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Dafoe the lone ranger
7:00am Saturday 14th July 2012 in Celebrity Interview
Willem Dafoe plays a lonely hunter on a mission to find the last Tasmanian Tiger in new film The Hunter, which is released on Friday, July 6. He reveals what it was like braving the Australian wilderness, what drives him to hunt out unusual roles and his fears for the future of the planet.
By Albertina Lloyd.
Willem Dafoe is not one to follow the crowd.
The character he plays in new psychological drama The Hunter is intent on doing things his way, whatever the cost.
That just about sums up Dafoe's long-running and varied career in which he's played heroes, villains, aliens, cops and even Jesus.
In The Hunter, Dafoe plays Martin, a lone cowboy, dedicated to his work.
Sent by a mysterious biotech company into the wilderness of Tasmania to hunt the legendary last Tasmanian tiger, an animal believed to be extinct, his mission is surrounded by intrigue.
Filming on location in Tasmania, Dafoe was as challenged playing Martin as the hunter is by his mission.
"It was quite rugged where we were shooting. It's rough terrain. And very changeable, very dramatic weather," he says.
"You haven't lived until you've walked in button grass [an Australian shrub] or you've counted how many leeches you get on you in one day. I stopped at a count of about 50 - big old leeches, everywhere.
"You usually feel them when they're travelling and you usually can pick them off before they find a good spot to suck," he laughs dryly.
Dressed all in black, with a goatee beard, Dafoe is intense and yet friendly.
His deep, expressive eyes and his soothing tones, combined with his obvious passion for his work, makes listening to him almost hypnotic.
Martin takes up lodgings with lonely mother Lucy (Frances O'Connor) and her two children, but much of the film, based on the acclaimed novel The Hunter by Julia Leigh, follows him alone in the wild as he tracks the tiger.
"I did feel isolated," admits Dafoe. "Of course I'm accompanied by a crew, buts it's very stripped down company. We're like a little expedition that marches out and shoots this material. So it was easy to feel solitary."
Like Martin, Dafoe is a maverick of the acting world. Aged 56, he has made more than 60 films. His roles include comicbook villain The Green Goblin in the Spider-Man movies with Tobey Maguire and he has twice been nominated for an Oscar, once for his performance as a stoical soldier in Oliver Stone's Platoon in 1986.
With every character so different from the last, you have to ask what Dafoe is looking for in a role.
"I like to be in situations where, each time I do a film, it's not familiar to me. And I'm a little scared and I say, 'How do I do this?'
"That's not human nature to want to be in that place, so you have to trick yourself into it, so one of the ways you can do that is change your situation.
"If you keep on going back to the same well, I have some fear that I'll be less inspired in my work."
It's not just roles that make Dafoe impossible to pigeonhole, but genre. He has worked with controversial directors Lars von Trier and David Lynch, voiced fish Gill in Disney Pixar animation Finding Nemo and played the villain in Speed 2.
"The big thing is you need a balanced diet," he explains. "It helps. It exercises different muscles.
"One of the reasons I mix it up is I feel like each time you change your approach, that staves off a certain kind of corruption that's inevitable in any job.
"When you keep on doing the same thing, habit creeps in. And then with habit comes a kind of automatic-ness and a lack of passion, and your passion goes some place else."
Dafoe pauses then adds: "I don't want that to happen! Because it's too humiliating, performing is too personal to let that happen."
Recently Dafoe played alien chief Tars Tarkas in Disney's CGI sci-fi epic John Carter. With a monstrous budget, it was intended to become a franchise, but reviews were poor and it bombed at the box office.
He seems more hurt than irritated at its mention. "I feel bad that there won't be a sequel. I don't want to go on about it. But it's true I was disappointed that its reception wasn't as great as I think it deserved."
But he's adamant that the film's failure has not affected his own passion.
"I can honestly say I don't regret any movie because I know why I intended to do it. Sometimes it doesn't work out well, but I always have a good intention."
Dafoe downplays his prolific body of work. "I like to work... but it probably seems like I'm busier than I am," he says.
Then he admits: "I like to work all the time basically. For many years I had a theatre company. That was my real job, and then the movie was a sideline.
"I don't have a company any more, but in my heart my identity is still very much being a theatre actor."
But the prospect of a long-running series won't tempt Dafoe to follow the current trend that has seen so many big screen actors move into television.
"I've never done TV. And I'm one of the holdouts," he chuckles. "I'm attracted to directors. And I'm also attracted to the poetry of movies. In TV there's little poetry.
"In TV you can do many great things and right now all the power, all the resource, everybody's interest is in TV. But I think it's limited.
"I can't say I'm a snob, because now TV is almost as respected or more respected than movies, so that doesn't make me a snob.
"It's just I find more interesting opportunities in film. Where the director is the king, not the producer or the audience.
"Because I think the most interesting things are made when someone makes something from the heart, and if they do it well, people will respond to it."
But he won't tolerate the idea that he might try directing himself, batting the suggestion away like a teenager being nagged by his mother.
"No, no. I like the doing part. I don't like the preparation and I don't like ordering people around."
He adds mischievously: "I like being a little irresponsible and I like the adventure, and I find those things more possible in being an actor."
Extra time - Willem Dafoe :: Willem Dafoe was born in Wisconsin on July 22, 1955.
:: He enrolled to study drama at University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee but became unhappy with the course and dropped out to join an experimental theatre group.
:: In 1977 he co-founded his own experimental theatre company in New York, The Wooster Group, and remained an active member until 2005.
:: He gained his first film role in Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate in 1979 but was fired.
:: The Hunter is released in cinemas on Friday, July 6.
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