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Mr Bean's Holiday - Willem Dafoe interview

Willem Dafoe in Mr Bean's Holiday

Interview by Rob Carnevale

WILLEM Dafoe talks about his role in Mr Bean’s Holiday and why working with Rowan Atkinson has been such a long-held ambition…

He also discusses how Spider-Man helped his career and why he’s proud of the film, and talks about future projects and his background in theatre…

Q. How did you come to be involved with Mr Bean’s Holiday in the first place?
Willem Dafoe: You’d have to ask them! [Laughs] I never really know the truth about those sorts of things. I know Simon McBurney [co-writer]. I knew him from the theatre, I’d worked with him on a couple of movies and we were friends. He was involved at an early stage working with Richard Curtis, Rowan Atkinson and Steve Bendelack. I remember I was in London for something and I met him for a drink at his club and Steve just came by and they started talking about the movie. I said it sounded cool and I think that stuck in Steve’s head. He saw I responded to it and maybe they started thinking about incorporating me somehow.

Q. What did you know about Bean?
Willem Dafoe: Very little actually. I had great respect for Rowan when I saw Blackadder. I remember specifically I was shooting Tom & Viv and Miranda Richardson was turning me on to some good British comedy on TV. She was Queenie in the series, so I think she thought it was a good role for her. So she introduced me to it and I thought this guy’s fantastic. It stuck with me, it was one of those things you park in the back of your mind, so many years later when he asked to be part of this show I thought: “Yeah, cool.”

Q. What was it like to finally work with Rowan?
Willem Dafoe: Rowan is a perfectionist. He really knows the Bean character. You don’t like to tell tales but I’ve read some things and it’s agonizing for him. It really is. He’s clearly a man that he responds to, an alter ego he knows very well, and it’s not lost on you that it’s also his kind of bread and butter. So to see the kind of intensity he approaches something that at times is kind of silly and moronic is pretty extraordinary. When you see him work you realise what a gift he has for physical comedy as far as the psychology of what makes something become a joke.

Q. Do you know people like Carson Clay [the director Willem plays in the film]?
Willem Dafoe: Of course, yes! It’s not unusual and it’s absolutely understandable. It’s a very high pressure situation, the world drops away, it really lends itself well to a person starting to behave badly.

Q. Is it fun to poke fun at?
Willem Dafoe: It is, yeah, because I pride myself on being fairly polite on a set so it’s kind of a guilty pleasure.

Q. When you come across a director such as the one you portray in Mr Bean’s Holiday, what do you do?
Willem Dafoe: Hopefully, you check these people out before you work with them! The truth is I like the crazy ones better than the well-behaved ones normally because they tend to be the passionate ones. They never come after you if you’re holding up your end. The only thing that’s bad about an abusive director is that they bully the people they can.

Q. What was it like performing in Cannes as opposed to appearing and promoting something?
Willem Dafoe: Mounting those red stairs is something I’ve done with a very different intention many times. So it’s interesting any time you witness those shifts of perspective. The beach scenes were also fun. It felt very strange and very theatrical to kind of commandeer it and have La Mer booming over the speakers.

Q. How did the Cannes Film Festival react to your presence?
Willem Dafoe: Well, for the red carpet we stole someone else’s red carpet; we crashed it, which I felt guilty about. It was a very good Portuguese director called Pedro Costa who makes very beautiful but very serious movies. So we kind of stole his thunder. But he wasn’t there for the red carpet, he was there to show his film.

Q. What inspired you comically when you were younger?
Willem Dafoe: I remember reading Mad magazine a lot but nothing really in particular. Although, when I was a teenager I’d go and visit my brothers and sisters at the same university in Wisconsin. It’s quite a large university and this was the late ’60s when there was lots of political activity. One time they raided the house I was in; the police came and they thought I was a runaway [laughs]. It was dramatic times.

In that environment there were some kind of improv, kind of political groups – one in particular called Kentucky Fried Theatre. They probably had more to do with me being an actor than anyone else because they were very humble, it was a little storefront theatre, and they did a combination of basically skits and improvisation. Then they started bringing video into it too. These were the guys later that did the Groove Tube and Airplane! – they were the Zucker brothers. So, as far as an anecdotal thing that’s about the closest really personal influence I had.

Q. Was that something of a spark?
Willem Dafoe: Absolutely because I grew up in a place that was the mid West. I didn’t know anyone in the movie business or even an actor. I acted in community theatre when I was a kid but I never saw it as a profession. So I think that was the first time that I saw people doing things very hands on, that didn’t come from a great tradition… they were just guys who liked to get up and just do stuff. When they brought video into it that interested me. It felt very fresh and radical but it was well-placed socially. I looked up to these people and thought they were really making something. It had a huge impact on me.

Q. Did Spider-Man bring you a whole new fan base?
Willem Dafoe: Sure, kids. I had made very few movies that could be seen by families. Spider-Man had a huge effect on how people see me on the street and also it had a good effect on what I was offered. I’m always amazed that people focus so much on The Green Goblin because the bulk of the performance is the Osborn character. And I have to say I’m quite proud of that performance.

People always assume that this was a laugh, a guilty pleasure or the money gig. I stand behind Spider-Man. I think it’s a really good movie and I think the performing is very good in it. It walks a nice line between the comedy and the drama. I think there are good gags in it, such as the scene where they’re all sitting down at dinner.

Q. Can we expect to see you in Spider-Man 3 at all?
Willem Dafoe: A little. I mean it’s a taste, just for fun.

Q. What are you doing at the moment?
Willem Dafoe: I’m going to Texas next week to do something else I haven’t done before, a sort of family drama. I play Julia Roberts’s husband. It’s a dramatic movie and I play the father. It’s called Fireflies in the Garden. It’s been a period where because I haven’t been working at the theatre lately I’ve done a real mix of movies. But I’ve also been on hiatus a little at the moment for personal reasons.

Q. And you’ve also recently worked with Abel Ferrara on Go Go Tales?
Willem Dafoe: I have and I think the movie’s really going to be something special. I don’t usually say that but there’s something about this that’s unusually charming. Abel is kind of known for making very dark movies but I think this is very close to his heart in a very charming way. And when I say charming, I mean it in a spiritual way. It’s a very sweet, compassionate look at a dreamer. I think he really put his heart into it. They’re still working on it but I just saw a rough cut.

Q. Do you miss the theatre?
Willem Dafoe: I do, I do and I intend to go back. I try not to work just to work; I’ve just got to try and find the right situation.

Q. Are you still involved with The Wooster Group?
Willem Dafoe: I am theoretically. When I said personal reasons it’s only that… I would be there except that I started it with Elizabeth LeCompte. She was also my partner for many years and the director. Since then, we’ve separated and I got married. I’m living in Italy so it’s time just to take a little break. But they do great work and although I don’t see it happening any time soon I hope to work with them again.

Q. Is it nice to get away from Hollywood then?
Willem Dafoe: I’m never in Hollywood! I’m a theatre actor that lives in New York. I’m very seldom in Los Angeles. I don’t dislike LA, I just don’t think it’s a very healthy place for me to be all the time. When I’m shooting a movie there and am working I’m perfectly happy. But when I’m not working or engaged in something it’s a place that I wouldn’t live.

Read our review of Mr Bean’s Holiday