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Interview: Willem Dafoe


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Ahead of the release of his latest film John Carter, TNS caught up with acting legend Willem Dafoe (Spider-Man, Finding Nemo, The English Patient) to chat about acting, aliens, and the power of a bad film. 

Willem Dafoe as Tars Tarkas with Taylor Kitsch as John CarterJohn Carter is an action-adventure set on the wild and mysterious planet of Barssom (Mars) with its unfamiliar inhabitants: the warring Red Men of Zodonga and Helium, the savage Tharks and the manipulative and all-powerful Therns. When a war-weary American Civil War veteran John Carter is unexpectedly transported from a remote cave in Arizona to the red planet, the power balance is tipped and he finds himself drawn into a mission of heroic proportions. The survival of Princess Dejah, of Helium, and the entire planet of Barsoom rest in the hands of one man - John Carter.

In the film, Willem Dafoe plays Tars Tarkas, leader of the Tharks and ally to the Civil War veteran.

TNS caught up with Dafoe ahead of the film’s UK release this Friday 9th March.


Why did you decide to get involved in this project?

As with any film that I am doing, I look to work with people who are passionate about storytelling, with people who are passionate about filmmaking. And from working with Andrew [Stanton, the director] on Finding Nemo, it was already clear to me that, whether working with live-action or with animation, he was a storyteller. I also look to work on things that are a personal project, that really mean something to the people who are making it. This is something that is especially true if I choose to do a big movie like this one or like Spider-Man. I try to find people like Andrew who really want to tell a story, and then do my best to help them make that happen.

What was the most challenging thing about working on this film?

Well, first of all it was motion capture, which both excited and challenged me because I hadn’t worked in that way before. It also created a very different feel on set because it wasn’t just about what we were doing as actors, there were certain marks that we needed to hit, certain information that we needed to collect for the technical team.

Your character Tars Tarkas is a green, twelve-foot tall, alien king with four arms. How do you even begin to tackle a character like that?

Well the main thing is that I didn’t see him as an alien. I tried to look past that to what was going on inside, and saw that there was something distinctly human that I could connect to. One of the main things that I liked about the character is that him and John Carter, although they are from such different worlds, they need each other. They sort of have similar problems. With Tars, he has a fantastic problem: he is leading these people who celebrate strength above anything else, who celebrate decisiveness and power, and yet at heart he is a compassionate soul who remembers a time when his people were not like this. So he is in this double mind: if he doesn’t follow his heart then he will die inside, and if he does follow his heart then he actually will die because he will be deposed and his people will probably kill him. That is an interesting bind. And then you’ve got [John] Carter who starts out as a damaged soldier who doesn’t want to get involved in helping other people, and then he is eventually forced to get involved. So despite their differences, they are both trying to find their feeling again, to rediscover their humanity. I think that it is an interesting friendship.

What do you see as the main difference between acting for theatre and acting for film?

The main thing is that there is no hierarchy between the two; I don’t prefer one over the other. The nice thing about theatre is that you get to revisit the material over and over and over again whilst you’re doing the performance. Whereas the crazy thing about film is that, in most instances, in most films, you are dealing with first impulses - you go into a room, you shoot it for a day, and you never visit it again - it is a huge difference.

Is there a particular role that you played that changed the game for you?

No, they all do. In fact, it is the bad roles, the bad experiences that probably change you more than the good ones.

Are you referring to one role in particular?

No, no, not at all. The bad ones will be different for different people. If there is one thing that I have learned is that one man’s meat is another man’s poison. And that’s fun for me, particularly when you start doing press tours like this internationally, because it reminds you that there is no such thing as a good or bad film. The way people see the film all depends on their cultural context and how they are fed the film.

What is it that about acting that has kept you interested for all of these years? 

I think it is the pleasure of performing. I am like a farm animal that likes to strap on that plough, because when I am working I feel useful, I feel I enter something greater than myself; I am in movement, I feel connected and that is a beautiful feeling. And I think that is something we can all relate to in our work. When we are working well the world drops away and we stop worrying about the petty things of life, we feel strong. So I keep looking for those situations and I find them mostly through performing.

John Carter opens in cinemas Friday 9th March.

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