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John Carter – Willem Dafoe interview

John Carter

Interview by Rob Carnevale

WILLEM Dafoe talks about playing Tars Tarkas in John Carter and using performance capture for the first time to get into character.

He also talks about reuniting with director Andrew Stanton for the first time since Finding Nemo and maintaining a level of enthusiasm no matter what the technical challenges placed in front of you.

Q. I gather one of the initial appeals of John Carter was reuniting with Andrew Stanton?
Willem Dafoe: It’s true, that was a big draw. That’s really… I heard I was doing this project and I said: “Get me a meeting with him. I want to talk to him.” I don’t think he was thinking of me for this movie necessarily, but then when I sat with him and I talked to him and he started showing me things and he saw my enthusiasm I think he started sitting with the idea before finally arriving at, ‘yeah, he could do Tars Tarkas.

Q. Did you know the characters beforehand?
Willem Dafoe: Not really. I just knew that it was a passion project of Andrew’s and that it was based on an Edgar Rice Burroughs’ book. I didn’t know the books. I knew Tarzan and some things that I’d read about motion capture.

Q. Were you surprised by the complexity of it when you read the script?
Willem Dafoe: Yes and surprised by the complexity of the final film too.

Q. Was it enjoyable watching Andrew work and make that leap from animation to live action?
Willem Dafoe: You know, he’s the same guy. It’s just more… I’d say. He said the other night that there’s more animation in John Carter than there is Finding Nemo, for example, as far as actual animated shots. It’s just he added a whole movie on top. He seemed really good. He’s a very disciplined guy. He knows his material, he knows how to work with people, he knows how to delegate. He’s really great at balancing a kind of rigour and knowing what has to be done for the animators and what has to be done to make the final thing… and playing around. He experiments with finding what the scene is. He’s a master of balancing those things.

Q. And people orientated…
Willem Dafoe: He’s very good with actors and to watch him work with Taylor [Kitsch] was really cool. It was a special relationship.

Q. What was the biggest challenge of playing Tars for you?
Willem Dafoe: Like any time where you have a lot of physical stuff to do and when you’re dealing with a lot of technical equipment. It’s about getting comfortable with it and forget about it and not complain about it. Instead, use it. And have that stuff not wear you down and lose a kind of lightness or pleasure of playing the scenes. It could because it’s so technically complicated. You’re always problem—solving and you always have a kind of awareness of certain technical things that you have to pay off for the animators. So, you don’t want that to suffocate you and make you scrutinise. So, you have to be responsible about accomplishing those things but also be free to be open to impulses in the scene and not get into a rigid mindset.

Q. He gave you a lot of research time to help find the character…
Willem Dafoe: And so much of it came from the physicality of the role – wearing the stilts and just being in the environments because the locations were fantastic. Also, when we were shooting in the studio here the sets were so fantastic that both were equally exotic and intoxicating as you were working on them.

Q. How did you take to the stilts?
Willem Dafoe: Pretty good, pretty good!

Q. How about performance-capture? Was that your first time?
Willem Dafoe: Yeah. You know, you’re got some additional responsibilities but it’s all performing.

Q. Do you think performance-capture is under-rated though? Are you with Andy Serkis when he says so now that you’ve done it?
Willem Dafoe: Yeah, I think because people don’t understand what it is. If you understand what it is it’s… but it’s a hard discussion to have in any film because it’s so collaborative – what’s the director, what’s the shooter, what’s the light, what’s the editor? It’s hard to say. But I think as some of this technology is used more and the community of actors that understand what goes into it gets bigger, sure there will be a greater appreciation and therefore maybe more recognition.

Andy Serkis is widely very respected for the work that he’s done; it’s just for something like The Academy, you know, the average age is 62-years-old and these people are very removed from that technology, so they don’t have an understanding of what goes into it. But it is performing and there’s a lot to do. There’s not only the discipline of performing but you’re making things and you’re creating things. I don’t think that’s properly understood unless you do it.

Q. How has the special effects scene changed from the time you did Spider-Man to this?
Willem Dafoe: Wow, well that wasn’t mo-cap really. But that was special because I was mostly doing wire-work and jumping around, or flying on things that were on wires, and I was in a suit when I was The Green Goblin. So, that was basically just an elaborate costume. But I was doing those things with the help of certain stuntmen and wires… So, that was completely different to this, although both were fun.

Q. You did, of course, have a fellow Spider-Man villain on the John Carter set in Thomas Haden Church (who played The Sandman in Spider-Man 3)… Did you share a joke about that?
Willem Dafoe: Who? Oh that’s right, I forgot! But Thomas is a great story-teller in general, so I really enjoyed his company.

Read our review of John Carter

Read our interview with Andrew Stanton