Dafoe cut his teeth as an actor in mid-1970s New York, after moving from Wisconsin at 21. “New York was in a terrible shape,” he says. “It was a violent city, it was a corrupt city, but for a young man, it was a very exciting place to be.” He fell in with an artsy crowd and started performing avant-garde theatre with a troupe called The Wooster Group. He was, he says, “transformed” by those early years, putting on impromptu performances that emphasised physicality. “I just felt very turned on and got introduced to the desire to be an artist of some sort. And that really formed me.” The most important thing he learned during that time was, “to approach things through action, through doing, through task-oriented performance, not so much as an interpreter, not so much as an emotive being that is there to guide the audience along on the trip, but to have an experience”.
When Dafoe talks about his acting process, he uses the word “contact” a lot. It’s typically about the tactility of a fight scene, or a closeness to the process and to the material. But sometimes it’s more literal. When he was filming The Lighthouse, Robert Eggers’ psycho-comedy-drama about two stranded lighthouse keepers, he enjoyed the grim shoot during an actual storm in arse-end-of-nowhere Nova Scotia. “It wasn’t pleasant, but it was enjoyable. You’re living an experience. There are certain things that you can’t imitate, you know, the redness of the skin, when you’re out in brutal weather, the way you feel towards a warm stove when you’re freezing all day.”
He says that he likes to “become a creature” for the directors he works with. This involves eschewing ego and giving himself over to their vision to become “an animal in the landscape”. “I like the fact that someone needs you to do something for them,” he says. “And that frees you from a kind of delusion and a certain kind of self-centred view. But if you have a good rapport with that person, and they put you in a situation that pushes you, you’re going to learn something.”
No Way Home director Jon Watts gets it. “He had already created the [Green Goblin] character with Sam [Raimi], so I knew the crazy places he was willing to go. But seeing it actually happen two feet away from you? I once shot a project with two wolves in a tiny New York apartment. There were moments where it felt like that.”
Do outside elements impacting these shoots wind up making these projects feel more real? “Real is a funny word, because I’ve done things that are very artificial, that I really enjoy. It’s about the contact.” There it is again. He’s not speaking directly about No Way Home, but he might as well be. “It’s about the world falling away, and making something that speaks for itself, and doesn’t point to something else.”
While it’s clear he has a lot of love for the blockbusters he has been a part of, you get the impression that it’s the grittier work that truly satisfies him. Take, for example, Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ, which was filmed across 58 days in the dry heat of a Moroccan desert in 1987. “When I was done, I felt used up. And that’s a nice feeling. It’s nice when you do what you need to do, not what you want to do. Because that sustains you.”