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While speaking at a masterclass at Mexico’s 2019 Morelia Film Festival, Willem Dafoe said about acting: “When you do the bidding of someone else, it’s like falling in love: You have a new energy, you don’t think about yourself, you’re on an adventure… and it’s always better when it’s through someone else; you become their creature.”

Indeed, Dafoe has portrayed a slew of characters in his storied career, but perhaps inhabiting Hector Babenco’s alter-ego Diego in the deeply personal “My Hindu Friend” was among his more challenging. While Babenco’s last film was not strictly auto-biographical, it was based on his epic battle with cancer combined with some imagined sequences. “Sometimes I’d ask him about the circumstances [surrounding a scene] and he’d say: ‘Don’t look at me! You’re Diego, you tell me!’ but at other times, he’d close his eyes and give testimony, a personal recollection as he’d walk me through a scene.”

“For a guy who described himself as an anarchist, he had a romantic, sentimental side to him,” he observed, adding that Babenco could be tough, sometimes brutal, with his crew but “when he was on fire, he was on fire… he could be very sweet.”

The multi Oscar-nominated actor was working on a play in Sao Paolo when Babenco approached him about playing the part. He didn’t think he was right for the role, but Babenco convinced him otherwise. “When you have that kind of responsibility, I always find, the greater the pressure, the more relaxed you become, as you’re no longer concentrating on what you’re doing, you’re not so worried about the results; you’re really trying to be in the scene; there’s nothing besides that,” he mused.

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Barbara Paz and Willem Dafoe Photo: Jorge Bispo

“‘My Hindu Friend’ was not so much about dying but how to live again,” Dafoe noted, since Babenco/Diego secures a bone marrow transplant that gives him a new lease on life.

Dafoe admits he was perhaps “naive” about the gravity of Babenco’s illness. “But he was already talking about his next film,” he recalled, adding: “He’s a man who really lived through his movies.”

That’s the overriding theme in Barbara Paz’s documentary, “Babenco: Tell Me When I Die,” of which he is an associate producer. Dafoe marveled at Paz’s discipline in making it. “She allowed herself to be a witness to what was happening and to be deeply, personally involved but somehow not make it about herself nor make it sentimental.” Paz has a small but pivotal role in “My Hindu Friend.”

“I love how dedicated she was to [Babenco]; she’s quite a talent,” he noted.

“She captured Babenco when he was very much himself, everything from his gallows humor to his more philosophical moods as he looked back at his life,” said Dafoe, who had just returned from filming a new project in Atlanta.

Dafoe recently reunited with his “The Lighthouse” director Robert Eggers in the helmer’s third film, Viking epic “The Northman,” and also stars in Guillermo Del Toro’s “Nightmare Alley,” which finally wrapped in December after a production hiatus.