HFPA in Conversation:Willem Dafoe, a Beard, a Lighthouse, and Brooklyn

by Kirpi Uimonen Ballesteros November 6, 2019
Actor willem_dafoe, Golden Globe nominee

armando gallo/hfpa

Golden Globe-nominated Willem Dafoe is currently on screen portraying two very different characters. In Motherless Brooklyn he plays Paul Randolph, a mysterious man who wants to bring down a powerful developer. In The Lighthouse he dives deep into a lighthouse keeper’s psyche who loses his sanity. Before filming, he studied the lighthouse keepers' isolated life through books, letters and old footage. While on location he did not plan to blur off-time and work time, but it happened naturally. 

“I didn’t live in the lighthouse. There was too much possibility to get sick and it wouldn’t have been practical. And after 12 hours of working, sometimes longer, you should really relax, repair and get away to get your energy back,” Dafoe tells HFPA journalist Nellee Holmes.

But he lived close by in a fisherman’s cottage.  “My wife wasn’t with me so I was by myself and I had a very simple life and it did somewhat reflect the simplicity of the life of a lighthouse keeper. I was also alone and very isolated. It was a modest cottage and it was out on this peninsula and every day when I’d wake up I was always conscious of the weather.”

Languages were a key for both characters. “The language in The Lighthouse is very elevated and poetic. It is also archaic so to deal with that language also takes you away from your normal way of being and whenever that happens that really opens the door for your imagination and pretending.”

His Motherless Brooklyn role is smaller. “But once again the text, in this case, was very important. I have these big speeches when I have to convey a lot of information very clearly but I’m very emotional about it: if I don’t speak fast enough someone is going to take me away because there is a level of paranoia, caution, and passion in these speeches.”

Besides language,  another element connects these two characters.

“For both I had a beard. When Edward asked me to do Motherless Brooklyn I was growing a beard for The Lighthouse. I told him “I don’t think it would work because nobody had beards in the 1950s. It would make him stand out too much.” I also felt it is disloyal to both films to try to share that beard. Sounds crazy but sometimes these things happen.”

Edward Norton disagreed.

“In the end it does work because the second you see that character it does set him apart, but it sets him apart in a good way. He looks like a person that is totally marginalized. So that accomplished something very quickly.”

Listen to the podcast and hear how it was working with Edward Norton in Motherless Brooklyn; how he got the Jesus role in Martin Scorsese’s film Last Temptation of Christ; why he was teaching in Massachusetts and living at a bed and breakfast before he got the Jesus role; how it felt being naked on a cross; how was it working with Lars von Trier in Antichrist; why he wants to play physical roles now; why he has been living outside of the United States a lot and how that has shaped his life; how his life changed when he met his Italian wife; why he was overweight as a kid and what kind of diet he is following now; when he got interested in acting; why he didn’t take a salary when he was working at The Wooster Group in New York; how being involved with the theatre group changed his personal life; how going from theatre to movies changed him; what money means to him; how he describes his son; and why people should take responsibility for themselves.