Willem Dafoe was born in an industrial town of 60,000 in Wisconsin. He came to New York to work with Richard Schechner’s Performance Group where he met Elizabeth LeCompte. LeCompte became director of the controversial Wooster Group, which grew from the ashes of Schechner’s company, and Dafoe stayed on as a pivotal force in the new collective.
Dafoe began a screen career in 1983, starring as the jaded and taciturn ’50s biker in The Loveless . He picked up roles in The Hunger and Walter Hill’s Streets of Fire and last year the critics applauded his performance in William Friedkin’s To Live and Die in LA . His latest role as Sergeant Elias in Platoon has thrown him into the spotlight.
He is currently performing in The Wooster Group’s retrospective The Road to Immortality . We had this talk two days after opening night and just as reviews of Platoon were hitting the stands.
Louis Morn The Wooster Group was on a European tour this summer. What cities did you hit?
Willem Dafoe Seven cities, seven countries. We did the Edinburgh Festival which is a very conservative festival. The Fringe was a lot of small companies doing Shepard plays and the main festival presented large productions, Ingmar Bergman directing opera, Peter Brook . . . very glossy and expensive. They didn’t know quite where to place us, even though we were part of the regular Festival and the press didn’t respond well so Edinburgh was a bust for us. But then we went to London for three weeks at Riverside Studios and that was terrific. Then we played Cardiff in Wales, Amsterdam, Brussels, Frankfurt, and Milan. Places that we had played before had some sense of our history and tended to receive the work very well. Of course, there was the language problem. We were doing The Road to Immortality; Part Two ( . . . Just the High Points . . . ) aka LSD, no longer being able to be called LSD. A lot of it is very verbal, even though some of it’s obscured with gibberish and fast speaking because of the Miller problem.
LM Arthur Miller brought the Wooster Group to court to prevent you from performing LSD which deconstructs the text of The Crucible. What was the ultimate impact of that on the piece?
WD Now the Miller text is totally obscured with texts that overlay Crucible. So for all practical purposes it isn’t heard. We know it’s there, that’s the important thing.
LM The current retrospective The Road to Immortality includes Route 1 and 9 which is based on Our Town; Part Two which may or may not be associated with The Crucible and the new piece.
WD Which right now we refer to as the Flaubert piece, because a lot of it has to do with his Temptation of Saint Anthony. There are other texts but that is the major source. I mean there are other sources besides Flaubert in the new piece. For instance Lenny Bruce. It’s very clear—the parallels between Lenny Bruce and Flaubert, right? . . . Who knows how many elements are going to be used because we’re still making the piece. Visually we’re playing around with the characters in a Bergman film called The Musician. There’s lots of layering and cutting and pasting. It’s hard to know what it will become right now. We did open rehearsals of it last year at The Kennedy Center, when we were showing North Atlantic and LSD, just some of the rough material.
LM I would imagine that it must take a tremendous amount of precision, for instance, when Our Town is being performed on video in Route 1 and 9—what you are doing on stage during the tape seems very impromptu. No matter how sophisticated a theatre-goer you are, you can’t help but wonder, are they just walking around? Obviously a tremendous precision has been developed and choreographed during rehearsals.
WD It’s more like a dance or a piece of music. Certainly there’s some sort of variation just thanks to accident and impulse, but it’s tightly scored.
LM For you personally as an actor, does doing a major retrospective give you a chance to sum up the personas which you have been working on for a number of years?
WD One attractive thing is showing a huge body of related work in a concentrated and finite period of time. It takes so long for us to make a piece, that someone who sees one in 1980, then might be busy those couple of months we’re performing in 1981 and might not see a new piece until ’83, so they don’t get the continuity. All the pieces are thematically related. The same props, costumes, ideas, personas are weaved throughout the pieces consciously and unconsciously. When I approach performing these in the restrospective, it’s not only a pleasure to perform so much and perform so much different work, but it’s very special to me because it represents a huge block of history. All of the pieces are so personal. You have associations with the time they were made and the history that the piece itself created. It’s a review that makes one consolidate, formulate a clearer view of what we’re doing. When we just open a piece, everyone is caught up in the task at hand. We don’t get the overview.
In terms of audience response, critically, people react differently to a retrospective. It’s more introspective. A friend recently wrote that it’s nice to see something by the Wooster Group away from that “flash point,” where people are just being confronted with it and with us having to account for it immediately. There’s an initial judgment when we just open a piece, a weird critical judgment that sometimes isn’t very thoughtful. Whereas once it’s already been and you’re not looking to change it . . . it’s there, it’s lived its life and now it’s time to look at it.
LM This is still hard stuff just to view even for critics. It becomes more interpretable and monumental after the second viewing. And for you working on it, it must seem more defined.
WD Most importantly, somewhere, in some retrospective, you get a better sense of what we do. If you know what we do and you like what we do, then you’ll enjoy the shows a lot more. You aren’t responding to them so specifically. It becomes part of your history. This is a great way to see how we work. Not that that’s necessary. When it comes to the visual arts, I’m a real rube, okay, but when I go to a gallery with someone who loves the painter’s work and I know that person and I know how they speak and I hear them talk about what they love about the painting, it becomes thrilling. When I start to see the way that painter works, the beauty and the excitement become more accessible to me. If a painting is just thrown at me and I have a pressure somehow to account for it, then there’s less opportunity to really see it. Essentially, what I’m talking about is that if you have some feel for how we work, the retrospective is a fun way to see these shows. They are difficult pieces. They’re complex.
LM I don’t think theatre critics necessarily have the apparatus to be able to judge the Group’s work.
WD Sometimes I think we should be reviewed by art critics or dance critics instead of theatre critics, because of the way we work. It’s true that we work with a painter’s or choreographer’s sensibility. That is, Liz LeCompte does, in creative pieces. A combination of that and intuition.
LM You played a painter and a forger in To Live and Die in LA. Is there any connection?
WD I started doing a little painting since To Live and Die in LA. I paint just as an amateur for my own pleasure. The way I approach painting reminds me of how we approach the theatre pieces. Half intuitive, half reckless, sometimes using material iconographically . . . There isn’t as much pressure or accountability or coherence. It doesn’t have to mean. I think one important thing about the Wooster Group’s work is—I can only speak for myself because Liz LeCompte is really the director and she speaks better about this than I do—it really is intuitive. There’s not a designed effect. And it’s a different kind of theatre than people writing plays for actors to perform. Plays are literature. You tell the audience something: that is what playwriting is often about. I don’t think we do that. I don’t think we tell people things. We do things. We do things.
Editor’s Note You worked with a writer, Burt Barr, on a video he scripted from one of his short stories in which there is almost no dialogue. Emotions, i.e. fear, sorrow, boredom are constructed through atmosphere and mainly what you project in your face. What form did the direction take? What was the process in making this tape?
WD The project, Red Cloud, was shot in film by James Benning. The text and the shooting were very separate. I read the short story and then with Burt and Jim we filmed me doing some things. These things didn’t illustrate the text, they just paralleled it, and for me, the Red Cloud story served as a loose subtext—like running dirty jokes through your mind as you do the dishes. I was very much an object of a portrait—they built the world and I just hung out in that world. A lot was shot in Jim’s loft and I remember falling asleep during some takes. I was putty in their hands.
LM What is the Group’s working process like?
WD Well it’s hard to say because it’s different every time. I’d say essentially, we collect. We collect things. Whether they’re texts or whether they’re props or a form, like blackface; a convention, a visual idea. We collect those things and we fool around with them. It’s interesting because people talk about deconstruction in connection with our work all the time. It appears to me to contradict what we do. Deconstruction seems to imply someone working to boil something down. And I just told you there’s not always a desired effect. We don’t know where we’re going. At least I don’t get that sense. We just play with those things which give us pleasure, or which are beautiful, or which seem important or fun. And they start to fall into place.
Crudely, we bring in texts, objects, ideas, theatrical conventions, and a direction is presented by Liz. We start heading in that direction. We start layering things. We’ll cut some things out, we’ll like some things. Before we know it, these things have a life to them and they become the thing itself. There’s no longer any question about how they create their own history.
I must tell you, as a disclaimer, I feel very uncomfortable about describing how we work, because Liz has a better sense of it. I’m always worried that I’ll misrepresent her. But that’s my feeling of how it happens.
LM What about Elizabeth LeCompte and your son?
WD Liz can speak for herself. Jack, I’m with him a lot, he travels with us all the time. It’s an interesting relationship. It’s interesting to bring a kid up around a bunch of adults who are essentially playing around with things. He has a very weird vision of what people do for a living.
LM While the Wooster Group remains very important to you, you’re becoming established as a film actor. Can you juggle that?
WD You’ve got to remember, I’ve been with the Wooster Group practically ten years, and before that I worked with a company who also developed their own work, Theatre X. The Wooster Group is very much my life and that’s what roots me and challenges me. When you think about how you go off and make a movie, it only takes three months. Even if you start to stack up movies, which I think can really get dangerous: it always makes me nervous when I see people do lots of movies back-to-back. I think that they need breathing time.
So, I guess most of all the Wooster Group is what I feel rooted in. I think it’s very important. It’s hard, but it gives me pleasure and they are my friends.
Somebody will come up and say, “Hey, you still working with that group? Oh yeah, that’s great. Keep your chops up. Keep the instrument lobed.” That’s not it. The Wooster Group came first and that’s my life. I love to do movies, I want to make more, but why stop the Wooster Group as long as I can keep having my life too. Although it can get very schizophrenic socially, there is that joke about how at one moment you’re walking down the street and people are fussing all over you, and a second later you’re sweeping the floors at the Performing Garage.
It’s schizophrenic but there’s also a lot of pleasure in that. I think the Hollywood thing can present its own problems. If you aren’t rooted your work won’t be as good and you’re liable to get fucked up too. It’s good to have something else, a life outside of Hollywood. And that’s the bulk of my creative life. Also, they link up. We’re starting to do more film work here. We’re looking to make films. They’ll eventually meet each other, I think.
LM When you’re doing a particular role with the Wooster Group, it’s a composite structure of feelings and emotions, it’s personas rather than characters. The problem is, and we’ve talked about this before . . .
WD Was that clear about the Wooster Group versus film work?
WD Because it’s very important to me. I have no notions of selling out and I despise the notion that, “Oh, here’s this guy that’s doing well in the movies and for some crazy devotion, he’s going down to get dirty with this little theatre company.” The fact is, in the reality of my life, the Wooster Group’s a very large, important, great thing. When I’m doing movies, that’s a great thing, too. But it’s a shame, it’s a pity—it’s a fact of life, so you don’t like to cry about it too much—but somehow movies have that success-aura around them, that the theatre doesn’t have.
LM Right, people are going to say, “Cut the bullshit. Why is this guy messing around with a little artsy group.” Their perception of it places it into total opposition to someone succeeding as a film actor. “Why isn’t he just doing films?” That’s why I brought it up, because I think that’s the wonderful thing—that you’re doing both.
WD It’s important that I’m not trying to twist your arm but I wanted to talk about these questions.
LM One thing you said about acting which I picked up from the recent Drama Review interview: “The more I perform, the more my relationship to the audience becomes totally abstract. Spalding Gray loves an audience. He really feels them out there. I don’t. It’s a totally internal thing.” The idea of that kind of self-absorption on stage, your relationship of distance to the audience when you’re performing, is interesting. I think most actors, like you were saying, would be highly conscious of the audience. Do you enter into a self-sufficient stage reality?
WD It has something to do with call and response. I get very ashamed when I feel needy as an actor. Needy for a certain kind of response, particularly for comic stuff. If you do a bit, the laugh comes or it doesn’t. If you get too wrapped up in that, you start to do everything with a certain kind of anticipation, with a certain kind of need. It’s different for everyone but for me that tends to cut down on my strength. I don’t feel as direct. The noises that come from the audiences become abstract. I only do something as well as it feels to me at a particular moment. Ideally, I mean, I’m speaking philosophically. If I’m doing gags, semi-gags like last night in the blind blackface routine smoking the cigarette, I am aware that if I light the cigarette in the middle, that’s supposed to be funny and no one responds, something didn’t happen. But I can’t get wrapped up in that kind of interchange with the audience. The way these pieces are made, somehow they could run on their own.
I also think that kind of expectation affects how you perform and how you view the work. I’m like anyone else, I want people to like it. I want people to like me. But I just don’t function well if I feel like I’m failing, so I try to cut that out of the game. I try to say this thing is going to run with or without them.
LM You must have to trust yourself to just operate like that.
WD Certainly an audience gives you energy. But I cannot . . . it has to do with neediness and I’m not sure whether I’m needy or not as a performer, but it starts to undercut how I feel about what I’m doing if I need the audience too much. Often when I finish a performance, I’m depressed for about five minutes afterwards no matter how well it went. Because it’s never good enough, I don’t know what the word is—metaphysically? It’s not good enough. You did this thing, it’s gone. You’re energized but at the same time it’s gone. Whether they hated it, doesn’t matter because it’s gone.
LM In Greek tragedy, the idea is that the audience experiences the catharsis, the emotional release. I get the feeling that you’re the one that’s getting that, that it’s this doing that’s really important to you. It’s that moment of being and then when it’s gone . . .
WD That idea of doing, that’s what matters, I respond to the doing. The emotional stuff arises as a reaction to the doing, the fact in your life is the doing. A guy came up to me in London. He had read the Drama Review article. His perception of that article, was that this is a very bloodless approach—the idea that action is what’s important—devotion to the task.
I think, along those lines, what’s crucial is the point of attack. Really all anyone’s interested in is the result. It’s interesting to see how that result is approached. Certainly you’re going to have emotional feelings, but they’re a reflex to the action. Broadly speaking, you’re saying something and you’re feeling something about yourself as a performer when you believe that devotion to the task is the thing that will set you free to do greater things. Things that can create landscapes never before seen, rather than an illustration of familiar turf, I can’t conjure the emotion and then have it propel me to the task.
LM How do you approach a film role, for instance Sgt. Elias in Platoon? There you’re creating your performance in a context and situation that is considerably different from the theatre one.
WD Platoon was unique as film work, because of the intensive field training program we all went through before filming. Whenever you talk to actors and they’ve done special preparation, whether it’s putting on lots of weight or hanging out with junkies or being a junkie, they go on and on about it. It makes good copy for People magazine and all that. And people like to hear it. But inevitably it gets self-satisfying and precious. In the case of Platoon, the training was very important to the making of the film, so it is worthwhile to talk about.
First of all, it was jungle training. It wasn’t boot camp with lots of push-ups. It was serious, getting no sleep; doing activities at night where you were attacked by real people. Certainly you weren’t going to die, but you did know exhaustion and confusion. And often you were, probably like the soldiers in Vietnam, required to do things that you weren’t confident of doing. There were always little tests of character and courage. In little ways. Generally, it was very physically grueling and really scrambled your brains.
It was important in the film in that it really set the tone. Oliver Stone had this script, it’s autobiographical. Somewhere, it’s his story. We also had Marine advisors who were Vietnam Vets. It was their story somewhere, too. And I think the training was important as an initiation to give us the authority to help them tell their story.
It’s so touchy when you try to speak about Vietnam. There’s no way you can approach the honor or express a truth to an experience you haven’t had. People did die and other people’s lives were ruined by it. So to say, “This is a Vietnam movie,” sets up a weird kind of responsibility for an actor. Somewhere you want to be in good faith, that’s all. And I think that set the tone and we worked hard. We’re not Vietnam Vets. The interesting thing was, a lot of these guys, including myself, were too young, probably just like the guys in Vietnam, we had no personal political stance on it. We were just making this movie.
It was unlike most Hollywood films. Certainly by Hollywood standards it was low budget—six million dollars, shot in the Phillippines. Rather than going in the morning and getting in your trailer and waiting around until someone raps on your door, you’d get there, you’d draw your gear, your ruck full of 60 pounds of stuff, your filthy fatigues, your weapon, and all that and you’d lay around in the jungle all day until you were needed. There was a lot of comradeship, kind of mirroring army buddydom. A lot of boredom. A lot of guys described Vietnam as being 99 percent pure boredom and one percent sheer terror.
We made a movie, it may not have anything to do with Vietnam. I mean of course it does, but as you’re doing it, you’re making a movie and the training was important because it gave us a relationship to soldiering. That’s all. We weren’t going to die, but it was very important to survive. Captain Dye, our advisor, former editor of Soldier of Fortune, is a serious warrior. It was important somehow, given this exercise, to get his respect. So we worked very hard. It mostly hung on soldiering. As best we could, we tried to get it right. We tried to be true to the slang, carrying our weapons right, doing stuff practically, authentically.
It was practical in the respect that rather than having all these technical advisors buzzing around you saying, “You’re holding your weapon wrong,” you simply had to use it. By the time you got through the training and through the film, you had a relationship to the weapon. It wasn’t going to kill people, but you felt comfortable with it. So someone would say, “Elias, get upon that ridge with your squad,” rather than saying, “Kevin, Corey, Willem, put your rucksacks on and . . .” It was never precious, it was practical. It wasn’t like a “getting into the character” thing. I think the training was supposed to say this is serious, it isn’t going to be easy to shoot this. And it wasn’t. The jungle is one big stink hole full of snakes and rain. It’s miserable.
LM This must have been Oliver Stone’s vision of the kind of movie he wanted to make and he must have realized this was necessary if he was going to make such a hard-hitting, powerful film about his own experience.
WD I think out of respect to his friends and to himself, he just didn’t want a glossy treatment of it. He didn’t want people to look too pretty or seem too well-rested, that sort of thing. But then again, it’s a movie and he kept on fighting with me. He said, “You look like a drowned rat. We’ve got to pretty you up. Elias was handsome, man. Come on.”
The important thing was the jungle, the advisors, the training; it set the tone and was an initiation that said, Hey, this is not your ordinary Hollywood movie. We’ve got special rules to this one and you’re going to play them or you’re going to be humiliated. There’s only one choice and that’s to play it this way. And if you don’t like it, quit. And no way would you have gone through that training camp and then bitched about lunch being half an hour late.
LM I was surprised when you first told me that you were playing the good guy. How do you relate to the question of breaking type? In Streets of Fire and To Live and Die in LA you play the bad guy. Does it feel different?
WD It doesn’t feel different. It’s nice to scramble expectations. I think that’s the important thing. Maybe because internally, they don’t feel that different to me.
I realize at the onset it seems like a major role change, but internally it doesn’t feel like that. It’s important that people don’t just see your face and flash that they know what’s going to happen. It gives you more room, more possibility. If you only play a particular kind of role, it can give you a kind of mythic strength if you’re the best bad guy in town. You go through all these films and, oooh, it’s thrilling to see the bad guy do his bad shit. In everything you do, you’re coming up against these very clear expectations. I think you’d get into this bogeyman game of trying to make consciously or unconsciously interesting choices against that. So you’d always be reacting to that expectation that you’re going to be bad.
I guess what it comes down to, career-wise, about changing roles, is that I want people to come to the theatre to see me, not to see the bad guy. Not to see that guy that plays the bad guy. And I want to do a lot of different things. People didn’t let me do certain things because I had some success playing evil characters. Platoon has changed that. More is available, more possibilities now exist.
The way films are made, they start slotting me in just to be a functionary. And you’d get fucking sick of pulling a gun out and confronting a guy for the millionth time and doing it in a way that would interest you. It would be quite a cross to bear. That’s what I was saying, you’d always be coming up against that expectation. A certain behavior would be expected of you and then it would all be about trying to bury that. It always comes down to doing just stuff that interests you. If you’re required to do the same thing all the time, I think you get kind of deadened to it.
But the irony of it is, at the same time I do believe that it’s me going through all these roles, so that’s probably why internally I don’t make the distinction. Because I don’t. I don’t become the other person. I happen to be that other person in this particular circumstance.
LM Working with a script which defines a set character is obviously going to be different than working with the Wooster Group. But I wonder whether or not the experience of film acting is ultimately any different.
WD In the films that I’ve done, there’s always been the same feel of “cut and paste,” no matter how strong the script is or how much you stick to what it says. A lot of actors like to improvise. I like to sometimes, but I don’t think that necessarily makes a director fun to work with. I like it laid out. There’s enough of a sense of “cut and paste” in how it’s shot and in the timing.
There’s no way that you can read a script and at your first reading, the director says, “Okay, keep it like that.” Everything changes. Not unlike the Wooster Group, you’re feeling along.
LM One of the unique things in your screen presence is this type of energy that to me resembles the energy you have on stage, with the Wooster Group, specifically in this type of persona energy rather than psychological character energy. I think it makes a difference in perceiving you as a film actor. When I see you on screen I’m seeing something that’s much more energetic and diffuse than the usually very compartmentalized images that most actors project.
WD If that’s true, and I hope it is, that sounds like a nice thing to be. I think it has something to do with that idea that I touched on when I was speaking about the Group—that idea of expectation or trying to create an effect. I have no obligation to be transformed into something that I’m not. It all remains me, in that it all remains, my experience, my history. But I’m given the structure. I’m told that someone’s the director. I shake his hand and he says, “In this scene, you’ll run over the hill.” I don’t think, “Oh, how would he, the character, do this?” I think, “Oh, I’ve got to run over the hill. What do I have to consider? How do I want to cover it? How do I want to run over the hill this time?” I don’t think in terms of effect and I don’t feel an obligation to become something that I’m not. It’s very difficult to explain, but I think that has something to do with it. I can’t talk about my roles. Someone will be talking to me about a character like Sergeant Elias and I can’t say a word. Sergeant Elias means nothing to me. Sergeant Elias was me during this period of time in the Phillippines under these ground rules. I think all characters live in you. You just frame them, give them circumstances, and that character will happen.
Editor Most of the articles on Platoon have referred to Elias as a Christ figure. Do you agree?
WD I think they have fun writing about this movie. Elias is moral. I think he accepts his death. He wants to survive just like Barnes, but he approaches life differently. He looks beyond bodily death and believes in karma. “We’ve been kicking other peoples’ asses so long I figure it’s time we got our own kicked.” But I don’t recall Jesus gunning down Romans before he was crucified. There are similarities and differences between the two characters. I don’t agree or disagree. Jesus Christ was the furthest thing from my mind while we were shooting. Character analysis becomes an academic exercise to me. The film has been shot, let people have whatever interpretations or projections they wish to have.
Editor You talk about essentially not feeling any difference in your approach to playing either good or bad characters. Platoon, as a movie, takes a similar stance. It is narrated from the platoon’s point of view, from the platoon’s morality. No other moralities are presented. Can you imagine turning down a part because you thought either the character or movie immoral? What role would it be? What responsibilities would you feel as an actor?
WD My responsibility as an actor is my responsibility to myself. I want to make things, create a performer’s life that runs parallel to my life. One that interests and challenges me.
I can’t think of how a character or movie could be immoral. Negative images can sometimes be the most revealing and positive. I like projects that make me curious. I’m interested in beauty. I like to have fun. So when I think about it, I feel pretty irresponsible but somewhere trust that my Puritan upbringing will save me from being a part of something that actually causes misery.
Editor There is an intensity, almost a fury, to your acting that implies an underlying moral imperative to your characters. Do you practice any Eastern disciplines? Martial arts?
WD I did study karate for a bit, but I found myself getting timid. After getting hurt in sparring a few times I figured as a performer I couldn’t afford to break some bones. One day I hurt my foot badly (a crummy kick) and that evening I didn’t dance so well in the energetic sequences of Route 1 & 9. Simple. A choice was made—“so long, sensei."
If there is intensity or fury, and if there is I’m flattered, I think it’s because whenever a performance ends, or a shot is cut—I die a little. I can’t stand for things to end. So a performance is like a life that I flail angrily through until it’s over.
—Louis Morra teaches French Literature at Columbia University. He has written for the East Village Eye, the Voice, American Theatre, and Ovation.