Interview: Willem Dafoe Talks Turning Up the Heat, Mr. Bobby Peru, and ‘The Hunter’

By  · Published on April 7th, 2012

Willem Dafoe delivers a quiet performance in The Hunter, Daniel Nettheim’s observant character-driven feature debut. It’s a character which relies purely on movement, expression, and action ‐ all internal. The protagonist, Martin, a.k.a. The Hunter, is a man skilled in violence, and that’s about as much as you can say for him for most of the film’s running time.

As you would’ve predicted, the character grows in a way of showing warmth and humanity, but, as Dafoe explains, not in a sentimental way. Martin is the type of character who feels at home in the woods wielding a rifle, rather than watching after a pair of children. Do not expect this to be the story of a cold man who in actuality has a big heart of a gold they’re ready to unleash, because it’s far from it.

Here’s what actor Willem Dafoe had to say about Martin, directors with intense passion, and Bobby Peru, the ultimate force of nature:

There’s a clear dichotomy to Martin, where you see him capable of warmness and extreme violence. Was that a contradiction you wanted to explore?

Well, I know I had a greater sense of who the Martin of the hunt was going to be and who the Martin the mercenary was. I didn’t know what it was going to be like with the children. I just knew, at all costs, that we wanted to fight sentimentality. It was very much created as we shot it. It was definitely a very clear and strong script, but how it affected me I didn’t know until we started doing it.

And when you see Martin on the hunt he seems at home. Was that an idea you and Daniel discussed?

Yeah, the idea is he’s a guy who works with a body, you gotta feel like he can take care of himself, you gotta feel like he’s dangerous and knows his way around a certain kind of hunt, in the broadest sense of the term. You know, he’s got to look at home. It’s not his turf, but he’s got to know what he’s doing. You have to feel like he’s done this before, this kind of thing before. It was very important to get graceful with the equipment, get graceful with the traps, and gutting the animals, that kind of thing.

There’s little exposition about Martin, and what you know about him is shown, not told. When you get a character who’s a cypher like this, do you see it as the exciting challenge?

We did a lot of widdling down. Sometimes you get the script and go, “Oh, we got the story,” and then you start to cut back. Once you’ve got the confidence to know the story is accomplished, then you can start to cut back and withhold certain things, when you know the audience will be able to figure it out by seeing it. For me, the ghost of those actions were still there, and I had them in my head. You don’t need to know a lot about Martin, because the point is you see so much through his eyes that you just have to be with him. If you know too much, then it’s going to push you away and have you judge him. I think when you don’t know who he is, you have more of a tendency to go with him on his mission.

One of the facts you do get about Martin is that he enjoys classical music. How does that type of character detail inform you?

You know, that’s okay. To tell you the truth, that wasn’t my favorite thing, because it gets dangerously close to the cliche of the physical and strong guy who inside is a poetic soul. I thought that was a little telegraphed, but then I accepted it and saw it as a way to show off his worldliness; he’s cultured, or has an appreciation of culture, anyway.

Do you experience that often, where an idea on the page doesn’t sound right, but then works in execution?

Oh, yeah. You know, that’s what’s beautiful about film: you can see where your instincts were true and can see where you got ahead of yourself. You always worry about stuff you shouldn’t worry about and then you don’t worry about the stuff you should. There’s always surprises. The nature of film is so collaborative that, hopefully, when you make a false move or put your face in something that doesn’t really work, then someone else will pickup on it, in the end. That’s what directors are for.

And obviously you’ve collaborated with diverse directors. How did Daniel’s approach compare to what you’ve done in the past?

Well, the one consistent thing is that you’re always looking for burning guys and gals that are dying to tell a story, who have a real passion and feel like it’s their story. Daniel’s been working on this for ten years; he optioned the book ten years ago, and worked on the script on and off for ten years. That’s what I always look for and is a common thread, and he had that in common. Other than that, he was a little unusual because he really comes from… I’ve worked with seasoned directors and first-timers, but I don’t think I’ve worked with a director who has had such a big career in television; he had a big career ‐ and still has a big career ‐ in Australian television. This was his second feature.

You’ve worked with some filmmakers who tell those personal stories in pretty intense ways, like Abel Ferrara and Oliver Stone. How does that affect the way you work?

You know, you turn up the heat, that’s when I like it usually. I like it hot, but it doesn’t have to be. I can think on Mississippi Burning ‐ which I think is quite a successful movie and had a great director, Alan Parker ‐ that was one of the most relaxed and happiest sets I’ve ever been on [Laughs], but it was on a very serious subject and was very well told, so you never know.

Does that heat help bring something out of? Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July are about chaotic settings and feelings, so does that specific type of environment inform your performance?

Sure, absolutely. I’m an agent of their vision, you know. I like to feel like I’m making things and being things, rather than interpreting things. I don’t like to say, “Oh, this is [this]!” I don’t respond to messages, I respond to events.

What was the event of The Hunter that intrigued you?

I like that it was a very intimate story against a really huge backdrop, that it was a very focused narrative with a very internal journey of a man going from being a misanthropic and cutoff to feeling again, rediscovering his humanity. That’s always a story I enjoy, because I think we all are always of being dogged by life.

[Spoiler Alert]

Do you think Martin was looking for that journey and change at the beginning?

I think it’s open to interpretation. I think it’s a choice that we made because it felt emotionally right, not that we rationalized what it meant. Just when we were there, it felt like the right thing to do. I think he needed to complete something and he identified with the tiger so much that what he did, at the end, really put a part of him asleep, and let a new Martin be born, clearly by the ritualistic action… I think he also did a moral thing, with denying these nefarious biotech people what they wanted.

[Spoiler Over]

I have to say, I revisited Wild at Heart for the hundredth time before this interview —

[Laughs] Good for you.

[Laughs] And it’s interesting comparing Bobby Peru, such an external character, to Martin, who’s the complete opposite. What type of challenges does a character like Peru pose versus Martin?

Well, the game is different every time. Bobby Peru was one of those rare cases ‐ and a real pleasurable case ‐ where I put on the costume, put on those teeth, grew a little mustache, put on a little accent, and it was all there and I didn’t have to do a thing; it did itself [Laughs]. First of all, David Lynch made such a complete world that, if you entered it, there’s a logic and things take care of themselves. I think with all those external elements they struck some sort of fantasy in mind that I could access in animated this force of nature kind of guy, someone without regrets and just pure hunger and pure evil.

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The Hunter is now in limited release and available on VOD.

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