The screen legend on going full seadog in Robert Eggers’ paranoid fantasia, The Lighthouse.
Willem Dafoe is one of those actors who somehow manages to be compelling even when he’s performing mundane tasks such as painting – which we’ve witnessed him do on two separate occasions in recent years, in Sean Baker’s The Florida Project and Julian Schnabel’s At Eternity’s Gate. He’s also one of the most industrious stars in the business, switching seamlessly between challenging art-house fare and high-concept studio pictures.
The Lighthouse, the Melvillian second feature from American writer/director Robert Eggers, belongs firmly in the former category. It’s a briny bromance in which a pair of lighthouse keepers slowly descend into a living hell on a remote outpost in 19th-century Maine. While his co-star Robert Pattinson has talked about the punishing nature of the shoot, you get the sense speaking to Dafoe that he took it all in his stride.
LWLies: When you’re working with a director – whether it’s Abel Ferrara or Paul Schrader or Robert Eggers – how important is trust?
Dafoe: Very important. I’ve got this reputation for working a lot with the same couple of directors: Paul Schrader, six times; Abel Ferrara, six times; Wes Anderson, four times… So obviously there’s a reason I keep returning to those guys. If you’re going to give yourself to someone, if you’re going to be the creature of their vision, then it’s nice to know they’re worth it and it’s nice to know that you don’t have to worry about protecting yourself. Trust allows you to be more reckless and more present and more involved.
If it’s ‘family’, as it were, that doesn’t mean you hang out with them outside of the shoot – but when you’re there you’re deeply connected. You can work with people who you aren’t close with, I suppose, but then there’s a greater possibility that you’re indicating an objective outside of yourself and then you’re just crafting something to go towards that. And that’s bound to happen in a more institutionalised, more product-oriented film.
Does working with Abel and Paul and Wes get easier each time?
Not necessarily. It’s always different, you know, as each project presents its own set of challenges. You have to re-establish things, get reconnected. But at least you know you’ve gone to war before with these guys – once you know they can kill you it becomes easier. But I really believe in auteurs, and I like being a part of the fabric of someone’s vision. A really important part of performing – ironically, given that it’s called ‘show business’ and actors are notoriously narcissistic – is finding a new self.
‘Auteur’ has become something of a dirty word. Robert has referred to himself as a ‘would-be auteur’, which suggests he’s wary of the term.
I don’t like it when he says that. I’ve been tempted to tell him not to say that about himself. Because he is, he is. Deeply, deeply so. He’s young but… It’s in his blood. He’s one of those directors who can’t help themselves, he has to do this thing. There’s a passion there and there’s a line of intent that’s so strong, which is something I think we lack in culture today.
What did you learn making this film?
It’s hard to say. What I’ve learned over the course of making many films is that spontaneity and creating things doesn’t depend on invention. It’s like when I did this film about Van Gogh [At Eternity’s Gate], I was reading a lot of his letters: he used to say, ‘I don’t invent the picture, the picture is in nature – all I have to do is set it free’. That’s sort of how I feel as an actor. It’s a little bit more articulate with acting because you’ve got someone talking to you and giving you an idea of what has to be accomplished. But as far as the soul of it is concerned, I like this idea of making yourself available and disappearing into it.
How much did you and Robert discuss the themes of the film?
Very little. I don’t want to be glib but he made this world and cast me and Rob [Pattinson] and just let us loose in it. He’s a very precise filmmaker in his direction of actions, but he doesn’t talk about the subtext and the psychological aspect of the story. The difference with this film was that we didn’t have a lot of rehearsal time. Because the conditions were so harsh where we filmed, they had to prepare a lot of things technically ahead of time.
Usually the actors will block out the scene with the director and then you set the camera, but in this case the camera was set and we were told what the shots were, and we had to submit to that as a structure. It might sound oppressive but sometimes when you take away certain choices it allows you to be present in a different way; you’re not worried so much about the result because you have less control.
How’s your lobster?
I’ve had a little place in Maine for many years, and I love seafood, but I’ve gradually become a vegetarian and only occasionally will I eat fish. During this movie, because where we were shooting in a fishing town, and lobster is so abundant, I decided to cook one – and it was the first time I ever felt bad about cooking lobster. I couldn’t eat it. I just had this vision, this epiphany I suppose, that this wasn’t right.
You should really cook lobster live, and when you’re preparing one, if you turn it upside down and stroke its belly [mimes tickling an upturned lobster] it relaxes them, they go totally soft. And then you plunge them headfirst into boiling water. So, on this film, I stopped eating lobster. It wasn’t in our budget anyway.
The Lighthouse is released 31 January. Read the LWLies Recommends review.
Published 29 Jan 2020
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