Willem Dafoe: He’s got range

There are actors with range, and then there’s Willem Dafoe. The sharp-featured Dafoe has played roles as diverse as Jesus (in Martin Scorsese’s controversial The Last Temptation of Christ) and the bloodsucking ghoul Nosferatu (a deliciously over-the-top turn in Shadow of the Vampire). He repeatedly has bared body and soul in Lars von Trier’s intense sex dramas, writhed with Madonna in the erotic thriller Body of Evidence and voiced animated children’s characters in Finding Nemo and Fantastic Mr. Fox.

“The thing is to find a work situation that really feeds you, really challenges you,” he said by phone last week. In A Most Wanted Man Dafoe plays a shady German banker enmeshed in an international terrorist investigation. The film, opening Friday, stars Philip Seymour Hoffman as a German spy chief, in one of his final screen roles.

A Most Wanted Man is spycraft without motorcycle chases and explosions. Based on the novel by John Le Carre, it views the West’s intelligence bureaucracy as a futile runaway machine that does evil in defense of good. Dafoe’s character is a Le Carre specialty, a man of decent impulses enriched by laundering crooked money. By phone Dafoe, 59, said he was drawn to the character’s moral complexity.

“I don’t watch a lot of television, but Le Carre’s work inspired the greatest TV drama I have ever seen,” the BBC production of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy starring Alec Guinness.

He also was impressed by director Anton Corbijn’s drama Control, which charted the last days of the suicidal Ian Curtis, singer of the late-1970s English post-punk band Joy Division.

Wanted Man was an opportunity to go toe to toe with Hoffman, another powerhouse New York actor. Through the shoot, there was no sign of turmoil in the late star’s offstage life, Dafoe said. “He was very easy to work with, he was smart, absolutely solid and reliable every day, a pleasure to work with. A good colleague and of course a great actor.”

The Appleton, Wisconsin, native has become something of a stock player in Wes Anderson’s films, playing a pleasant oceanographer in The Life Aquatic, a temperamental rat in Fantastic Mr. Fox and a Golem-like thug in The Grand Budapest Hotel.

“I like to work with a director who has a strong vision, and his is very personal and precise. It’s a very complete vision. He’s passionate about it. It’s a pleasure to be part of helping him make the movie he wants to make. The opposite of work is fun,” he said.

“I was always interested in performing, but where I grew up in Wisconsin, nobody I knew was an artist. It really didn’t enter into my imagination. I guess you could say I was a kind of a realist as a kid. I never decided to be an actor, because I didn’t train so much formally. I went to university for three semesters. Then when I started performing I didn’t know it was going to be a career. It was something I enjoyed that seems almost temporary. When I realized it was more than temporary, being a working actor was my only ambition.”

Dafoe, who appears on stage regularly, is currently appearing in a two-man play in New York with Mikhail Baryshnikov. The Old Woman, an absurdist nightmare comedy staged by avant-garde dramatist Robert Wilson. Dafoe, who confessed “I like to dance more than everything,” said he relished working alongside the internationally renowned ballet star. For his part, Baryshnikov gets to sing.

“To shorthand it, I’d call it surrealist vaudeville. We’re dressed alike so we look quite similar. We sort of share a role. Sometimes I’m him, sometimes he’s me,” he said. The actors run through their playful paces in whitefaced kabuki-style makeup.

“We’re preparing to take it on the road in South America,” Dafoe said. “We’re calling it ‘The Misery Tour’ because we’re touring Brazil and Argentina,” still smarting from their World Cup losses. “Just kidding,” he added.

Colin Covert

Star Tribune (Minneapolis)