Willem Dafoe Submits Some Of His Career's Best Work In 'The Florida Project'

The actor discussed his new movie, ageism, playing villains and working with directors like Martin Scorsese and David Lynch.

Willem Dafoe’s résumé is peppered with A-list co-stars ― Gene Hackman, Laura Dern, Tom Cruise, Madonna, Denzel Washington ― but his new movie, “The Florida Project,” pits him opposite show-stopping newcomers. The results yield some of the most dynamic work of Dafoe’s 37-year career.

What initially sounds like a gimmick ―director Sean Baker cast non-professional actors as denizens of a shabby motel outside Disney World ― turns into a cinematic gem. Dafoe plays Bobby, the motel’s gruff but compassionate manager, who is used to accommodating strapped boarders living on the fringes of society, à la 6-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) and her volatile, unemployed mother (Bria Vinaite, discovered by Baker via Instagram). Moonee spends her days making mischief and becoming a lovable foil to Bobby, who doubles as landlord and unlikely father figure.

For Dafoe, whose distinctive cheekbones and oceanic eyes give him one of Hollywood’s most eclectic faces, working with novices unstudied in the proverbial craft of acting was a feast. It’s not a stretch to imagine the beguiling man who once played Jesus ― in Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ” ― becoming a de facto messiah to his younger colleagues. Of course, he wouldn’t see it that way.

HuffPost sat down with Dafoe in New York earlier this week. For someone who is best known for portraying villains and weirdos, he was refreshingly smiley.

Willem Dafoe stars in "The Florida Project."
Willem Dafoe stars in "The Florida Project."

I watched “The Last Temptation of Christ” the other day.

Oh, I haven’t seen it in a long time.

It’s wild to think about: There you were playing Jesus in a Martin Scorsese movie, less than a decade after you’d been cut from “Heaven’s Gate.”

That was one of my most engaging and most challenging and most fun experiences.

And to ride that wave as it entered the world to so many protests from Christian fundamentalists.

Well, that’s a different thing. But to actually make it, to work with a master filmmaker, with material that he was passionate about, that was rich material, and then to do it for a budget which meant we couldn’t sit in it. You had this master filmmaker, this auteur, great material, but we shot it like a low-budget movie: fast, decisive, exhausting.

Yet it was released by a major studio. That movie wouldn’t get made today.

No. It probably got made because he gave them another movie. In fact, I know it.

The Scorsese way.

It might have been “The Color of Money.” Sounds about right.

It was bittersweet to see Harry Dean Staton in the movie.

Poor Harry Dean. Well, 91. That’s not bad.

He had a good run. It was also your first collaboration with Harvey Keitel. You guys seemed to become the primo onscreen villains, probably not by design.

For certain people.

Right, it’s all relative. Laura Dern recently said your “Wild at Heart” character is the creepiest in cinema history.

Maybe. That was a pretty good character.

Willem Dafoe and Brooklynn Prince star in "The Florida Project."
Willem Dafoe and Brooklynn Prince star in "The Florida Project."

You don’t seem particularly interested in method theory and all that highfalutin talk about craft. In working with non-professional actors, does that make it —


Yeah. Was it a treat to work with non-actors?

Yes! Yeah. Yeah. And, you know, some of my favorite performances are by … people. [Laughs] Some of them happen to be actors. I’m always interested in that kind of tension you have when you watch something and you aren’t conscious of a craft — you see people, you don’t see craft. You’re not concentrating on, oh, how brilliant that turn is, or, oh, he did that so wonderfully. You’re thinking, wow, how beautiful people are, or, oh, I never thought that. All the worldly stuff is left out, so you want to disappear into the reality. And of course that’s limited, and it depends on what kind of movie. In some movies, you do want a performance that’s in your face and theatrical. But for something like this, clearly, you want to disappear in the fact that the other actors are a combination of street casting and people that live at where we’re shooting and new actors and children. It’s all mixed, and my job is to fit in, to find my place in that environment, in that ecology.

I like that because it forces you to surrender to an alternate reality, and that’s the first condition for pretending. That’s the first condition for making something: that it’s not to service you ― it’s to service something that’s greater than you. I embrace that situation, and I say, “Great.” You have all these different perspectives; you have all these different experiences. I’m good with dealing with 6-year-olds. They’re going to challenge me in a way that one of my contemporaries can’t.

What was the first day of shooting like?

Ah, well, that’s very particular because I hate first days. I’m always nervous on the first day because it’s always a struggle to know what you’re doing. And when I say “know what you’re doing,” I’m not talking about performance — I’m talking about “what is this, where are we, what are we doing, who’s who, what do I feel?”

You have to find naturalism in that unfamiliar chemistry.

Yeah. But I will say, one thing that I do remember that’s close to the first day is I did some excursions and some interviews and the normal research to understand that place and also help with character choices, from everything to costume to the way I would say things, my accent, that sort of thing. I did that normal stuff, but I wasn’t necessarily hanging out, for example, with Bria and Brooklynn before I did a scene with them. I remember specifically when I went to their room, which was already dressed and was where they were kind of living, that when I met Bria, all tatted out and green in her hair and pierced and full of attitude, I thought, “She’s not an actress. She can’t be an actress. This is too good. This is too real! Where did they find her?” And then of course Brooklynn was a real firecracker. The combination of the two, I thought, “This is good. I can deal with this in the context of Bobby, the manager of the motel.” And that’s where it starts. Of course, with time, just through playing the scenes, you get close and you have a relationship.

The nature of the film is such that much of it feels improvisational. Compared to other movies you’ve done, would you describe the experience that way?

Yeah, I think that’s right. Well, I hate to compare because you say that and now I’m running through my catalog to see if there’s exceptions. Never say never, and never say sure, you know? But one thing I hear is that it has a kind of authenticity of behavior that only can happen sometimes with improvisation because there’s an accidental quality to it, an unpolished quality, a flawed, real-life quality to it.

As quickly as I say that, I think about the directors you’ve worked with, even the ones who write their own material —

Abel Ferrara’s a good example. A lot of his stuff is sometimes very written, but inside of what’s written, there’s lots of improvisation.

Harvey Keitel, Willem Dafoe and Barbara Hershey star in "The Last Temptation of Christ," released in 1988.
Harvey Keitel, Willem Dafoe and Barbara Hershey star in "The Last Temptation of Christ," released in 1988.
Sunset Boulevard via Getty Images

But not with someone like David Lynch, right?

No. He’s very precise. And Wes Anderson, you may do something to prepare or to find something, but he sees the movie before you even arrive.

He might as well just hand you a play-by-play.

Yeah, which is a beautiful thing. I like it. I like it all ways — that’s my thing.

We mentioned that today’s studios would be unwilling to make “Last Temptation of Christ.” I’m thinking about the back half of your résumé, which has a handful of big-budget tentpole projects. Was there a moment when you realized that was the way Hollywood was going and decided to play along? It doesn’t seem like your brand, so to speak.

No, I mean, if you’re talking about something like “Spider-Man,” I liked Sam Raimi. It was a good role. It was a double role, and I [liked that there was] action in it, because I love doing physical stuff and I have some facility with that stuff. In fact, I perform from a very physical place, usually. My body is my friend — it’s the motor, it’s the intelligence. But it’s not that calculated. I never think about where Hollywood is going. I try to think about where it is, but it’s case by case. I don’t worry about Hollywood. I worry about what interests me, because it’s got to be specific to me. Otherwise, I won’t be able to contribute in a full way.

What do you think of where Hollywood is right now?

It depends on where you sit. That’s an impassable question, for me, anyway.

But in terms of the roles that are coming across your desk?

You know, as I get older, the range is wider. I’m finding a wider range of situations and kinds of roles. There’s always the specter of ageism lurking. I’m not that old, but it’s always in the background. There’s more possibility than ever before.

“The Florida Project” opens in New York and Los Angeles on Oct. 6. It expands to additional cities throughout the month.