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Camerimage: Willem Dafoe On Working With ‘Poor Things’ Helmer Yorgos Lanthimos, Emma Stone and Six Hours in the Makeup Chair

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With the end of the SAG-AFTRA strike, Willem Dafoe came to the 31st EnergaCamerimage to support director Yorgos Lanthimos’ Poor Things, which opened the international cinematography film festival this week in Torun, Poland.

During the event, the actor sat down for a conversation with The Hollywood Reporter, to discuss the adaptation of the 1992 novel of the same name by Alasdair Gray. The story follows Bella Baxter — played by Emma Stone, who also produced — as a young woman brought back to life by unorthodox scientist Dr. Godwin Baxter, played by Dafoe. Under Baxter’s protection, Bella is eager to learn. Dafoe says of his character, “He’s a paternal guy and he loves her.”

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This visit came together pretty quickly after the strike ended.

[Camerimage’s Kazik Suwala] I think was the first person I heard the strike ended from. I looked at some emails and he said, “It’s short notice, but do you think you can come this year?” It’s a quick trip, but I’m eager to be able to start promoting things that are coming out and get traveling again and working again.

Would you talk about the collaboration on Poor Things?

I always remember when Emma and Yorgos called me together. They just laid it out pretty much. And I didn’t really know Emma. I’d seen her around when they were promoting The Favourite, which I really loved. When they described what it was, it was a no brainer. I said, yes.

When we got there, Yorgis does a very curious thing that I think some people have talked about, but it’s significant. We had a rehearsal period, and it’s a rehearsal period where we don’t necessarily apply ourselves to the scenes. We do theater games and fool around and basically he makes the company and he’s very skilled at that because he’s a guy that is really impressive in his knowledge of many things and many different disciplines. So you really get dialed in about what he needs and wants to do. And when someone’s really on top of their game like that, you want to be part of it. You want to help them do what they need to do.

And then we go to a set that is so complete, such a world. We start to work with the costumes, the makeup — you’re involved hands-on with a lot of different departments and Yorgos is involved in all of them. And this special knowledge that he has of all these different fields, you really feel it. 

Tell us about your makeup.

It’s several [prosthetic] pieces. And they have to put them on and then they glue them and then they have to color them, and then they have to blend them. So it’s pretty involved. 

How long did it take to apply? 

I think in the beginning, certainly like four hours and then two hours to get out. And that always kind of sets the tone because you’re there at 3 o’clock in the morning. I don’t like to talk about it too much because you never like to hear actors complain or bravely talk about what they went through. But it’s work, but it’s nice because you get there and you see yourself recede as these things go on you and you’re looking in the mirror the whole time. You can’t sleep because it’s intricate enough that you’ve got to keep your eyes open and they’re gluing … Slowly, you see yourself recede and you see this other person emerge, at least superficially. But when you look in the mirror and you don’t see yourself anymore, you see something else, that allows you a huge leap into this fertile place of pretending because you aren’t yourself anymore. 

What was the working relationship like with you and Emma? 

Fantastic. First of all, the relationship in the story is beautiful. I like it a lot. And she’s great. She’s very skilled. She’s a worker. She’s got a good sense of humor. She’s very free and she has a special relationship with Yorgos. They’re quite close. And this project really was developed very much, very organically and specifically, with her. So by the time you come into it, she has a kind of authority. They both got on the phone to call me. So it was like a team.

And since we’re at a cinematography festival, would you talk a little bit about working with DP Robbie Ryan? 

[During Camerimage] Robbie said — I should probably not paraphrase — but the sense was he said, ‘Yorgos does everything. I just do what he tells me to do’ … It’s not true to the degree that people get very crazy about who did what and where stuff comes from. And when you’re really a team, not to get too sweet or sentimental about this, it really doesn’t matter. It’s about doing stuff. And Robbie. He’s a doer. He’s very skilled; I want to say egoless.

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