Inside Man: Willem Dafoe on giving everything for his craft

Willem Dafoe slowly loses his grasp on reality in Inside.
Willem Dafoe slowly loses his grasp on reality in Inside.

Willem Dafoe takes us Inside his deep appreciation for his devoted fans, the thrill of pouring himself physically into every character and how art continues to feed him.

[Art] keeps the thinking alive, it keeps the questioning alive, it keeps the mystery alive. So basically, it keeps me alive. Art is important.

—⁠Willem Dafoe

Willem Dafoe has been the most watched actor for the past two years on Letterboxd, on account of both his recent and more distant roles. Singing sea shanties with Robert Pattinson, making counterfeit bills and burning his own creations, strapping on the leather and hitting the road with a hog between his legs, melting hearts as the dangerously hot fish in Finding Nemo, netting Oscar nominations for portraying Max Schreck, Vincent Van Gogh, a Vietnam soldier and a Florida motel manager—the list goes on. But his latest role offers him the challenge of holding the screen completely alone for 105 minutes. If there’s anyone you’d want to see do it, it’s Dafoe.

Inside, directed by Vasilis Katsoupis and written by Ben Hopkins, sees Dafoe as art thief Nemo, who becomes trapped in a swanky New York City penthouse after a heist goes awry. Adorned with immensely valuable paintings and sculptures, the apartment is equipped with a top-level security system that locks Nemo firmly inside with no ability to connect with anyone outside for rescue. Days turn into weeks turn into months turn into who knows how long, as Nemo deteriorates mentally and physically, doing whatever he can to try and survive while wondering if he’ll ever find a way to escape this modern hell.

Willem Dafoe and director Vasilis Katsoupis behind the scenes. — Credit… Focus Features
Willem Dafoe and director Vasilis Katsoupis behind the scenes. Credit… Focus Features

“Our literal needs satisfied: give Willem Dafoe a minimalistic but aesthetically pleasing setting and let him do an existentialist one man army chamber play and we get all we crave for,” Shookone writes on Letterboxd, having caught Inside at its Berlin Film Festival premiere. Watching Nemo’s descent into psychological purgatory offers rare sights even for the most versed of Dafoe worshippers. “Never thought I’d see Willem Dafoe crying in a fridge to ‘Macarena’”, notes Ben Schnaub, while lmh23 records the pleasure of “watching Willem Dafoe laugh while watching himself shit in a bathtub.” Maybe Julian puts it best, simply asking: “105 minutes of Willem Dafoe slowly going insane. What’s not to like about it?”

As Inside’s release approached, I joined Dafoe over Zoom for a conversation about creation versus destruction, putting all of himself into a performance, being locked into one place as a traveler of the world and his “kinky relationship” with autograph hounds.

Nemo seeks the true value of art.
Nemo seeks the true value of art.

Inside poses questions to the audience around the value of art. How, without basic needs like food and water and human connection, maybe art doesn’t have much meaning. What’s the value of art for you?
Willem Dafoe: Look, it feeds me. It makes me think in different ways. It challenges my thinking. I get turned on. It makes me think of things that I don’t think of by myself, and then other things occur to me. So it keeps the thinking alive, it keeps the questioning alive, it keeps the mystery alive. So basically, it keeps me alive. Art is important.

The film literalizes the idea of there being no creation without destruction. Is that notion something that resonates with you in your work? Have you ever felt like you’ve needed to destroy part of yourself in order to create a performance?
No, I don’t think so, because you always use yourself. Nobody else is there but you’re working with what you have. You may not consciously do it, but every character I do, there’s some of me in it. I don’t decide what part. I use what’s available to me, and I try to pretend. So I try to lose myself. If I accept a new situation, I encourage myself to believe in that person’s circumstances and I try to leave myself behind and think in a new way.

But that’s kind of a fantasy because you always bring a part of yourself with you. And as far as having to destroy things—it’s nature. It’s an eternal truth. We see it everywhere. It’s science. Spring goes into summer, summer goes into fall, fall goes into winter, one falls and the other one comes up.

Willem Dafoe as Jesus Christ in The Last Temptation of Christ (1988).
Willem Dafoe as Jesus Christ in The Last Temptation of Christ (1988).

We see Nemo go through such a grueling ordeal mentally and emotionally, but there’s also such physicality to the film. How do you approach capturing the physical nature of performance in your work and tying that into the mental state?
The physical is everything. Everything starts with doing things, with action, and then emotions come out of action. The character is revealed out of action. You only deal with action because there’s something concrete and objective and your body has a wisdom to it. So the body puts you in motion and then the mind sort of follows and reacts, I think.

You have a great history with very physical roles, with iconic looks like those leather overalls in Streets of Fire or those gnarly teeth in Wild at Heart. What would you say has been the most physically demanding part you’ve played?
That’s a tough one. I made a film where I was a boxer called Triumph of the Spirit. That was tough because I seriously trained as a boxer. Strangely enough, Last Temptation of Christ. People don’t think of it, but that was a very physical role. We were always dealing with very big temperature extremes, like very hot desert during the day sometimes, and then during the night, very cold, high desert. People forget that was a low budget movie, and we worked very fast—very efficiently, but very fast. And that was a big strain on me physically.

But I like that stuff. I like to be challenged. As I say, there’s a kind of truth and simplicity and tangibility with all things physical that sometimes you don’t have with mental functions.

Nemo looks for any way to get back to outside civilization.
Nemo looks for any way to get back to outside civilization.

As Inside goes on, we start seeing Nemo develop these parasocial relationships with the building staff he’s watching on security cameras. As an actor, you’re on the other side of that, where people think they know you from seeing you on screen. What’s your relationship like with your fans?
I got to get sweet on you and say that people are basically nice to me. I only see them as people that appreciate. The people that don’t appreciate what I do aren’t coming up to me. The people that appreciate what I do—it’s nice, it’s encouragement. It gives you energy.

Of course, right now I’m doing press and the autograph people know where you are—and these are not necessarily fans, they’re people that trade these things, so it’s money to them, it’s their work. Over time you get a relationship with those people. [Laughs] There’s some kinky relationships.

I move around, so I don’t have a good sense of who’s a fan and who isn’t. But I would say that I’m usually grateful. People are nice to me. It’s kind of like, “wow, I do what I love to do and people sometimes like it, that’s cool.” I can only be positive about it. I can’t spin it in any other way.

That’s what you hope for, right?
Yeah, yeah. But I don’t try to think about it too much.

Willem Dafoe is on screen alone for the entire 105 minutes of Inside. — Credit… Focus Features
Willem Dafoe is on screen alone for the entire 105 minutes of Inside. Credit… Focus Features

You’re a bit of a traveler, as you said. How were things for you being locked down during the pandemic?
Oh, there were anxieties in the pandemic, but I enjoyed being locked down in one place. During part of the pandemic, I worked, actually. This movie was shot during the pandemic, so I think I was probably really locked down maybe three months. You know, you turned a bad thing into a good thing. I was home with my wife and it was a special time.

Nemo has to try and turn a bad thing into something good, as he gets locked into this place and has to get creative in order to survive. Has there ever been a time in your career where a performance wasn’t quite clicking and you had to step back and get creative in order to figure out a different way into a role?
That’s an interesting question. I’m not sure I know that because once you go, there’s enough movement that it’s hard to turn the truck around. There have been times where you feel not at ease or you feel uncomfortable, but sometimes you surprise yourself and it works fine. So it’s a good question, but I can’t think of a good example.

Earlier, my colleague Flynn Slicker gave you a trophy for being the Most Watched Actor on Letterboxd in 2022, the second year in a row you’ve held that title. While a lot of that comes from your recent films, or the enduring popularity of Spider-Man and Wes Anderson, if someone is a Willem Dafoe enthusiast looking for a deeper cut, is there a film of yours that maybe went a bit under the radar upon release that you’d recommend for them to seek out?
Wow. Some people tell me I made 140 films. I’d say there’s about 70 that I can recommend, just because there’s a lot of films that don’t get much release and that’s just the nature of things and the nature of making smaller films sometimes. I don’t know, it always blows my mind and it depends country by country also what they watch. So it’s a little hard and I’m kind of loath to recommend a film in a strange way.

I always remember—and I won’t use names, although it would be juicier if I did, but this person’s deceased, so I don’t want to say it—but there was an actor that I didn’t particularly care for. I saw him in an interview and there was only one film that he did that I really responded to, and I thought he was really great in. In that interview, he dissed that film and it blew my mind because it kind of ruined it for me. [Laughs]

So I think it’s not good for an actor to put forward or put down his films. Let the people decide. Yes, it makes sense if a film didn’t get its day in court, you want to put it forward. But, for example, recently there are films that are not for everyone. Some of the films that I’ve made with Abel Ferrara, for example: they’re not for everybody, but they’re virtually unknown in the States while they’re quite popular in other places in the world. So that’s always a curious thing.

Or a film I made with Hector Babenco, his last film, virtually unknown here. You can’t help but think ‘what’s up with that?’ But I can’t quite give you a list.

Before we wrap, I’ll ask you a question posed to your character in Inside: is no man an island, or is every man an island?
Oh, god. You know, you can’t have one without the other. It depends, yeah. Both are true. Why can’t both be true?

‘Inside’ is in theaters March 17 from Focus Features.

Further Reading


Share This Article