Very few actors have a portfolio of work as expansive as Willem Dafoe does. Famously known for his transformative performances, Dafoe has dabbled in just about every genre that you can think of. The four-time Oscar nominee has gone from drama to horror to action to sci-fi and back again. Dafoe’s most iconic roles include his take on tortured artist Vincent Van Gogh in At Eternity’s Gate, his heightened interpretation of famed Count Orlok actor Max Schreck in Shadow of the Vampire, and his beloved turn as supervillain Norman Osborn, aka the Green Goblin, in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man films. Not to mention his recent string of standout performances in genre favorites like The Lighthouse, Nightmare Alley, and The Northman.
Throughout his career, Dafoe has worked with some of Hollywood’s most exciting storytellers, including Wes Anderson, Robert Eggers, Guillermo del Toro, and Martin Scorsese. For his latest transformative role opposite Emma Stone in Poor Things, he can now add Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos (The Lobster, The Favourite) to that list. Based on the 1992 novel by Alasdair Gray, Poor Things sees Willem Dafoe as Godwin Baxter, a doctor turned mortician who runs his own abstract practice in a fantasized version of Victorian London. The role required Dafoe to undergo six hours of makeup each day, giving him a “mad scientist” sort of look. The character, however, is the exact opposite of that stereotype.
When a recently deceased pregnant woman’s body arrives at his morgue, Godwin reanimates her with the brain of her unborn child and raises her as one of his own, giving her the name Bella Baxter. The experiments Godwin’s own father practiced on him in his youth have left him disfigured with bodily functions that don’t quite work as they should. Yet, Godwin is tender and paternal in his treatment of Bella as her mind rapidly matures. When Bella proves she is ready to experience the world through her own eyes, he must learn how to let go as every parent does. This is only the first of two films Dafoe has already shot with Lanthimos, the second being Kinds of Kindness which is expected to announce its premiere date soon.
Poor Things also stars Mark Ruffalo, Ramy Youssef, Christopher Abbott, Jerrod Carmichael, and Kathryn Hunter. Ruffalo and Dafoe, in particular, have been earning Best Supporting Actor recognition in the current awards season alongside Emma Stone who has rightfully earned her respective place in Best Actress talks. In honor of these achievements, we sat down with Willem Dafoe to discuss the collaborative nature of making Poor Things as well as his upcoming roles in Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice 2 and Robert Eggers’s Nosferatu.
Exclusive Interview with Willem Dafoe for Poor Things
To start, is it true that Emma Stone and Yorgos Lanthimos came to you directly for the role of Dr. Godwin Baxter in Poor Things?
Willem Dafoe: Yeah, they called me up. I remember it very specifically, they said, “Hey, we’re going to do this thing and we want you to play this doctor who reanimates this woman that has died.” They laid out the story and I was already a fan of both of them, so I said “Yeah! Show me the script!”
There are quite a few changes from Godwin’s character in the novel. At what stage of this process did you read the book and do you have any feelings on the changes made within the script?
Willem Dafoe: I read the book, but I read it more or less after the fact, to tell you the truth. The screenplay was, for my money, plenty to deal with. I don’t want to get too much into things outside of the scene because I don’t want to point to them, which is sometimes a temptation for an actor when they do a lot of research, or they have other sources that they’re being loyal to. That’s basically what I do, I play the saints and just trust that you string together these moments and try to find the reality and the truth. And then, the development and the evolution will take care of itself.
So, I didn’t reflect too much about how the changes [from the book]. Godwin changes according to the situation really, because it’s structured that you see him for what is basically a setup and then once he lets go, it becomes a counterpoint to Bella’s adventure. You see his heart sickness, how much he’s missing her, and how he deals with this loss. I play the scenes, that’s all I can say.
In terms of the prosthetics you wear in the film, I’m sure they took hours, but how do you feel they attributed to your performance as Godwin?
Willem Dafoe: It always helps to have a mask. In the mirror, you don’t see yourself anymore. You feel like someone else and that’s a beautiful invite to pretend to be someone else. Sometimes, it triggers things that you can’t even reach if you didn’t have those externals. So, I love a good costume. I love a good mask. I love a good exotic location. These are things that turn me on because I don’t recognize myself in them. I leave my life and I enter something else. Everybody’s different, but that’s what turns me on.
Yorgos Lanthimos is of course one of the great modern auteurs. What is it like working on one of his sets?
Willem Dafoe: Beautiful. He collaborates magnificently with all the department heads on the design so that he makes a beautiful world. It’s a collaboration with those people, but he also doesn’t really delegate things. He works with everybody and so you feel him everywhere. I was so impressed and I keep on saying this, but it’s true – Yorgos is a little bit of a polymath. He is very educated in many different fields.
Sometimes, you meet directors who are only interested in certain things and then they delegate other things to people. Yorgos has got his finger in everything. He gives you a setup, he lets you go, and then he watches you and he will adjust you, but there’s not a lot of talk and it’s not a lot of psychology. He creates the world, then gently introduces you to it and lets you collaborate to some degree in the creation of that world. He’s got a very soft manner on the set. It’s not a tense set, it’s very relaxed and playful.
You and Ramy Youssef both play doctors in Poor Things and occasionally handle an organ or two. What research or training did you have to do ahead of the shoot?
Willem Dafoe: We did do some training. We got this wonderful woman who worked at the morgue in Budapest where we shot. She taught us certain things that they do in autopsies, she taught us how to cut and suture with the period instruments. You don’t see a lot of that in the movie, but there are some moments. So, when you get there it’s nice to be proficient. But, more importantly, it gets you in that head space and when you have those little experiences and learn those little skills, there’s always a [version of] me before and me after.
That’s an invitation to become Godwin Baxter because when you’re working on things, it’s always nice to create a parallel experience where even if you don’t exhibit the things that you’ve learned, it still feeds into the confidence of owning something to make you feel like you’re that guy. So, we learned to cut and suture, how to look for certain things like veins, arteries, and tissue, that kind of thing.
Do you happen to have a favorite scene that you most enjoyed filming Poor Things?
Willem Dafoe: It’s always hard. I’m not so good with favorites. I do love the last scene, with Emma and Ramy, because when I saw it I was quite moved and I didn’t see myself and I didn’t see them. It transcended the usual thing that happens where you have associations with the making of the film, and I just saw it in a pure way. I love that very simple final dialogue where he [Godwin] says what’s going to happen. He has something quite prosaic but at the same time very eloquent to say.
Poor Things is a perfect transition into your upcoming slate for 2024 which has some footing in the Gothic/Horror genre with Beetlejuice 2 and Nosferatu. What type of roles are you looking to take at this stage of your career?
Willem Dafoe: I’m not that reflective about these things because I never even made that connection. So much of this movie is very specific in its period. It’s not a horror, but it borrows some things from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein story at the beginning to set things in motion and I have this hideously deformed face in it, but that’s not the meat of it. While my character may be very close to the heart of the film, it’s only one aspect of the story.
So, to make that connection isn’t wrong, but I’m all over the place. It’s not like I prefer one kind of movie or another. I go through different stages and feel different needs. It’s like food, if you’re eating avocados all the time, after a while you want to have a mango, you know?