[Interview] Willem Dafoe finds a distinct rhythm in ‘MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN’ & his career

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Courtney Howard // Film Critic

Willem Dafoe is one of the most compelling actors working today. His egoless performances takes audiences to transcendent places, whether that be with him maniacally laughing in a green getup on a hover board above fictitious city streets, or, more simply, compassionately enforcing rules at a Floridian motel located in the shadow of Disneyland. This year, the affable actor shows off his dynamic range in director Abel Ferrara’s TOMMASO, director Robert Eggers’ THE LIGHTHOUSE and, now, in director Edward Norton’s MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN.

In this noir-tinged detective tale, Dafoe plays “Paul,” a determined man whose brash behavior doesn’t rub the figures in power in 1950’s New York City in any of the right ways. However, it’s always clear that this bearded gentleman is fighting for what’s right and honorable, even though his appearance in a full beard, large heavy coats and erratic moods may not immediately present themselves as such.

At the recent press day, I spoke with Dafoe over the phone about what stirred his interest with this character, if he ad-libbed a line from FIGHT CLUB to playfully throw screen partner Norton, and how he approaches the acting process.

What resonated with you when reading this script?

“Even before the script. Edward comes to me with the idea and presents me, in a very passionate way, “I really need you to do this.” I respond to that. I read the script and I’ve got these speeches. This character is very interesting because when you first see him, he appears to be very different than he seems – that’s a theme in the movie. He’s a whistleblower but also flawed, because, somewhere in him, he still holds out the possibility he’ll get some form of reconciliation with his brother and he still has his ambitions. He’s not totally clean – he’s humanly flawed. I like that.

I also liked the whole Moses Randolph subplot. Even though Edward says it’s a composite figure, it clearly has a lot to do with Robert Moses, and I’ve always been fascinated by the power and what he did and his impact on this city. All those things were in the mix. Shooting in New York. God bless Jonathan Lethem, who lets him take this character, totally lift him out of his novel and put him in a different time period and add this whole other story. My character is not even in the book.

So all that. Not business as usual. I’m always attracted to that.”

As you said, Paul’s dealing with these multi-layered frustrations and knows a lot more than he lets on. I’m curious if there a trick to modulating that in your performance? You never go too broad with that.

“Thank you for that, but I never think of size – about broad, or whatever. I only have to convey what my character has to convey to the other character. Beyond that, I want people to like it. I want the film to resonate with people. I want them to enjoy it. But I really can’t think about the audience otherwise I’m dead in the water. Then I’m out of the scene. I’m thinking about the results. I’m thinking about affect – and you don’t want to do that. You try to keep them balanced. Those speeches are so well-written and when you’re driving those speeches, you’re in an emotional state. My concentration was really on that. Being clear and persuasive with those texts, which may be unusual. But that was my first point of contact.”

Edward Norton and Willem Dafoe in MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN. Courtesy of Warner Brothers Pictures.

Is there an ease to working with someone, who also has the same tools as you as an actor, but who’s also the director and writer?

I think so. It makes things very fluid. It’s one stop shopping. If you have a question, you go to Edward and he happens to be right across from you in the scene. There are no trust issues. Everyone is there for Edward. The story, the vision of the movie, is all in one head and it radiates out with the help of people that have known Edward for a long time and really understand what he’s trying to do. Here it was all very together. One thing that’s very consistent is he hired a lot of theater actors and a lot of people who are self-starters. People had to show up and fold in. That was beautiful to watch. Everybody came and they inhabited that world. There wasn’t a lot of resistance or confusion. I think that stems from that it was Edward at the helm.

You have the line about how people are “Calm as Hindu cows…”

Yeah (laughs).

Which is also a line from FIGHT CLUB. Did you slip that in or was that scripted?

No (laughs). Everything was scripted. I don’t think I ad-libbed one single line, to tell you the truth. The writing is all there and you had to drive it. Every scene, I was always on time pressure because I never knew when people were going to turn away. It was an interesting challenge because my natural rhythms aren’t slow, but they aren’t fast. They’re more reactive than aggressive in this character. I really clung to that dialogue and really that was my story.

I love that you have that rhythm prepared and you work that into what’s there. Let’s get into that a little more.

“You know, it’s just practical, but it’s also a little about the performance styles of the past when people spoke very fast and things were very written. You spilled. When you had a speech to tell, you just rattled it off. There were no moments of reflection. It’s a style. Intuitively, there’s a lot of story here. There’s a lot of characters. It’s an urban rhythm and everything’s on the move. I knew this had to be fast.

As an actor, do you like role that allow you to get loose with the material and be experimental, or do you like set boundaries?

“I like both. What’s funny is they can both exist at the same time. Sometimes when you’re inside a great structure, you feel great experimentation. Sometimes in great experimentations, you find your way to structure. While that may sound like double talk – it’s neither one simply or the other. When you’re performing, you don’t make those decisions. Sometimes I’ll go from a movie like TOMMASO with Abel Ferrara, where I’m improvising everything from a scenario, speaking in Italian and in English, and I’ll go from that to something like THE LIGHTHOUSE where cinema language is very strong and we know what the frame is, we know what the visual language is, and we have to submit to that. In that, I feel great freedom in that case. In the case of TOMMASO with the looseness, I would just naturally, so you wouldn’t be splatting everywhere, you go towards structure. So much of performing is balancing those two things.

I’m not sure you’ll be able to answer this since you strike me as humble, but you are one of the very few actors who can play it all, from villains, to saints. I assume there’s a key to unlocking this skill? Is there a commonality that you try to tap into each time you play a character?

“Thank you. I try to be humble. Who knows if I really am. The only thing is, when you say that, I think I’m a true believe that all characters exist inside of us and it’s really the circumstance that lets them come out. When you give yourself to the experience and you learn something, there’s some sort of shift. It opens you up to a different part of yourself – a part you didn’t necessarily know. I think I’m interested in that.

Of course, there’s the conventional wisdom that you don’t make the distinctions between characters. You know what your function is in this movie, but you’re this character’s representative. You don’t want to give a lopsided performance, or telegraph, or judge him. You want to be able to see him as a human being, because then we can challenge our thinking better if you get a more complex character with different sides to them. When you’re playing a villain, you find where he’s a nice guy. When you’re playing a nice guy, you try to find out where he’s flawed. You try to find your range.

MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN opens on November 1.

About author

Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.