Willem Dafoe (‘The Florida Project’): Our film is ‘a celebration of childhood, but it also has some gravitas’ [Complete Interview Transcript]

It’s a virtual certainty that Willem Dafoe will be nominated at the Oscars for a third time in a few weeks, but will “The Florida Project” finally be his chance to take home an Academy Award? He previously competed as Best Supporting Actor for “Platoon” (1986) and “Shadow of a Vampire” (2000) and now has a shot in that same category for his sympathetic role as Bobby, the manager of a budget motel outside of Walt Disney World in Florida.

For this character, he has already won with the New York Film Critics, Los Angeles Film Critics, and National Board of Review. He has nominations at upcoming ceremonies for the Golden Globes, SAG Awards, and Critics’ Choice.

Prior to all of these wins and nominations, Gold Derby’s Zach Laws hosted a webchat with Dafoe. Watch that video above and read the complete interview transcript below.

Gold Derby: So Willem Dafoe, it looks like “The Florida Project” is gonna be one of those “little movies that could” this year with the reviews and the positive notices from audiences who’ve seen it so far. What do you think it is about this film that touches people so deeply?

Willem Dafoe: Well I think first of all, it’s a world that people haven’t seen before. I think it’s got its element of fun and joyousness to it in the respect that you follow these kids. In a very pure way it’s kind of a celebration of childhood, but it also has some gravitas, some content because it expresses the shadow side of that, and that’s the parents of these children, usually single mothers, are struggling. Where they live is in a budget motel. They’re people that don’t have permanent residence, and they’re longtime residents at these budget motels that are in central Florida in the shadow of the amusement parks. So it’s a very particular world, but I think it has a humanist view that people will be touched by, not only by the children but also the interaction of the people who deal with each other the best they can in a very challenging circumstance.

GD: What you’re talking about is what’s so interesting about the movie, is that on the one hand it’s this neo-realistic look at these people who live pretty grim lives, but it is seen through the lens of this young child and so everything has almost a fairy tale element, in all of the colors of the motel and things like that, right?

WD: Right, but then you’ve got it very rooted in the reality. In fact, we shot at a motel that actually… our story reflects the way these people are living, and some of the people that live in the condition of our story were living right alongside us as we shot.

GD: So tell us a little bit about Bobby, the character you play.

WD: Bobby’s an interesting character. He runs the motel, he’s the manager of the motel. He lives there. He’s not much different than the people that are living there, except for he’s in a position of authority in the respect that he has to keep the motel running, he’s responsible to keep everything legal, everything paid up, but the main thing is he wears a lot of hats. He’s a complex character and he has to deal with all the different residents in lots of different ways. So he’s part father figure to the children, he’s part janitor, he’s part policeman, he’s all kinds of things. With each person, the way he deals with them is quite specific. He has different strategies for different people.

GD: Like you said, he is like a father figure for these children. Particularly you look at these kids who don’t have fathers in their lives and their mothers had children very early on in life, almost too early in some ways. Can you talk about the ways in which Bobby is like a father figure for these children?

WD: Well the kids are running around. This world deals with families living in the size of a motel room where most of the space is taken up by the queen-size bed, a very small bathroom and a little area for possessions. It’s a very cramped environment so the kids and particularly since it’s Florida and particularly since it’s summertime, they’re outside hanging out, getting into trouble, raising hell, grifting, and Bobby’s responsible for the security not only of the place but he keeps an eye on those kids. Those kids become his kids. And that’s nothing that’s written. That’s nothing that’s specifically expressed. It’s just the nature of, this is his community and it’s a natural human response to see the need these kids have, for everything from discipline to cutting them slack to enjoying them. Also with the children he has many different reactions.

GD: There’s a particularly powerful moment towards the end. I hope I don’t give anything away to people who haven’t seen the movie yet but when Child Services comes to the hotel to take a look at the young girl’s room, you’re trying to, in the best way that you can, shield her from that, but you see at the end the limitations that he has in being able to protect her from everything, right?

WD: That’s true, and I think without giving away the end, one of the things that I loved about the character of Bobby is, he’s not an extraordinarily gifted person. He’s not an extraordinary person. He’s quite a normal person. He’s a working class guy trying to make it day to day, but his pride in his work and his optimism against a really difficult situation is touching to me. And I don’t think it’s candy-coated. I think I see this in people. In fact, when I was doing research and I was talking to people that had his kind of job in challenging places like this, the one thing that came through in all of them, is they had a pride in their work and they were always hoping they could in their little way make things a little better and tomorrow was a better day. So in the face of a lot of difficulty, Bobby sometimes is a portrait of a very average man trying to make things better and I’m moved by that, because it’s about people extending themselves beyond their abilities and also extending themselves to other people. Not became it’s a conscious altruism or kindness, but just because it’s the most natural thing to do, because their wellbeing affects his wellbeing. And in this community that becomes very concrete and it’s not a polemical thing, it’s very practical, and you see how that’s where the humanness comes in. That’s where it occurs to me that we need each other. We should help each other. Now that sounds very prosaic but I think the film expresses itself in a way that we can relate to and that we like everyday heroism and everyday kindness.

GD: And it is so interesting the ways in which your character tries to help this young girl and her mother, who is constantly giving you so much trouble in this motel. Can you talk a little bit about the dynamic between the three of them?

WD: Okay. The main character Moonee, is six years old, and her mother is a very young mother. I don’t know what age she is, but she’s tatted out, she likes to party, she’s trying to make ends meet, she used to work dancing but she lost that job. She’s having trouble finding another job. She loves her daughter. She does the best she can, but she has trouble finding work, so she naturally has a survival ability, instinct. She is involved in certain grifts and certain illegal things and Bobby’s trying to help her, but at the same time, because she’s alienated and she’s practiced at trying to get over on “The Man,” Bobby, in this case, is “The Man,” but he also understands her situation. So he doesn’t wanna be played by her, so he has to be tough, but at the same time he identifies with her and he wants to protect her. So there’s a tension about their relationship. It’s not as simple as he dislikes her or he’s unhappy with her, or she’s a problem. It’s more complex than that because her problem somewhere is Bobby’s problem. He takes it personally and you see that push and pull in the scenes.

GD: Can you talk about working, because the film is filled with so many newcomers and they give such great, natural performances, can you talk a bit about the working relationship between you and the other actors on set? It feels so much like there is such history between you guys.

WD: Right, Sean [Baker], the way he builds a cast, not only in this movie but previous movies, he always mixes non-actors with actors, new actors with more seasoned actors. He likes to mix it up, and I think that’s good because you invite different perspectives, you invite different possibilities for different processes. For me, it challenges me to fit in. It challenges me not to be an actor. In fact, I always wanna do a performance that doesn’t feel like a performance (laughs). There may be rare exceptions in film, sometimes it can be showy. That’s kind of the point. But usually you wanna disappear. You wanna disappear into the fabric of the world and with people that are participating in making this world and doing these scenes that have nothing to compare it to, they had such beautiful enthusiasm and because Sean sets it up so well and protects them, they weren’t self-conscious. They weren’t thinking about performance. They weren’t thinking about career. They weren’t thinking outside of what we were doing. They were really concentrated in giving themselves into pretending the situation and letting it take somewhere. And that’s something that you always wanna do. You fight to get that purity, get that innocence back when you’re performing and here I had it in spades among my colleagues, and they were great, and Sean cast it well. Sean protects people. Sean structured things so they didn’t have to worry, so they were very free and, of course, that made me feel free.

GD: And one of the other great qualities of the film, we touched on this a little bit but I wanted to talk a bit more about it, is that it has such a specific sense of place. As somebody who grew up in the area, I thought, “This feels very authentic.” So how did that inform or influence your performance?

WD: I was a guy that ran a motel. I learned how to do things. And when you learn how to do things and you’re responsible for things, you address different impulses. It changes you. It’s not just a question of empathizing, it’s doing. My life changes, because I give over to this fiction, this exercise of making this world, and it was so complete because the places we were shooting were actual locations. So they themselves breathe an authenticity that you take in and pretty soon, once again, you become a part of that landscape, because the landscape’s authentic.

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GD: I wanted to ask you while we still have some time, you have been around for quite a while and you’ve had the opportunity to work with many great filmmakers in your career. I wonder if throughout working with people like Martin Scorsese or David Lynch or Alan Parker, Oliver Stone, on and on, what are some takeaways that you’ve gotten, things that have helped inform you in your career now?

WD: Well, I’ve always been attracted to strong directors, in particular author-directors, and in this case, Sean Baker is sort of an author three times, because he’s a co-writer, he’s a director and he’s an editor, so you have the point of view in one package, and I love that. I like being the creature of a strong director, being the doer or a small director. So that’s something really consistent. I almost look to directors more than I look to scripts sometimes, because scripts change. But when I’m in the company of people whose work I like and who inspire me, I want to serve their vision and that’s always what I feel most comfortable with, because that allows me to go beyond myself, go beyond the limitations that you put on yourself, or some sort of idea you have of yourself because really when you commit to these people who are making things, you take on their needs and you start to address a whole different set of perspectives and needs and it wakes you up. It gives you another chance at a different kind of life.

GD: And in your career you’ve received two Oscar nominations, for “Platoon” and “Shadow of the Vampire.” What did that kind of recognition mean for you in your career?

WD: It’s great. In both cases it helps. It helps, that kind of recognition not only brings more attention to the film, which is the main thing, but also it create opportunities for you, because it is a certain kind of recognition. It’s recognition by your peers. It just shows an interest in what you’re doing and it creates opportunities for you. In both cases, particularly the first time, because it lifts you out of the pack, it helps a great deal when you’re nominated.

GD: Well I know you’ve gotta go but thank you so much for your time. I really appreciate chatting with you.

WD: Okay, thanks, bye bye.

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