Dafoe finds role of a lifetime in ‘The Florida Project’

Adam Graham
The Detroit News
Willem Dafoe shines as a motel manager in “The Florida Project.”

Toronto — Willem Dafoe was drawn to “The Florida Project” because he thought there was something special about it.

“We hope that they’re all special, we really do,” says the actor, dispensing a bit of career wisdom, while seated in a hotel suite inside Toronto’s Intercontinental Hotel during September’s Toronto International Film Festival.

Dafoe has been acting for nearly 40 years and has appeared in more than 100 films, many of them special, many of them not. He’s worked with David Lynch (“Wild at Heart”), Wes Anderson (“The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou,” “The Grand Budapest Hotel”) and Lars Von Trier ( “Antichrist,” “Nymphomaniac”).

He’s been in blockbusters (“Spider-Man,” “Clear and Present Danger”), cult hits (“The Boondock Saints”) and major flops (“Speed 2: Cruise Control”). He was nominated for two Oscars — 1986’s “Platoon” and 2000’s “Shadow of the Vampire” — and he had hot wax poured on him by Madonna in “Body of Evidence.” He played Jesus in “The Last Temptation of Christ.”

With all that, Dafoe, 62, now has the role of a lifetime in “The Florida Project,” where he plays the property manager of a motel in the footprint of Walt Disney World. More than anything else, the role calls on Dafoe’s even hand and steady presence; there are no big dramatic moments or scenes he chews up with lengthy monologues. He isn’t the hero of the film, he isn’t its villain, he’s just a guy, getting by, trying to help out others as they get by.

“He’s not presented as an exceptional person,” says Dafoe, who had just seen the completed film for the first time one day earlier. “He’s probably not even a good handyman, you know what I mean?”

Willem Dafoe in “The Florida Project.”

Dafoe probably would be a pretty good handyman. He’s been one in Hollywood for decades; since he debuted in Kathryn Bigelow’s “The Loveless” in 1981 (he was fired from “Heaven’s Gate” the year prior), he has earned screen credits in all but two years. Later this year, he’ll appear in the all-star remake of “Murder on the Orient Express” (with Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Judi Dench, Daisy Ridley and more), and at the end of this interview, he’ll leave Toronto and board a plane for Australia, where he’s filming “Aquaman.”

“I’m always chasing the feeling,” says Dafoe, born William Dafoe in Appleton, Wisconsin, in summer 1955. He describes that feeling as one of being awake, of learning about the world around him, of “keeping the wonder.”

“Not in an escapist way,” he says, “but ‘keep the wonder’ in constant search of the beautiful part of life and being human, as opposed to the stuff that we get reminded of all the time ...”

There’s a knock at the door. It’s Dafoe’s “Florida Project” director Sean Baker, who enters the room wearing jeans and a T-shirt and a work bag slung across his body. Baker has just wrapped up his media interviews for the day and is saying goodbye before Dafoe heads Down Under. They hug, exchange pleasantries (“where will I see you next, Los An-gel-ees?” Dafoe asks) and they bid their farewells. The respect they share for one another is apparent.

Dafoe appreciates Baker’s kindness, which is a quality he cherishes in entertainment.

“I know when I watch movies, one of the things I’m moved by most is when I see people be kind to each other,” says Dafoe, who is often associated with his villain roles. “And not in a big dramatic way, but when out of their humanness, they make that recognition, that we are responsible for each other.”

That sense of shared responsibility and community was another draw to “Florida,” Dafoe says.

“One thing I’m generally obsessed with is how we’re losing contact with each other in this modern world,” Dafoe says. “All this technology and how we receive our information and how we vote and all those things, and we’re losing contact with each other. More and more people are depressed, more and more people are using pharmaceuticals, all these things. So it’s back to an appreciation of communication and family, and that’s all in the mix (in the movie), and you see how important that is.”

Dafoe, who recently became a grandfather, is earning Oscar buzz for the role, and is a frontrunner to nab his first trophy for “Florida Project.”

“It would be great, but it’s senseless to want it, in a certain way,” he says. “Do I think about it? Yeah, because if someone brings it up, I have enough of an imagination that I’m there. Would it be validation? A kind of validation, but not absolute validation, and there’s a big difference.

“Is it a good thing? Yes, because it lets people know you’re not dead, it lets people know people want to see you. I can’t poo-poo it because I know the value of it. And it means something. It just may not mean what we think it means.”

After a lifetime in the business, Dafoe knows the frustration of getting passed over, of not being able to get funding for projects, of winding up in stinker movies. His goal is to keep the opportunities going and exploring what he loves about working.

“When you’re younger, you’re trying to find your way in the world and you’re trying to find an identity,” he says. “Now I’m a little comforted — not content, not finished, because the lion is still hungry. So I feel better now about work. I feel more, let’s say, flexible. But I want to get to the point where I don’t have fear, and in any situation, I’m cool.”

So, is he close?

“I’ll be dead before I get there!” says Dafoe, who is definitely still alive.


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