From director Adam Wingard and based on the famous Japanese manga written by Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata, Death Note follows high schooler Light (Nat Wolff), who comes across a supernatural notebook. Upon realizing that it holds a dangerous and scary power that allows its owner to write someone’s name in it while picturing their face, resulting in their death, Light quickly becomes caught up in the godlike ability, attracting the attention of his classmate Mia (Margaret Qualley), as well as the mysterious L (Lakeith Stanfield).
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, actor Willem Dafoe talked about why he wanted to voice Ryuk, the Death God who is the keeper of the Death Note, what he found appealing about the character, the appeal of this wildly popular story, coming up with Ryuk’s laugh, and why this is such a strong fantasy for young people. He also talked about being a part of the DCEU, as Nuidis Vulko in Justice League and Aquaman, and the appeal of working with director James Wan, along with how much he enjoyed doing the Kenneth Branagh remake of Murder on the Orient Express, and what makes him sign on for or turn down a role.
Collider: How did you get involved with Death Note?
WILLEM DAFOE: It was pretty direct. (Director) Adam [Wingard] approached me and he said, “We’re going to voice this character.” And I said, “How much are you going to see? Is he a puppet, or is he going to be animation?” It wasn’t clear to me. And he said, “Well, we’re gonna figure that out.” He showed me a rendering of what the character looked like, and it was taken very much from previous rendering of the Ryuk character, but to my eye, he looked like a crazy, ghoulish punk rocker. He looked much more rock ‘n’ roll than I would have thought before. After I looked at that, I read the script and learned the story and thought, “Yeah, I can do something with this.” I like how Ryuk fits into the story, and he’s not a normal character. There were plenty of attractive things. Also, I had worked with Nat Wolff before and liked him, very much, as an actor. That was also attractive to me.
Was the script your first introduction to this world, or had you been familiar with this story?
DAFOE: Not with this story, specifically. What’s crazy is that, after I did it, I started seeing it everywhere. It’s wildly popular. I thought, “What, have I been living under a rock? How have I not noticed this before?” It’s a cool part. Even though it’s just a voice, it was fun. While I love to do things physically, sometimes with just the voice, you can do anything. The truth is that I saw the picture and had the story in my head, so I had a pretty strong idea of what to do. And then, when we went into the studio to lay some voice down, we got there pretty fast. In the studio, we played around and I tried to give him as much variation as possible, but the truth is that this was a case of first impulse is the best impulse. What we came up with really fast was what we ended up going with. Every time I’d try to go away from my initial instinct, Adam really would say, “No, I liked where we were at before.”
Ryuk has a very sinister laugh. Did that also come to you right away?
DAFOE: All I remember is that, when you’re using your voice so specifically, you don’t always think in psychological terms, you think in musical terms and tonal terms. You also work off of your breath a lot. There were sequences when Ryuk wouldn’t be seen that much, but he’d be present, so you’d keep his presence with his breath and with a laugh. It was a way to express his presence and also give his voice a mysteriousness.
Does voicing an otherworldly character change your approach, at all, or do you go through the same process for every character that you bring to life?
DAFOE: No, it’s always different. It’s conditioned by not only the character, but also the role he plays in the story, and then by the director’s vision and the other actors you’re working work. Since I was voicing the character, I was dealing with Adam, with the voice in a fairly abstract way.
How would you describe the relationship between Ryuk and Light? Is it one of manipulation, or is he just bringing out what’s already in him?
DAFOE: Ryuk is a character that reminds me of the undead, where they have a special condition in how they exist. Ryuk has the power to do many things. He’s a magical character, but having all of that magic doesn’t exactly turn him on because it’s his normal. So, he has to go someplace else to get his pleasure, to be amused, and to feel good. He’s amused by humans. To lay this Death Note ability onto Light is to play a game. It engages him. Not only does he get amused by the deaths, but he also gets amused by the way Light struggles. It’s fun for him. It’s a drama for him. He’s being creative. He’s taking part in a story that he’s making. His relationship with Light is half mentor and half tormentor. It’s half puppeteer and half companion.
Light starts off seemingly well-meaning, by only killing criminals and bad people, but then he gets drawn in, more and more. When you’re a part of telling a story like this, that calls itself supernatural but isn’t really that far off from real life, do you think about how enticing something like this Death Note could be?
DAFOE: I think it’s a very strong fantasy and it’s no mistake that this is particularly popular with young people. Young people tend to be oppressed by their parents, by school, by not knowing what the future holds, and by not being considered an adult. The fantasy of having more control and having the power to exercise their judgements or opinions in a very deadly way is compelling. So, I think it’s a dark fantasy that people have, and this allows you to play that out. I’ve never had that fantasy, specifically, but I had a similar fantasy when I was a kid. I always wished I had the power to make everything stop, so I could go where I wanted to and I could also learn secrets about things that I could only find out, if the world stopped and I could go places that normally wouldn’t allow me to be there.
After spending some time in the Marvel universe with Spider-Man, you’re making the jump to DC, where we’ll see a preview of your character in Justice League before getting to know him better in Aquaman. What appealed to you about that universe and the character that you’re playing?