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Willem Dafoe on Early Film Roles, Working With Robert Eggers on ‘The Lighthouse’

A four-time Academy Award nominee, Willem Dafoe developed his cinematic charisma — seen in films like “The Florida Project” and “At Eternity’s Gate” — in his early career in theater. After studying drama at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Dafoe moved to New York in 1976 and joined what would eventually become The Wooster Group. His involvement in the experimental troupe led him to film and his first mention in Variety on Aug. 25, 1981, for his performance in “Breakdown” (now called “The Loveless”). Dafoe continued with the group for 27 years, building an impressive filmography along the way that includes “To Live and Die in L.A.” (1985); “Platoon” (1986), for which he earned his first Oscar nomination; and “Shadow of the Vampire” (2000).

The busy actor, now 64, is starring in “The Lighthouse” with Robert Pattinson, “Motherless Brooklyn” with Edward Norton and Disney’s “Togo.”  

How does it feel to look back at “Breakdown”?

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My identity [until that role] was theater, so “Breakdown” was the first time I had a substantial role in a movie. I’d never made a film with that much responsibility. There were a lot of people hired from clubs for their look. There were people like Robert Gordon, who’s basically a musician, [as well as] models — it was a mixed bag of nontraditional actors. For everybody, it was their first feature. When we got down to Georgia, where we shot, after the first three days some of the people started going down. They were used to New York City, and that scene didn’t involve hard work. Even though I was new to film, I felt like a company man because I had a stronger identity as an actor.  

Not many people know that your first on-screen experience was a supporting role in “Heaven’s Gate.” Most of your scenes were left on the cutting room floor. What did you learn?

“Heaven’s Gate” was a particular animal. What it taught me is that sometimes you don’t end up being in the cast. The filming was definitely full of surprises. I’m still mulling that over myself.

Is there any career advice that’s stuck with you over the years?

The best career advice is the best life advice. Concentrate on what you’re doing. Find pleasure in what you’re doing now, and don’t think about trajection. One action at a time. One film at a time. I’m not really good at projecting in the future; some people are. If I’m distracted and thinking too much about what’s going to happen down the line, I’m not fully there to perform my best. Basically, ‘Do this to do this. Don’t do this to get that.’ 

In the insane world of “The Lighthouse,” what spoke to you in the script? 

I was attracted to Robert Eggers, the director, after seeing “The Witch.” He presented me the script, and I called him immediately and said, “Let’s do this.” For my character, there’s a lot of things to learn. The script had a beautiful, elevated language with rhythm and music to it. The story’s scenes are fascinating. 

What do you think Eggers wanted the film to say?

Like anything that’s complex, it’s going to mean different things to different people depending on what your concerns are and where you are in your life. For me, it’s literal: Two men arrive at this place and slowly, because of their entrapment and lack of comforts, become stripped of their beliefs. And then they have to deal with each other and what they have. It’s also very involved with the nature of identity and power and how people survive under the condition of being human. In some respects, it’s a very masculine movie. For some people, they’re going to relate to it as a movie about a couple or a nightmare roommate. Others can view it as a movie about a boss and an employee and still very much about a father and a son.  

You’ve got a myriad of villainous roles under your belt. What would you say your cinematic legacy is? 

My legacy! I’m midcareer! I can’t think about legacy — that would cripple me. I’m a late bloomer, a young man! I’m just getting started. 

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