaso in the Official Selection and The Lighthouse at Directors’ Fortnight, you gave us two instantly iconic performances and I’d go as far as to say you were the face of Cannes 2019. How was your personal experience of that (stellar) Cannes edition and what stuck with you most?
WD: It was gratifying to be presenting two very different roles in two very different films. The reception to The Lighthouse was very strong and was the Cannes debut of a very important young director – and also the response to Ferrara’s Tommaso was very positive and generally thoughtful.

CS: After playing Pier Paolo Pasolini for Abel Ferrara, you went even further this time round by playing Ferrara himself for… Ferrara. This is one of the most touching and intimate films I’ve ever seen about a (self) portrait of a filmmaker. How did you approach such personal territory with Abel Ferrara?
WD: I didn’t see it as playing Abel. I didn’t do an imitation or representation of his or my idea of him, but we did make a character that certainly has much of what we both were quite familiar with.

CS: Ferrara’s own partner and daughter play their own role in the film. Ferrara and yourself both live in Rome and the film was shot in Abel’s own flat. What was the line between reality and fiction for you as an actor there?
WD: Abel had certain fantasies, obsessions and thoughts that he wanted to explore through this story – essentially like anytime you make any movie. He made a scenario. For some scenes, dialogue was written but the majority was improvised and we created while the camera was rolling. It was a very modest homemade production so the idea of shooting in his apartment, with his family, with many non-actors, in places with people from the neighborhood were practical choices for the fluidity, economy, and velocity of how he wanted to shoot this film. I wonder what the difference is for an audience that sees this film and knows certain biographical facts of Abel’s life and those that don’t. It is a film and it was created as a fiction.

CS: The questions of addiction (a title of one of my favorite films by Ferrara!) and withdrawal are at the core of this auto-fiction. In the AA heart-rending sessions were the attendees actors or real participants, because those scenes felt so lived-in?
WD: I’m glad those scenes touched you – but it really shouldn’t matter whether we know those are actors or people from a real AA meeting. Out of respect of the people in the scene I leave your question unanswered.

CS: Your Thomas Wake in The Lighthouse is a memorable performance of a somewhat larger-than-life character. Where did you draw your inspiration for him from? He reminded me a bit of Bobby Peru from David Lynch’s Wild at Heart in how they both get under the skin of other people. What was his base?
WD: The similarities between Wake and Peru are – for both characters – I had quite a large performing “mask”. They both had strong physical looks, very particular costumes, teeth prosthetics, accents – and as you say they were larger than life. I guess both characters already existed in my imagination, and when I put on all their external defining traits it triggered my imagination. I didn’t look like myself, I didn’t physically sound or feel like myself, so that makes the way to invite different behaviors and thoughts that can be the character’s. It’s a perfect case of an external transformation creating an interior new life that doesn’t come from calculation but is more intuitive and playful. Also, both films had beautifully written, poetically slangy dialogue.

CS: Can you tell something about the collaboration with Robert Pattinson? In an interview with Variety you mentioned your different approaches, and that director Robert Eggers “liked the tension.” Is that sort of tension something you are consciously aware of when you do scenes together?
WD: Our approaches are different. Rob Pattinson didn’t like rehearsing. I don’t require it but I’m okay rehearsing. I think he felt that the impulse is blunted by repetition or planning. But for me, if you rehearse and create a structure, language and intention for the performance, you are more flexible when you arrive to shoot and are ready to do anything, since ironically, you have already done it. For me if you already have a score, i.e. the notes in music, the steps in a dance, you are more free to live and respond to what is happening in the moment and even ultimately abandon the score. Performing for me is always finding the balance between letting go and control.
It was a physically tough shoot so we didn’t sit around making small talk. We played the scenes and differences in our approaches mirrored the characters’ differences so there was no need for us to have a uniform approach between us. I often find that each film needs a different process and kind of performance. There is no normal or “go to” method for me.

CS: You were reportedly a fan of Robert Eggers’ debut feature The Witch, and you were also attached to another project with him that fell through. What attracts you in his work?
WD: His precision. His intelligence. His obsession. He makes a genre film into art.

CS: In an interview with IndieWire, you said The Lighthouse is ‘less Friday the 13th and more Tarkovsky’. Can you expand a bit more on what Tarkovskian aspects you see in the film? Do you see similarities in imagery, in thematics, or in both?
WD: The original quote was actually, ”… more Tarkovsky or Bergman”… for some reason they decided to cut Bergman out of the quote. My point was simply that it’s not a jump out of your seat scare show – it’s subtler, funnier without being kitschy, and more poetic than most horror films. It’s a slow burn rather than a bonfire.

CS: If you had to describe the film in one or a few words, what would it be? Is it simply ‘horror’, or is it something else?
WD: In a few words… I can’t. That’s what they have PR people for.

CS: Outside your own films, did you see anything else in Cannes? Perhaps something that piqued your interest in a collaboration?
WD: Unfortunately, with two films I was busy doing press and saw nothing else. But I love seeing films in Cannes. To see a film in its first screening is to see it purely.

Willem Dafoe (Tommaso, The Lighthouse)