Willem Dafoe has two Oscar contenders this year that explore darkness in humanity: “Motherless Brooklyn” and “The Lighthouse.” In Edward Norton‘s “Motherless Brooklyn,” Dafoe plays Paul Randolph, a man involved in New York politics, while Robert Eggers‘ “The Lighthouse” finds him co-starring with Robert Pattinson as a lighthouse attendant.
Dafoe recently spoke with Gold Derby senior editor Daniel Montgomery about what attracted him to the moral gray area in “Motherless Brooklyn,” the unusual nature of “The Lighthouse” and the complexity of both films. Watch the exclusive video interview above and read the complete transcript below.
Gold Derby: Starting with “Motherless Brooklyn,” how did you come to be a part of this film? Did Edward Norton approach you directly?
Willem Dafoe: Very directly. He just basically said, “I need you to do this thing.” It was clearly a passion project of his that had been gestating for a long time. He’s the writer, director and main actor in it. I had known Edward from working with him with Wes Anderson and also we’re both New Yorkers, been around the theater and film world here, so we knew each other. I looked at the script, I liked it very much, I liked the themes in it, I liked the character that he was presenting me with and I liked the writing, so it was sort of a no-brainer. But I also really loved the fact that it was a passion project and the people that he lined up for it were all thoroughly behind him.
GD: As you mentioned, Edward Norton is the screenwriter and the director as well as an actor. What’s it like collaborating with someone onscreen who you’re working with as an actor on the screen but you’re also reading the script and being directed by them?
WD: Actually, I’ve done it before, I’ve performed with the director. It can work very well. He wore a lot of hats and he wore them well. It makes everything very fluid because you don’t have that extra step of having this outside eye come to you and talk to you about what they saw. It all happens inside and also, it becomes very immediate and any adjustments he makes can almost happen inside the scene, which is pretty interesting and certainly, since you’re there toe to toe, there’s no question of trust.
GD: It seems like as an actor it must be easier in some way or when you’re working with a director who is also an experienced actor to be able to work with actors, seems like they must have a shorthand or a way of relating to you as a performer.
WD: It’s true, there’s all kinds of actors. There’s quite a range of experience and quite a range of processes and kinds of performance but I did know Edward and he’s a very smart actor, a very talented actor and he’s just a good scene partner. That helps me. When we’re in it, I’m not thinking about him being the director. I’m just playing the scenes.
GD: The film is a detective mystery drama. It feels like a page-turner almost when you’re watching it. Did it feel that way when you were reading the script? Is it something that you almost want to read it just to find out what happens?
WD: It did, it’s very dense. It’s got lots of really compelling themes and it’s a world that’s filled with characters that when you first see them, they appear to be completely different than they really are. It’s a world of public faces and private faces. Yes, it’s a little bit of a puzzle but at the same time, it’s populated with a really strong central character that you follow through the puzzle.
GD: The film feels very reminiscent of classic film noir in the way it explores this seedy underbelly of 1950s politics. What were your thoughts on getting into that style and exploring that genre?
WD: Well, it’s beautiful that we were shooting in New York. There was a place, a community hall that I had never been in but it was basically, I’m sure there was some art direction but as you enter it, it’s basically untouched. Once again, it’s beautiful to shoot on location and the location that you know but is revealed to you in a very different way. When you’re sitting in that community hall, you’re flirting with ghosts. You really get the sense of, community meetings have happened there before. When the world is really articulate and really complete and really evocative, it helps you with the pretending. It really allows you to go to a different place, be a different person.
GD: Being a New Yorker yourself and Edward Norton is a New Yorker, getting to explore this world in the 1950s, what was that immersion like just on-set, being surrounded by, you mentioned that world you know but at a different time and a different era?
WD: For example, we shot in Washington Square Park and I have lots of associations with Washington Square Park. I’ve been there many times for different reasons, but when you’re there and you have a demonstration going on right under the Washington Arch and you’re dressed up in this period gear and you’ve got the park closed off, you control it, and it’s really held in that period of time, it’s beautiful, actually. You’re entering a different world. I sort of said it before but there were many cases of that, a New York that was familiar but at the same time was framed in a completely different way.
GD: Your character, Paul, is involved in New York politics and struggles with conflicts between principles and his loyalties, not to give too much away about where the plot goes. What was the most interesting or compelling aspect about this character when you first read it?
WD: The story that Paul tells, the secrets that he has to impart to Lionel, the character played by Edward Norton, is the story of him and his brother and his brother’s rise to power. It’s a little difficult because there are a lot of spoilers here, but it points to some history of New York City. The brother of my character, Paul, is Moses Randolph, played very well by Alec Baldwin, and that story, which points a lot to Robert Moses and his rise to power in the city, is very compelling stuff to consider. Some things I knew, some things I didn’t. Sometimes it helps to look to the past to see what is happening now. This is a fiction, but it has certain elements of the New York history in it.
GD: The different trajectories of Paul and Moses show us these different branches of the direction public service can go in, in this very selfish direction, in this more principled direction. What were your thoughts on what shaped Paul to go in the direction he went in versus Moses?
WD: The story between their two directions is very interesting because they start out together. They come from a very wealthy background and they have this noblesse oblige that they should really make the world a better place and they start together. My character tells Edward Norton’s character that his brother just got run down, he got tired of lesser minds winning and then he really shifted. He shifted because he didn’t love people enough and he shifted to a grab for power and he found his way to that power, but having said that, while my character can be seen as this compassionate person, he also is holding out for reconciliation with his brother that will help him realize his personal project. None of these characters, there are no purely black and white hats. They’re complex characters. It’s not really a flat-out polemic or condemnation of any particular thinking or way of living in particular, but it does examine where the power is, how it is used, and sometimes how the power can be unseen and what our human relationship and our responsibility to that is, and what our responsibility to each other is. “Motherless Brooklyn” is difficult to talk about because there’s so many spoilers and the story is so complex, so things that I reference to make my points aren’t really important, because it has to be experienced. It’s a little bit of a puzzle and I think in following that puzzle, it really opens up people to certain ideas and certain thoughts and certain histories of New York in particular that are very compelling now.
GD: “The Lighthouse” is interesting ‘cause it’s also a complex story but the setup is much simpler, two men isolated in a lighthouse and what happens to them and their psyches and their relationship over the course of the time that they’re there and it’s so unusual and eerie. What did you make of that script when you first read it?
WD: After seeing “The Witch,” I wanted to work with Robert Eggers and I spoke to my representatives and said, “I wanna meet this guy, I think he’s a real talent.” I saw “The Witch” in perfect conditions. I didn’t know anything about it, so it really spoke to me and I thought, there’s real talent there. Then, I met him, we got along very well, we tried to find something to do together, he presented me with this script and basically, I had nothing to do with the development of it. He presented it to me and said, “Listen, I want you and Rob Pattinson to do this.” I looked at it and it was a simple yes. Besides the beauty of the location, one thing that struck me immediately was the elevated language. It’s very unusual that you have poetic language like this in a movie, in a movie that, in many respects, is naturalistic. Also, the cinema language that he was using, it’s a black and white film, shot in an unusual aspect ratio. All of these things were very attractive to me.
GD: It’s mostly a two-hander between you and Robert Pattinson. What was that collaboration like between you two as actors when you’re going into such deep, dark places together over the course of this whole film?
WD: Well, it’s just very well-constructed. The characters and what the characters have to do are very well-drawn. They’re two very, very different people. Their functions in the story are very, very different, so how they come together is they don’t really come together. So it’s really about affecting each other with extreme actions and not so extreme actions.
GD: You get some really juicy, deep dialogue passages. One of my favorites is when you’re cursing Robert Pattinson, evoking Poseidon and it’s this whole juicy, meaty dialogue. What’s it like reading it on the page and then getting to perform it? How long did it take to prepare for it and shoot it?
WD: Beautiful. I immediately respond to it because it’s so rich and it’s so well-written and the images really speak to you. Some of them are quite complex. You have to work to form them, to really realize them. You do have to prepare them because you have to find the music. You have to find the rhythm because the sense of them really comes through that and of course, an understanding of the imagery. But what’s really beautiful is you’re dealing with it as a piece of music but at the same time, it has a function dramatically. I’m trying to affect this guy. It’s a strategy. I’m trying to break this guy down. I’m trying to challenge him. So I have to deliver those images and enjoy and play with the beauty of that poetic language but at the same time, it has to seem as normal as any simple language. So you don’t want it to become a big showpiece. It’s gotta still be in the fabric of the world and that’s the challenge. So you have to prepare it, but once you’ve prepared it, you gotta hop on that train and let the rhythm take you where it will but you’re always using it as an action to affect the other character. So in that respect, it’s like approaching an action, any kind of action, in any normal scene.
GD: The film has such unique visual style, as you’ve mentioned. How did it feel to watch the finished product versus what it was like to film it? Did it give off a different sense than you were expecting during production?
WD: We did five, six days of rehearsals but a lot of that rehearsal, normally when you rehearse in a film, actors will play around with a scene and then you’ll set the camera. In this case, the camera was basically set and we were told what the visual language was going to be and then we had to find the scene in relationship to that. We had to submit to that. Maybe that sounds horrible. It wasn’t. It was great. It helped to focus us and gave us a very good idea of what we were trying to do and what the world was. So basically, the movie looked like it felt. When I saw it, of course, always when you first see a movie you have a lot of associations to the making of it, but the truth is it looks like it felt. It really is some sort of record of what we were doing. We were shooting on film, so we weren’t shooting a lot of tapes. So when we were working, it was quite precise.
GD: Another interesting aspect, not just visually but tonally, it’s a horror movie to a certain degree but there are also elements of humor to it, and sometimes at the same time. What was it like balancing that very different kind of mood, that you’re walking that fine line sometimes?
WD: I think it’s true, sometimes it’s very funny, sometimes it’s very dark, sometimes it’s very heavy. It’s not really a horror in the usual jump-scare horror way, but it does get under your skin and it does explore some dark parts of the human psyche because whenever you strip away identity, interesting things happen and things go pretty dark, in this case anyway. When you’re playing it, yes, you’re aware some things are funny but you’re playing the situation. You’re playing the scenes. I’m not thinking so much about an audience or the result or laughs or what the tonal thing is. I’m really trying to just strategize in relationship to the other performer, because our tasks are quite clear within the scenes.