Willem Dafoe was born in an industrial town of 60,000 in Wisconsin. He came to New York to work with Richard Schechner’s Performance Group where he met Elizabeth LeCompte. LeCompte became director of the controversial The Wooster Group, which grew from the ashes of Schechner’s company, and Dafoe stayed on as a pivotal force in the new collective.
Dafoe began a screen career in 1983, starring as the jaded and taciturn ’50s biker in "The Loveless." He picked up roles in "The Hunger" and Walter Hill’s "Streets of Fire" and critics applauded his performance in William Friedkin’s "To Live and Die in LA." His role as Sergeant Elias in "Platoon" threw him into the spotlight.
Willem Dafoe has always been with us. Or at least it seems that way: his is a talent straight out of the pantheon of great acting, without anything so normal as 'early years.' But as this interview shows, Dafoe was at one point a young stage actor full of promise and intensity. The promise has been more than fulfilled; the intensity, magnified.
He joined The Wooster Group for "Point Judith" that opened December 28th of 1979 and then performed in more of their productions throughout the 80's. Dafoe was in the retrospective "The Road to Immortality," at the time of this interview with Louis Morra in 1986, only two days after opening night, and just as reviews of "Platoon" were hitting the stands.
While The Wooster Group remains very important to you, you’re becoming established as a film actor. Can you juggle that?
Willem Dafoe: You’ve got to remember, I’ve been with The Wooster Group practically ten years, and before that I worked with a company who also developed their own work, Theatre X. The Wooster Group is very much my life and that’s what roots me and challenges me. When you think about how you go off and make a movie, it only takes three months. Even if you start to stack up movies, which I think can really get dangerous: it always makes me nervous when I see people do lots of movies back-to-back. I think that they need breathing time.
So, I guess most of all The Wooster Group is what I feel rooted in. I think it’s very important. It’s hard, but it gives me pleasure and they are my friends.
Somebody will come up and say, 'Hey, you still working with that group? Oh yeah, that’s great. Keep your chops up. Keep the instrument lobed.' That’s not it. The Wooster Group came first and that’s my life. I love to do movies, I want to make more, but why stop The Wooster Group as long as I can keep having my life too. Although it can get very schizophrenic socially, there is that joke about how at one moment you’re walking down the street and people are fussing all over you, and a second later you’re sweeping the floors at the Performing Garage.
It’s schizophrenic but there’s also a lot of pleasure in that. I think the Hollywood thing can present its own problems. If you aren’t rooted your work won’t be as good and you’re liable to get fucked up too. It’s good to have something else, a life outside of Hollywood. And that’s the bulk of my creative life. Also, they link up. We’re starting to do more film work here. We’re looking to make films. They’ll eventually meet each other, I think.
One thing you said about acting which I picked up from the recent Drama Review interview: "The more I perform, the more my relationship to the audience becomes totally abstract. Spalding Gray loves an audience. He really feels them out there. I don’t. It’s a totally internal thing." Do you enter into a self-sufficient stage reality?
It has something to do with call and response. I get very ashamed when I feel needy as an actor. Needy for a certain kind of response, particularly for comic stuff. If you do a bit, the laugh comes or it doesn’t. If you get too wrapped up in that, you start to do everything with a certain kind of anticipation, with a certain kind of need. It’s different for everyone but for me that tends to cut down on my strength. I don’t feel as direct. The noises that come from the audiences become abstract. I only do something as well as it feels to me at a particular moment. Ideally, I mean, I’m speaking philosophically. If I’m doing gags, semi-gags like last night in the blind blackface routine smoking the cigarette, I am aware that if I light the cigarette in the middle, that’s supposed to be funny and no one responds, something didn’t happen. But I can’t get wrapped up in that kind of interchange with the audience. The way these pieces are made, somehow they could run on their own.
I also think that kind of expectation affects how you perform and how you view the work. I’m like anyone else, I want people to like it. I want people to like me. But I just don’t function well if I feel like I’m failing, so I try to cut that out of the game. I try to say this thing is going to run with or without them.
How do you approach a film role, for instance Sgt. Elias in "Platoon"? There you’re creating your performance in a context and situation that is considerably different from the theatre one.
Platoon was unique as film work, because of the intensive field training program we all went through before filming. Whenever you talk to actors and they’ve done special preparation, whether it’s putting on lots of weight or hanging out with junkies or being a junkie, they go on and on about it. It makes good copy for People magazine and all that. And people like to hear it. But inevitably it gets self-satisfying and precious. In the case of Platoon, the training was very important to the making of the film, so it is worthwhile to talk about.
First of all, it was jungle training. It wasn’t boot camp with lots of push-ups. It was serious, getting no sleep; doing activities at night where you were attacked by real people. Certainly you weren’t going to die, but you did know exhaustion and confusion. And often you were, probably like the soldiers in Vietnam, required to do things that you weren’t confident of doing. There were always little tests of character and courage. In little ways. Generally, it was very physically grueling and really scrambled your brains.
It was important in the film in that it really set the tone. Oliver Stone had this script, it’s autobiographical. Somewhere, it’s his story. We also had Marine advisors who were Vietnam Vets. It was their story somewhere, too. And I think the training was important as an initiation to give us the authority to help them tell their story.
It’s so touchy when you try to speak about Vietnam. There’s no way you can approach the honor or express a truth to an experience you haven’t had. People did die and other people’s lives were ruined by it. So to say, 'This is a Vietnam movie,' sets up a weird kind of responsibility for an actor. Somewhere you want to be in good faith, that’s all. And I think that set the tone and we worked hard. We’re not Vietnam Vets. The interesting thing was, a lot of these guys, including myself, were too young, probably just like the guys in Vietnam, we had no personal political stance on it. We were just making this movie.
It was unlike most Hollywood films. Certainly by Hollywood standards it was low budget—six million dollars, shot in the Phillipines. Rather than going in the morning and getting in your trailer and waiting around until someone raps on your door, you’d get there, you’d draw your gear, your ruck full of 60 pounds of stuff, your filthy fatigues, your weapon, and all that and you’d lay around in the jungle all day until you were needed. There was a lot of comradeship, kind of mirroring army buddydom. A lot of boredom. A lot of guys described Vietnam as being 99 percent pure boredom and one percent sheer terror.
We made a movie, it may not have anything to do with Vietnam. I mean of course it does, but as you’re doing it, you’re making a movie and the training was important because it gave us a relationship to soldiering. That’s all. We weren’t going to die, but it was very important to survive. Captain Dye, our advisor, former editor of Soldier of Fortune, is a serious warrior. It was important somehow, given this exercise, to get his respect. So we worked very hard. It mostly hung on soldiering. As best we could, we tried to get it right. We tried to be true to the slang, carrying our weapons right, doing stuff practically, authentically.
It was practical in the respect that rather than having all these technical advisors buzzing around you saying, “You’re holding your weapon wrong,” you simply had to use it. By the time you got through the training and through the film, you had a relationship to the weapon. It wasn’t going to kill people, but you felt comfortable with it. So someone would say, “Elias, get upon that ridge with your squad,” rather than saying, “Kevin, Corey, Willem, put your rucksacks on and . . .” It was never precious, it was practical. It wasn’t like a “getting into the character” thing. I think the training was supposed to say this is serious, it isn’t going to be easy to shoot this. And it wasn’t. The jungle is one big stink hole full of snakes and rain. It’s miserable.
I was surprised when you first told me that you were playing the good guy. How do you relate to the question of breaking type? Does it feel different?
It doesn’t feel different. It’s nice to scramble expectations. I think that’s the important thing. Maybe because internally, they don’t feel that different to me.
I realize at the onset it seems like a major role change, but internally it doesn’t feel like that. It’s important that people don’t just see your face and flash that they know what’s going to happen. It gives you more room, more possibility. If you only play a particular kind of role, it can give you a kind of mythic strength if you’re the best bad guy in town. You go through all these films and, oooh, it’s thrilling to see the bad guy do his bad shit. In everything you do, you’re coming up against these very clear expectations. I think you’d get into this bogeyman game of trying to make consciously or unconsciously interesting choices against that. So you’d always be reacting to that expectation that you’re going to be bad.
I guess what it comes down to, career-wise, about changing roles, is that I want people to come to the theatre to see me, not to see the bad guy. Not to see that guy that plays the bad guy. And I want to do a lot of different things. People didn’t let me do certain things because I had some success playing evil characters. Platoon has changed that. More is available, more possibilities now exist.