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WHO KNOWS WHAT EVIL LURKS IN THE HEART OF THE SHADOW OF THE VAMPIRE? WILLEM DOES!

Yet, in this 2001 interview I did for Interview magazine, Dafoe told me he's such a puritan that if he so much as tells a fib, he fears he'll be punished. --Guy Flatley

Nobody's as depraved as Willem Dafoe when he's really depraved. If you doubt that, just run out and rent "To Live and Die in LA." (1985), "Cry-Baby" (1990) or "Wild at Heart" (1990)--movies in which he is the walking, talking definition of the word scum. But Dafoe can also be convincingly heroic, even godly, as he has frequently demonstrated during his twenty-year film career, most notably in "Platoon" (1986), "Mississippi Burning" (1988), and "The Last Temptation of Christ" (1988).

Yet, saintly or spooky, this striking figure with the lean, graceful frame, chiseled features, and blue-laser eyes has always granted us a subliminal glimpse of the sensitive, meticulous, theater-trained artist beneath that bigger-than-life character on screen. We've known he was good, but we've also known he was Dafoe.

Up until now, that is. In "Shadow of the Vampire," E. Elias Merhige's howling, haunting riff on the filming of F.W. Murnau's 1922 horror hit, "Nosferatu," Dafoe loses himself completely in the character of Max Schreck, the little-known actor who was so scary playing a vampire precisely because he was a vampire (or so director Merhige and screenwriter Steven Katz would have us believe).

And Dafoe's loss is our gain. We may miss the star's thick, unruly hair, sharp cheekbones and sorrowful smile, but what we get in their place is a bizarre bonanza (take a look at the photo above to see what we mean). Chalky-fleshed, pointy-eared, fang-toothed, and sickly bald, he lurches and slithers across the midnight terrain, clicking his obscenely long nails and sniffing for fresh blood. A monstrous villain, to be sure. But at the same time, thanks to Dafoe's wizardry, he's an unforgettable, crazily touching creature--snatching a bat from the sky and greedily devouring it one moment, gamely preparing for his close-up the next.


Dafoe's own dreams of a close-up began to take shape in 1977. That was the year the Wisconsin-bred wanderer landed in New York, began working with The Wooster Group's Performing Garage as a carpenter, electrician, and occasional performer, and became the live-in lover of Elizabeth LeCompte, the company's dynamic director. The couple is still together, and they are the proud parents of an eighteen-year-old college student named Jack. Recently the actor (shown at left the way he looks when not in his vampire mode) spoke with me from Paris, where he is shooting Paul McGuigan's "The Reckoning."

GUY FLATLEY: I know you were nominated for an Academy Award as best supporting actor of 1986 for Oliver Stone's "Platoon." Even so, doesn't the Oscar buzz about this performance make you nervous?

WILLEM DAFOE: No, it all sounds good to me. I could pretend I don't hear it, but I do. And I don't hear it on every movie. I can't get cynical and say the buzz is anything other than good news.

GF: Did you research Max Schreck, the real-life actor you play?

WD: I didn't really feel the need. I watched him in "Nosferatu," of course, but our Max Schreck is really the invention of screenwriter Steven Katz. One book I read about "Nosferatu" said that Schreck's success in the movie was so great that it actually destroyed him. He became so singularly identified with the role of the vampire that it limited his chances to get other roles.

GF: You've played many monsters, but only once did you play a man many think of as God. Describe being on that cross in Martin Scorsese's "The Last Temptation of Christ."

WD: That was a great experience. I feel self-conscious saying this, but it was as if something powerful was working through me. It picked me up, gained momentum and tossed me around.

GF: I'd like you to give me your impression of some of the directors you've worked with, particularly Scorsese and Stone.

WD: Oh, god! I get so self-conscious talking about things like that. You won't get anything from me.

GF: OK, we'll go on to something else.

WD: No. I'll try, I'll try. It's just that the relationship between actor and director is a private relationship, and even in the best relationships, so much is left unspoken. Marty and I haven't talked about how we feel about each other; we've just known each other intimately through the work. So to go public is a weird kind of kiss-and-tell.

GF: I can imagine.

WD: Marty set me up and then used me in a way I wanted to be used. I get pleasure out of attaching myself to someone who's dying to convey something but can't do it directly because he's not an actor. So I become an extension of him; I become the doer. That's what acting is, that's what an actor does.

GF: You're not expressing your own vision so much as interpreting someone else's?

WD: I try to tell a story, to make a world, to be the very thing the artist is trying to say. That's where the magic of performing comes in. Marty Scorsese and Oliver Stone and all the people who gave me great things to do were very passionate about the stories they were telling, and they gave me a wonderful place to be. A good setup, strong passion, personal stories, great stakes. Working with them, I felt useful and the game of performing didn't seem so superficial. They made it seem a little grander.

GF: It must have been grand working with John Malkovich as F.W. Murnau in "Shadow of the Vampire. Can you picture yourself in something called Being Willem Dafoe?

WD: I suppose I'm something of a narcissist, but I really can't picture that movie. I do like John very much--he's charming and lots of fun to perform with and to have dinner with. He tells great stories. But the reason he worked so well in "Being John Malkovich" [1999] is that people associate certain things with him, the same way they do with Christopher Walken and Harvey Keitel. People don't know who Willem Dafoe is. Let's just say John's persona is more specific than mine.

GF: Right.

WD: I'm half-bragging and I'm half-crying when I say that.

GF: You're not envious of other actors, are you?

WD: I am. I can tell you right now.

GF: You were terrific in the supporting role of the vengeful thief in "The English Patient" [1996], but don't you wonder what you might have done with the major role of the torrid lover played by Ralph Fiennes?

WD: It would have been a very different movie, that's for sure. It's nice to know your limitations, to know what you're good at, to not have this sort of vanity about acting where you think you have to prove you can play every kind of role. But, at the same time, I bristle if someone says, "Well, this guy inherently is not a leading man," or "He's not a romantic figure." I bristle because, somewhere in my life, I am capable of every kind of behavior. So when you ask me about playing Ralph's part in "The English Patient," I have to say it never really occurred to me--but, you know, I could have played that part.

GF: Have you lost roles you desperately wanted to play?

WD: I once had an executive say to me, "Look, I think you'd be great in this movie, but you'll get the part over my dead body. I need so-and-so." And the director really wanted me!

GF: Well, I hope the movie bombed.

WD: It did OK--but it could have done better.

GF: Yeah, with better casting.... Tell me, when you're not acting, do you hang out with the guys, down a few beers and talk sports and politics?

WD: I don't recognize myself in that picture.

GF: Good. But what do you do to relax?

WD: I don't want people to know the truth about that kind of stuff. I wish to Christ I could make up a really great lie. Sometimes, after an interview, I say to myself, "Man, you were so honest--can't you have some fun? Can't you do some really down and dirty lying?" But the puritan in me thinks that if I tell a lie, I'll be punished.

GF: I once asked Piper Perabo if there was somebody she'd like to be, thinking she might say Meryl Streep or Jessica Lange, but she said she'd like to be Willem Dafoe, because you're the actor she most admires. Is there somebody you'd like to be?

WD: I'm very ambitious, hard-driven, and conscientious, but I don't really think in terms of role models or goals or dreams. I guess all I want to be is an improved version of myself. But thank you, Piper--that was really sweet.