'Kids are terrified of me. I was the Green Goblin!'
It was quite easy to spot Willem Dafoe at the glitzy awards gala that rounded off the 2006 Bangkok International Film Festival, back in February: he was the one sitting next to Princess Ubol Rattana at the head table, some two feet higher than everyone else. "I'm not used to dealing with royals but the protocol was pretty clear," he grins. "Behaviour was measured, but she was actually very approachable." It's the day after the ceremony and, in deference to the weather, Dafoe has traded his DJ for a black silk shirt, pyjama-style trousers and open-toed sandals. As far as the organisers are concerned, he's in the Thai capital to introduce Lars von Trier's Manderlay, in which he has a small role as Bryce Dallas Howard's mobster father. Dafoe, though, has other ideas, preferring to big up Before It Had A Name, a low-budget chamber drama (yet to secure a UK release) he wrote and appears in with his Italian wife (who also directs) Giada Colagrande. "I'm part of the ensemble in Manderlay, so it's inappropriate for me to speak for the movie," he explains. "I feel more responsible for the other film, because I'm wearing more hats." Total Film plays along, politely asking a few questions about his latest endeavour and how he found working with the missus. What we want to talk about, of course, is Platoon and Spider-Man and The Last Temptation Of Christ. Oh, and a little thriller he made in 1993...
"What is it with you Brits and Body Of Evidence?" he cries with mock exasperation. "I don't know what it is. For such a literate people, why is the level of enquiry in the press so low?" Okay, so maybe we won't talk about Madonna's much-mocked sexathon, which earned the Wisconsin-born actor a full measure of tabloid infamy for having hot candle wax dripped on his privates. After all, it's not as if it's the only thing on his CV. Since 1980 this softly-spoken 50-year-old has notched up some 60 movie credits, proving his versatility time and time again in projects as diverse as Mississippi Burning, The English Patient, Tom & Viv and Auto Focus. He's been Oscar-nominated twice, in 1987 for Platoon and in 2001 for Shadow Of The Vampire. And he's cornered the market in larger-than-life villainy, hamming it up something rotten in Speed 2: Cruise Control, Wild At Heart and xXx: State Of The Union. You only have to look at his recent films - as a German sailor in The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, an NYPD captain in Inside Man and a Dick Cheney-esque vice-president in this month's American Dreamz - to see he craves variety.
"I have a nose for stuff that feels very particular," he says with a self-deprecating shrug. "And whether the movies are realised successfully or are flawed in their execution, sometimes they piss people off. I guess it's the kind of stories I'm attracted to. For lack of a better word, my choices are made out of curiosity..."
So how did you take to being directed by your other half?
I've always worked with people I've been involved with. There's intensity, for better or worse, just because the stakes are higher. When you're inspired, the inspiration is that much more intense; when you're failing, the failure is much more scary and frustrating. So it notched things up a bit. It's fun to have the same reference [point] and to be accomplices - that's an essential part of a good relationship and when you have that in a very complete way it's pleasurable. No matter what happens, you're both striving towards a common goal.
Before It Had A Name was one of four films you made last year. How does it feel to be one of the busiest actors in Hollywood?
It sounds like a lot, but it all depends on when the films surface. If they come out at the same time it looks like I've been doing more than I have. I'm always surprised when somebody presents me with my filmography. I've been in a lot of movies, but day in and day out I've been in the theatre more. I like to work: for a certain period of time you leave the world behind and create a little community, and all your energies are directed towards making this thing. It's something that has always been attractive to me, socially and personally. I also like to mix it up. I recently did a movie called Anamorph [a psychological thriller, due out in 2007] in which I was in every shot and worked every day. In Inside Man and American Dreamz, though, I had supporting roles so it wasn't a huge commitment.
Still you make quite an impression in American Dreamz, playing a puppet-master vice-president. Is the similarity to Dick Cheney intentional?
I'm not playing Dick Cheney, but it's odd because I did kind of look like him when I put on the make-up. I wanted to shave my head to make me look older. I knew I needed to have glasses and a little paunch. I did those things separately without necessarily thinking of Cheney, but it all came together and I ended up looking like him anyway! The character is closer to [White House aide] Karl Rove actually, but I didn't feel I would have the authority to play one of those guys unless I looked different. So I guess I should have seen it coming.
The film is bound to turn some heads, not least for having a potential suicide bomber appearing on a Pop Idol-style talent show. What's your spin on it?
It's a very on-the-nose political satire with a good sense of humour. It's not like it's a metaphor; the whole thing is very transparent. You recognise people and behaviour. Hugh Grant [who plays talent-show host Martin Tweed] is not playing Simon Cowell, for example, but you know what it's pointing to and what it's inspired by. I haven't seen the film yet, but I think it's going to be one of Hugh's best performances.
You came to Dreamz fresh from your stint as an NYPD captain in Inside Man. How did you find Spike Lee to work with?
You never know which Spike Lee you're getting; every director is shaped by that particular project. When I was making The Last Temptation Of Christ, people would ask me what Martin Scorsese was like to work with. Well, from the stories I heard, the Scorsese who made Temptation was very different from the Scorsese who did New York, New York. Doing a hundred takes was just not the story on Temptation - we were making a low-budget, on-the-run film. I kind of felt that, with Spike, Inside Man was a genre film: it wasn't his script, he was working with movie stars and he was shooting real aggressively. What I can say is that this guy is very happy on a movie set. He loves to shoot and that's always a pleasure to watch.
Speaking of Temptation, how did you approach playing Jesus? It can't have been an easy job to play the saviour of mankind...
The most important thing seemed to be a paring down rather than a gaining of knowledge. I had to start from a neutral place and get away from any preconceived notions of what Jesus should look like and be like.
Did playing the Son of God affect you in anyway? Did you feel holy afterwards?
Well, any film affects you: it's three months of accelerated living. That was a special one, though. It was a terrific crash-course in spiritual issues, like forgiveness and the power of love. The film provided me with a kind of structure to think about things that maybe I didn't always have the discipline to think about.
Did you get any hate mail after accepting the role?
Not really. A lot of the controversy and negative feeling focused on Marty, so it didn't get to me so much. And because it happened before the film had even been seen, all people could do was discuss intent - they went for him because he was the initiator. On the one hand, the controversy was good because it generated awareness for a film that had no commercial possibility. On the other hand, the publicity tended to centre on the controversy, rather than the film itself. The thing I didn't care for was the negative cloud people had to work through to see the film, created by a very vocal minority that probably doesn't go to the movies anyway. I'm all for discussion, but I think there was just a lot of name-calling and political jockeying. I'm very proud of the movie, though. I think it's beautiful and I'm very happy it's around.
Do you feel the same way about Spider-Man? For some people, comic books are religion...
I'd never really made films children could see, so when I did Spider-Man it was quite different to have them come up and ask me for an autograph. The biggest thing I learned is children are basically polite and sweet - they're just naturally kind and easy. What's strange is the parents. They'd push the kid forward and tell him to go get my autograph. The kids were kind of torn: they wanted to please their parents but they were also fearful of seeing me 'cause I'm the Green Goblin. So I was basically dealing with kids who were terrorised.
Whose idea was it for you to pop up at the end of Spider-Man 2?
I was riding with Sam Raimi in the back of a car, going to a press event in Switzerland, and we were joking around. I said, "Sam, you got to bring me back! You know, kind of a Hamlet's father's ghost thing!" He said, "Good idea, buddy - I will." Sure enough, it stuck in his head and he made it happen.
The Green Goblin was one of several villainous roles you've tackled in your career. Do you regard them differently to your heroic or dramatic parts?
I find them pretty much the same. Usually what defines a character as evil or bad is outside circumstance; the man who's doing bad things is doing them for his own reasons and feels just as righteous as the man who's doing good things. It's the external things that colour a character. I'm very bad at comparing roles though: all work is on a continuum and it does no good to chop it up and weigh the experience.
You were one of the founder members of The Wooster Group [an influential New York-based theatre group set up in 1977] and still work with it regularly. What impact has that had on how you approach your craft?
I think I'm a better film actor because I'm a theatre actor and I'm a better theatre actor because I'm a film actor. It's all performing, but when the circumstances change it allows you to reassess things - it keeps you on your toes. I hope it keeps me curious, excited and passionate.
Does your screen work help your stage career, though? Voicing Gill the fish in Finding Nemo can come in handy when it comes to shifting theatre tickets...
I don't see it as different and, in many ways, that's one of the biggest misconceptions about what I do. You don't do this to do that, you do this to do this. I'm simple in that way. I don't have a grand plan. I don't plan performances and I can only deal with one scene at a time.
Manderlay felt quite theatrical in a way, with its long takes and empty soundstage. Were you able to draw on your stage training for that role?
It takes a little while to find your way into Lars' way of working - you never know exactly where the camera is. He also doesn't like to rehearse; he likes actors when they're a little off-balance, because he finds they're most interesting when they aren't in control. What he does is so personal and specific. He's very precise on one hand and very reckless on another. He's got very strong, stubborn and formed ideas but he's also fluid and open. It sounds like a gobbledegook of contradictions and I think that's probably true. But I found him to be a very poetic soul, a lot of fun, and good to work with.
You've yet to land an Oscar yourself, but you've been nominated twice and you've been in two Best Picture winners (Platoon and The English Patient). How important is the recognition to you?
It's a good thing because it helps make more things available to you. That said, the courting of the vote has become so much more sophisticated since the first time I was nominated. It took Harvey Weinstein to tell everyone, "You know what? If the movie gets a lot of Oscars it's good business." He was the first one to figure that out and he's still probably the best at marketing things and positioning them for the Oscars. The first time I was nominated, I didn't know which day they announced it. Now actors are handicapped months ahead - they know what the possibilities are and they can tell which way the votes are going to go. It's a game like anything, but I think it makes the Oscars a little bit narrower.
Not all your films have been Oscar-winners; indeed, some have been disasters... How do you feel when a film you've made fails to find an audience or gets attacked by the critics?
Sometimes it's disappointing... Films are collaborative experiences and you unconsciously have a scorecard about who performed their part well and who didn't. Sometimes people fall down on the job and the picture doesn't do well because they didn't get it together. Other times people can surprise you. But when all's said and done, how movies are received is all about timing.
What draws you to a project?
I do them for personal reasons, because that's the only way I can live with my choices. I can't totally control the films I do and I don't want to. In fact, I like to approach them with a certain abandon. But you can always remember why you wanted to do them and I stand by that all the time. I believe in working in different kinds of movies; small ones and big ones - I think that's very important. When I look around, the people I admire are the ones who do that, while with the ones that always play a particular kind of character in a particular kind of movie, I sense a cynicism and a kind of boredom creeping in. I'm in it for the sensual pleasure of it. I'm a little bit of a child that way...