Willem Dafoe on ‘Death Note’, Playing Ryuk, & Why ‘Aquaman’s James Wan Reminds Him of Sam Raimi
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?
DAFOE: I don’t see the universes. Of course, there are differences, but it’s project by project. I haven’t wrapped my brain around the difference. From the outside, maybe that’s interesting, but I’m dealing with a specific character and director. I’m not thinking so much about the selling, the business, the corporate stuff or the franchise stuff. I am very weak in thinking about those things. In some ways, I’m like a child. I only look for interesting things to do and interesting people to play with.
I love the enthusiasm of James Wan and the love of films that he clearly has. Was working with him part of the appeal?
DAFOE: You know what? I think I may have even signed on before James Wan was on board, but he’s great. I agree, his enthusiasm is fantastic. In fact, his enthusiasm reminds me, very much, of Sam Raimi’s enthusiasm, to make a connection there. When I made Spider-Man with Sam Raimi, one of the most impressive things was that it didn’t feel like an industry film. It felt like a personal film. It felt like Sam Raimi was getting to fulfill a fantasy of his. He was so connected to that Spider-Man mythology that he really infused it with great love and great playfulness, and I love that. James Wan is very similar. The other thing about James Wan that’s so impressive, and I think you can see it in his movies, is that he’s very precise. He really knows exactly what he wants, which is particularly a great asset when you’re making a movie that’s so technologically complicated. He can be very clear, and it’s fun to play the game of having him give you an ask and trying to satisfy that ask. He gives you some things to play with and a good story. I’m on a little break right now, but I go back to Australia tonight (August 18th) to finish the movie, and I’ll work for another month.
You’re also in the remake of Murder on the Orient Express, which has such a terrific and star-studded cast. What did you enjoy about doing that?
DAFOE: I’m very excited about that. It was really fun. It’s a great cast and a really good script, and (director) Ken Branagh is fantastic. I’ve always known that he’s fantastic, as an actor. I’ve admired some of his films a great deal. But to work with him was really to appreciate what a great director he is.
You have done a very large variety of roles, in varying genres and in films of varying sizes. What is it that not only gets you to say yes, but what makes you shy away from saying yes to something?
DAFOE: Good on you because you’re asking questions that nobody ever asks. If I feel like what is proposed to me is overly familiar, then it just becomes work to me, or if I feel like the people are cynical about what they’re doing, or they don’t love what they’re doing and they aren’t turned on, or there’s no challenge, in that you aren’t contributing anything. Movies are challenging, no matter what, so I can’t do it, if it’s just a job. I’ve got a talent, or defect, in that every time I start something, it feels new to me, so if I don’t feel that newness and I can’t invest it with a wonder and curiosity, and sometimes even a fear and insecurity, then I won’t do it. Once you have that feeling, you get through it, you learn something, and you make something that’s satisfying, then you can’t go back to making bullshit. You can’t do stuff that doesn’t feel inspired. In a roundabout way, I’m saying that I shy away from things, if I feel like they’re a product, that they’re cynical, or that they’re just people making money or advancing their careers. I need a little love and passion. Call me a romantic!
Death Note is streaming at Netflix.