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The Man in the Mask

He’s tough, intense, analytical, and never gives anything away to journalists. Ryan Gilbey meets Spider-Man star Willem Dafoe- and is rather relieved.

There are some quotes that you just don’t want to read when you are about to conduct an interview. It hardly lifts the spirits to leaf through press cuttings about the actor with whom you are about to be cooped up with for an hour, only to find that his past interviews are littered with comments like ‘I don’t think I’m particularly fun’ and ‘I don’t like to get irresponsible with what I say’.

But even reserve can be revealing. And so it is with Willem Dafoe, who appears in the new movie Spider-Man, playing second fiddle to the sticky-fingered hero. Now, two decades into his movie career, Dafoe is as determined as ever to resist spilling his guts to prying journalists in far-flung hotel suites. It’s true that a conversation with him can be like witnessing something being dissected. In his words, and in his fastidious inspection of his own vocabulary, there is the glint of cold metal, the sound of scalpel scraping bone- a precision and hardness. Then the tension will be abruptly disrupted by his greedy, gleeful laughter, or a self-deprecating observation. At one point, he rounds off an especially convoluted answer with the whispered admission ‘I never know what things mean!’ followed by a cheeky smirk.

Later, when I’m pressing him on his relationship with the audience, he punctures the thoughtfulness of his own response by adding: ‘We get in trouble of we push this too far!’ He’s bringing himself up short in case he gets too pretentious, reverting to ‘that craving for immediacy and lack of preciousness’ that he says he loves in the B-movies that he grew up on. Or maybe he’s just mindful to avoid an appearance in Private Eye’s ‘Luvvies’ (Americans, ‘luvvie’ is a British word for a spoilt actor with his head up his arse) column.

You have to admire the man. He’s all integrity. And that’s an incredible thing to be able to say that about someone who had a major role in the terrible Speed 2: Cruise Control. The truth is Dafoe long ago reached the stage where his cool can’t be dented by a bad movie here and there. ‘As I get older, I feel I can be more reckless in my choices,’ he says in that measured voice that’s a mixture of a cat’s purr and snake’s hiss. ‘When I started out, I worried about the choices I made. I was jumpy and excited to the point of distraction. I’m a little more settled now- not so much an excited puppy. One film isn’t gonna kill you, right?’

At 47 years old, Dafoe had clung onto his bony good looks and wiry physique as well as his reputation as the most intense and committed actor in American cinema- a role that must surely be his for the taking now that Nicolas Cage has signed up as one of Jerry Bruckheimer’s performing monkeys, and Sean Penn only comes out to play on special occasions. Dafoe has maintained his status by doing two things. First, he has had the good grace not to go to seed. Yes, he still has that whiff of early Elvis about him, combined with something nasty and reptilian that suggests he is really is as sexily wicked as The King once appeared to be. In a culture of pretty-boys, Dafoe is still the handsomest salamander in town.

And second, he gets the balance between art and entertainment just right. His role in Sam Raimi’s hugely expensive and also hugely enjoyable, Spider-Man is a case in point. Dafoe plays the villain (with those insinuating eyes he was never going to be the love interest). Or rather, he plays both sides of the villain- the uptight scientist Norman Osborn and his psychotic, jet-powered glider-riding alter ego, the Green Goblin.

The casting is half the fun of the movie. The whippet-thin Dafoe provides a pleasant counterpoint to the film’s star, Tobey Maguire, who is all puppy-dog eyes and puppy-fat face. And there’s some meaty father-son tensions in the material that Dafoe exploits with palpable glee. The billionaire Osborn cannot conceal his disappointment at his own slacker son, and develops a paternal crush on the more studious Peter Parker (Maguire). Naturally Osborn is mortified to discover that Spider-Man- who is, in the way of these things, the Green Goblin’s arch-enemy - is none other than his beloved dream-son. It all gets messy, lots of sublimated desire and weird longings, but Dafoe nimbly walks the tightrope between tortured soul and trashy villain, giving us a bad guy whom we can pity even as we are lobbing popcorn at him.

‘The father-son stuff had a huge appeal to me,’ admits Dafoe, who has a 22 year-old son by his partner, the theatre director Elizabeth LeCompte. ‘Here’s a guy capable of giving a father’s love, only he can’t channel it in the right direction. There’s something true and tragic about Norman, and I liked that. I try to avoid those roles where I think “Oh, I know what they want from me, I could run with that.” I’m not that kind of actor. I can be very confident and excited about what I can do. But it’s no fun for me to fall back on what I know.

‘There’s a philosophical difference in actors. There are show-ers and do-ers. I’m a do-er. I say to the audience: I’m gonna do this and you’re going to go through it with me; you’re going to experience it just as I do. If people can be seduced to a place where they’re unfamiliar, that’s where deeper emotions happen.’

Dafoe’s most valuable characteristic is his ability to apply rigour to every part. He seems not to differentiate between roles- there’s the same energy, whether he’s playing Norman Osborn or the vengeful David Caravaggio in The English Patient, or the Son of God in The Last Temptation of Christ.

‘I don’t know whether it’s cultivated or natural,’ he muses, ‘but I’m not a snob. One of the pleasures of being an actor is that you get to celebrate the fact that people aren’t fixed things- we have immense flexibility, If you look at characters as different species, I think that’s wrong. You’re a sucker if you make those kind of distinctions. You miss the opportunity to see things from someone else’s perspective. It’s very easy to hate the Hollywood machine, and I do hate it, often. But when I’m involved with it- when I kick my way in or the invite me- then I’m determined to get something out of it. I’m still going to be an artist.’

Dafoe is the seventh of eight children born to a Wisconsin doctor and nurse (‘I spent a lot of time in waiting rooms,’ he quips). He had always yearned to act, but it was the theatre rather than cinema that ignited his imagination. ‘I grew up with the idea of becoming a stage actor,’ he says. ‘I knew you could go to a school in New York, get in a play, do it for a living, and if you were lucky you’d get to be an old man and that would still have been your life’s profession. I was a stage actor first, and that’s where I spend my time still.’ Since 1977, he has been a member of the Wooster Group, the theatre company where he met LeCompte, and recently appeared in London in an adaptation of Racine’s Phadre entitled To You, The Birdie.

‘I do love that primitive idea of getting up at the front of the room and performing a story for other members of the tribe, who have agreed to be still for a short period of time. And I like the athleticism of it. It’s nice to break a sweat.’

And movies? ‘Movies came by accident,’ he says. The worst kind of accident in fact: a fleeting appearance in Michael Cimino’s reviled 1980 Western Heaven’s Gate, which is one of the films that people occasionally try to pretend isn’t that bad. But don’t listen. It is.

Attention-grabbing roles followed. He played a mean biker dude in Kathryn Bigelow’s The Loveless, and an even meaner one in Walter Hill’s Streets of Fire. But it was as the martyred Sergeant Elias in Platoon, a performance that earned him an Oscar nomination, that Dafoe first made an enduring impression upon audiences. It helped that he was in the movie’s most memorable scene. ‘Yeah,’ he grins, summoning that moment in his mind. ‘Sergeant Elias running for the helicopter. You know, that was a lesson. I had always felt slightly disappointed when I watched films I’d made, because for me the process eclipsed the product- the movie never matched the experience of making it. Film sets are charged and romantic. It’s like being in a war, but without the carnage. And in some ways the end result can never improve upon that. But the scene in Platoon- it was fun to shoot, but in the movie it became something else, something beautiful. When you throw that Samuel Barber music on top, and slow-crank it, well I’m not sure you would’ve gotten the same emotional mileage if you’d run it at normal speed.’

He collaborated with Stone again on Born on the Fourth of July; I think that the famously bullish director could use more of Dafoe’s beguiling mix of tenderness and hostility. It’s there in his creepy portrayal of TS Eliot in Tom & Viv, and in his finest recent performance, as Max Schreck in Shadow of the Vampire. He was virtually unrecognisable in that part behind latex and fangs and contact lenses. But then disappearing into the role is all part of being Willem Dafoe. It also helps explain his wariness in interviews. When you’ve worked hard to disguise yourself, the better to ambush an audience, where the sense in giving anything away free? ‘I’m most happy when I’m dissolved into something,’ he says, flashing his bloodthirsty Schreck smile. ‘That’s where the really deep fun happens.’

Borrowed with permission from Like a Moth To The Flame

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