Willem Dafoe doesn’t want you to describe his characters as “creepy.” It’s understandable, because he’s one of the most accomplished actors in the business. Still, it’s somewhat surprising to see the chameleon have a full-on good guy role like he does in The Florida Project. Sean Baker‘s follow-up to Tangerine—concerning a cheap motel near Disneyworld and the families who live there, scraping by week to week—is many a vibrant thing. And Dafoe is the heart of the film, something he’s not frequently been used for as of late, but something that the Spider-Man actor is insanely good at. In fact, Dafoe could very much be toward the front of the Best Supporting Actor Oscar pack this year for his performance in Florida. (Read Gregory Ellwood’s rave review from its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, here; and Adam Chitwood’s TIFF tea leave readings, here).
In Project Dafoe plays Bobby, the motel manager of the Magic Castle. It’s a rundown motel but it’s exterior isn’t as rundown as many of the inhabitants are as they scrape together money for rent via waitressing, scamming Disneyland tourists, and hooking. Bobby is more than a caretaker of the property he’s a caretaker of these forgotten souls; particularly a young mother (Bria Vinaite) and her wild daughter (Brooklynn Prince). Along with care-taking, this includes some tough love, too.
Recently, I got the chance to sit down and talk with Dafoe about The Florida Project, including the unique shoot on location amongst people who were actually living and working at the hotel, and some notes on his youth. We of course chatted a little bit about a few of his iconic roles and what what drew him to the superhero genre again.
Collider: It’s a pleasure to get to speak with you today, I’ve been a fan for a long time and I loved your performance in this film particularly. How familiar were you with Sean’s work prior?
WILLEM DAFOE: I’ve seen Tangerine only.
I ask because Tangerine has this kind of pulsing chaos and Florida Project has this as well, but what was interesting about your character is Bobby is the anchor to try to keep the chaos at a minimum. Is that something you and Sean talked about that your character kind of operated as someone who could slow this world down a bit and make it feel a little more manageable?
DAFOE: It happened kind of naturally because it’s the way the events are structured. We’re working from a very strong script, but we were also improvising and creating things on the fly. It helped to hold things together, to create a community rather than have all of these loose little storylines. You could always bring it back by keeping the pressure on for rent, or for a watchdog on illegal movements, keeping the finger on the community and Bobby’s kind of connective tissue for that.
I know that you visited with a few hotel managers prior. Was that on site in Florida or was that here in LA?
DAFOE: No, it was in Florida.
What did you learn or take from that experience?
DAFOE: Some superficial things, some less superficial. I look at them, I’d see what kind of shoes he’s wearing, I’d see what his body is like how he carries himself, how he thinks of himself, how he expresses himself. Not that I am going to play him, but they give me clues they give me fun things to play with. The biggest takeaway I think was I was shocked at—well not really shocked—but he was so proud of the time he spent managing that motel and how hard he worked to make it a nicer place. It might look rough but it used to be rougher so that type of change, he was proud of.
How long was he there?
DAFOE: I can’t remember. His facts were a little shaky sometimes so I didn’t press him on stuff because I think he had some stuff in his life.
Did the people you talked with, did they, like Bobby, live on site as well?
DAFOE: Yeah. What I was going to say is he was so proud that he made it a better place and he admitted it wasn’t perfect. He kind of reveled in telling me horror stories. Kind of like he was happy that he had survived them. And the people survived them. That was the big takeaway. The guy really was deeply invested.
I love film noir and so, I never really thought of it until I was watching this movie, I mean you see hotel managers a lot in classic film and neo-noirs and especially for hourly hotels, but they always have something snide remark to but then you never follow them ever.
DAFOE: Yeah, they’re like a moment of audience judgement. There when plans are being hatched, marriage vows are being broken…
Is that something that maybe you thought of that this kind of character hasn’t been explored that much in cinema?
DAFOE: You know, I didn’t think about it, but I think that’s a good observation.
Do you have a favorite bellhop or something?
DAFOE: [Laughing] Steve Buscemi’s good. For me, there was so much practical stuff to do. This would not be a movie that would interest me if we were shooting with a fake location. It was so rooted in the place and there were still residents there. The place was operational while we were shooting. It was like we were working side by side with the motel staff. And when we were shooting it was like literally me taking the seat of the manager for a few minutes and he’d go do some other maintenance So it was so nice, because we had that foot in reality. It was concrete; and that helps not only keep you honest to make sure you don’t start making a silly fantasy or pointing fingers but also these people become your people. You become them and that’s the best. Its like you don’t have to invent stuff because it’s there. You just have to free it.
Disneyworld is a shadow over the film. When you were growing up did your family take any trips there?
DAFOE: Not so much my family, but the crazy part is that I now have family in Orlando. I’m from Wisconsin, but they were snowbirds. My parents, who are both dead, retired to Orlando and a couple of my sisters moved down there. So, I know that area quite well. In fact, to explore Bobby’s accent, which was very light, it wasn’t a big deal, but still I recorded my brother in law. He’s quite religious and it was very funny because he was objecting- [laughs] he wouldn’t say the bad words. I would say, “come on David for God’s sake, you could say ‘fuck’, it’s really just a word.” He’s like, “Yeah but I don’t, you know.” It was funny.
You’re the kind of only pre-existing professional actor in the cast. What was the set like and did it take you back to your theater days a little bit?
DAFOE: Everything takes me back to my theater days. The old story about theater is that it becomes like a family. You’ve got one common purpose and you try to help each other accomplish that. It’s sweet. And that was very applicable here because it was almost like community theater because were using a communal living space as location. It’s all centered around the kids and the kids we have to take care of them on set. Their parents are there, but we really have to take care of the kids because they have sugar rushes and they crash and they get cranky and they get confused and all that. So it was like this community taking care of these kids too. So everything was in place, it was like a family outing.
Were there any funny interactions with the kids that happened on set that kind of worked its way into the movie?
DAFOE: Actually what happened was my scene with the birds. They kept coming onto set and everybody says, “don’t go near them, they’re protected. You can’t touch them, you can’t kick them out.” Some type of Ibis maybe. But they’d come and all the film union people would be like, “don’t go near them they are protected.” But they’d come anyway and we’d have to stop shooting and that sort of thing. So finally, one time we decided just to deal with them. Even though we’re not supposed to get near them we improvised moving them out. It’s a little thing, but you know, those kind of things would happen from time to time.
So Bria is big on Instagram, she was discovered by Sean on Instagram. In looking up things about your youth, I saw that you got into a little bit of trouble for some photography/video projects in high school. If you were growing up now, what would your young Instagram look like?
DAFOE: You say Instagram and my mind shuts down [laughs]. But yeah, I was interested in making things. In fact, it got me into a little trouble, what you’re referring to was interviewing a classmate on the toilet. I guess that now would be with a phone. But long before that, as a kid, I made little super 8 films when I was a kid. So I was making things, yeah. You’re probably right, if I grew up with that that might be my outlet. But most of the things I made, they were also very private things and Instagram is different. It’s public. My little movies that I made when I was a kid were for me and my friends.
Did you have any type of genre that you were interested in making when you were younger?
DAFOE: I was stuck on historical things. When I was really little, I would always make plays that would be called grand titles like, “Cortez” or the “The Alaskan Gold Rush.”
You’ve had a massive career full of many iconic performances. A lot of the ones that people love you for are creepier, sociopathic or pretty wild. Were you looking forward to playing someone that was rooted in much more every day humanity as opposed to—
DAFOE: Yes, but I always have to protest a little bit. Because you’re right that is the perception, but there’s a tendency with the more commercial, more widely distributed films, they tend to have broader strokes so it’s easier to be reductive about the morality or describe some of these characters as villains or bad guys or creepy. I would probably argue with some of those, but really for every To Live and Die in LA there’s The Last Temptation of Christ for every Spider-Man there’s a Platoon, for every Grand Budapest Hotel there’s A Life Aquatic…
Right, I guess I mean for a younger generation who’s prism of 80s and 90s influence is kind of the more cult films, like Wild at Heart and Streets of Fire and…
DAFOE: Yep. Well those are when people are first seeing you and that usually sticks a little bit with associations. But as an actor can’t submit to that because somewhere your job is to get these people their day in court. You’re clear about what your function is and I’m not there to redeem Bobby Peru in Wild at Heart, for instance, or Jopling in Budapest, because the interest of the movie doesn’t request it. But somewhere, the humor comes out of some sort of awareness that they’re bad news. That’s their nature and there’s no explaining. But, I’m just saying, it’s a shame when people reduce a character and gang them together with words like “creepy” because so many characters I’ve played are better than that descriptor.