In a career of off-beat characterizations ranging from Jesus Christ in Martin Scorsese’s “Last Temptation of Christ” to the sleazy, dangerous Bobby Peru in David Lynch’s “Wild at Heart,” Willem Dafoe’s performance as mysterious German actor Max Schreck in helmer E. Elias Merhige’s “Shadow of the Vampire” may be the strangest.
At the very least, playing Schreck — a fictionalization of the lead in F.W. Murnau’s “Nosferatu” and a man who may or may not be a vampire — provided Dafoe with unique opportunities and challenges.
“One of the greatest pleasures,” says Dafoe, “is that it’s a role that’s allowed me to approach it from a very physical place to find a physical language that wasn’t necessarily naturalistic at all, so it could be danced and sung. … That’s very fertile ground for pretending and it addresses a poetry in performance that you can’t always tap because we’re usually very wrapped up in psychology and naturalism.”
The result is a performance that jumps between the terrifying and the comedic, with Dafoe’s appearance providing fodder for each emotion: rheumy eyes, rodent teeth, filthy 6-inch-long fingernails, rhythmically clicking against each other from limp wrists.
“I was starting from a place of imitation using the original as a model because I knew we were going to be cross-cutting and I was also very excited about being in that make-up, in that costume,” says Dafoe.
It’s an image familiar from “Nosferatu,” and Dafoe says the trick was to both pay homage to Schreck and take the character beyond where the first film left off.
“It’s very rare that when you approach a role, you’ll know exactly how you’ll look, and somewhat also what the physical language is going to be. But then there were huge parts of the story that had to be invented so the original was really a jumping off place.”