It was only a matter of time before Willem Dafoe worked with Yorgos Lanthimos, and the result is everything you might expect and more. In Poor Things, the actor plays Dr. Godwin Baxter, a Scottish scientist given to sewing dog’s heads onto chickens, and we meet him after completing the most important experiment of his life: by transplanting an infant’s brain into the skull of its dead mother, he creates the anarchic and wholly unpredictable Bella (Emma Stone). It may sound creepy, most likely because it really is, but Dafoe brings a surprising sadness to the role. Here, he reflects on the film’s strange, unique world, raises the curtain on 2024, and talks a little about his recent festival hit Inside, in which he plays a clueless thief who becomes trapped in the apartment of a wealthy art collector.
DEADLINE: Yorgos Lanthimos seems like a good fit for you. Did you lobby to work with him?
DAFOE: I follow his stuff, but, no. For this, one day someone called me up and said, “Yorgos Lanthimos wants to talk to you.” And then Emma and Yorgos called me, told me the rough story, said where it came from, what the role would be, and I said, “Great. When?”
DEADLINE: As simple as that?
DAFOE: It really was. It really was.
DEADLINE: Did you read the book by Alasdair Gray?
DAFOE: I did, but quite late. That wasn’t key, for some reason. I always say that, for preparation, you do what you feel you need to do, and I didn’t feel the need immediately. Of course, I became curious, and I read it a little later. The book’s quite different. So, in a way it didn’t help or hurt. But I did look at videos of Alasdair Gray, and that was very helpful because clearly, he put a lot of himself into Dr. Godwin Baxter, it seems. Well, it seems. You should look at his videos because he’s quite a character. He’s quite eccentric, and he’s got a wicked sense of humor, and also — not that I imitated it — he gave me a feeling for the character in his way of speaking. It’s not the way Godwin Baxter speaks, but he talks in spurts. And, also, his accent’s all over the place. I mean, really, it explodes some places, it’s real heavy sometimes, and then it’s very light. So, that was a little bit of a lesson.
DEADLINE: Was it your choice to play him with a Scottish accent?
DAFOE: No, it was written like that. I think it’s important to show that he’s an outsider in every way. Of course, his face makes him an outsider, and that becomes established very clearly when he talks about people being afraid of him, and the fact that he doesn’t like to go outside. He’s a brilliant scientist, but he’s in London, and he ain’t English. So that was important to distinguish him from the others and put him a little outside of that society.
DEADLINE: What did you feel you needed to do for this role?
DAFOE: Well, it’s a little difficult, because it’s such a fantastical world that you don’t know what you’ll need until you get there, because when you get there, you see all these strange things, and you can’t rely on your normal impulses because nothing reminds you of anything, necessarily. We had a rehearsal period, and that was kind of crucial. Not so much to help us understand what we were going to do, but to really establish an acting company and make us all be very cool with each other. We were learning Yorgos’s manner and his language, getting a feel from him. It was very useful. We were basically playing theater games, but it was really key sort of to understanding Yorgos, I thought. I recognized a lot of the games we were playing, and, initially, I did think, “Really? We’re going to do that stuff that I did when I was a kid in the theater?” But he directs them so beautifully.
I’m not sure people know this, but Yorgos is really a polymath, in the sense that he knows a lot about many things. I mean, he really does know about dance, and he knows about music. And when I say that, I mean he has really good taste. He’s a cultured guy, but he’s very reserved. And I only mention that because some directors, when they’re making a film, they delegate certain things that they just aren’t interested in. So, if they’re doing a Western, they’ll hire a person that they know can do Western costumes. They’re really uninterested in the costumes, and when that person brings them in, they’re like, “Yeah, that’s cool.” They may have few ideas, but they aren’t really invested. But Yorgos is invested in all of it. So, when he makes a world, he really knows it. It’s really got a personal stamp on it. And I love that. That’s the mark of an auteur, I guess, but auteur cinema is usually a little smaller, a little more manageable. But [Poor Things] is quite grand and quite fantastical, so it’s kind of amazing what he did.
DEADLINE: Did you look into the science part of it?
DAFOE: I had that up my sleeve. I mean, I really grew up around medicine, because I come from a medical family. When I was a kid, my parents worked together, so when I’d finished school, sometimes I’d go and sit in a spare examination room, doing my homework. And then when I got older, when I was a teenager, I was a janitor at the clinic. So… Needles, blood, urine, all that stuff — every night I’m dealing with it because I’m the garbage man. And my father used to take me on his rounds. I guess something about it is titillating to me, whether it’s putting on scrubs or being in an operating theater, lecturing in front of a cadaver. I’ve seen my father operate. I’ve seen my brother operate. I’ve been there for operations, and I’ve been around cadavers and things like that.
DEADLINE: Did Yorgos know that?
DAFOE: I don’t think so. It’s funny, I was in my study in New York when I received the call [from Yorgos and Emma]. I’m sitting there, and they’re talking, and as they’re describing the movie to me, I’m looking around the room. Now, I’ve got a huge portrait of my father behind me, and they’re talking about this character being a big father figure, the creator. And I see this huge portrait of my father. Not because I’m hung up on my father, but I did a movie once where they made portraits of three generations of my family, and they were really good. When the movie finished, they said, “Do you want these?” And I said, “Yeah, I’ll take them!” So, my father’s portrait is on one side, and then over on the other is a big photo of Marina Abramović. She’s standing over a cadaver with the organs all out, in a kind of Jesus pose. So, I thought, “Hmm, something’s in the air.”
DEADLINE: What movie were the paintings from?
DAFOE: That was from A Most Wanted Man . I played a banker in that, and they’re in just one brief scene, where I walk down a corridor. I’m a wealthy banker, and you see three generations of my family. I gave them a photo of my grandfather, my father, and myself, and then they made three portraits.
DEADLINE: How was the character’s facial makeup described to you?
DAFOE: In the script? I can’t remember. But they described it to me. They told me he was disfigured, and they said there was going to be some makeup involved, and there was going to be some prosthetic body parts. Once I said yes, and we started working, Yorgos would send me mock-ups of what they were designing, and I would give him some feedback. I mean, his team had strong ideas, but we were there for the development of them. There were lots of fittings, because there was a lot of tweaking. To be part of that process gives you more history for the character and takes you away from yourself. It puts you there [in the world of the film], which is beautiful. The best thing a director can do is make a really complete world, one that’s so complete that you can enter it and you don’t feel the stress of having to invent things. It’s all there, and your work is really to be able to receive it and let something happen. I think that’s the actor’s work. It’s not about clever choices, or inventing things and improvising. It can be, but I mean in this case, certainly not.
DEADLINE: How do you work with prosthetics? Do they have to make sense to you?
DAFOE: I think if they didn’t, yeah, I’d be asking questions. It wouldn’t make sense. But the prosthetics in this are beautiful. I mean, it tells you volumes, and it identifies who he is very quickly. It’s sort of beautiful that he’s the creator and he’s also the monster. And I like so much the idea that he’s not a crybaby. He is had this horrible life, and he’s trying to figure out what motivated all that. So, he takes the higher road and decides that it was all for science, because science is important. That’s a very Victorian idea, as I understand it, the idea of self-improvement: “We’ve had the industrial revolution, now we’re going to get society sorted.”
So, he’s very much a product of that, even though serious damage has been done. He can’t have sex. He goes out on the street and people are repelled by him. He’s got problems with his digestion. [Laughs] I love the idea that when he finds a body and there’s a baby inside, he’s like, “Oh, this is such a gift. There’s only one thing to do. This is so clear. I have no choice. I must put the baby’s brain in this woman’s body!” [Laughs] And of course, that’s the brilliance of the setup, because it produces this creature, Bella. It’s interesting; they cut a trailer and they cut out the reanimation part of it because they didn’t want people to think it was a horror movie. And I thought it made no sense without it, because it looked like she was just a sassy gal. Whereas the idea that she’s got this brain that learns quickly — that’s totally open, and that’s not conditioned by social convention — in a body that’s ready to do whatever it wants, is fantastic to me.
DEADLINE: Second time around, that’s much clearer and much funnier. And your character is much more sympathetic, too.
DAFOE: Yeah, I think he’s very sympathetic, and I must say that it creeps up on you, because I’m not thinking of that. There are two brief scenes at the end when she returns, and I find them very moving. They’re quite brief and they aren’t big weepy scenes, but I’m terrifically moved by them. But you can’t figure that stuff out beforehand. I always say, you can only play scenes one at a time. You can’t anticipate what came before or what comes after, so you only realize [the impact] in retrospect.
DEADLINE: What did you think when you saw the finished film?
DAFOE: Well, there’s a lot of sequences that I’m not involved in. I’d seen some of the sets, so I had an idea, and, of course, I’d read the script, but it was still fun to see. As always, it’s a little difficult, because you have a strong association with the shooting of the movie, but there were many elements that I wasn’t privy to, like the music, which is beautiful. It’s really ingenious, and it’s rich. There’s lots of different levels to enter the story on. So, when I saw it, I was very engaged, I would say.
DEADLINE: Yorgos has talked a lot about how Bella is the focus of different types of male attraction and male control, like the father figure, the boyfriend, the rake, the husband… Were those conversations you had when you were making it?
DAFOE: No, if we did anything, we did it by doing. It was probably very different for Emma, because the role was developed with her. She entered very early, and it was very clear that they had a special thing going, that she was the center, and then we’d kind of dance around that.
DEADLINE: Emma’s performance is very surprising. She’s certainly game…
DAFOE: She’s fantastic. [Pauses] I always get uncomfortable when I talk about other actors, because, what else are you going to say? But truly she is. She’s not a diva. She’s obviously got lots of skill, but she’s very easy. If she suffers or she struggles, she doesn’t wear it. She keeps it private. She’s good humored, and she’s funny. We tease each other a lot. Teasing, taking the piss out of each other was the order of the day. Yorgos too. The way he would direct me is he’d say, “Oh, you did a Willem.” [Laughs] I’d be like, “Fuck you!”
DEADLINE: What did he mean by that?
DAFOE: I guess he means I did something he thinks is typical of me, so the idea was to lose that. Now, I don’t think of myself having a typical go-to [tic]… Maybe it wasn’t so much about the character, or what I was doing, it was about how I was approaching it. But, yeah, he directed me by teasing me, but in a playful, sweet way.
[Pauses.] I always struggle with people that don’t make movies. I think they have a fantasy that directors talk to me, and we make a plan, and they say, “At this point, I want you feel this emotion…” There’s nothing like that! You just jump in, and he adjusts. And because it’s his world, because he owns that world, because he made that world, sometimes he adjusts by adjusting the world, and then you react accordingly. But it’s nothing direct. Maybe he might be a little practical. “Faster.” “Louder.” But not so much. He really just lets you go, and he’s very alive in his eyes when he sees something he likes. He doesn’t get seduced by his own work. He’s always questioning. If something doesn’t feel right, he goes towards it, and if he doesn’t have an easy solution, sometimes he’ll just play with it.
DEADLINE: There’s been a lot of debate around the film and the sexual frankness of it all: Will it scare the Academy?
DAFOE: To be honest, I don’t get it. Obviously, my view is colored, although that’s not my part of the movie. But there’s not that much sex in it, and it’s not erotic, necessarily. Yes, it’s odd to see a top-drawer movie star get naked in a Hollywood production. That is slightly unusual, but most of it is comic and kind of frenetic, and it’s not really erotic. I think why people talk about the sex is because some of the attitudes towards sex in the film are surprising. It’s not the actual sex scenes. I mean, it’s fun to talk about, and it’s what people gravitate towards, because everybody’s either concerned or confused or depressed about sex. So, it’s a hot topic, but that’s not what the movie’s about. The movie’s about liberation and being free of a certain kind of conformity and a certain kind of deadening conditioning. That’s what the movie’s about, and it just happens that we’re led through that by a female character.
And sex is a part of that, but I think the idea is scarier to people. It’s like men are threatened by it, and women are cheering it. Basically, it gets to the idea that women are sturdier characters when it comes to sex than men, and that’s pointed out in the relationship with Duncan [Mark Ruffalo’s. character]. Also, the fact that she’s game. She’s game, and we’re not used to that, because, at the center of some people’s moral conditioning is how frightening it is if a woman chooses her partners and chooses them freely. We have names for that, and we put them in a little box. All that’s in the air. So that’s why it feels hot and feels like sex.
But I think the reality of it is, it’s about something deeper. But I have noticed that sex sells, and people are interested in sex. There is sex, but it’s kind of goofy sex, and it’s more about the attitude towards sex, this kind of freeing thing. And we must be reminded that, while we cheer her on as she goes on her journey, this movie is not telling every young girl to go to Paris and become a prostitute to learn about who she is…
DEADLINE: What do you have coming up? You’ve been very busy these last few months.
DAFOE: I have. I have. Gratefully, thankfully. Let me think… I’ve got Nosferatu, which I did ADR on the other day, which is very exciting, which is by Robert Eggers. I’ve got Beetlejuice 2…
DEADLINE: What do you play in that?
DAFOE: I’ve said far too much about it, and I’ve already said so. I haven’t talked to Tim Burton, but I think he didn’t appreciate that. It was a weak moment for me. I said a little about my character. It’s really not important until it comes out, but he was fun to work with, and I think it’ll be good. I think it’ll be a lot of fun. Because the spirit of it was very good. It’s very much there. It’s not a money grab. The feeling’s still there. And, of course, a lot of the same people came back. And they were there — they were really there in a full way.
DEADLINE: And Nosferatu?
DAFOE: I play kind of a Van Helsing type of character. It’s an invented character, but it’s a good character, and I’m excited about that. I made a film with Patricia Arquette called Gonzo Girl, where I play a Hunter S. Thompson-esque character… I’ve got a fantasy film by a new director who’s made a lot of video work [Isaiah Saxon]. It’s an A24 film called Legend of Ochi. What else…?
DEADLINE: You also voiced the Miyazaki film…
DAFOE: I did.
DEADLINE: Have you done much voice work like that?
DAFOE: Yeah. I did Finding Nemo and I did Finding Dory.
DEADLINE: Didn’t you do an advert for Bird’s Eye peas?
DAFOE: Yeah! I was the voice of the polar bear in the refrigerator, which people think I’m ashamed of, and I’m not. The only thing that I felt was strange is when they pitched it to me, I thought it was going to be animated, and then when I saw this low-tech puppet, I thought, “Fuck, really?” [Laughs.] But you know what? It was kitschy enough or something that people responded to it. I was OK with it.
DEADLINE: Is there anything you’re itching to do? Are you going to take some time off?
DAFOE: No, no, no. I’m going to do this film, The Man in My Basement, which is from a Walter Mosley novel. Very interesting. I like it very much. With a theater director [Nadia Latif]. First feature. I’m going to shoot that in January. I got a lot going on. Well, it seems like a lot, but you’ve got to remember that everything’s so fractured because of COVID. For example, four things were shot a long time ago. There was either a long post-production process to it, or it was probably held a little bit so it could get a festival launch. I don’t know. It’s all mixed up. But I like to work, and I don’t work just to work, and I’m lucky that, lately, I’ve found things that interest me.
DEADLINE: Any theater work?
DAFOE: No, but I’m always looking. I mean, I did a little thing with Marina Abramović, 7 Deaths of Maria Callas. And I’m talking to people all the time, but usually it’s difficult, because my background is not traditional theater, so it’s not like I’m going to get a West End show. It’s usually a process. But I am interested. I’ve done things with Romeo Castalucci, and recently I did a little voice piece with Richard Foreman. I don’t know if he’s known well here [in the UK], but he’s a giant for me. I’ve done theater work with him before. He used to have a theater called The Ontological-Hysteric. He was a very key figure in the downtown scene in New York in the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, ’90s. So, I still keep that going, and I feel the need to perform live, but not necessarily in a traditional play.
DEADLINE: There’s a performance element to your role in Inside, which premiered at the Berlinale last year…
DAFOE: It’s a very particular film, and I find that people either hate it or love it.
DEADLINE: To be honest, at first it seems like a great idea that’s perhaps a bit too long. But it does become quite compelling, the idea of taking a room full of sophisticated art, reducing it to rubble, and asking, is the destruction of the art as valid as the art itself?
DAFOE: There’s a lot of beautiful ideas, or thoughts, or suggestions. It’s got a pretty solid premise, but it’s not a narrative movie. With a lot of non-narrative movies, the audience makes it in their heads. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing there. There’s plenty there. But what it becomes, I think, is what the audience makes it, because with a narrative movie, you hop on the train and you go with it. You’re kind of directed. In this, you cherry pick, because you’re sitting with this guy, and, on one hand, a lot is going on inside him, but it’s not pointed at or expressed explicitly, so you’ve got to be in tune with him. And if you are in tune with him, then you go through that experience and it can be really rich, because all kinds of things are suggested.
It’s very resonant, it has lots of themes floating around in there, but they’re not pointed at, at least not with a driving storyline. And that’s why I think some people can’t stand it, because it’s too much work for them, or they don’t have an appetite for that. So, they’re like, “Nothing’s happening, man. What a stupid fuckin’ movie — and what a bad ending.” And other people are like, “Wow, this is really interesting and so fresh. It really made me think.”