Willem Dafoe is peeking his head out of a hotel-room door at the end of a hallway. “Heeeyyyy,” he says with that effortlessly comic Dafoe-ish menace. Seated on the floor with my laptop, I’m the only one who can see him, but Dafoe isn’t talking to me. He’s summoning his publicist, who’s just out of view in an enclave, letting her know his phoner is done and he’s set for the next interviewer (me). The scene is hilariously creepy. Given the setting, and the way Dafoe’s grin seems to curl on for days, he calls to mind one of the Shining twins crossed with The Grinch. Should I really go into that room? Of course I should. It’s Willem effing Dafoe.
One of the most brilliantly dependable and uniquely alluring actors in film, Dafoe is probably in at least two of your favorite movies, and soon, you might be adding two more to the list. First, Dafoe reunites with Wes Anderson for The Grand Budapest Hotel, a sweeping and moving dramedic epic like no other, and second, he re-teams with Lars von Trier for Nymphomaniac, which you might have heard about. In a suite that’s perfectly safe (not a hatchet to be found), the inimitable actor chats about both films, their directors’ similarities, and what he’d have done if he went to Sochi.
The Grand Budapest Hotel kicked off the 64th Berlin Film Festival last month, and it nabbed the Silver Bear for Best Feature. How was that experience for you? I know you’ve been spending a lot of time in Germany.
Right. I love Berlin. And the film had a good feeling—it was nice to open there. It was good seeing a lot of people from the movie. And yeah, I’ve actually spent a lot of time in Germany in general, between theater and films that I’ve shot. But, last year, I shot three films in Germany, which are coming out now: Nymphomaniac, Man Most Wanted, and Grand Budapest. They were all in Germany and shot around the same time.
Tell me about Man Most Wanted.
I don’t know when they’re going to release it, but I like it very much. It’s directed by Anton Corbijn, based on a John le Carré novel. It’s one of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s last roles.
Were you close with Philip?
You know, it was great working with him. I didn’t know him so well, but of what I know, I liked him very much. Tragedy.
Yeah, for everyone, it seems. I’m going to shift back to Grand Budapest—one of the things that struck me about this thug character that you play, J.G. Jopling, is that he’s reminiscent of the Rat, whom you voiced, in Fantastic Mr. Fox.
Is that something that you and Wes discussed?
No, no! But it makes sense. Just because they have very strong actions, and they’re just kind of bad to the bone, and there’s no real fuss about anything, and no apology. They’re like…just bad!
What about that great, fantastic coat Jopling wears in the film, with the front that opens to store weapons and a flask?
It is fantastic. Prada made that. I mean, of course, it was designed by Milena [Canonero], the costume designer, with—I’m sure—a lot of input from Wes. Pretty great costume.
Did you get to keep it?
No. I don’t think they even offered it. But you know, where am I gonna wear that?
Ugh, anywhere. Everywhere. It’s great. You know, I really, really wish I could say I’ve seen Nymphomaniac, but I’m not seeing it until next week.
I haven’t seen it yet! Now, keep in mind my involvement is…well, I have two scenes. Compared to Manderlay or Antichrist, the two other times that I’ve worked with Lars, it’s quite minimal involvement. But still, it was good. And I haven’t seen it, but what I saw looked really good.
If you had to say one thing about the experience of shooting that, what would it be?
It was just nice to be reunited with Charlotte [Gainsbourg]. But [Lars] showed me a script and said, “I know Charlotte’s gonna play this role, and Stellan Skarsgard’s gonna play this role—what role would you like to play?” And I really didn’t want to do a sex thing.
Because I feel I had done that a little bit. And while there are aspects about that that I enjoy and that are challenging, I don’t want to be the go-to middle age guy who drops his pants every time he’s asked to. I want to mix it up. And I found a role that I really liked—it was a cool part of the story, and the scenes are with Charlotte, so that was nice, too.
For me, Lars is one of the greatest living filmmakers. Very few directors can reach me the way he does, for better and for worse. What I hear of Nymphomaniac is great, and Grand Budapest might be the best film by Wes, so this is an exciting time, for you in particular.
It is! I’m with you. The beautiful thing about Wes is he gets more and more articulate and more and more mature, I think, with each movie.
And this feels like his most worldly film. It’s his world, but it’s of the world.
I think that’s because it has these different kinds of themes and elements that he hasn’t dealt with before. In the end, it’s personal, and the story’s a personal story, but it’s not just about fathers and sons, or identity. It’s about the way we live and how we treat each other, and even in what direction civilization is going, sort of, which is pretty big stuff. He’s more worldly, he’s more adult, he’s more articulate as a filmmaker. I worked with him on Fantastic Mr. Fox for a voice, and also The Life Aquatic [with Steve Zissou], and they were fantastic, great experiences. But he would find things on the set much more, and he was sort of making [the films] on the set more. This was much more evolved and developed and precise, and I’m not saying that process is better, but you’re struck by it. The thing that I can say about Wes is, probably more than anyone I know, he makes the movie he sees. It’s incredible how tenacious he is.
More than Lars?
Yeah, because Lars has ideas, but he’s also interested in finding them in the making. I think Wes has a very strong idea to start. He sees it, and then, of course, it gets a new dimension as he’s making it—it’s not just a canned thing, which some people would assume would be no fun—but it’s so articulate in its design. With someone like Lars, he has that same kind of talent and has very strong structural ideas, but then there’s huge pockets of areas where he wants to find it. I mean, for example, he prohibits rehearsal, and sometimes is very fluid with the camera. Wes, by contrast, is more designed and much more structured. Although, it’s funny, and it was Wes who told me this, which I think is just kind of intellectually interesting: If you look at Lars and Wes, there are definite similarities. The thing of calling characters by letters or numbers, the chapters, a certain kind of formal structure. This was not lost on Wes, and if you like both of them, think about that for awhile. I’m sure you can find common points.
We actually spoke before, about a year and a half ago, I think, and it was when you were starring in The Hunter and 4:44 Last Day on Earth. In those films, you’re really driving the piece as the lead, as opposed to these new projects where you’re part of an ensemble. Is there a different kind of pressure?
Totally. It’s a different kind of pressure and also it’s a different level of collaboration, where you’re just placed in the structure of the piece. But on the other hand, when you’re the principle character, there’s more pressure to deliver the goods but there’s less pressure to be precise, because it’s a slower reveal so you get more time. You can go a little deeper and you can be a little slower. You are what you are, and that becomes the movie. But when you’re an accessory, or you’re something that is a device that works in the moving along of the story or making the thing work, you have a different gun to your head because you have to be precise. You can’t sit in anything; you’ve got to serve a purpose and be conscious of that. So they both have different kinds of pressures and different kinds of pleasures.
The scene in Grand Budapest that seems to be a favorite among viewers is the downhill, ski-slope chase, where Ralph Fiennes and Tony Revolori hop on a sled and head after your character, who’s skiing.
Since we’re in pretty close proximity to the Olympics?
Yup, yup! It wasn’t lost on me! I didn’t watch hardly any Olympics, but there’s one little shot where I jump out of this little house that’s, like, the beginning of a ski jump. And then there’s a shot where the doors open and I kind of jump out and I go down. Well, they set this up in a little abandoned lot, so they built a little, mini-Olympic ski jump and it was extreme! It was steep, and it was, like, plywood, and they covered it with snow. It was the most dangerous thing in the world! Two stuntmen [nearly] killed themselves doing it before me, and then I had to do it. We worked on it for a long time just to get the mechanics of it right, and you know, this is a 10-second shot. Welcome to the world of Wes!
So, if you were to try out one winter Olympic sport, which one would it be?
Well, I was watching some the ski jump stuff…what do they call it? Ski jumps? The one where they go down and they fly through the air and they try to go as far as they can? That’s sort of terrifying and attractive. That’s really beautiful and I’m not sure I could do that. But it calls me. It calls me. And I got a little taste of that playing Jopling.