March 2, 2024

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After Four Decades Of Acting, Willem Dafoe Is Still Trying To ‘Mix It Up’

Whether he’s portraying the supervillain Green Goblin in Marvel’s Spiderman or embodying Magic Castle manager Bobby Hicks in the indie-drama The Florida Project, actor Willem Dafoe knows how to transform and disappear into character.

In his latest film, Poor Things, a science fantasy directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, Dafoe disappears into the role of Godwin Baxter, an eccentric scientist.

Dafoe, who just received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, joined Larry Mantle on LAist’s daily news program AirTalk to discuss his new film, what drew him to the part, and how he continues to seek roles that challenge him.

The complete world of ‘Poor Things’

Two people sit on a rooftop

Emma Stone and Mark Ruffalo on the set of “Poor Things.”

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Atsushi Nishijima

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Courtesy Searchlight Pictures

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When director Yorgos Lanthimos and Emma Stone called Dafoe asking him to play Dr. Godwin Baxter in Poor Things, his answer was simply: Yes.

“I know both of their work, so the idea that they pitched and the fact that they’d be involved was enough to make me sign on,” Dafoe said.

They wanted him to play mad scientist Godwin Baxter, who reanimates a woman named Bella, played by Stone, following her suicide. Based on the 1992 novel of the same name by Alasdair Gray, the story takes place in Victorian era London and the plot is a very loose take on Frankenstein.

Dafoe remembered how few rehearsals the cast did before submerging themselves in the world that he said Lanthimos so immaculately crafted.

“When I arrived on the set, we did some rehearsal, but that was principally not to understand the psychologically or stage the scenes, but to create a company, which Yorgos is very good at,” Dafoe said. “So, it was a period of us just getting to know each other. And then when we entered that world, we were ready to swing with it.”

a blurry scene of an operating room where a man performs a surgery

(From L-R): Ramy Youssef, Emma Stone, Vicki Pepperdine and Willem Dafoe in “Poor Things.”

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Atsushi Nishijima

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Courtesy Searchlight Pictures

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A ‘sense of wonder’ is key

“Poor Things” is another example of the range of films Dafoe is drawn to, having appeared in both big budget flicks and small indie ones over his four decades as an actor. He said at this point in his career, he’s able to to choose his projects and in these choices, he’s always looking for variety. He said it keeps him from “getting stuck.”

“Everyone’s different, but for me, that’s the only way I can tap into a certain sense of wonder. So I have to mix it up,” he said. “But having said that, nothing is totally in my control. Things comes to me and I go to things. It’s a mix of what is available.”

Dafoe added that staying fluid and open with his choices has allowed him to defy being typecast or falling into a fixed identity as an actor.

“Everyone’s different but for me that’s the only way I can tap into a certain sense of wonder.”

— Willem Dafoe

Becoming Dr. Godwin Baxter

Dafoe knows the power and influence of a director and prefers to work with those who have a strong vision, like Yorgos Lanthimos, who is known for his command of visuals and unsettling our sense of normalcy.

Two men and a woman stand in a park with leaves everywhere

(From L-R:) Margaret Qualley, Willem Dafoe and Ramy Youssef in “Poor Things.”

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Yorgos Lanthimos

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Courtesy Searchlight Pictures

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“I like this notion that [directors] see something, and maybe it’s not my vision, but I go towards it. In the going towards it, it frees me from myself and allows me to take on a different way of thinking and different ambitions.”

By exposing himself to all kinds of creative vision, Dafoe said he is able to avoid the habits and go-to methods that so many other actors may resort to.

“It’s beautiful to find these situations where you can exercise different kinds of thinking. That’s one of the beauties of being an actor, is you can imagine another world; another way of being. I think that makes you more alive and more useful to other people as well.”

Playing Dr. Godwin Baxter, a disfigured scientist, required hours of make-up prep each day.

“The beautiful thing is you see yourself slowly recede and you see something else come forward,” he said. “That becomes a beautiful opportunity to quite literally be transformed.”

Two men and a woman stand in front of a sign that says POOR THINGS

LONDON, ENGLAND – DECEMBER 14: (L-R) Mark Ruffalo, Emma Stone and Willem Dafoe attend the UK Gala Screening of Searchlight Pictures’ ‘Poor Things’ at the Barbican Centre in London, on December 14, 2023.

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Eamonn M. McCormack

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Courtesy Getty Images Europe

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Dafoe recalled his character’s house, which was filled with books. In between takes, he said he would go over to the bookshelf and select a book at random. Inside would be actual surgical diagrams, many of them historically accurate to the time period of the story.

“The beautiful thing is you see yourself slowly recede and you see something else come forward.

— Willem Dafoe

The sets were all physically built in exceptionally large sound stages in Hungary. They stretched from wall to wall and ceiling to floor, recreating the narrow streets of Lisbon, Portugal and decadent mansion of Dafoe’s character. Acting in the physical space allowed Dafoe to learn from the world around him.

“There’s such detail that you just wander around and it tells you what to do because it defines the world. Just like life,” he said.

A man sits slouched back in a chair

Willem Dafoe in “Poor Things.”

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Yorgos Lanthimos

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Courtesy Searchlight Pictures

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Poor Things is in movie theaters now.

Listen to the full Willem Dafoe interview

Larry Mantle Interviews Actor Willem Dafoe About His New Film ‘Poor Things’

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