Talking to Willem Dafoe just after the release of his latest project, Pixar’s John Carter, Wonderland got the feeling he was as keen to find out about us as were were him – asking, “where are you from? I always ask journalists” – and discussing his distaste for egotism and working with artists he doesn’t believe in. Star of Platoon, Spiderman and last year’s clit-snipping witch romp Antichrist, the Wisconsin-born actor took us this through some of his inspiring, uncompromising career principles.
You spent most of the John Carter set on stilts, upping your height to nine feet to play John Carter’s extra terrestrial sidekick, Tars Tarkas. Have you ever done anything like that before?
Um, not specifically stilts – but sometimes some sort of physical restriction or something that y’know, helps you find the character. I had to with this of course because of the nature of motion capture and how we were approaching the animation.
What did you think when you saw the character on screen?
You know, I kept saying, “can I see myself?” [laughs]. Maybe a little in the eyes, or when I smile? But when I watch it back, I mostly have associations with how it was filmed. It’s difficult to watch your performances back.
Even when it’s not your own image on the screen?
Yeah – it’s not your own image on the screen, but you remember shooting the scenes, even though it’s on another body – you see the movement, you see your own impulses. The filmmakers really honoured the performances. So that’s what kind of occupies your mind.
It must be even weirder to see your own image but to see something that is clearly you.
It’s pretty weird, yeah. I don’t know how much is projection, how much I want to see me and how much really exists. I’ve heard someone say: “oh, they used your voice for it then?” But you can definitely see the actor behind it, you can see all that.
How hard was it to get into that character?
You play the scenes like anything else really – it’s got different restrictions on it, but it’s my job to play the scenes and tell the story. As actors, we have that exchange and we’re trying to get something from it.
Had you read the books before?
No. Initially, it was the attraction of all the talent – Andrew [Stanton, director] and so on. Then when I saw the material, it was interesting.
What did you see in Andrew? Did you spa off each other?
I first worked with him when I did a voice on Finding Nemo. He worked on things over a long period of time, so I know how he does things. He constantly re-works characters and scenes and is very good with actors. The thing with voice work is that you can do lots of different types of projects and it doesn’t hurt you. Andrew’s flexibility, his ability to work with lots of different actors – really made me think, he’s very good with actors. He knows how to push your buttons. Also, watching how he developed the story through trial and error and experimentation sold me on him – “this guy really knows how to tell a story.” And then you see something like Wall-e, which is quite amazing. Even though I didn’t know what it was, I knew that with a film on this scale, it would be interesting to get involved. I knew it was a passion project, too.
You don’t do many large-scale projects, but when you do, like Spiderman, they tend to be groundbreaking. This certainly feels slightly different to your usual summer blockbuster. Is that something that attracts you to these kinds of projects, aside from the story?
I always know it’s a big movie, but I’m always attracted to the people involved.
Have you ever felt like a martian in Hollywood?
All the time [laughs]! When I’m not in LA and I’m working and I’m doing interesting things then I’m happy. But I don’t live there and, you know, it’s an industry town. It doesn’t always share the same values that I do. I usually find that some place else, not in Hollywood. Generally, it’s not where I find my best opportunities.
John Carter is out now.
Words: Jack Mills