Willem Dafoe - Still Evil in Spider-Man

Submitted by Paul Fischer on Fri, 05/10/2002 - 01:13
Willem Dafoe in Spider-Man

With an actor of Willem Dafoe's calibre as the baddie you can be fairly sure that Spider-Man will be more than just run-of-the-mill Hollywood schlock. The actor talks about playing his latest cinematic super-villain - evil alter-ego to billionaire Norman Osborn, The Green Goblin

Paul Fischer You really had a huge amount of fun doing this, I could tell. 

Willem Dafoe There was lots to play with.

P.F. You’ve avoided doing these really big studio films, however. 

W.D. They’ve probably avoided me as well. 

P.F. So how did the marriage become initiated and why were you interested? 

W.D. Well, I had to do some courting because I knew of the project. Even though I mayhave been on a list it’s not like they proposed this thing to me but I was aware of it; the fact that Sam Raimi was involved, and Tobey Maguire was cast, really identified what the project was for me and I thought, “Ah, this is interesting” because they weren’t logical choices for this kind of movie, I didn’t think, because it's a big movie, and as such, neither Tobey nor Sam – although they’re both respected – weren’t the usual suspects that you bring in for a movie that was poised to have a big budget, and was poised to be a summer movie that would perform. 

So I thought, 'Hats off to the studio. They’re doing something interesting here. They’re making choices on artistic merit not solely on business.' That perked me up so then I read the script and it was very strong. 

Then I had a talk with Sam. Mind you, they still weren’t asking me to do this. I’m telling them I’m warming to it, but they aren't asking me. I also think it’s worth mentioning that Sam and I were having a hard time hooking up because I was shooting a movie in Spain and he was in LA, busy, finding it hard to find the time to make the phone call. 

Finally we got the phone call at some really awful time, like very late at night, or very early in the morning. I thought it was going to be a conversation of like ten minutes. He started talking and started basically telling me the story of the movie, but telling it with so much passion and in such psychological terms, as in really going deeply into the relationships and the psychology of the characters that I thought, “Wow, this is not a cynical hardware movie. There’s something else going on here.” 

I know he can deliver that end of it. It’s going to have lots of style and the effects will be good, but he’s got something else also and he wants to make a hybrid here. So this all was good and then I decided, “Yeah, this would really be something I could play with.” So I made a tape and they finally asked me to do it. 

P.F. Can you talk a little bit about the character but also there are a lot of very physical things going on in this. I know some of it is C.G, but a lot of it is really based on body language so can you talk about some of that flying stuff?

W.D. It was a big deal to learn how to fly the glider. 

P.F. I’ll bet. 

W.D. A little more complicated than it looks ‘cause the glider is usually used in lots of different ways – sometimes it’s on the Gimble, sometimes in on the train, sometimes it’s on the insert copy, sometimes it’s on wires. And, of course, with all this effects stuff, the shooting ratio is huge. I mean, you can shoot for three days on the glider and you end up having a tiny little sequence in the movie. It’s always like that, but particularly with effects work like this.

So I needed to practice that and had to get used to the suit, but I had lots of time to get used to that because it was developed, really, on my body. They had a design which got very complicated. I mean at one point there was a backpack, with two lights that went on, the phosphorescent effects but they said, “Wow, like this is too much. This is too much going on.” 

So it was a long process of fittings and designing the suit for my body which I had to get used to. I played around with the stunt guys in choreographing the fight and we played around with different types of movement. We even worked with this guy Chuck Jeffries in doing some really specific physical stuff, which was very interesting but was too danced and too like a martial art. We needed something to contrast with Tobey’s movement that is acrobatic and more fluid. So we ended up with a pretty “meat and potatoes” kick, punch, and stuff. 

P.F. There’s a lot going on with the psychology of this character. Where do you draw a line between a guy that’s plain evil and a guy in whom the evil kind of lurks beneath the surface. 

W.D. I think it’s in the writing. I mean the goblin really is an aspect of Norman Osborne that’s out-of-control so I really think that I paid most attention to Norman Osborne. 

He’s an interesting character to me because I think he’s emblematic of some struggles that we all have in this society in that he’s a good capitalist, who believes that he’s got to develop himself; that’s an obligation. 

In order to develop yourself and rise above others, there’s usually an implication, in that we’re always torn between this thing of, you’re not supposed to put yourself above others, and that’s democracy; but then you’re supposed to embrace competition and help yourself which is what capitalism is all about. So how do you reconcile these two impulses? I think those sorts of things are lurking in the movie and they are addressed in the actions and what happens to Norman Osborne. 

Someone teased me, and said, “You’re not going to tell me this is a metaphysical exploration?.” You know it’s a fun movie but sometimes it takes something deep, personal and a struggle that’s fascinating to you and with which you can identify. 

In this movie there was something there to make me commit to the character of Norman who is such an interesting character. 

P.F. There’s an interesting dynamic with Peter Parker [Spider-Man's other half] as well. 

W.D. That’s the other thing I loved about this – there’s a nice structure. His transformation parallels Peter’s. I think if the movie works, and I think it does, it’s – all the action, all the fantastic elements have roots in something that’s very serious, real and identifiable. 

P.F. Does doing a movie like this bring out the kid in you? 

W.D. Anytime I perform it brings out the kid in me by the very nature of saying, “I’m not myself. I’m someone else.” You know, willing yourself to be dissolved into something else. I mean that’s not how most adults face their work.

P.F. Both you and Tobey have got mostly eyes covered, nails covered, and you’ve been in the heavy make up for Shadow of the Vampire. Is it difficult to emote through all that stuff? 

W.D. I never worry about emoting. I just think about playing the actions, but I know what you’re talking about. You just want to make sure they see what’s going on, because of what you are expressing. I think you have to rely on your voice, your gestured language and it is tough because, being aware of that, you don’t want to gild the lily and don’t want to point to stuff. You don’t want to invent a whole showy language and kind of showboat your way through it because that’s not the style of movies really. So that was always the concern and something to deal with and I think some scenes work better than others. 

P.F. Are you prepared for what could happen to your career as a result of this movie’s inevitable success? 

W.D. Well, tell me what’s going to happen. (Laughter) 

P.F. Well if the movie is this huge blockbuster movie as is predicted what are you going to do? 

W.D. You know, I hope it’s successful for all kinds of reasons if you’re talking specifics of a kind of selfish career expectation reasons. I’ve been around for a while. I think when you’re around for a while it’s a little hard to act like it’s a whole new ballgame. 

If it’s very successful I think it will be good for me. It will give me a different profile and certain studio projects will be more available to me than they are now. That’s goes without saying. But at the same time maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t think it will be so dramatic – people will just be reminded. 

Since I worked in a lot of independent films, if that’s not your thing – and some of them don’t get very good releases, you feel like maybe I’ve dropped out. So when you’re in a big, high profile movie and it has some sort of feeling of success around it – yeah, it’s going to help you. 

P.F. Talk about working with Tobey. 

W.D. Tobey is an actor I’ve always liked. As I said, when I knew he was going to play the role, I thought, “This is interesting.” And I think he’s very good in the movie. 

The thing that’s special about him, he’s a very present actor and he’s also got something that you don’t see in a lot of young actors – and that is he has this certain kind of strength of character. You feel like he’s a moral person without being a prig. And that’s difficult to do and that’s not something you can act. It’s something that just comes off a person and although he can be very sweet, unassuming and boyish – I never find him boring.

You know, he looks like a little lost kid sometimes, but I don’t feel like he’s working it. I feel like he just very present and I feel like he’s never got an agenda outside of the movie. I really think he gives over to the material and that’s what you want actors to do.

P.F. What about Sam Raimi? What’s he like as a director? 

W.D. Sam Raimi is a wonderful goof ball. He’s very warm, runs a really nice set where he makes everybody feel they’ve got a say. But it motivates people really to be on the top of their game and the actors in particular, he really encourages you to make up stuff. I mean, on the surface he’s very wholesome and wears a suit every day to the set. I once asked him: “Sam, why do you wear a suit?” He said, “I’m just being respectful.” 

He means it and when you listen to him talk about Spider-man, he talks about some of the characters with such love; there’s something very square, wholesome and “gee whiz” about him. 

But he’s also got a very perverse under thing and I felt like I was his little agent of that perversity and for me that’s a good place to be. (Laughter)

I felt like he would kind of send me out in the movie to mess with stuff and that’s a very playful, good place to be. So, he laughed at my jokes and he let me fool around. He often would say to me after we did basically a take the way he thought it should be done. He’d say, “What do you think, buddy?” And if I said, “Sam, I’d like to do one and really do it very different.” He’d say, “Hey, that sound great.” I mean, 

P.F. Did he use your ideas? 

W.D. Oh, my yes. 

P.F. That’s good. 

W.D. No, he’s very game and I mean it’s not just a show. I think he, he does that because he, he loves actors. I mean he’s an actor himself. He loves actors and it’s a genuine desire to get input from people. In the end, he’s tough; he finally makes a decision, don’t get me wrong. He’s not soft, but he gives the illusion that we’re all in this together and he really wants to know what we think.

P.F. Do you have empathy with your character? 

W.D. All I have is empathy with all characters I do because that’s my job. 

P.F. Do you look forward to going back and doing a small character piece in an independent film without any special effects? 

W.D. I don’t know what I’m looking forward to. I mean right now I am looking at stuff, but there’s always a part of me that wants to do something that’s a little less veiled, not as big a mask, something that feels a little closer to me, with fewer toys to play with, but at the same time, as an actor, I love playing with the toys and I work best with them now. 

Sometimes when something is very close to me, it can flatten me out because I can take bigger leaps when I work from a place of not knowing and curiosity and if I see a character and I think oh that’s quite like me, it can get a gravity where I can drag me into myself. 

One of the pleasures of performing and pretending, is that you dissolve in something else, the world drops away and you become like nature and that’s, when that really happens; those are the best performances.