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INTERVIEW: Willem Dafoe (JOHN CARTER)

Willem Dafoe is one of those actors you just aren’t prepared to find yourself face-to-face with. It sounds moronic to say, but you just aren’t prepared for the fact that he is going to look and sound like Willem Dafoe. Because Willem Dafoe is fucking scary. Of course, Willem Dafoe the human being is articulate and at least of average friendliness. But Willem Dafoe the character actor is still lurking there at all times, when Dafoe uses a certain inflection for emphasis and makes eye contact with you to strengthen a point. During a round table discussion prior to my interview, I witnessed another journalist get a little cute with Dafoe, asking him, “What does the Green Goblin think of the new Spider Man reboot?” And Dafoe turned his steely Willem Dafoe eyes dead center on this unfortunate man, lowered his voice to a Willem Dafoe gravel-base and replied, “The Green Goblin wants to talk about John Carter.” This made me second guess the planned opener to my own interview, which was going to be bringing up the 1990 audiobook of Stephen King’s The Langoliers. But I decided to go for it. Bravery and stupidity are kindred spirits, after all.

Josh Miller: When I think about actors like you, who have had a long career that spreads across a wide spectrum of genres and budgets, it seems that how people view you, what first comes to mind when they hear your name or voice, is largely determined by how old they are and what project first exposed them to you. To kids of the aughts, you’re always going to be Norman Osborn. To others you are Bobby Peru or maybe Jesus or your character from Streets of Fire. For me, the first time I became aware of you was on a family road-trip where we listened to your audiobook of The Langoliers in the car.

To my pleasant surprise Dafoe was clearly not expecting that rambling non-question to end with The Langoliers and he bursts into laughter.

Willem Dafoe: Woooow. That was a bear to do.

Josh: Yeah?

Dafoe: So many voices! And you’re doing it, like, on the fly. Did you enjoy it?

Josh: I loved it.

Dafoe: It was really difficult.

Josh: It was entirely your fault that I excitedly watched the terrible TV-movie version they later made of the story. But yours was very cool. It’s weird now thinking back on you doing all the female voices.

Dafoe: So many voices. I could barely keep them straight.

Josh: Is that the only audiobook you’ve done?

Dafoe: No, I did a Michael Ondaatje book, In the Skin of a Lion. And I did a book by, I want to say his name is Randy Shilts, And the Band Played On, which is about the beginning of the AIDS epidemic.

For this interview it will be helpful if you know that Willem Dafoe plays the nine-foot-tall, multi-armed Tars Tarkas, leader of the race of Martians known as the Tharks. Playing the character required Dafoe to walk around on stilts and wear a motion capture suit.

Josh: So, really I just wanted to bring up The Langoliers‘ audiobook, but my clever segue from that into a relevant question here is that you’ve now played two characters for Andrew Stanton [first, Gill in Finding Nemo] that relied very heavily on your voice. I’m curious, as an actor with a very distinctive voice, how much, even when doing motion capture for John Carter or in your live-action work, are you actively thinking about what you’re doing with your voice?

Dafoe: Not so much. I mean, sometimes I feel like if I need something to put me in the right place I’ll make a project out of it. Like sometimes you think you’ll need a look. Or you’ll need a costume. Or an accent. You look for things to trigger you to put you in the right place, to make a shift from your everyday consciousness to the consciousness of the character. Or you’re everyday impulse to the impulse of the character. And sometimes those little choices can direct in the right way. So as soon as someone tells you that you’ve got a distinctive voice, you gotta be careful. Because you don’t want to use your voice in that way, like they love you to do. And when you do voice work, there is some of that. Because that’s what you’re using. So you become very conscious of what comes off your voice and what you can accomplish with it. So when I’m actually playing a character, I don’t think about it so much. Unless it is a special case, I think about playing the scenes. In the case of Tars Tarkas I knew he had to have a special voice because, particularly, I didn’t know to what degree you could — I just knew it was important. But the voice was really found through instinct and working on that Thark language.

Josh: How much did you work with the other actors on the sound of the Tharks?

Dafoe: We did some. But if you notice it is kind on gender lines, because the two American [actors playing Tharks] are Thomas Haden Church and myself. And they’re males. And then the two females…

Josh: Oh, I hadn’t even thought about that –

Dafoe: Yeah. With the two females [Samantha Morton and Polly Walker], you can hear a slight Englishy accent. And we have slight Americany accents. It’s not something that we worked out absolutely, but that was just kind of a choice Andrew made along gender lines.

Josh: Doing motion capture on a live-action film for a character like Tars Tarkas is an extremely unique situation, I would imagine. It’s not like on a normal live action film you can just suddenly play a character who is nine feet tall.

Dafoe: No, and that was one of the fabulous things because, you know, you have a different relationship when you’re looking down on people physically. That was one of the main features that colored the character.

For some scenes Dafoe could not use his stilts, which required him to wear a goofy thing on his head that indicated for the other actors where Tars’ head was supposed to be.

Josh: So I imagine it was a little disappointing when you couldn’t wear the stilts. Was it almost harder to play the part when you became your own height?

Dafoe: Let’s put it this way. When I had to get off the stilts, even if they put me up on some platforms or something, I didn’t feel like Tars Tarkas does. It wasn’t just the height, it was the mobility. Those long legs, it immediately conditions everything you do.

Josh: Did you grow to love stilts? Have you put on a pair since?

Dafoe takes a deep breath. Then smiles.

Dafoe: No.