Shining brightly: Willem Dafoe's career fully illuminated

At age 64, "The Lighthouse" star's career has never been hotter

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

Willem Dafoe is on a roll. 

As he approaches 40 years on screen, he's never been more in-demand, maintaining a healthy balance between blockbusters ("Aquaman"), indies (he narrated last year's "Vox Lux") and studio projects (2017's star-studded "Murder on the Orient Express" remake).

Not to mention he's coming off back-to-back Oscar nominations, for Best Supporting Actor for 2017's "The Florida Project" and Best Actor for 2018's "At Eternity's Gate," and he's in the Oscar conversation yet again for "The Lighthouse," which opens Friday.  

Willem Dafoe in "The Lighthouse."

"It's a good period," says the actor, seated in a conference room at the Ritz-Carlton hotel during last month's Toronto International Film Festival. He chalks up his good fortune of late to both his work and the circumstances of the world around him. "I try to practice equanimity," he says, "but I can't deny now is a good time."

Dafoe has two films at TIFF, "The Lighthouse" and Edward Norton's "Motherless Brooklyn," which opens next week. He's happy to be here speaking on behalf of both, but the 64-year-old is anxious to get back to what he does best.

"I work," he says with a grin. "I want these movies to do well and I like these movies. But beyond that, I think, 'I've gotta get back to work!'" 

A steady presence

Dafoe has never stopped working. Since making his screen debut in 1980's "Heaven's Gate," he's appeared in well over 100 projects, from superhero movies ("Spider-Man"), to war films ("Platoon," for which he earned his first Oscar nomination) to teen romances ("The Fault in Our Stars").

He played Jesus in "The Last Temptation of Christ," Madonna's candle wax-covered lover in "Body of Evidence" and the voice of a rat in "The Fantastic Mr. Fox," one of several collaborations with director Wes Anderson. 

"What's nice," he says of his wide range of work, "is some of these movies don't really talk to each other. So you can kind of have these parallel lives. It's freeing, it doesn't restrict you. Because then you don't have one set idea of who you are. You don't get hardened into an idea of a career path. You deal project by project, and that's it." 

Within that philosophy, he's often been drawn to intense, boundary-pushing roles, from "Wild at Heart" to Lars Von Trier's "Antichrist" and "Nymphomaniac" to his Oscar-nominated role in "Shadow of the Vampire." Dafoe says that comes from a desire to explore the world outside his straitlaced upbringing. 

Willem Dafoe in "Wild at Heart."

"I grew up a middle class, Midwestern American boy," says Dafoe, who was born in Appleton, Wis., 30 miles southwest of Green Bay. He was one of eight children born into a Protestant family with Republican parents, "nice people, hard working people, but not people of culture," he says. 

As he ventured out into the world, moving to New York in 1976, "what I always gravitated to was the other, or other people's stories," he says. "The stories that are told about people that are marginalized are usually more interesting than the narrative we get fed all the time. Not because they're transgressive or weird, but because it's a different perspective. And we learn something when we get away from a hard cultural conditioning that tends to deaden us." 

'Light'-ing up

Dafoe's part in "The Lighthouse" is another one of those outsider roles. He plays Thomas Wake, a lighthouse keeper in the 1890s, opposite a younger colleague played by Robert Pattinson. The black-and-white film follows the pair's slow descent into madness, and sees Dafoe's character at one point get buried alive, dirt-in-his-mouth and all. 

Dafoe met with director Robert Eggers after seeing his 2015 debut "The Witch" and told him, "if you need me for something, I'm there." Unbeknownst to Dafoe, Pattinson had done the same thing, and Eggers paired them together in the part-horror film, part-psychological thriller.

In the film, Dafoe's character delivers several verbose, hard-charging monologues, soliloquies of the sea which he dispenses in Pattinson's character's direction without blinking his eyes. Performing them took the precision of an athlete, Dafoe says. 

"It's like going down the slalom course," he says. "Because you're modulating the speed, where you take your breath, how you're leaning on it, how emotions are coming, which ones to suppress, which ones to let go. It's thrilling. You're going down, you have an idea, you know the course, you've practiced, but when you go through that gate, when you're doing it, you're making decisions. They're challenging to do, because you can crash, and there's no cutting, not in this. Because the visual language in this is very much, BOOM!" he says, bringing his fist down hard on the table in front of him for emphasis.

Dafoe says watching "The Lighthouse" he didn't recognize himself on screen, "which is a good sign," he says. 

Away from the screen, Dafoe and his wife, Italian actress and filmmaker Giada Colagrande, "live quite a nomadic life," Dafoe says. They split their time between the U.S. and Italy, working together and separately as their various projects dictate. "It's a very fluid thing," he says, calling Colagrande his "soulmate."  

Going forward, Dafoe doesn't see himself nearing the finish line anytime soon. He has eight upcoming projects in various stages of development, and he's still driven by telling stories both big and small, and trying to find the personal narrative in all of them.  

"Do I see any slowing down or retiring? The circumstances will hand that to me," says Dafoe. "But I'm not going to decide that, because I enjoy working too much."


'The Lighthouse'

Rated R: for sexual content, nudity, violence, disturbing images, and some language

Running time: 110 minutes

Opens today

Dafoe on Dafoe

Willem Dafoe talks about several of his most famous — and infamous — roles: 

"Platoon" (1986): Dafoe earned his first Oscar nomination playing a sergeant in director Oliver Stone's Vietnam film. "It was a fabulous experience," Dafoe says. "We were playing war. Almost all of us had no military experience, because I was the last year of the draft. We had this specter of this role that we grew up with from WWII movies to deal with, and then also the horrors of Vietnam to deal with. So it was a very rich experience."   

Willem Dafoe, Charlie Sheen and Tom Berenger in "Platoon."

"Wild at Heart" (1990): Dafoe plays a terrifying gangster named Bobby Peru in David Lynch's bizarre romance. "David Lynch is a particular genius," he says. "Things go unspoken. He gave me a bit of a costume, told me to get prosthetic teeth and gave me Barry Gifford's beautiful words, and that was it. It was all there. You hear these stories about Jackson Pollock saying the painting's already there, he doesn't quite make a decision, it's there, and then it happens, more or less. It was a little bit like that. It was the the most effortless job ever."  

"Body of Evidence" (1993): In the derided erotic thriller, Dafoe and Madonna engage in a series sex scenes. "What can I say? We tried," he says. "It was a movie that was interesting because I kind of had the female role. It was an old-fashioned courtroom drama with a little spin on it, and injected with these sex scenes. You learn about cultural conditioning: while that movie is ridiculed in some places as being decidedly unerotic, in other places it worked very well."   

Willem Dafoe and Madonna in "Body of Evidence."

"Spider-Man" (2002): Dafoe plays the Green Goblin in Sam Raimi's superhero epic, which set off Hollywood's love affair with comic books and superheroes. "Sam Raimi made a personal movie, not one of these blockbuster industry movies. That was a good movie," he says. "It wasn't just about action sequences, it had a good story. As (superhero movies) get more and more muscular, sometimes they're a little too noisy. 'Spider-Man' was a little lighter on its feet." 

"The Florida Project" (2017): In Sean Baker's film, Dafoe plays a hotel manager who becomes a father figure of sorts to the property's residents; he was nominated for an Oscar for the role. "The mix of new actors, non-actors and actors is always interesting to me," he says. "We shot in a real place and (Baker) respected those people and their story and he let them tell us how to tell the story by integrating them into the process. It was almost a para-theatrical experience, in the respect that what we were doing was like an experiment. It was like halfway between documentary and fiction. I just like walking on a movie set where we really have to take care of each other." 

Willem Dafoe in “The Florida Project.”