Q&A with Willem Dafoe, Star of ‘The Hunter’ (Opens This Friday 4/6/12)

Willem Dafoe stars in The Hunter as Martin, a mercenary sent from Europe by a mysterious biotech company to the Tasmanian wilderness on a hunt for the last Tasmanian tiger. The film opens next week on Friday, April 6, 2012. The movie was directed by Daniel Nettheim and based on the book by Julia Leigh. It also stars Sam Neill and Frances O’Connor.
Dorri Olds: What surprised you the most about filming in the wilds of Australia?
Willem Dafoe: In Tasmania the weather was volatile. It could be snowing and really cold and two hours later it could be sunny and warm. A lot had to do with elevation and we were moving around a lot. So the weather was brutal—particularly in the sequences when I’m out in nature. I’m playing scenes with the weather, with nature. It’s a powerful thing when you’re filming because you can’t control [weather]. So, you have to be flexible and invent things. You know the story you want to tell but you have to make adjustments all the time. It has all the energy and curiosity and problems of an expedition. I’m out there with a small crew so on some level it sort of mirrors the hunt for the tiger.
Olds: Was it difficult hunting animals in the movie?
Dafoe: We weren’t really shooting at live animals. We didn’t kill anything.
Olds: You looked very natural in the hunting scenes. Do you have experience?
Dafoe: No. I grew up in Wisconsin and deer hunting is very big there. During the deer hunting season it was a real father–son ritual to go out deer hunting. At the end of the weekend you’d have that body on the hood of your car and go up and down the main drag beeping your horn. It was really kind of primitive. My father didn’t hunt. I would be left there as the only boy in class for about a week. It was so much of our culture that the boys would get permission to be out of school for father–son bonding. So I’d be left in school with all the girls. [Grins]
Olds: When you played a cutoff isolated hunter with no human connection did that affect you when you weren’t working?
Dafoe: The funny thing is, as I get older, I’m more affected by roles. I used to say when the camera turns off the character goes back inside me. But I feel like now that’s less true. In a role like this, all I’m doing is filming. I’m working long days and there’s nothing else. So, of course, just by sheer immersion the character starts to haunt you and it becomes you for a period of time. Particularly when you’re working in a location where all your normal habits are broken and you have nothing to remind you of who you are normally. We’re working in quite remote areas and so what I’m dealing with is I’m applying myself to a fiction. In a funny way you’re inviting yourself to be flexible, you’re inviting transformation so it can run really deep—but not in a scary way.
Olds: Does it take away the joy of being an actor? Is it a price that you pay?
Dafoe: That is the joy of being an actor. I mean the joy of being an actor is taking on someone else’s point of view in someone else’s circumstance and imagining getting a shift in perspective. That’s what I like about films in general is that just by learning or seeing something new you say to yourself, ‘Oh, I never thought of it that way. I always thought this was this, but it’s really this.’ As an actor you actively get to do that. You have empirical evidence. It’s not just an intellectual shift of point of view. It runs deep and you experience it and that’s a beautiful thing.
Olds: What was it like working with kids?
Dafoe: They’re actors but they’re kids first. It’s not like they have traditional acting skills. So, when you’re playing scenes, you’re tricking them into things and in that job you can get sucked into a sweetness and I found myself feeling a paternal urge happening and I thought, ‘Boy, we gotta be sure to nip any sentimentality in the bud.’ You don’t want to mucky it up. If you get too soft then the ending’s never gonna land.
Olds: Do you attribute your attraction to strong independent film characters to your background in theater?
Dafoe: In independent movies—particularly in 4:44 [Last Day on Earth] but also in The Hunter—we carry our own gear. The trailers aren’t there. That’s the way I grew up in the theater. I was performing and I was also cleaning toilets. You own the activity and you own the story when you are responsible for many aspects. In a more professional or more institutionalized situation there’s more limits. Unions come in. These small films have unions too, but with the bigger movies there are more boundaries. [The big studios] won’t let you slide around as much.
Olds: How was it working with motion capture animation in the film, John Carter?
Dafoe: Even The New York Times said, “Voiced by Willem Dafoe” and I thought, ‘Hey! Oh!’ I spent 6 months making this character. They don’t understand how movies are made and with the new technology people really don’t understand. It’s not just voicing. I worked with animators and we shot those scenes and they animated to what we did.
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