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Published: Wednesday, 3/14/2012

Willem Dafoe has learned to let go

BY CINDY PEARLMAN
NEW YORK TIMES SYNDICATE
Actor Willem Dafoe. Actor Willem Dafoe.
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At 56 Willem Dafoe is finally giving himself a break. He simply can't play the angry man anymore, at least not in real life.

"I was thinking about what I know now that I didn't know in my 20s," says Dafoe, sipping coffee and speaking by telephone from his Manhattan studio, "and here's the answer: What I really know now is to approach life with an open hand, as opposed to a clenched fist. You have flexibility with an open hand. You have nothing with a closed fist."

The veteran character actor is known for playing psychotic individuals, and once was prone to anger in real life, but nowadays he's a low-key guy with a gravel voice and a warm laugh.

"I think we generally strive for control in life," he says, "but what I also know now, that I didn't know when I was younger, is that the real freedom comes in giving up control. It's a very hard lesson to learn, especially when it comes to creative control for me. But I do have glimpses of that freedom here and there ... especially when it comes to life at large. You just give up control and allow life to evolve."

Dafoe's eclectic career is summed up in his two films of the spring. He's one of the bigger names in the current big-budget science-fiction epic John Carter, playing a green, four-armed warrior named Tars Tarkas, but also stars in the micro-budgeted 4:44 Last Day on Earth, set to open in limited release on March 23. Written and directed by Abel Ferrara, the latter film asks what would happen if everyone knew exactly when the world was ending -- and the end was near.

Dafoe and Shanyn Leigh play a New York couple who face their last hours with the knowledge that the world will end at exactly 4:44 a.m. the next day.

"I play someone who really accepts his fate and that the world is going to end," Dafoe says. "He only has these hours left. It's an intriguing question: What would you do if you knew you had only hours to live? You can't escape it, you can't really change it. You just have to face your fate.

"I don't know what I'd do on my last day. All I have to go on is what happens in the film. I know I wouldn't be out there running around on the streets."

He previously had worked with Ferrara on New Rose Hotel (1998) and Go Go Tales (2007).

"Obviously I like working with him," Dafoe says. "I've done it three times. I like being around him. He's got such great instincts.

"I never quite know how the day will go. Abel works in mysterious ways, but he has been very generous with me. I feel very happy that we have this relationship. We're always working for the same goal. You purely get involved in the making of this thing. That's my personal liberation, and I find it through Abel."

John Carter was a different story, both in the character he played and in the process by which the film was made.

"I play the leader of the Martian creatures," he says. "I'm basically this 9-foot-tall, six-limbed warrior king. It was a good character, and fun to do the motion-capture work to put him on the screen.

"I'd play the scenes and then the animators would animate my gestures and my voice. I gave them the character, and they put it in the animated form. It sounds like a bizarre collaboration, but it's not so different than anything you would do with a director and an editor. You create it and then someone else works on it."

Dafoe grew up in Appleton, Wis., the sixth of seven kids. His mother was a nurse and his father a surgeon.

"I came from a very large family and it was very chaotic," he says, "so there was a lot of freedom. I didn't have to act out against repression."

Growing up in the country added to that freedom.

"We could get away with things that the big-city kids couldn't," Dafoe says, "because there was never that much trouble around us, so our parents trusted us."

He isn't sure when the acting bug first bit him.

"I think I had some idea of it," he says, "because I loved movies. And there was no one to say no. There were so many of us around the house that, by the time they got around to me, the vibe was, 'You can let a couple of them go and do something creative.' "

Dafoe studied drama at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, then joined a small Milwaukee theater company called Theater X.

"Soon I found myself in New York," he says, "but I didn't think of it in terms of a career. I just went toward the life that interested me, and that was a life in the theater."

He had envisioned a mainstream theatrical career, but found himself drawn toward New York's fringe experimental theaters, most notably the Wooster Group, which he helped found in 1977 and with which he was associated for the next three decades.

"What surprised me is that the stuff going on downtown in the theater was also so interesting," Dafoe says. "There were new forms of theater, and that was thrilling."

His film career emerged as something of an afterthought.

"I ended up doing so much theater," he says, "and one day somebody asked me if I wanted to do movies. I did one, and just kept going."

Dafoe's film debut was to have been in Heaven's Gate (1979), but director Michael Cimino fired him shortly after filming began. It wasn't until Kathryn Bigelow's The Loveless (1982) that he finally made it onto the big screen.

He has scarcely been off it since, however, appearing in more than 70 movies in the ensuing 30 years. Some of his more memorable films include To Live and Die in L.A. (1985), Platoon (1986), Mississippi Burning (1998), Born on the Fourth of July (1989), Wild at Heart (1990), The English Patient (1996), Spider-Man (2002), The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004), and The Aviator (2004). Most famously, perhaps, he played Jesus in Martin Scorsese's controversial The Last Temptation of Christ (1988).

He's often cast as the bad guy, though he plays many other types of roles, and he doesn't have a problem with that.

"I don't care if the character is likable," Dafoe says. "I do have an aversion to people who say, 'Hey, you're the guy who plays the bad guy all the time.' That's the perception sometimes. I do like to play those characters or give them their day in court.

"When I'm approaching a character who is clearly unsavory or does things you wouldn't want to do in your life, it can become repugnant to me," he says. "I'm still inhabiting it. It gets under my skin. Then again, sometimes the bad guy's perspective is more interesting than someone who is better at living within society.

"I've always been attracted to the outsider."

Famously intense and quick to anger as a younger man, Dafoe has found an easier road in recent years. Today he practices yoga, eats an all-organic diet, and lives quietly in New York with Italian actress/filmmaker Giada Colagrande, whom he married in 2005 after the breakup of his decades-long relationship with actress/director Elizabeth LeCompte, a fellow founder of the Wooster Group.

"I've learned how to de-stress," he says. "I take a bath, I read, I cook. I don't watch TV. I prefer reading to TV, or I go to see a movie."

Once obsessive about his career, Dafoe has learned to worry less about that as well.

"Things in life and in this business are cyclical," he says. "Sometimes you can't find anything you want to do, other times so many amazing things are happening. Now is a good period."

All in all, the actor finds his new, calmer life more rewarding than his earlier years.

"There is a Buddhist story that I love," Dafoe says. "Did you know that they used to catch monkeys by putting something sweet inside a coconut with a hole just big enough to slip your hand in and grab at something?"

Unable to pull their fist out of the coconut without letting go of their prize, the animals were easy prey for the hunters.

"The monkeys who were not too bright put their hand in," Dafoe says. "Those monkeys just couldn't give up the desires. They couldn't stop, think about it and let go.

"I think that the beautiful part of getting older is that you finally learn how to let go. You're not that monkey. I worry about stuff less at this age, which is amazing. It's great to lose the doubt.

"At the same time. I try to approach things like it's the first time. I really try not to make life too familiar.

"You want to seek out new adventures and get out of your comfort zone."



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