There are very few actors who have the versatility and the unbridled talent of Willem Dafoe. Over the course of a truly enigmatic career, Dafoe has portrayed several fascinating characters – ranging from the iconic Vincent van Gogh to the legendary filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini – which have cemented his status as a top acting force.
Even in recent years, Dafoe has worked on some fantastic projects including two of the best films of the last decade – Sean Baker’s The Florida Project and Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse. The latter gave Dafoe the chance to deliver one of the finest performances of his career, urging him to channel a terrifyingly intense insanity.
Given his extensive body of work which is full of one gem after another, it must be difficult to choose some of his own favourites but Dafoe has a concrete idea in his mind. When asked about it, he actually decided to highlight the experience of working with David Lynch on his 1990 rom-com Wild at Heart which starred Nicolas Cage and Laura Dern.
In an interview, Dafoe claimed that Lynch was one of his favourite directors because he knew how to work with actors. While commenting on Lynch’s approach, Dafoe elaborated: “David Lynch was one of the most fun people to work with and it was partly because he was so clear. He gave me a beautiful setup.”
Debunking the myth that good directors and collaborators engage in long conversations about artistic choices, Dafoe said that he enjoys the exact opposite. “That hasn’t been my experience,” the actor clarified. “My experience is they create a world or they create a setup or invite you to collaborate in such a way that there’s a logic to what you’re doing.”
His portrayal of an unhinged gangster named Bobby Peru was one of the high points of Wild at Heart and Dafoe insisted that a major reason behind it was Lynch’s directorial style. Even when it came to the costume selection, Lynch just handed Dafoe the selected outfit and the actor thought it “very direct and I responded immediately to it.”
One of the most significant elements of Peru’s physical appearance was his teeth which Dafoe thought would be achieved through makeup. However, Lynch told him that he would actually have to go to the dentist to get dentures which Dafoe initially thought was “wild” but it actually helped him to be “able to tap into a kind of lasciviousness”.
His collaboration with Lynch actually helped him understand how an auteur brings out the best in an actor. “It shows that actors sometimes left to their own devices put limitations on themselves because I would never have thought of that,” Dafoe said. “Bobby Peru is one of my most complete characterisations.”
Watch the interview with Willem Dafoe below.