In 1979, a 22-year-old fledgling actor from Appleton, Wisconsin, was given a minor, ultimately uncredited role in Michael Cimino’s infamously troubled epic Heaven’s Gate. Over the next 35 years, Willem Dafoe has emerged as one of cinema’s most versatile performers. From a duplicitous green goblin to Jesus Christ to Lars von Trier’s tortured muse, the soft-spoken artist seems bound by no character. At this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, we talked to Dafoe about assuming the role of Italian aesthete Pier Paolo Pasolini in Abel Ferrara’s latest film Pasolini, which is also screening at the New York Film Festival, subverting the modern (oft-hagiographic) biopic, and whether Hollywood really is the Devil.
What are you doing with your life these days?
Well, I just finished touring in South America with a play. A Bob Wilson show called Old Woman. Two actors — me and Mikhail Baryshnikov.
What drew you into this role as Pasolini?
It didn’t exist as a role [before production started]. It’s what drew me. I’ve worked with Abel before, and he really invites me. The way he works: He works with a group. And he really invites me to be a collaborator. So you don’t think about the role, you think about the film, the film you’re going to make. And that really suits me, because I do that anyway. Even in a conventional movie.
It’s better that way. It’s not such a singular act.
You know, the one thing that always haunts me: everything filtered through the “me”of it all. That’s where I don’t enjoy performing. When I can get out of that, I feel much more free and happier.
You and Pasolini look scarily similar.
But we don’t, really.
You think that, perhaps because you’re close to you.
Well, I think it looks that way … you’re just flattering me. Then I did a good performance, because I don’t really look like him!
What did you do to further the resemblance?
The obvious things: color my hair, get some dark lenses — really, that’s about it. I’m about his size. I wore Pasolini’s clothes. Ninetto Davoli gave me some of his clothes. He also gave me the necklace.
How did that feel?
It’s like having a relic, you know. It touches you down a little bit. It’s flirting with ghosts. It was also a nice gesture from Ninetto, who was as close as you can get to Pasolini, believing in what we were doing, and helping us make this film. He understood what were trying to do. Ninetto was one of his principal actors and partners [in films like The Decameron, Arabian Nights, and The Canterbury Tales] for many years.
It’s interesting how the film seems to be subverting the typical biopic. Even the duration … 89 minutes. Most documents of someone’s life play like a longwinded history book — going from one chapter to the next.
Yeah, in fact, we made a huge effort to not make it a traditional biopic. More impressionistic.
And you prefer this approach?
If you ask yourself, “Who is Pasolini?” you’re going to come up with a million answers. Because he was prolific, he was brilliant. What do you talk about? His poetry? His films? His political life? His private life? There’s so many ways you can approach it. Clearly we found this discipline of the last couple of days and then we could talk to people and [build] a fact-based scenario. Then we could use that as the bare bones to try to approximate what he was thinking and what he was thinking about doing. Which doesn’t account for his whole life. It does in the respect that it is the end of the line.
So you’re saying that in our imagination, this is where he was ending up. This is what his life drove him to. This point. To these thoughts. To these ambitions. Now, we don’t know, because they were never realized because his life was cut short prematurely. But from all he’s written — and we really immersed ourselves in everything that he wrote, and as much Pasolini stuff as we could — we just took it on and tried to inhabit his thoughts. Which isn’t as much like voodoo as it sounds because he’s got a terrifically well-documented life and he expressed things so beautifully and in such an articulate and prophetic way that it’s easy to attach yourself to his ideas.
When you’re doing these monologues, it’s so easy to get wrapped up in what you’re saying. Even when I didn’t agree with all of Pasolini’s thoughts and perspectives, you convey them so eloquently and poetically that I found myself often persuaded.
[Laughs.] I agree with pretty much everything he’s saying.
That was probably enjoyable as an actor, taking on these profound speeches.
Well, that was tricky because I wanted it to be clear. Not clear for the audience, clear for me. That was in those interviews, because he could be very convoluted. To some degree, we can do it with editing in the actual text, but in the performing of it — some of his connections — I had to understand what I was saying in a very deep, personal way in order to perform it.
Right, and if it wasn’t clear to you than it probably wouldn’t have been clear to us. You’re the translator.
I don’t know. I’m a thing and people will …
You’re a thing?
Yeah, I’m always a thing. I like being a thing.
That’s good. I imagine it’s better to be a thing than nothing, right?
Sometimes the thing is nothing.
Are you glad you did this? Not just the film, but acting on the whole.
Yeah, it’s what I do. I’m not a good one for regrets or looking back. I’m not reflective that way. I’m reflective in a different way. Most of my energy goes toward trying to see things clearly.
And how has that worked out for you?
Some of the time it works. Not always.
I often feel clouded.
Yeah, most people do. Because when you see clearly everything makes sense. Not “make sense” in a conceptual way. I mean, we’re of nature, and we’re so taken out of nature that when we see clearly we come back to nature. And that is … the state we want to be in, I think.
Are you a Buddhist like Abel Ferrara?
No, but I’m interested in religious thought. Spiritual thought.
Do you subscribe to anything like that?
Not specifically. I do asana practice, and I do meditate. I have my practices. But I suppose from a practitioner point of view it would be quite lazy. It’s not lazy in the respect that I do asana practice every day, but my reading and my mediation is all over the place.
I figure it’s my process.
What do you think of the line in the movie in which Pasolini calls Hollywood “the Devil”?
Well, it is sometimes. I mean, my relationship to Hollywood is very sketchy because I don’t live there. Most of my opportunities don’t come from there. But Hollywood is important in the culture, and so much is measured and affected and seen in relationship to Hollywood. Look, I like Hollywood movies sometimes. But to answer your question, “Is it the Devil?” Yes and no. [Laughs.]
You’re turning 60 soon.
[Laughs.] Yeah, but I’m like a 22-year-old. I’m pretty young at heart. And you know, everything still goes so. It’s good getting old because you see the cycles. You see the rise and fall of things much easier. And also, I’m never bored. The only problem with getting older is everything goes faster. That’s pretty much it.