Interview: Willem Dafoe on Performance Capture, ‘John Carter’ and Playing a 9-Foot Tall Green Masai…

By  · Published on March 9th, 2012

Interview: Willem Dafoe on Performance Capture, ‘John Carter’ and Playing a 9-Foot Tall Green Masai Warrior

John Carter hits theaters today. And whether you’re buying into the hype that it’s a big-budget film that is destined to fail or you’re listening to the great number of film critics ‐ including our own Robert Levin ‐ who are saying that despite its faults, it’s the first legitimate event film of the year, it’s still going to be hitting theaters. For those seeking more information before a decision is made, we’ve got you covered. Over the next several days we’ll be rolling out conversations with John Carter’s creative team, including the likes of director Andrew Stanton, producers Lindsey Collins and John Morris, as well as some of the film’s stars.

We begin today with an intimate chat held with veteran actor Willem Dafoe, who plays Tars Tarkas, the leader of a Martian species of 9-foot tall, four-armed green aliens who live in the harsh deserts of Earth’s red neighbor. Over the course of our chat, we talk about being a veteran actor who can still perform in physically demanding roles, Andrew Stanton’s directing style and what Dafoe has to say about performance capture and its place in awards season.

Let’s talk a little bit about the physicality of this, because it’s a little different from anything…you know, I’ve seen you in all kinds of movies. But this feels different because, one, we don’t see your face. We see the performance. But also, the stilts thing is fascinating to me. How did that change your acting?

Willem Dafoe: Well, it’s like a huge filter. It takes my body away from me and turns it into something else. I still have the same impulses, but they get manifested differently. I always think, if you had your body changed in some way, what would that do to you? It’s still you, but it manifests differently.

So the height is huge because, spatially, it colors all of your attitude. It colors your view of other people when you are towering over them. It immediately gives you a certain feeling. The heaviness of the stilts, creates a certain kind of movement that you just can’t get away from. So you embrace it and say that’s the way these people move.

Do you feel like it’s a more complete challenge?

Well, it’s nice to sometimes have something outside of you forcing you, pushing you to find a new way to think or be. It’s not an abstract thing; it’s very practical. I trust it because it’s one of these things that it is what it is for me internally, and you deal with it. And that dealing with it, then applied to what you have to do, has an energy, has a texture, it’s something.

You look for those situations. That’s the energy that pushes you towards the performance.

Do you find yourself, at the stage you are in your career, looking for those challenges?

I will say I like doing physical stuff. And in films, particularly ones that are heavily influenced by kind of television language, shooting language, I often long for stunt stuff. Running, physical stuff, fighting, extreme physical things. I like doing those things and I still can do them. So I do look for them, but they are hard to find in good movies, because they are usually lousy action movies or, you know, the young guys get to do all that stuff.

What was it about John Carter that made it that movie for you?

You know, to give you the chronology, it was Andrew Stanton. I had Andrew Stanton was going to make a live action picture. I thought he was great. I knew him a little bit because I worked with him and I know his movies. I thought, “That’s interesting.”
And then when I heard what the source material was, I didn’t know it, but I thought, “Cool. Classical but pulpy. Perfect.” I mean pulpy in the respect of popular and some notions are dated because they are so classical, you know? And then I thought, “How beautiful.” Andrew is perfect for this because, you know, I think I read an interview where he said he likes to put an art house feel into a popular movie. He’s got the material to do it, he’s the man to do it, and it’s a good fit.

And then he started showing me the design elements. And he got to the Tharks. And I thought, “Wow! They’re like green Masais. They are desert people. Cool.” And I get to play the king with this kind of conflicted psychology? I thought, “There’s something here. I like this.” And then when he says, “You gotta do this, this,” I say, “OK.”

Did you see a change in Andrew from working with him on Nemo? Did it look more stressful? Is he always as calm as everyone says?

He is. I think he’s good at hiding the stress if he has it. He’s gotta have it, because it’s a lot to do. But he’s quite confident. I mean he’s very confident. He’s really good with other people. He was the right man for the job.

Is the pressure different on a movie like this? You’ve done several really big budget movies ‐ Spiderman, this, and then, of course, plenty of indie stuff. Does it feel different on set?

On set, no, because, you know, I can’t describe when someone says, “How does it feel to work on a big movie?” You know, when you get to set, it’s always the same. There’s always problems and they manifest differently, whether it’s a small movie or a big movie. No matter whether you have a very difficult schedule or a leisurely schedule.

In this it was about work. Yeah, it was a big movie, but it was all kind of practical. And if you can believe it, knowing the budget, it felt fairly lean. They had what they needed, but they needed a lot of stuff. So it didn’t feel like this big, you know, thing that had to be tamed. We were working. We were making this great thing, this great opportunity, you know, in these great landscapes with these exotic creatures. That’s what it felt like.

And then, on top of that, there was going to be another layer added afterward, because some of this stuff we could see a lot, but some of it would be integrated better and sweetened and realized by the computers.

I know Andrew did a lot of the prep work. He just seems like that kind of director where, you know, in the auditions, Lynn was telling us he had it all scoped out. Your character, did the design change at all when you came on?

Very little. To tell you the truth, I came on fairly late, because I know Taylor was cast already, Lynn was cast. But I remember very well him showing me the initial designs for Tars Tarkas. And except for some clothes and accessory things, the actual face was pretty much what he showed me.

Now, of course they did take my face and they tried to do some modifications to make it…

You can see it.

I think you see it a little in the eyes. You see it in the physical movement. The other parts, I’m not so sure. So they adjusted it to have it be influenced by me, but not radically.

There’s been a lot of recent talk about motion capture. We’ve talked a lot on the award circuits. Having going through the process, do you feel that it deserves the same credibility as a live action performance when it comes to your work?

I mean yes, but this is not my…this is not my interest. I think awards are important and I think people should be recognized, but this is a dialogue that could go on forever. Where does it stop? Movies, particularly big movies, have so many working parts and there’s so many collaborators that I think, having done motion capture, I know better the work what Andy Serkis does. And I respect it very much.

But actually, I’d probably respect it even before I did motion capture. But, you know, you’re talking about getting proper recognition for something. I don’t know where to start with that because that’s just not the way it goes! [laughs]

But is it the same challenge? Is it on that same level?

Listen. You’re talking to the wrong guy because I’m a guy that… You know, acting isn’t a thing. It’s not one activity. It can be so many different things. And it’s even hard to award something. You’re awarding lots of things, because there’s no standard. It’s not an activity. For different roles there’s different kinds of acting. For different movies there’s different kinds of acting. In something mediated by so many hands, like movies, like motion pictures, someone, I’ve seen it, can be what, in conventional terms, I would not term very good actor, and they can work brilliantly in the movie. So who cares? Maybe they’re a good actor.

Then I’ve seen other people that are great actors, and then they haven’t been supported by how they function in the movie. Do you call them a bad actor? It’s impossible.

John Carter is in theaters March 9, 2012. Stay tuned for more coverage as opening weekend rolls on.

Neil Miller is the persistently-bearded Publisher of Film School Rejects, Nonfics, and One Perfect Shot. He's also the Executive Producer of the One Perfect Shot TV show (currently streaming on HBO Max) and the co-host of Trial By Content on The Ringer Podcast Network. He can be found on Twitter here: @rejects (He/Him)