DATE January 19, 2001 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Filler: By policy of WHYY, this information is restricted and has
been omitted from this transcript
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Interview: Willem Dafoe on his theater and movie career
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Willem Dafoe is starring in the new movie "Shadow of the Vampire." The movie
imagines life on the set during the making of the silent film classic
"Nosferatu." Dafoe is a movie star who is also a longtime presence in
experimental theater. He's been a member of the avant-garde theater company
The Wooster Group since 1977.
His film career has been divided between saints and sinners. He was the
villain in "Streets of Fire" and "To Live and Die in LA"; played the nearly
Christ-like Sergeant Elias in "Platoon" and played Jesus himself in "The Last
Temptation of Christ." He co-starred in "The English Patient" and was the
madman in "Speed 2."
I spoke to Willem Dafoe in 1997.
(Soundbite from 1997 interview)
GROSS: You grew up in Appleton, Wisconsin, where I imagine there wasn't a lot
of experimental theater.
Mr. WILLEM DAFOE (Actor): No.
GROSS: How did you discover experimental theater?
Mr. DAFOE: Well, I think--I went to school for a little while in Milwaukee,
very, very briefly, and there was a small company there called Theater Ex(ph),
and I worked with them for a while. And I also remember there was a very
good, small-press bookstore in the lobby of that theater. And I started to
read various journals that, at the time, seemed to me very esoteric and
intellectually challenging, let's say. And there would be things about the
performance group and Richard Foreman's work and Yazsha Gritovski(ph) and
Robert Wilson, and I got very turned on by reading about these productions,
about this theory.
And then I worked with this company for a while; worked in Europe for a little
while and then went to New York totally intending to become a commercial
theater actor because I found the life of working in a small collective was
very frustrating. And I was ambitious, too. I mean, I was basically a
puritan from the Midwest. I had to go up there if I wanted to be an actor.
An actor was about being very public with what you did. And when I got here,
I just found myself drawn to a certain kind of work and specifically the work
of Elizabeth LeCompte. So I really just kind of knocked on their door--this
is the, you know, short form, but knocked on their door and made myself
available and insinuated myself into the company; made it so they couldn't
work without me.
GROSS: But I should mention that you and Elizabeth LeCompte have been
partners on and off the stage for many years...
Mr. DAFOE: Right.
GROSS: ...and have a son together.
Mr. DAFOE: Right.
GROSS: So what do you think it was that spoke to you about experimental
theater? Was it something intellectual? Was it something else?
Mr. DAFOE: I think--well, I'll go back to what my first impression was when
I saw The Wooster Group work. I think I looked at these people and I thought,
`These people are doing this amazing thing publicly. They're finding--they're
telling these stories that allow them to have, you know, personal revelations,
some sort of self-realization in public. And it looks like they're interested
in doing things that will change their way of thinking, will liberate them
really, and take the audience with them in that change of mind, in that
ability to look in different ways.' That was one aspect.
The other aspect is just sheer pleasure, the beauty of the pieces. They
brought me back to when I was a kid, when I loved animation--cartoons,
really--so much because they were fluid and things transformed, and they
weren't trapped in a normal way of thinking. So I guess, basically, I looked
at these people, they were very romantic figures. I thought, `Boy, they're
turning their life into art, and it's extraordinarily beautiful.'
GROSS: So did you feel like you actually got that sense of personal
liberation that you thought you were witnessing other people having when they
Mr. DAFOE: I don't know. I mean, it's a process, and as you say, personal
liberation. I mean, I get a little shy. I can't believe I quite said that on
the air. But, yes, I think I get a great pleasure out of performing. And at
its best, what it does for me is--you know, it's all about, in a simple way,
trying to find truthful behavior and ways of relooking at things. And I think
that's good training for living even.
I mean, frequently people ask you what the difference is between film and
theater, and I used to--because there are many differences, and it's quite
complicated, I used to just kind of throw up my hands and say, `Well, it's all
the same. It's all pretending. I mean, some of the external things are very
different, but at the heart, it's all pretending.'
But I've come to think that, in theater, one huge difference is--I love ritual
very much, and I like the idea of basically getting a score and having to
reinvent it. You know, it's like in our life, there's a lot of repetition:
getting up, going to bed, eating, all kinds of things. And how we live our
life, you know, is the quality of how present-minded we are and how aware we
are and how we can invest these things that are so familiar to us, where in
film, you know, you're working on a scene for a day, and then you either make
it or you don't, and it kind of goes away. You aren't returning to the same
turf over and over again. So, in a funny way, it's always on my mind. I find
myself always going back to the theater.
GROSS: You've said about your face that you think it's a face of another era,
not a modern face. What do you mean by that?
Mr. DAFOE: Oh, I just look at myself, and I don't know. It's just how people
place and identify my face and, really, my manner. I mean, it's very good as
an actor in a fun way because people can place you, but I find them often
misidentifying where I come from and who I think I am.
GROSS: I think part of the misidentifying comes from your name, Willem:
Mr. DAFOE: That doesn't help, does it?
Mr. DAFOE: No, it doesn't help.
GROSS: Which is not your birth name actually. Yeah, but I think--I always
assumed you were of Dutch ancestry and...
Mr. DAFOE: Right. Right. We don't even know that. I mean, Willem is a
nickname that I picked up, and if I had to do it all over again, believe me, I
would have been Bill or something like that. It would have made things a lot
GROSS: You know, it's funny going from experimental theater to movies. In
your early movies, you play the heavy and in "The Loveless," you were the
leader of a motorcycle gang. In "Streets of Fire," you were the heavy who,
you know, the heavy who abducts the heroine. Oh, in "Wild at Heart," you were
a very obnoxious character with miserable teeth. What do you think it was
that filmmakers saw in you that kept casting you as a heavy? Oh, "To Live and
Die in LA" you were a heavy. What was it that you think the film directors
saw in you that was different than what your colleagues in theater had seen in
Mr. DAFOE: You know, I think it has something to do with physiognomy and it
also has to do with what you project. And in the beginning of my career, I
think if you're unconventionally handsome and you've got a different manner
and you cultivate a certain kind of toughness, which I think I did for, you
know, probably personal reasons--a Midwestern guy, you know, coming to New
York dropping three economic classes and, you know, getting some attitude--all
that comes together and makes this persona, I think.
And in the beginning of working in movies, I think as sheerly as survival,
just kind of intuitively, you start to create a persona. And I probably don't
feel the same about that now, creating a persona, but I think that's what I
was projecting. I think those directors found me, and I found them. I mean,
I went towards that. And then it got to the point, I think, where I had an
interest in trying to change that because once people started to respond to a
certain kind of aspect of, you know, a certain character, I found the things
that I was receiving, as far as offers, were not always complex characters.
They were functions of the script, and they would just plug you in as a
So then I think I fought to try to mix it up by doing different kinds of
projects and different kinds of characters. You know, I think people will
always respond to me in villain roles. I don't know. Someone else has to say
GROSS: So do you think that you cultivated this toughness when you got to New
York because you had been so middle American, middle class before?
Mr. DAFOE: I think so. I think so. I think so. And it's just natural. As
I said, it's a big--you grow up middle class, and then you really do fall,
like, three economic classes. And you're dealing with people--you're living
in bad neighborhoods, you're dealing with, you know, a much more marginal
society among your colleagues. And you're living with people that you didn't
usually mix it up with. So I think you become a little radicalized
politically, and you start to educate yourself in a different way. You start
to identify--you know, you aspire to be an artist. You start to identify with
a certain kind of outsider position in the world, and that all feeds it.
GROSS: My guest is Willem Dafoe. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Willem Dafoe is starring in the new movie "Shadow of the Vampire."
Let's get back to my 1997 interview with him.
(Soundbite from 1997 interview)
GROSS: You know, we were talking about moving back and forth between the
world of movies and the world of experimental theater and often playing the
heavy in the movies. Are there kind of showy moves that really come across
well in action films that you have to be careful to avoid when it comes to
Mr. DAFOE: Hmm, showy moves.
GROSS: In part, because there's a transition from screen to stage...
Mr. DAFOE: Right.
GROSS: ...but also, I don't know, there's a certain kind of large,
charismatic gesture that really works. And actions films are kind of about
Mr. DAFOE: Right.
GROSS: And I'm not sure if that's what you want when you're in a small
Mr. DAFOE: You know, one interesting thing that I keep on coming up against
in my head, and I think this relates to what you're saying, so let me speak to
it just a little bit, and I'll try to work it out on the air on your time.
But, for example, in "Speed 2," you basically know what you have to do, and
you do have a large gesture, and there isn't a lot of--you try to build in a
complexity, and you hope there is some ambiguity, but basically it's a very
long, very large gesture. And in the selling of the movie, when you're doing
your publicity, and in a movie that's aimed for a big audience, you're, like,
creating something that's basically recognizable. And a lot of acting in
Hollywood is geared towards that.
You're encouraged to make a persona, to make something that people know what
it is, and then you have these characters acting these things out in these
stories. That's what all movie stars have in common. I'd say pretty much
they make themselves into a product. So you're dealing with that on the one
And then on the other hand, you're an actor. And part of being an actor is to
be totally mutable, to be totally invisible, to totally melt into the story,
and that's always an interesting struggle. And when you go back to the
theater, you're always reminded of that, I'd say, because you're reminded that
your job is to serve `the thing.' And so often in movies, certain parts of
Hollywood encourage you to be `the thing,' and the movie serves you. And I
think I struggle with that because, basically, at heart, I hope I have the
power and the attractiveness that, let's say, a movie star has. But at the
same time, you know, my conceit is I want to be an actor because I want to do
all kinds of things, and I want to, you know, be able to clean the slate.
Mr. DAFOE: You know, kind of the beginner's mind thing each time, in each
GROSS: Right. Well, I like these points that you're making.
Mr. DAFOE: Well, to reinvent because that's what I feel close to in my life;
you know, the impermanence, the transformation, the always things changing.
That's when I feel alive. But when I have an obligation to make something and
stick to it and guard that and protect that, then it's really oppressive, and
I find that's where you start to create creatively.
GROSS: You must have odd ego transitions you have to make because, you know,
in the movie world...
Mr. DAFOE: It's true.
GROSS: ...you know, people have such big egos who are movie stars, and I
don't know, I think a lot of movie stars are really used to being pampered and
taken care of in every way. And then when you're working on a small,
experimental collective, like The Wooster Group, it's about collaboration.
And although I'm sure there is a lot of ego there, it's of a different sort.
Mr. DAFOE: Yeah. It's very complicated because I believe your best
performing comes when you're serving something outside of yourself, and your
best performing comes when you don't have an agenda; that something actually
works through you. I find that most satisfying, and those are the
performances I'm attracted to. As an audience member, I'm not attracted to
needy performers. But at the same time, you know, as I've expressed already,
part of this whole game of making things has a lot to do with finding out
about yourself and being--you know, having these journeys be public, journeys
to find out who you are.
So it's very schizophrenic because somewhere I believe you should cultivate an
egolessness in performing. But on the other hand, performing is all about
dealing with the self. And maybe I'm tangled up in semantics here, but this
is a dynamic that I'm dealing with all the time. I mean, I can play with it
as opposites and all that, but I'm still not clear about the other end of the
GROSS: Yeah, but then there's also just the pure egocentrism of show
business; you know, of the Hollywood world, where...
Mr. DAFOE: Yeah, but that's the--see, that's one of the things that I love.
There's a part of me that is absolute show trash; that, no, wants to get up
Mr. DAFOE: ...and sing a song and...
GROSS: Me, me, me.
Mr. DAFOE: ...you know, take off my clothes and, you know, show off and have
people think I'm wonderful. And then there's another part of me that wants me
to quietly work stuff out, you know, using these stories, using these
characters as a mask and have me be an agent and have it not be about me and
have people quietly watch this thing happen. And we hope, for all of us, that
something interesting happens.
So, I mean, I can live with that, but, you know, sometimes when I express some
very lofty aspiration, then I have to laugh, and I feel like an imposter, a
liar because I know the other end.
Mr. DAFOE: And they operate at the same time all the time.
GROSS: In reading a bunch of articles about you to prepare for our interview,
I came across a few, well, kind of beefcake kind of photos. I mean, not heavy
Mr. DAFOE: Right.
GROSS: ...you know, like the movie star with his shirt unbuttoned...
Mr. DAFOE: Yes, yes.
GROSS: ...and his manly chest revealed. And I'm wondering what it's like for
you to do photo shoots like that, if you both enjoy it and see the absurdity
of it. You know, again, having a foot in both worlds, in the major motion
picture world and the experimental theater world.
Mr. DAFOE: I do. I do actually. I've always kind of liked having my picture
taken, and I don't know why. I'm not that narcissistic. I guess I must like
that attention. I don't know. I don't know what it is.
GROSS: You like the beefcake thing where, `OK, unbutton your shirt.'
Mr. DAFOE: Well, not the beefcake thing. You know, sometimes I'm in the mood
for it, and sometimes I'm not. This is kind of a funny story, I think. Annie
Leibovitz shot me several years ago, and it was a period where, you know, when
people were shooting me, they were always me to put on a leather jacket and
hang a cigarette out of my mouth. And here she was, and I was excited to
shoot with her, and she wanted me to put on a leather jacket and take off my
shirt and that sort of--and I thought, `Oh, man, this is a drag,' just because
that image, that place for pretending wasn't living for me anymore. You know,
I felt cornered.
So I said, `No, no, no, no, no, no.' And I resisted her, and I resisted. And
we shot lots of other stuff. And then at the end, she was so nice. I said,
`Oh, what the hell?' And I said, `OK, let's do a couple.' So I took off my
shirt, put on this leather jacket, and she shot about three shots, and one of
them went on to be a picture that is like a postcard and is in a book, and I
see it a lot and it's a very beautiful picture. So who knows?
GROSS: Well, we're out of time. I wish we had more time to talk, but,
unfortunately, we don't. I want to thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. DAFOE: Sure. Sure. My pleasure.
GROSS: Willem Dafoe recorded in 1997. He's starring in the new movie "Shadow
of the Vampire." It opens nationally next week.
Coming up, film critic Henry Sheehan considers the box office success of the
new teen movie "Save the Last Dance." This is FRESH AIR.
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Review: New teen movie, "Save the Last Dance"
TERRY GROSS, host:
The new teen movie "Save the Last Dance" grossed over $27 million last
weekend, dislodging "Cast Away" from first place. Film critic Henry Sheehan
considers its success and the history of movies aimed at teen-agers.
HENRY SHEEHAN reporting:
"Save the Last Dance," which was produced by music channel MTV, topped the box
office chart last week, which is exactly what it was expected to do. The
story of a suburban, white, teen-aged girl, who realizes her dancing ambitions
after enrolling in a black, inner-city high school, was designed and
structured to fit in with a preplanned marketing campaign. Ever since
"Titanic" played on and on through winter months, largely thanks to teen-age
girls, producers have seized on those audience demographics, release dates and
marketing strategies as the grounds for making teen movies.
There was a time when teen-exploitation pictures were truer expressions of
adolescent angst and exuberance. During a 30-year heyday, which began in the
mid-1950s, movies, from "High School Confidential!" to "Rock 'n' Roll High
School," boasted explosive brews of romance, social status, sexuality and rock
'n' roll. In comparison, "Save the Last Dance" is lackadaisical and tame.
Those older exploitation movies were mostly made by small companies, who had
to shoot on the quick, book whatever theaters they could and mount hit-and-run
"Save the Last Dance" is teen-age exploitation 21st century style. Both MTV,
its producer, and Paramount, its distributor, are part of the same mega-mega
entertainment firm, Viacom. Huge corporate muscle lies behind its innocent,
So what kind of movie does all that boardroom calculation result in? Julia
Stiles, a talented, young actress, who has alternated appearances in Hollywood
productions with more ambitious, independent work, stars as Sara. Stiles is
not much of a dancer, but she's an excellent actress and a dynamic presence.
Insofar as the movie ever works, it's thanks to her.
Sara starts off in a small town in downstate Illinois, where she nurtures
dreams of studying ballet at Juilliard. Unfortunately, she not only botches
an audition, but loses her mother in the process. Sara feels guilty because
Mom died in a car crash on the way to the audition, so by the time she has
moved to her estranged father's Chicago apartment, she's given up dancing.
From this point on, the movie collapses into episodes.
In the first of them, Sara befriends Chenille, a black girl who clues Sara in
on the local lifestyle. In the second, she starts dating Chenille's brother,
Derek, a perfect teen-age girl's fantasy. He's handsome, bright, a good
dancer, a dedicated student and so loves children that he plans on becoming a
pediatrician. After that, the movie fractures even more. There's a sequence
of Derek trying to talk his best friend out of a life of crime. In another,
Derek's old girlfriend hassles Sara. And, finally, Derek encourages Sara to
tie on the old ballet shoes once again.
All these vignettes sorely lack dramatic passion, despite their potential.
Take black-white sexual relations. It's all wrapped up in one scene featuring
Sara and Chenille. Sara's been clocked by Derek's old girlfriend, Nikki, and
Chenille decides to tell her friend why.
(Soundbite from "Save the Last Dance" with child crying in background)
JULIA STILES: (As Sara) She started it. I told you what she said.
"CHENILLE": Maybe she didn't have no business getting up in your face, but
she had reason to say what she said.
STILES: (As Sara) Wait a minute. You agree with her?
"CHENILLE": You and Derek act like it don't bother people to see you two
together, like it don't hurt people to see.
STILES: (As Sara) Well, we like each other. What is the big damn deal? It's
me and him, not us and other people.
"CHENILLE": Black people, Sara. Black women. Derek's about something. He's
smart, he's motivated, he's for real. He's not just going to make some babies
and not take care of them or run the streets messing up his life. He's going
to make something of himself, and here you come white, so you've got to be
right. And you take whatever few decent men we have left, after jail, drugs
and drive-by. That is what Nikki meant about you up in our world.
STILES: (As Sara) There's only one world, Chenille.
"CHENILLE": That is what they teach you. We know different.
SHEEHAN: In the movie, life becomes a series of topics rather than
experiences: why I want to dance, what I look for in a boyfriend, interracial
friendships, interracial dating. Line them up and knock them down
Everything about the movie evokes television, even the dancing. Director
Thomas Carter shoots the handful of dance numbers like music videos,
emphasizing not the whole body, but just various parts of it. But where's the
irreverence, the taboo-shattering, the effrontery? "Save the Last Dance"
isn't a real teen picture. It's some adult's idea of what a teen picture
should be. This, indeed, is your parents' MTV.
GROSS: Henry Sheehan is film critic for the Orange County Register.
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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