Willem Dafoe on His Oscar-Worthy Role in Sean Baker’s “The Florida Project” (Interview)

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It’s been 37 years since made an uncredited appearance in Michael Cimino’s legendary disaster Heaven’s Gate at the age of 25. That experience didn’t dissuade him from an acting , and five years later, he was one of the leads in William Friedkin’s To Live and Die in L.A. Three years later, he received his first Oscar nomination for Oliver Stone’s Platoon, and a year after taht, he was playing no less than Jesus in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ.

Almost thirty years since that ‘80s acclaim, Dafoe has proven to be one of the most reliable working actors, sometimes being called in last minute for films as directors and producers know how fast he can get up to speed.  Because of this, Dafoe has made close to 100 or more films since his last Oscar nomination for 2000’s Shadow of the Vampire, and this year, he is the bonafide frontrunner to at least be nominated for a third with his indelible performance in Sean Baker’s The Florida Project.

The Tangerine director’s latest film takes place in a rather seedy Orlando motel called “Magic Kingdom,” and Dafoe’s Bobby is the beleaguered manager who has to contend with pranks played by a group of impoverished kids living there, including a precocious brat named Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) and her mother Halley (Bria Vinaite).

The fact that Dafoe can keep up from such young scene-stealers as Prince, Valeria Cotto and Christopher Rivera shows how much he put into a role that literally could have been played by anyone, but adds a whole level of poignancy in the hands of Dafoe. No surprise that he’s already received quite a few critic’s awards, as well as Golden Globe, SAG and Critics Choice Award nominations.

The Tracking Board got on the phone with Dafoe earlier this week for the following interview, which included a couple quotes about his role as Vulko in James Wan’s Aquaman, which comes out in almost exactly a year.

Congratulations on all the awards love you’ve been getting.

Thank you.

Well deserved. It’s a beautiful movie and wonderful role. How did Sean Baker reach out to you with this? Did he have a full script? What did he tell you about Bobby and the film as a whole?

He had a very good script, and we had a meeting. By that point, pretty much everyone had been cast, so he told me how he was using sort of unconventional casting, as he often does, and also he told me where we were going to shoot. That we were going to shoot on an actual, working motel, which was very much part of the story. So, I liked him a great deal. I was familiar with his work, and it was an easy choice.

Was it really obvious from the script what the movie would be? It’s hard to describe in some ways, because it’s so fly on the wall although it’s scripted.

It’s true. It’s true. It was a strong script, because the place and the world was very specific, and the relationship between the mother and the daughter was very specific. That was all very clear and told in a way that I thought was very articulate and interesting. I can’t say that I was able to envision the movie, but I didn’t need to because the pleasure of making a movie is always finding out what it is. For me, anyway. And often, some people are very … Like to read a script and really see it. I usually just see it as a proposal for an inquiry, and you don’t really know what it is until you get there and you start working on it, and that was particularly true of the character of Bobby, because I didn’t see him clearly until I started doing it.

Did you have to do a lot of preparation for the role or did you just go by Sean’s script?

No, there was a pleasure to do the preparation because there was so much available to me. I interviewed a guy that used to work there, and some other people, basically to know what life was like there, what their was, where they came from. Also, as you make choices on how he looks and how he dresses, they were very crucial for that, since I don’t live down there, and you have to make those choices pretty quickly when you start the movie, that’s very helpful.

Above all, I think I was really impressed by their kind of outlook on life, and outlook on their relationship to their work, which was surprisingly engaged in the respect that these were working class guys, and they weren’t that much different than the people that were living there. They were about a paycheck away from them, but they still had a strange kind of optimism, and a strange kind of pride in their work that was really moving to me.

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Bobby seems very put-upon by the kids who live there — that might be an understatement. They put him through his paces, for sure. What was it like when you first started working with Brooklynn and the other kids?

The kids were great. It was a case of what you saw on screen and what was in the screenplay was mirrored by the making of the movie, because Sean really let them have a long leash and really let the kids have fun, so sometimes it took some reining in. But that’s part of the character, so it was a pleasure. It’s always nice when the real life situation tends to amplify or reflect or give you a way into the fictional. Then you know the story that you’re making, and that was certainly the case, but I loved these kids. They were really sweet, and the atmosphere on the set was very good because everybody was really all in because they had nothing to compare it to. There was not an ounce of careerism, or thinking beyond the movie. We were there to do this thing, and everybody was very engaged when we were there.

I don’t remember you really working with kids a lot over the years. I don’t know if that’s something you’ve done very often.

Not a lot, but I have. Certainly, I’m not known for making kid’s movies, but I have made some. Probably most notably an Australian film called The Hunter, where I had quite a bit of play with these two kids. There have been others. In Rowan Atkinson’s Mr. Bean, I had some stuff with kids. Yeah. Various. But look, each film is a new experience, and each batch of kids is very different.

I remember when we spoke on the set of Scott Cooper’s Out of the Furnace, you telling me that you came into the movie too late to do much preparation. Do you generally prefer to have weeks or months to prepare for a role?

It depends, because for some roles, you really feel the need to do a great deal of research, and for others, you have less to do. It’s whatever you need to feel the authority to say, “I’m this guy,” and be able to play the scenes with confidence and with an imagination that’s beyond what you normally think. You usually need something to take you away from yourself, to put you in a new set of circumstances, put you in a new set of impulses to kind of reshape your brain. Research always helps you to get away from your habits and adopt new ones, and that’s one of the pleasures of performing, because it’s always about learning, and it’s always about applying that learning to enacting these things, or making these things.

What’s it like working with Sean? How does he work, especially when you’re doing the scenes with kids?

He’s a real sweetheart, and also he’s all in one package in the respect that … You’ve got to remember he’s the co-writer. He writes with a partner called Chris Bergoch. They work together, but he writes it, he directs it and he edits it. And he has a great film culture, and has a very strong sense of the camera. So when you’re working with him, I think he’s anticipating the cuts. He’s anticipating new writing that he may have to do, which he did do in this. The two scenes with Caleb Landry Jones were invented once we started shooting, because he felt you needed to put the Bobby character in a context a little bit more. Not so much give a backstory, but just give a little bit more of a taste of where he came from. So he’s fun because he’s a great overseer because he’s not delegating any aspects of the production. He’s present for all aspects of the production in a very full way.

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I was especially curious about some of the scenes, like you smoking on the balcony. Were those scenes that just came up as you were at the location filming?

Yes, he’d see a beautiful light, or he just wanted to have some textures, just for connecting pieces. Because he’s editing and he’s reviewing the material every day, he’s also doing some rewriting;  he had a very strong instinct. An obvious one was when those birds showed up. I don’t know when you saw the movie, but there’s a little tiny scene where I go and interact with some birds. That was done on the spur of the moment. The birds came, and they wouldn’t go away. He said, “Willem, grab a camera. Let’s do something with the birds.” Because they were part of the world, and he wanted to capture that part of the world. He didn’t maybe know exactly how he would use it, but he invited those accidents. He invited those opportunities, which is easy to do when you’re in the actual place, because things come up that you could never plan. And then you just go with it, and it sort of sweetens the reality.

That’s a great story. If you had put that scene in a script, it would involve animal handlers, and be far more complicated.  But all this stuff happens like magic.

I can tell you that I’ve been on some movie sets…

Did Sean talk to you at all about the relationship between Bobby and Halley? I feel there’s a lot more to that relationship. Did you know about their previous history before we meet them?

You know, I don’t think so much about backstory. I play the scenes, and then you kind of react off of them. All I know is when I met Bria, and I first saw Bria and Moonee — because they had been doing workshops and working with an acting coach before I arrived. The first time I saw them in that room, I had no idea where Bria had came from, because she didn’t have the feeling of an actress. She seemed so rooted, I thought she may have been from there. She was totally committed, and I think it’s an interesting relationship because it takes many different shapes. In some ways, he’s like a father figure. In some ways, he’s a brother figure. In some ways, it’s almost charged erotically sometimes. All those things happen, and I think he wants to help her. He’s sympathetic with her, but he doesn’t want to be clay either, because she has got a good grift going on, and he knows it. There’s always sort of a power struggle that’s caring, but it’s also tough. I like that, because we never knew where it would land, and it was really in playing the scenes that we would figure out what it was all about. The only thing I knew was I didn’t want to have it be a one-dimensional role when I’m just scolding her all the time. With time, I think there were many dimensions.

How has the experience doing Aquaman and being involved with such a huge franchise movie?

Good. James Wan’s a very interesting guy. He’s a good director. The material was good. The cast was good. Those big movies, they’re complicated because you’re doing so much that has to be sweetened later by special effects, but it was a good spirit on the set. They had everything they needed to do, what they need to do, and I think it’ll be pretty special just because it’s a very specific world. I mean, so much of it is underwater, so the effects and the way we move … There was a lot of wire work. So much depends on the effects, and things that are done in post, but it should be a good movie. I haven’t seen it yet though.

I’m sad we have to wait a year to see it myself, but I’m excited. Thanks for talking, but full disclosure, I’ve also spoken to Michael Stuhlbarg, Richard Jenkins, and Armie Hammer, some of your possible supporting actor competition. I think the four of you should get a nice dinner sometime during awards season.

Okay. I’m sure I’ll run into them somewhere.

The Florida Project is now playing in select cities across the country.

  | East Coast Editor
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