Hollywood filmmaker Willem Dafoe is regarded as one of his generation’s best actors, twice being nominated for a prestigious Academy Award. Often cast as villains or eccentric characters, he has portrayed just about everything, from the Green Goblin and vampires to even Jesus.
But does he still get nervous – more than 30 years into his filmmaking career – before shooting his next project? You bet.
“I do and I’m happy for that because it shows that I’m not dead and shows that I’m not cynical,” says the veteran actor, best known for his roles in Spider-Man and The English Patient.
He says this makes the difference between “an entertainer” and “an artist”.
“Each time you have to reinvent your way of doing it and I’m always happiest when I’m a little scared and I’m a little not-knowing because it’s from that not-knowing that you get that kind of passion and curiosity.
“If you know what needs to be done, then there’s just the ‘doing’. There’s a pleasure to that, but…then you’re strictly an entertainer making a product. And I’m interested in the other aspect and that is besides being an entertainer: making things, being an artist, challenging myself.”
Being a leading actor, Dafoe gets hundreds of scripts sent his way but he says when looking at his next project, the script isn’t the only thing that’s important.
“Scripts are kind of secondary to the people and…what the intention of the project is I’d say,” he says.
“Scripts are important – when you have a great script it’s good – but I really look to people more than scripts.
“A script is a piece of literature, people make movies.”
His comments were heard by a packed Sydney Apple Store audience earlier this week when promoting his new film, The Hunter. Alongside the film's director Daniel Nettheim, Dafoe noted that when picking roles it’s a lot like food – “you like a little variety”.
“If you do one kind of thing, there’s a tendency to want to exercise different muscles or work in a different way,” he says.
“So in the case of The Hunter, I really had an appetite for something like this…this is what I’d been looking to do next.”
In the new Australian psychological thriller, Dafoe plays a mercenary, who is sent from Europe by a mysterious biotech company to the Tasmanian wilderness to search for the last remaining Tasmanian Tiger.
A method actor by nature, Dafoe insisted that he not be “doubled” in the feature and that he learn the survival skills that his character demonstrates. This was critical in making “The Hunter”, Martin, appear believable – that he could survive for weeks on end if required.
“It was a key to the character,” the clean-shaven actor begins, looking more fresh and less-rugged than in the Porchlight Films project.
“Because what I do in this story without giving too much away, I’m a hunter. And so I really had to learn bushcraft – things about being in the bush: how to make snares, how to butcher wallabies, all kinds of things.
“We see me do those things in the film so I wanted to learn how to do them with a certain amount of grace and a certain amount of authority and it was important.”
Dafoe didn't read the Julia Leigh novel (which the film is based on) immediately, instead looking to get the screenplay perfect.
"So it was most helpful for me initially to get the screenplay to a place where we felt comfortable…and then after the fact, I read the novel just to inspire me and also to know where the story that we made, came from," he says.
"But sometimes when film is based on another source, sometimes you feel the need, sometimes you don’t; in this case I had plenty on my plate to begin with. I didn’t need more information, I needed less."
The local film secured a dozen international distribution deals, including the US and Canada, following its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this month.
It’s set to open on more than 50 screens in Australia next week, through Madman.
Sam Neill (Jurassic Park), Frances O’Connor (A.I. Artificial Intelligence) and Morgana Davies (The Tree) also star in the Alice Addison-penned thriller, which was shot in Tasmania last October.
The Hunter is released on October 6. Check out the official trailer here.
For a full feature on the film, pick up a copy of the October/November issue of IF Magazine.