Legendary Actor Willem Dafoe

The iconic actor reflects on his career and latest role to receive Oscar buzz as Bobby in The Florida Project.

Willem Dafoe was born in Appleton, Wisconsin and his first feature role came in Kathryn Bigelow's 1981 film The Loveless. Since then, he’s performed in more than 80 films, most notably as the Green Goblin supervillain in Super-Man, the title character in The Last Temptation of Christ, and his Oscar-nominated roles in Platoon and Shadow of the Vampire. Dafoe is one of the founding members of The Wooster Group, the New York-based experimental theatre collective.

His latest film is The Florida Project.


Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.

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Tavis: So pleased to have Willem Dafoe back on this program. The Appleton, Wisconsin native is best known for “Spiderman”, “The Last Temptation of Christ” and, of course, his Oscar-nominated roles in “Platoon” and “Shadow of the Vampire”.

He’s getting high praise and lots of Oscar buzz — hate to embarrass him — for his role as Bobby in a project called “The Florida Project”. Before our conversation, here now a clip from the film.


Tavis: Why is this called “The Florida Project”?

Willem Dafoe: “The Florida Project” was the name when Walt Disney was buying up land around the Kissimmee area in Central Florida for Disneyworld. That was kind of the code name for the project. This story takes place in that area very close to Disneyworld.

The setting is a Budget tourist motel where a lot of the residents are long-term temporary residents. They’re basically people that don’t have a home and they’re living at this Budget motel kind of week by week.

Tavis: When I got a chance to look at this, it’s fascinating for me, and I think it will be for filmgoers, film lovers as well. It’s really not an uncommon story. It really is the story of America as I think about it, Willem, the things that happen in the shadows of the things that we focus on.

So to your point, Disneyworld is the focus. But all this other stuff just in the shadows, just in that perimeter, there are stories like this that we would never know.

Dafoe: It’s true. I wasn’t aware of this world that existed. Actually, in this movie, the world is that world and Disney’s in the shadow.

Tavis: Yeah, I got it.

Dafoe: Yeah. I mean, you know, the story doesn’t point fingers specifically at Disney. It’s just that that’s a place that entertainment industry has grown up around. It’s the happiest place in the world. It’s billed as that. It’s a place for people to, you know, be amused and have fun and enjoy themselves, but in the shadow of that is this place where people really struggle to make ends meet.

Tavis: Tell me more about Bobby, the character you play.

Dafoe: I play the manager of the motel. He lives there. He’s like these people. He’s just about a paycheck ahead of him because he could be them, but he’s an interesting character because, let’s say, he’s not an extraordinary person. I mean, he doesn’t have extraordinary gifts. But he wears a lot of hats and he keeps this motel going and he’s got to deal with a lot of problems.

He’s an authority figure because he’s got to collect the rent and people have trouble making rent. He’s got to cut them some slack, he doesn’t want to kick them out. He’s always very conflicted. He’s got to deal with these kids that, you know, he loves, but they’re also a pain. They get in his way. He’s got a lots of challenges, so it’s a nice character.

Tavis: I find myself wondering what it was about Bobby’s back story that allowed him, that caused him, to be in this particular predicament.

Dafoe: Well, he’s got a job. It’s not really a predicament. I mean, you know, one of the things when I did research for this and I met some guys that do this kind of job, the one thing that was kind of surprising and struck me is they’re very proud of their work. This community is like a little microcosm of a world, you know, and he tries to make do the best he can with the kind of bad situation.

Somewhere deeply, he understands that for him to be happy, they got to be happy. He’s a pretty compassionate guy. But at the same time, he’s the order. He’s the structure. He’s got to keep things going.

Tavis: I’m fascinated, Willem, when you say you did research on this, which doesn’t surprise me, obviously, and found people who do this for a living and you say they took such pride in their work. Clearly, there is dignity in all work. I believe that.

There’s dignity in all work, but specifically given what they’re up against and all the hurdles they have to jump through and over and what you’ve just described and what we see Bobby having to endure in this assignment, what was it specifically that you discovered that they take such pride in?

Dafoe: Making it better, making a bad situation better, contributing, helping people. Because they start to identify with people. They become like an extended family. I don’t want to get too sweet about it because, probably in his job, he has to kick people out sometimes. He’s got to be hard.

Tavis: Tell me about this family and about these kids.

Dafoe: Well, the kids, we see much of the movie through their eyes. The kids are on summer vacation. A lot of them have single parents. The parents are having a hard time. Some of them have work, some of them work two jobs, some of them have no work. They got to figure out ways to make ends meet and it’s not always the most legal or easy ways to make ends meet.

These kids are running around. They know nothing different. They’re kind of wild. We see the Florida landscape through them. We see that milieu, that motel milieu through them. The relationships are interesting because, for example, the central character, this character, Moonie, the six-year-old girl.

Tavis: The little girl, yeah, sure.

Dafoe: She has a relationship with her mother that is almost sisterly because she’s a young mother. Her mother isn’t — you saw in the clip. She’s not the perfect mother. She doesn’t take it from anyone and she’s in a precarious place because she doesn’t have any training. She doesn’t have a job. She’s struggling to make ends meet. They’re all living in this one room.

It’s really about a cycle of being in this precarious position of having no stability. And with no stability, what happens, of course, is the kids develop in a different way. You know, they fall behind in school, they’re by themselves a lot, they’re unsupervised.

There’s a sweet part to that. There’s a sweet anarchy and we see that and we see a kind of fun and kind of innocence, kind of a Huck Finn misadventure aspect to it. But you also see that if they don’t get the right opportunities, they’re headed kind of where the parents are, and the parents are struggling.

Tavis: I love that phrase, sweet anarchy [laugh].

Dafoe: Right?

Tavis: I don’t know if there’s such a thing, but you made me think about it. I like it, I like it, Willem, I like it. As I was looking at this, I thought about a conversation I had with Stephen Spielberg one time years ago. I’ve been thinking — I’m missing one of the things he told me. But he told me there were three things. I think I must have asked him what advice do you give to young filmmakers.

So Spielberg says to me, “There are three things I tell them not to do. Do not do your first film with kids, with water...” And the third one I’m blanking on right now. Maybe it’ll come to me before the conversation’s over. But the point is that you were working with a bunch of kids in this project, and in your case…

Dafoe: And I’ve just come from a project about water [laugh]. I got a nose [laugh].

Tavis: But you’re a veteran now and you’re an Academy-nominated veteran. By the way, for you…

Dafoe: Veteran of what? Of awards [laugh]?

Tavis: For you Hollywood trivia buffs, Willem Dafoe was the only actor — I think I’m correct about this — the only actor ever nominated for an Academy for playing a vampire. That’s just one piece of trivia for those who like that kind of trivia stuff.

But I thought about you watching this, Willem, because here you are with all these kids and then I’m reading the research preparing for our conversation, stuff I didn’t know, and some of these kids haven’t done this for very long. First of all, they’re kids, but some of these kids are just getting into the acting thing. The mother, you guys kind of found on social media somewhere.

Dafoe: Social media, yeah.

Tavis: You found the mother on social media somewhere?

Dafoe: Yeah, and she’s fantastic in the movie.

Tavis: And she is. But the question is how as a veteran you found the experience of playing with these…

Dafoe: Great, great. I mean, we had so much real elements to work with. And Sean, the director, is so good with a little help from his partner who kind of coached the kids, Samantha Quan. I don’t know. They were natural. They’re cast well and, you know, sometimes, yes, you lose certain things.

Maybe you lose a certain kind of refinement — certain things can’t be refined — but you have kind of the energy and the kind of commitment and the kind of lack of self-consciousness if it’s set up right where the kids are just playing. I mean, they’re kids before they’re actors and some of them aren’t actors and don’t necessarily even aspire to be actors.

So I’m sort of dealing with the real deal and sometimes that’s preferable to a trained crafted performance. Because stuff is happening and, you know, it’s not shaped maybe, but then the director, if he’s a good director and Sean’s a very good director, is able to frame it and structure it in a way that that play can be fed into a narrative.

So the truth is, I had to fit in with them. I had to get my stink of an actor out of there. I had to become a human being [laugh]. You know what I’m saying? Because actors can develop tricks. They can develop a kind of distance with technique sometimes.

There’s a part of me that always admires the ability to come off as an non-actor, you know, to have someone — my ambition is when someone sees you on the screen — it’s not very realistic because I’ve made a lot of movies, so maybe someone’s seen me in another movie — see someone on the screen and think they’re the guy or think where’d they get that guy, you know?

I like that. I’ve always liked actors like that. Some character actors, maybe they’re highly trained, but they don’t feel like it. They feel like people first and you don’t see this big wound up performance. I like that because it lets you in in a different way. It becomes less of a show and lets things happen.

Tavis: See now, this is the sweet spot for me.

Dafoe: Okay.

Tavis: Because now we’re into your process, which I’m curious about.

Dafoe: It changes all the time.

Tavis: It does?

Dafoe: Yeah, yeah. Depending on what your job is.

Tavis: Tell me more, tell me more.

Dafoe: Just depending on what your job is. You know, sometimes how you’re positioned in the movie, what your character has to do or what your relationship is with the director. Are you the flash, are you the collaborator, are you the person that they see the movie through, do you have a transformation, do you have to deliver exposition in a tasteful way?

It’s always changing and also your relationship to the character. Sometimes it comes easy, sometimes you find the trigger and you’re there and you can pretend like that. Sometimes you really have to claim it through research and doing things that can kind of give you the authority to pretend.

It’s always different and that’s what’s fantastic about being a performer. It’s filled with so much uncertainty and, you know, there’s so many moving pieces that you never know. So what you got to do, it’s always a little bit of an adventure.

So in this, when you have all these real elements mixed with the fiction element, the real elements kind of root you in a truth and keep you honest, make you really — that story and those people, those people become us, you know? And then the fiction is something that we craft to kind of let a story come alive rather than make it, you know, a reportage.

Tavis: I’m curious because are, to me, a curious actor. When I say that, I say that respectfully. You’re a curious actor because when I see you, I don’t see a particular thing, which is a huge compliment to you. There are some actors, I see their faces and I can tell you what they play. This is what they do well. They do it in every film, they do the same thing.

So when I see you, your face, the way your chiseled face — I mean, just everything about you is just uniquely different in everything that you do, which leads me to ask how you go about choosing the stuff that you want to do, particularly at this point in your career?

Dafoe: Well, thanks for the compliment. You know, it’s a lot about people and situations. A lot of people think it’s about character or about the story. Those things shift. You don’t always know what they are. But I get around people that inspire me and I want to make something with or a situation, you know.

He says, “We’re going down to a motel that really exists. People are living there. We’re telling their story. We’ve made a story. You’re gonna be…”, you know. I’m sitting there. My dressing room is another one of these little rooms right next to the real residents. I’m seeing them. I’m getting to know them.

That’s a life adventure, and the stuff that you learn, the shift of awareness of certain things, gives you energy and also opens your mind and opens your heart, and then you can apply that to the pretending and, hopefully, make a story that kind of challenges what you take for granted.

And that’s when movies are at their best when you look and you say, “Oh, my God, I never saw it that way” or “Oh, I got to check myself on that.” I think they shake you out of a conditioned way of thinking and that’s a gift and that’s what you aspire to.

So I look for places where I smell there’s an opportunity for that. It doesn’t always happen and sometimes you want to do some things just for fun, but it’s always a mixture of things. As I hear myself, it sounds a little high-minded and a part of it is, but, you know, I want to be an entertainer. I also want to be an artist and it’s always about finding situations that you can kind of exercise both of those impulses.

Tavis: Is it true that those two things aren’t always the same?

Dafoe: Yeah, I think so, I think so [laugh]. Maybe they are.

Tavis: I ask that — you may be fascinated about this…

Dafoe: You know, same way that actors and movie stars aren’t always the same thing.

Tavis: There you go.

Dafoe: And when you were talking about that person that’s known for that thing, I know what you’re talking about. Sometimes that can be beautiful because an actor can refine their persona in such a way that they organize stories and materials around them. Still, they can be very effective…

Tavis: But the down side to that is, though, you become typecast. If you can’t break out of that, you can become typecast.

Dafoe: Yeah, but if you refine that persona, you can tell all kinds of stories and take us interesting places.

Tavis: Fair enough.

Dafoe: But that’s not my talent because I’m not interested in creating a persona myself. I’m more interested in a flexible persona because, for whatever reason, I like going to bend myself to a story. Because, you know, who I am is what I do and what I do is up for grabs [laugh].

Tavis: I’m still noodling this notion of the difference between entertainment and art, and sometimes they’re not the same thing. My mind goes back to a conversation I had. It was really a comeuppance. She sat me down and sort of spanked me, the late, great Maya Angelou.

Maya was like sort of a surrogate mother to me and we were having a conversation one time. I write about this in one of my books. She had taken a particular role and I felt that the role that she had taken in this movie was a bit beneath her, given that she was Maya Angelou.

So I said, “Can I ask you a question?” I used to call her Mother Maya. I said, “Mother Maya, can I ask you a question?” “Sure, Tavis.” She used to call me Young Tavis. “Sure, young Tavis.” I asked her, “Why did you take this particular role in this particular film. I just think that’s so sort of beneath you. Why would you do that?”

I got the lecture of my life about the difference between entertainment and art and how you have to not be so haughty or high-minded that you don’t understand the difference between the two, that you don’t accept the two, recognize that you need both in your life.

And that sometimes they’re not the same thing and sometimes they are, but if you can’t appreciate just, as you said, doing stuff for fun, just pure entertainment, if you can’t appreciate that alongside high art, then your life is going to be a little bankrupt. But she gave me the lecture of my life about the difference between those two things.

Dafoe: That’s a big lecture. Did you thank her [laugh]?

Tavis: Well, I’m not gonna say I thanked her, but [laugh] she spanked me. Whether I thanked her, I’m not so sure, but it was a lesson. And I found myself over the years sort of going back to that. So than when you made the comment about entertainment and art, you just kind of took me back there. Because they can be the same thing, but not always.

Dafoe: Yeah, yeah.

Tavis: When you were growing up in Appleton, Wisconsin, is this what you thought you would do, what you wanted to do? How did this happen for you?

Dafoe: No, because no one made a living doing this. I mean, I didn’t know anyone that was in the arts, really. You know, it’s something that I knew I enjoyed. I was a normal kid. I played sports, I got in trouble like, you know…

Tavis: Were you as bad as the kids in the motel?

Dafoe: Uh…[laugh]

Tavis: Okay [laugh].

Dafoe: I raise this kid in New York City and they think New York City kids are wild, you know. I saw how him and his kids grew up even with all the stuff around them. I thought that’s nothing to how we grew up [laugh]. It was country kids, man.

Tavis: Yeah, they can be a handful.

Dafoe: Where were we?

Tavis: We were talking about growing up in Appleton and how you got on this track to being the thespian that you are.

Dafoe: No, I just knew I liked performing. I came from a big family. I think, you know, you act up, you find your place in the tribe, you know. My thing was, you know, to be curiously enough, kind of the joker, you know. So that’s where it starts. It starts out as a social thing, you know.

It’s just fun and then, as you get older, it shifts to something else and I never thought of it as a profession for a very long time until I was doing it for a little while. And I thought, well, I guess this is what I’m supposed to do because I love it. And who knows what level I’ll work on, but I love doing it, so I kept on doing it. Now, about 40-plus years later, I guess I’m an actor [laugh].

Tavis: I guess so [laugh]. Are there roles — I thought I read a piece once where you were talking pretty candidly about certain types of roles that have alluded you over the course of your career. Did I read something like that from you one time?

Dafoe: That makes sense, sure, sure. But it’s changing because, as I get older in a funny way, I feel things opening up a little bit. I mean, there’s always a little ageism in there somewhere. But, yeah, I get offered more variety. I think when I was younger, you know, you do something. People get to see you for the first time and they say that’s your thing, kind of what you referred to before.

And I think when I first started out, there was always this nervousness about being typecast as a bad guy. Because the most attractive roles, if you weren’t conventionally handsome or charming were usually bad guys.

Those were the best roles and I played some of those. If you have some success with them, people say do it again, do it again, do it again. You become a product. You become a brand, but the very nature of what I’m interested in is against that. And a lot of actors complain about this.

Tavis: How’d you break out of that, though?

Dafoe: Well, some people would say I didn’t. You know, I think I didn’t have the rule about what kind of film I did and I tried to mix it up. I mean, through the years, I’ve worked in lots of different countries, lots of different languages, big films, small films, new directors, old directors. I mix it up, so it’s like the target is always moving. You know, catch me if you can.

You know, that’s not to say that, you know, the most distributed films and the most popular films represent the body of my work. I don’t think they do. You know, you can’t scold people for that. But for me personally from a work perspective, I’ve been able to beat that a little bit.

Tavis: Well, you’re definitely not the bad guy in this project.

Dafoe: No, no, and it’s nice because when I’m hearing that people are kind of surprised, I’m like “Really?” I’ve played nice guys before and they’re like “Really?”

Tavis: It’s the kids, man, it’s the kids [laugh]. I see you as a sort of, you know — my choice of words, obviously, maybe not yours — but I see you as you are the authority figure, as you said, but you are a loving caretaker. It comes through when you see this, that you care about these kids.

In some ways, you care about these kids even in ways that their parents don’t or can’t — I don’t know what the right word is. But you seem to really care about these kids in this motel.

Dafoe: It’s true, and that happens through playing the scenes. I wasn’t that conscious that he’d come off as a compassionate person and it’s not something that I designed, you know. It’s in the story and it’s just really about dealing with the actions.

I mean, I was surprised by that a little bit and I was concerned about because he’s not an authoritarian figure and he’s got to kind of keep order and he’s kind of square compared to these people that are a little more loose, you know. I was worried that he’d be, you know, always busting people and stuff and too heavy.

But that’s not what happens and I think maybe it’s because I did like those kids and I had to work with them. I did like those people and they became my people. Helping make the movie was challenging. It’s a low-budget movie, but if that comes through, it’s something that was pretty organic and not something that I tried to do.

It happens in the story. Sometimes if you give yourself to the story and not  worry about the effect, it’ll happen. It’ll breath and it’ll show you the way without you pushing it.

Tavis: And I think that’s the way you like it.

Dafoe: When it happens, it’s good [laugh]. Doesn’t always happen.

Tavis: As I said at the top of this conversation, there’s a lot of buzz on this. He’s been nominated a couple of times in the past. We will see what happens in the coming months, but it is a good project. It’s called “The Florida Project” starring one Willem Dafoe. I say all the time he comes on this program, I love that nickname, Willem. Name ain’t William, man, it’s Willem! Willem Dafoe!

Dafoe: Name yourself Travis, not Tavis [laugh]!

Tavis: I love it! Willem, good to see you, man. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.

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Last modified: October 9, 2017 at 2:59 pm