Willem Dafoe Talks ‘Poor Things,’ Reveals Role in ‘Beetlejuice 2’

Willem Dafoe Talks ‘Poor Things,’ Reveals Role in ‘Beetlejuice 2’

After skipping Venice due to the actors’ strike, a busy Willem Dafoe is back on the festival trail, attending the 20th edition of the Marrakech Film Festival with his wife, filmmaker and actor Giada Colagrande. He spoke to Variety about his ties to Morocco, why he’s “happy to be promoting and starting to work again” now that the strike is over, and his role in Tim Burton’s upcoming “Beetlejuice 2.”

How does it feel to be back in Marrakech?

I’m happy to be back. Morocco for me is “The Last Temptation of Christ,” a film that was a beautiful experience. And I loved shooting it because it demanded a lot of me and it was really full on. And it was very in the nature of Morocco. And we were working with an incredible Moroccan crew. So that’s my association. I’ve always heard Marrakech was a beautiful festival as far as hospitality and also that it covers some films that aren’t often covered from Africa, Arab filmmakers, Moroccan filmmakers. So that’s cool. And then I’m so happy to be promoting and starting to work again after the strike. So this is [about] getting moving again and seeing friends. And we’re going to make it better.

Speaking of promotions, you had three movies in Venice which you skipped in solidarity with the strike. In one, Yorgos Lanthimos’ “Poor Things,” you play Dr. Godwin Baxter, the unorthodox surgeon whom Bella, played by Emma Stone, calls God. He seems like such a fun character to play despite having to spend hours in make up. 

He was, just because I was surrounded by all this beautiful [Victorian] detail in this complete world; and also great cast, great script. Also looking at these videos of Alasdair Gray who wrote the novel. I don’t know this for a fact, but I think there’s a lot of Alasdair Gray in that character. And he’s quite an amusing guy. He’s eccentric, he’s intellectual, he’s playful. He’s a thinker; a free thinker. So I think that I was working from watching videos of him, partly. Dr. Baxter is a scientist and he’s turned his pain into a positive thing.

I read this funny anecdote that when you got the call from Lanthimos and Emma Stone to propose that you play this character you were looking at a portrait of your father, who was a surgeon. 

Yes, he was. The portrait is in my office in my apartment in Rome. I was also looking at a beautiful piece by Marina Abramovic, whom I’ve worked with a bunch of times. It’s a big photograph of her doing an autopsy on a woman on a slab. Those two things: so it’s in my world. They told me the broad strokes, and I was excited immediately.

In another Venice movie, Saverio Costanzo’s “Finally Dawn,” you play an American art dealer in 1950s Rome who is friends with a Hollywood movie star played by Lily James. You speak Italian quite a lot. How challenging was that?

I really enjoyed working with Saverio and it’s a good role. It was challenging because I speak Italian, but it’s very different to speak and perform. And, yes, I can have an accent. I didn’t sweat the accent so much. It’s just a matter of rhythm and fluidity. And I play an American character, but I have to speak well so you can’t hear too much wonk in the voice.

The other movie you had at Venice is Olmo Schnabel’s “Pet Shop Days.” How was it to work with the son of someone whom you’ve worked with so much?

It was good because Olmo was basically a production assistant on his father’s film “At Eternity’s Gate” in which I played Van Gogh. So Olmo was around a lot, doing very simple things. But I saw how he worked and I liked him and I got to know him personally. And then when he started working on this project, he spoke to me very early and said: “I’d love you to be in it.” And I said, “Well, okay. Talk to me when you’re ready.” And yeah, I just like how he approached things and also he really speaks for people that aren’t of my experience. A New York of another generation. So that was attractive. And besides, I like him and I saw him develop and it’s always good to work with young directors because sometimes there’s a level of corruption with success, and also a level of fatigue, with directors that have been around for a while that young people don’t have.

You’ve got several other movies coming out, one being Tim Burton’s “Beetlejuice 2.” Can you talk to me about working with Burton and reveal what character you play? 

I haven’t seen any footage yet, but it was fun to do. I play a police officer in the afterlife, so I’m a dead person. And in life I was a B-movie action star, but I had an accident and that’s what sent me to the other side. But because of my skills, I became a detective character in the afterlife. So that’s my job. But it’s colored by the fact of who I was [when I was alive]: a B movie action star. 

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