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Why Willem Dafoe Knows “the A to Z of Cannes Emotions”

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Is there a harder-working actor in the movie business than Willem Dafoe? The 68-year-old, who splits his time between Los Angeles, New York and Rome, has appeared in more than 150 films, co-starring in everything from superhero features to dozens of movie-buff favorites from David Lynch, Martin Scorsese, Lars von Trier, Paul Schrader, Oliver Stone, Julian Schnabel, Wes Anderson, Sean Baker, Spike Lee, Robert Eggers and so many more.

Fresh from his acclaimed performance in Yorgos Lanthimos‘ recent awards season favorite Poor Things, Dafoe is already returning to Cannes this month in the Greek director’s much-buzzed-about follow-up, Kinds of Kindness. Described as a surrealist fable set in the present day, the new project is an anthology film told in three parts, reuniting Lanthimos with the provocative screenwriting partner of his early career, Efthymis Filippou (Dogtooth, The Lobster, The Killing of a Sacred Deer). The film’s multi-Oscar-feted key cast — Dafoe, Emma Stone, Jesse Plemons, Margaret Qualley and Hong Chau — each play multiple characters across Kinds of Kindness‘ thematically interlaced stories.

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Ahead of the start of the 2024 Cannes festival, THR connected with Dafoe to discuss working within Lanthimos’ unique worlds, the passion that keeps him on film sets almost constantly, and the skimpy but inspired costume contribution he made to the new feature.

Not much is known about Kinds of Kindness yet, other than that it’s a triptych. What was it like performing in a film with that structure?

It was really like making three films. It’s a very interesting film and I’m eager to see it again. [Lanthimos] makes stories where, for an actor, he gives you interesting things to do that maybe turn on certain situations or approach certain emotions, but they’re certainly not recognizable. As an audience member, when I watch his work, I feel that he transposes things. You have these feelings, but you don’t recognize the story — so you have new insights. You’re freed from conditioning. I find his work really stimulating and challenging — and fun.

He’s such a master of peculiar tones. What’s it like as an actor to exist within those tones?

Yes, he’s a very keen watcher. He’s very clear about the situations he puts you in, but he’s not clear about how he feels about them. It’s really through putting the material on its feet that he comes to some kind of understanding. So, as an actor, that’s fun. You’re always committing yourself to the actions at hand, but you always have this sense that either he hasn’t told you what to think or he hasn’t told you what to accomplish. He only wants you to be present and to be there for what you’re doing. And I like that.

That’s an interesting mix of freedom and control, which is what his films are often about, to an extent.

Certainly, those are big themes for him.

Margaret Qualley, Jesse Plemons and Willem Dafoe in Yorgos Lanthimos’ ‘Kinds of Kindness’ Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

On the topic of costume, I heard that you wear a rather arresting orange Speedo in one segment and that the piece was your idea.

Well, it wasn’t much of an idea. (Laughs.) But you always want to amuse him, you know? Also, this character is very particular, and you just look for those things that turn you on and make it very specific and take you away from yourself. In my life, I didn’t think I would ever wear an orange Speedo on the beach, but in this story, I did it with pleasure.

Your creative output is pretty staggering. How would you describe your relationship with work?

It’s quite simple. Work is where I find pleasure and where I get to exercise my curiosities. I enjoy so much being on set. I enjoy that social dynamic of collaboration because the nature of film and theater is so collaborative. The goofy explanation is that it’s an adventure. The more serious one is that it’s an engagement with and an appreciation of the complexity of our experience.

Do you have any special Cannes memories that come to mind?

Oh, I have so many. I made a film with Paul Auster called Lulu on the Bridge. Salman Rushdie was supposed to play the psychologist who psychoanalyzes Harvey Keitel during very long sequences in the movie. [But] Salman had to drop out at the last minute. So Paul asked me to take the part with two days’ notice. The film went to Cannes, we had our big premiere, and the next morning … let’s just say it was extremely clear that the film had not been warmly received by the critics. When this happens to you at Cannes, it can become very awkward. But the thing I’ll always remember is that I bumped into Pedro Almodóvar later that day, and he was like, “Oh, please, come here!” And he embraced us! We all went on to have the most fun evening. So, what’s the point of that story? I guess it’s that I’ve been to Cannes with films that won the Palme d’Or; others have done quite well, and some have really not done well. I know the A to Z of Cannes emotions — but it’s always such a pleasure to be there. And it’s very important to this art form that we all love.

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