There are many sides to Willem Dafoe. He played genteel British poet T.S. Eliot in the quietly devastating 1994 UK period drama Tom & Viv; a cider-swilling rat in Wes Anderson’s 2009 stop-motion animation The Fantastic Mr. Fox; and, early in his Hollywood career, he landed the title role of Jesus in Martin Scorsese’s controversial 1988 mini-epic The Last Temptation of Christ. But those aren’t the kind of parts that most movie audiences associate with him: it’s a likely bet that more people saw him as Peter Parker’s villainous nemesis Green Goblin in Sam Raimi’s 2002 Spider-Man reboot than in all those other films combined.
Which may explain why so many are lining up to compliment him on his performance in Sean Baker’s indie hit The Florida Project, in which he plays Bobby, the manager of a budget motel in the streets that outlie Disney World. As the avuncular Bobby, Dafoe is the glue that binds this artful, engaging portrait of poverty-line America, as he keeps a watchful eye on reckless single mom Halley (newcomer Bria Vinaite) and her mercurial six-year-old daughter Brooklynn, played by scene-stealing non-professional Brooklynn Prince.
“Y’know,” says the actor, “what I keep on hearing is, ‘Oh, we didn’t know you could be so warm and compassionate!’” He laughs. “I’m always surprised by that. But I’ll take it. I think that’s usually a reflection of what movies people see. How they see you is very much a product of what movies they’ve seen you in. I make all kinds of movies, I play all kinds of characters. But if you gravitate to a certain kind of movie, there’s a tendency to take an actor and attribute all his characters’ traits to him. So the nice thing about this movie is that some people are saying that it’s a new way to see me, and they appreciate the performance.”
On the surface, one could say that Dafoe has simply made a lot of shrewd choices in his near 40-year career. But on closer inspection, quite a few familiar names reappear. Names like Paul Schrader, Julian Schnabel and Abel Ferrara—directors who, in very different ways, have affected the course of independent American cinema. And with The Florida Project he adds another: Sean Baker. A bubbling-under talent on the indie scene with films such as Prince of Broadway and Starlet, Baker broke out at Sundance in 2015 with Tangerine. Although initially ballyhooed as the first film shot entirely on an iPhone, Tangerine soon gained critical kudos for its humane depiction of LA street life, with its High Noon-style story of a transgender hooker hunting down her unfaithful man.
“I saw Tangerine and I was taken with it,” says Dafoe, “so I was always curious as to what Sean was up to next. When I heard that he was casting The Florida Project, and that there was still a role open, I got my hands on the script. I read it and I thought it was very good. We had a meeting, and I liked him very much. I didn’t know all of his work but I liked how he presented to me how we were going to work on this movie. So it was really a no-brainer.”
At that meeting, Baker unveiled his working methods, explaining that they would be shooting in a working motel, mixing professional actors with non-traditional casting, and that the story would be driven by real elements in addition to his own scripted, fictional elements. “For me, that’s sort of a dream situation to be in,” says Dafoe. “He had a very good story, some beautiful scenes, and I had an interesting role, in the respect that I structurally connect the material. I have an interesting task in being the one that is sort of the outsider. I’m like everybody else in the story but also I’m a little bit outside of it.”
Baker had started out with what he calls “a scriptment”—half script, half treatment—but by the time shooting started, it was a fully fleshed-out script.
“That’s Sean’s trip,” explains Dafoe. “It was a very good script, and we shot that script. But, of course, there were adjustments. You’ve got to remember that Sean’s not only the co-writer and the director, he’s also the editor. So he’s sort of taking his cues from the life of the shooting of the movie. We were constantly getting new info, just by the fact that we were shooting in this real motel, so opportunities were presenting themselves to us all the time. Sometimes he’d be inventing scenes, sometimes conceding scenes, so I would say that we shot the script and then we shot some other things as well—invented things.”
The film was shot in one of the many motels along that strip near Disney World that house people on welfare long-term. It’s tempting to assume that Dafoe is one of those actors that needs to immerse himself into a character’s environment in order to become him, but, surprisingly, he bristles at the suggestion.
“No,” he says emphatically. “No. What kind of actor I am depends on the project. I mean, there’s always a part of me that wants to not be an actor, and wants me to appear to be a non-actor. So this was the perfect situation, because Sean was using a lot of street casting, a lot of non-traditional casting, children, and so on. Real people that actually lived there that were helping us make the movie, so it was very important for me to be able to disappear into the material.”
But the question of process stays in Dafoe’s mind. “What kind of actor am I?” he muses. “Listen, I do whatever I need to do to prepare, to feel confident, to feel open and flexible. But in this case it was a world that I didn’t really know. So I went to meet with people who lived in motels in the area, and it was very instructive. From the obvious standing point, I studied how they presented themselves, how they moved, how they dressed, how they would talk, where they were in the world and where they came from.”
Ultimately, though, he found himself struck by their attitude. “That was more important to me,” he says, “because I saw that they were very proud of the work that they do. And, somehow, even though it’s quite a modest living, and a very difficult job, and some of those motels are not the most elegant places in the world, they were very motivated to try to make things better. They were very proud of taking care of their people, and I think that was very key to me. Because it made me start to realize that they very much identify with those people and they very much feel a responsibility to them. They know they’re only about a paycheck away from that situation, that precarious lifestyle.”
Working with non-professionals, however, didn’t faze Dafoe at all, not even the fact that his leading lady—Bria Vinaite—had been cast from Instagram. “She was great,” he says. “The second I met her I thought, ‘This is great casting.’ Not just physically, and the fact that she was not”—he laughs—“the normal actress type. I felt she was very comfortable in the role, and she’s also a very strong personality. So it paralleled what we had to do in the movie. I felt kind of protective of her, but at the same time she’s a strong personality. She didn’t need any help.”
Working with children wasn’t a problem either. “I don’t even remember how I worked with them because it all was so natural,” he says. “We had to take care of them, and we had to make them comfortable. So, really, you had to give them lots of room, because Sean set them up in a way where they weren’t being reflective, they were just being human. He was setting them up to play. They aren’t thinking about performances, they aren’t thinking about acting, they aren’t thinking even about the movie. They’re just thinking about being in this situation with these adults in this kind of structured play scenario, and Sean set that up beautifully. They were a lot of fun, they were sweet kids—and, once again, there was a parallel to the film, in the respect that, to make them feel free, we had to let them run wild. That was the idea: to tap into their chaotic energy and really let them have fun. So sometimes it was challenging, but they were good kids. It just forced me to be more patient than you’d normally have to be.”
Disappointingly, when the film had its big premiere in Cannes and the cast enjoyed a ten-minute standing ovation, Dafoe was on the other side of the world, in Australia, shooting DC’s Aquaman. But, he says, he always knew it was special. “When we were shooting it, it felt special,” he says. “But with low-budget films, you never know whether it’s going to be seen. So when there was a good response in Cannes, critical and popular, it showed that the story would resonate with people. I was very happy when A24 picked it up, because they do very well at taking movies and making sure that that they find the proper audience.
“So…” he sums up. “So far, so good. I’m glad that people are responding to it.”
And hopefully they’re seeing yet another of this versatile actor’s many faces.