The deliriously camp concept of E. Elias Merhige’s Shadow of the Vampire is that Max Schreck, the star of F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu, was a real vampire and that Murnau passed him off as the kind of Stanislavsky-trained actor who lives his role around the clock.
Willem Dafoe, who plays Schreck, says he found the premise “delicious.” He lets the word hang in the air just long enough to remind you of the scene in the film where he catches a fast-flying bat in his mouth, bites off its head, and swallows it whole. In person, however, Dafoe does not curl back his upper lip or emit adenoidal snorts and guttural snarls. Nor does he suggest a hyena, a mole rat, or any of the other insatiable night-feeders that seem to have inspired his characterization of Schreck. The real-life Dafoe is urbane, reserved, and given to quick smiles and modest shrugs. Like many actors, he’s smaller than he appears on-screen, but his face, with its high cheekbones and wide, curving lips, is instantly recognizable. Now in his mid forties, he is as stunningly handsome as he was 15 years ago when he played the martyred soldier in Oliver Stone’s Platoon. If anything, age has refined his features, chiseling his face down to the bone.
Dafoe’s wickedly funny performance, a tour de force of comic timing, has already won him an L.A. Film Critics award and may garner him his second supporting-actor Oscar nomination (his first was for Platoon). He got involved when Nicolas Cage, Shadow‘s coproducer, sent him Steven Katz’s script, which had been written with Dafoe in mind. “I liked that the starting place was concrete, that it was Nosferatu. I knew they would be cutting between our footage and the Nosferatu footage. It was a world that could accommodate a performance that was more and less than natural. I could dance a little with the role, a bit like in the theater.”
To start with an existing work of art is also the strategy of the Wooster Group, the experimental theater company that has been home base for Dafoe since its inception in the late ’70s. He lives nearby with the group’s director, Elizabeth LeCompte, and their son, Jack, now a freshman at Yale. “When Liz started doing work, the pieces were hung on Spalding [Gray] and then on Ronnie [the late Ron Vawter] and, occasionally, on me, but now mostly on Katie [Kate Valk]. It’s a practical thing. I pay the price of having to go away to do movies.”
Two years ago, however, LeCompte gave Dafoe what he calls “a great gift,” the role of the stoker in the Wooster Group’s version of Eugene O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape. It was a performance of astonishing size and tragic depth—greater than anything Dafoe had done before on stage or screen. And the animalistic aspect of the performance is clearly something he drew on when he created the vampire Schreck.
“For me, in the work, the two worlds feed each other a lot. But they don’t intersect. And for some people in the audience and the press, there’s something a little distasteful about this guy they know from the movies being in this kind of theater. The reverse is also true, that there’s something distasteful about this guy from the Wooster Group being in a studio movie. But maybe that’s just my paranoia.”
Hollywood has never known quite what to make of Dafoe. He has played a variety of heroes and villains (he next plays the Green Goblin in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man), and even Jesus himself in Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ. (The American Museum of the Moving Image will present a tribute to Dafoe on January 6 and 7, including Last Temptation, Platoon, and Paul Schrader’s Light Sleeper.) “I’ve had some successes, but I never crystallized for them,” he says. “There are people in Hollywood who think I have bad teeth because they remember me as Bobby Peru in Wild at Heart, and there are people who think I’m an actor from Europe.”
Dafoe, in fact, comes from a Midwestern, middle-class family, although his distinctive voice (omnipresent these days on the tube in those Salomon Smith Barney commercials) sounds like working-class Boston. “My mother had a heavy Bostonian accent, and there’s also something of my identification with New York and my romance of being a tough guy mixed in. But I get horrified if someone thinks I’m affected in my speech. My whole family sounds this way. The only difference is they also have a little bit of a Fargo thing going on.” He launches into an imitation of his sister talking to him on the phone. His voice goes up an octave and he looks happier than he has all afternoon.
Unlike his friend Steve Buscemi, who recently directed him in Animal Factory, Dafoe has no desire to be at the helm. “Sometimes I have a desire to control what I do a little bit, especially when I do a smaller movie. But basically, my impulses are the impulses of a child. I like being the thing itself. I don’t like thinking about it. And that doesn’t mean I’m not analytical or that I’m anti-intellectual. I’m not trying to say I’m a totally intuitive kind of guy. It’s just that my real pleasure, where I feel vital and everything drops away, is when I’m in the middle of doing it, and I look for that opportunity untainted by other responsibilities. But I’m getting too serious. When I try to explain what I do, I get a little bit disgusted with myself because I come off too earnest. In the simplest terms, it’s a pleasure to borrow someone else’s body and someone else’s life. That’s the craft, and it’s a bit like voodoo, because you don’t know exactly how you do it.”