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Antichrist - Willem Dafoe interview

Willem Dafoe in Antichrist

Interview by Rob Carnevale

WILLEM Dafoe talks about working with a depressed Lars Von Trier on controversial movie Antichrist, why the Cannes reaction was misrepresented, and dealing with the more extreme stuff that takes place on screen.

He also reveals why he’s not averse to mainstream movies – although sometimes misunderstood in them – and why the critically derided xXx2 wasn’t such an odd choice for him.

Q. What attracted you to Antichrist?
Willem Dafoe: What do you think? [Laughs] Just so you know, it’s almost a story in itself. I called Lars [von Trier] and said: “What are you doing?” I knew him a little bit because I worked with him on Manderlay. And even though I was only part of an ensemble on that I felt some sort of connection with him and he said [afterwards]: “Let’s do something again.” So, I asked him what he was up to and he told me what had been going on in his life, and then sent me the script [for Antichrist]. It didn’t seem that he was necessarily proposing it for me, but more like to share what he was doing.

But I read it and liked it a lot. So, I told him and he said: “Why don’t you do it?” I think that was special, because I think he was waiting to get the woman first, and I also think in retrospect when I saw the other actors he was thinking about they were younger and not known. So, I liked the material, I like Lars… I mean I went crazy for the material. It’s hard to find movies that have content about adult things.

Q. It’s well documented that Lars had been suffering from depression before and during the making of the film. Was he difficult to work with this time around?
Willem Dafoe: Terrifically… yeah. Physically he was much shakier. He couldn’t operate the camera anymore, which was a big deal because he used to operate it a lot on Manderlay. He just seemed less thin and more fragile. But he was on it and in the course of the movie he seemed to get stronger and stronger and now he’s even stronger yet.

Q. Did his fragile state transfer to the finished product in your opinion?
Willem Dafoe: I think so. But only in that it created a bond between us where we had to pick up the slack. It made him a little more vulnerable and us a little more stronger in terms of the collaboration. You hear these crazy stories about how perverse he can be, but he really invited us to help him. And that’s a powerful place to be when the guy is as smart as he is, as talented as he is and as committed to this material as he was.

Above all, what Lars never gets enough credit for is he’s deeply sincere. He would die if he heard me say that. But he’s truly sincere in the respect that he cares and he puts everything into what he does – that’s why he’s so drained, you know? He may have his jokester parts and trickster parts, and he may be sarcastic sometimes, but he really gives himself to his movies.

Q. How did you feel when the film was premiered at Cannes?
Willem Dafoe: The premiere was fantastic. It was a dream screening. That doesn’t get reported, though. What got reported as the premiere was the press screening. I feel like a schoolboy making that distinction but I was shocked. I thought this was really crazy. It was widely presented as that [the press screening] was the reception. But that wasn’t the reception. That was the press reception, which was very different from the public reception. It’s only revealing because God knows, it’s hard to be a critic and there aren’t that many good critics. They’re also now getting squeezed for space, so they get even worse. But they’re watching all these movies and with a difficult, complex movie like this they watch it and from the get-go they know that in one and a half hours they’ve got to say how they feel about this thing. It’s not that kind of a movie.

I think it lingers, it haunts and if you have to decide how you feel about it almost immediately I think it’s almost impossible to enjoy because then it’s more extreme elements kind of separate out from it. At least that’s my take on it. But I think with a little time and a more thoughtful evaluation the critics should respond to it because I think he’s playing with film language in an interesting way.

Q. Were you surprised, though, that some of the more extreme stuff stayed in and got past the censors?
Willem Dafoe: Um… no. We did worse [smiles]….

Q. What was your reaction, though, when you first read that you effectively get your testicles crushed?
Willem Dafoe: Practical? How are they going to do this? Who’s testicles are we talking about? [Laughs] How soft is that piece of wood? Things like that… It sounded good to me. But my first reaction to the script was that this was a beautiful hybrid of what he does. He takes the best from the formal elements of Dogville and Manderlay, with the looser elements of Breaking The Waves, with a couple of story elements from way back in Elements of Crime, to some of the theatricality of Dancer In The Dark. I felt like he really synthesized all these things into one movie in a strong, sensible way. It functioned.

Q. How long did you get to work with Charlotte Gainsbourg in building your relationship because I gather Lars doesn’t like you to rehearse?
Willem Dafoe: No, no… I kissed her for the first time in front of the camera, I touched her for the first time in front of the camera, we saw each other naked for the first time in front of the camera…

Q. But actors talk about building trust between each other, so how does Lars’ approach affect that?
Willem Dafoe: He set that up. He’s very thoughtful and he’s very smart, so that sets the tone and it’s good material. Charlotte knows why she’s there, I know why I’m there, we like each other… We worked together to do this thing. I feel very sentimental about it. I always feel sentimental whenever people come together for the greater good kind of way – and that’s what this felt like.

Q. Do you think it’s a horror film?
Willem Dafoe: Not exactly. I think it uses the language of horror film but I think that creates a weird expectation. Horror films feel slightly different. We’re still dealing with the content of the story and the relationship that’s been set up even as it gets a little crazier. Horror films are usually about playing a game with the audience… you know, kind of cat and mouse games to scare them, nod who the killer is, making them worried and giving them titillation, or “behind you, behind you”! That’s what I think of horror films.

This is more poetic. This is what I was trying to say earlier, but some of the stuff is hard to account for. But it has great smell and great taste to me. Those little figurines of grief… how do you exactly explain that? But it speaks to me. The animals… three beggars… what the f**k is that? But it speaks to me. These are all inventions and this is what I like – that he makes a world where for me they can exist and they don’t need to be explained, but they still have a resonance and help the story along. They’re inventions and that’s the kind of inventiveness that, for me, I like in a film.

Q. Would you ever see yourself in a Michael Bay movie or a McG production?
Willem Dafoe: I can imagine anything [laughs]. Sure. It has to be said that those aren’t usually the movies I go to, which tells you something. But I can’t absolutely snub them and I think sometimes it’s good to make some money and sometimes it’s good to be in a movie that’s widely seen. It’s good to make a ‘movie’ movie and a piece of entertainment. But I’m less secure with that kind of thing because I don’t feel as turned on. In those kinds of movies it’s hard for the hook to be the material because it’s all so calculated. So, the chances are that if I’m going to do a movie like that they’re going to call on me to do something that I’ve done before, or they’re going to call me to take something that’s really flat and try to spice it up because they’re hoping I’m a desperate enough actor that I’m embarrassed to be there doing something flat and I’ll invent something cool. But I’m not so good at that.

But I’ve made some [mainstream] movies, to me, that were interesting enough but people really didn’t respond to them because they had shallow roots. I can think of a movie that’s pretty much dismissed and reviled – xXx2, you know. I’m not here to defend the movie, but the reasons for doing it were perfectly good for me. It is a great story! I also think it’s interesting that some people said: “You were very over the top in that…” But it’s a very reasonable performance, played very close to the chest. So, you’re conscious of those things. But what a great idea… that the brothers from the hood could stop a coup because they can operate better in a free market system in a democracy than they can with the strong arm military. That’s kinky!