Aspiring Actors, Willem Dafoe Has Some Advice For You

By  · Published on December 6th, 2013

Willem Dafoe is a chameleon, and everyone knows it. He’s ruled as Emperor to the Green Martian Tharks, done a painfully human portrait of Jesus, terrorized Spider-Man, eaten a bird as Max Schreck, and, of course, convincingly played a Huey Lewis and the News fan. Yet, that handful of roles doesn’t even begin to cover half of the shapeshifting Dafoe has done over his career. He can carry a picture, light some sparks with only a few minutes of screen time, or, in the case of The Fantastic Mr. Fox, have his voice do all the work.

In Out of the Furnace he plays John Petty, a low-rent gangster Rodney Baze Jr. (Casey Affleck) does underground fights for. All of Dafoe’s scenes either involve Affleck, Christian Bale, or Woody Harrelson. Working opposite of those three isn’t exactly a bad day’s work.

Dafoe has acted with some of the best (including himself in Spider-Man) and the topic of what makes a compatible scene partner came up when I spoke with him recently.

The actor gave a fairly detailed response that should serves as a major lesson for any aspiring actor or performer who only has “their way” of working. Instead of chopping up his thoughts, we thought it’d be best to present it as is.

According to Willem Dafoe, here’s why you should be flexible:

“There’s so many variations, but I think what makes the best scene partner is someone who’s flexible. They’re actors who can lose themselves but keep their eye on the prize, which is: you’re making an event and you’re making yourself available for a story to be born.

People that can do that are the greatest partners, because they’re the most inventive, most relaxed, most patient, and the most open. Those actors don’t have an agenda that they’re stuck on. The best actors are the ones who aren’t too married to one way of working, are a little selfless, and they can come to the set and rethink things. Maybe arrive with some tricks up your sleeves or some thoughts, but don’t be so married to them that, if someone throws you a curveball, you cry foul and say, ‘I’m not going to play this game.’

That’s an important thing, so I find myself drawn to actors who are game and will work with you to find it together. You see what’s around you and how it feels, and then you go with it and find it. That’s also conditioned by the function of the character, because some characters you really have to have a crafted and premade intention. Other characters you can be a little looser with.”

After many successful years on stage, with film, and even in commercials, Dafoe knows what he’s talking about. We unfortunately didn’t see too much of him this year on the big screen, but he has a hopeful 2014 coming up with Anton Corbijn’s A Most Wanted Man, Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budabest Hotel, and Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac.

As for now, you can see him in Out of the Furnace this weekend.

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Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.