Willem Dafoe is an American actor who has been part of the film world for over 30 years, with defining roles in the likes of Born of the Fourth of July, Clear and Present Danger, The English Patient, American Psycho, Spider-man, Anti-Christ and The Hunter. Renowned for his diverse taste in films, particularly in independent American and European cinema, he also played the voice of Gill, the leader of the Tank Gang in Finding Nemo.
Recently in London to promote his latest film, the sci-fi action adventure John Carter, he talked to View’s Matthew Turner about playing a four-armed nine foot tall resident of Mars, how he likes to interpret other people’s stories rather than play his own inventions and why it’s sometimes difficult to leave his character at the studio at the end of the day.
What was it like working in the desert?
One of the things that I love about location is that it helps with the pretending. Particularly if it's a remote location, it disrupts all the patterns of your life and how you think and even you might not be able to get the food that you love. You know, all this stuff enters into it and it throws you off balance and makes you reconsider in a new way and I think you apply that kind of strangeness or that off-balanced-ness to what you're doing. Because I think I'm attracted to characters that are in trouble, where I have something to work out, you know, have a crisis.
If you have actor's impulses, and you're faithful to the shooting, the animators will take that and put it on that form...
Did you go back to the source material for John Carter at all?
I did, I did. But you know, the script was really the Bible and it was very much lead by Andrew. It was helpful to go to it, it filled in certain gaps, but I think in spirit, the film was loyal to the source, but it's a different thing.
You weren't familiar with it beforehand?
Not at all. Not at all. It's a gap in my reading.
Does it have the potential to be a saga?
Yeah, I think it was designed as a trilogy and when I signed on, it's one of these situations where they say, 'If we choose to do another one, you do that one.' I'm signed up for three, if they happen. And to tell you the truth, I hope they do – I watched the movie for the first time the other day and I like it more and more each time. And I think it's got a wide appeal and works on lots of different levels. It's quite surprising and the more you sit with it, the better it gets.
Did you enjoy your motion-capture experience?
Yeah, enough. I mean, it's not what I would want to do all the time. Motion-capture is one thing but the fact that I was on stilts was really an important part of it. Motion-capture without the stilts? I don't know, but the combination of those two things was really interesting, because it gave me a whole new body, it gave me a whole new way of being – it forced me ... That became the approach to the character. You had no choice. Those are the rules!
Was there a period of stilts training?
There was. You know, the truth is there's not that much training in stilts. The first thing that you learn is how to fall down. I never fell, but in the beginning, with some mats, it's scary, because your tendency when you fall is to break your fall [with your hands] but if you do that, you're going to snap your wrists, so if you're falling, you've got to collapse. So we practised that.
And then after that we'd just strap them on and the stunt men would follow us around and make sure we didn't fall on our faces. But practice, practice. We'd play catch, we'd try running a little bit, we'd play games, just to get comfortable. Then, on that, you add on the other stuff and it becomes another practice period, because your balance is completely changed. And it's something you get comfortable with. Because the shooting is so long, every time you're not shooting, you know, you're strapping those things on and the nature of all the technology, there's lots of waiting, so you get plenty of practice.
Did you record the voice while you were wearing the stilts?
Oh, of course. We shoot it in many modes, but the main thing is we shoot it conventionally, we try to get the scene, we try to realise the story, almost as if we aren't going to animate, just so we can find the performances and the animators have something really concrete and clear to work from. Andrew believes that then those characters will have the heart and soul, if you have actor's impulses, if you have an actor play it and then you're faithful to the shooting, the animators will take that and put it on that form. So it's exactly the same with the voices – they're recording you just like they would with any other scene.