From the writer/director of Crazy Heart comes the new crime thriller, Out of the Furnace. The story centers on one Russell Baze, who goes in search of his missing brother Rodney when the young man disappears and law enforcement fails to follow up. Willem Dafoe (Spider-Man) plays John Petty, a bookie who’s embroiled in the criminal underbelly of the community, while also being a family friend of the brothers’.
During a set visit, Dafoe took time to talk to our group of interviewers to talk about joining the picture, who he had scenes with, working in Pittsburgh, the authenticity of the setting, and how his character fits into the story. Also starring Christian Bale, Zoe Saldana, Casey Affleck, Sam Shepard, Forest Whitaker and Woody Harrelson, Scott Cooper’s Out of the Furnace opens December 6th. Hit the jump for the interview.
Willem Dafoe: He’s fun to work with and he really works his way into the scene, through the scene while you’re shooting, which is one way to work. I enjoy it.
How are you adjusting to life in Pittsburgh and the personality of the characters here?
Dafoe: A movie like this, it’s very important to the story to be shooting in Pittsburgh because it has a very specific history and people have a very particular character. So filming here in Pittsburgh helps to frame the story for me.
Have you met local people that have inspired you?
Dafoe: I’ve shot here before, I’ve performed here before, so Pittsburgh isn’t foreign to me. And, in some ways, I grew up in a factory town when I was a kid, with a slight difference in that it wasn’t steel, it was paper mills. I feel like I’ve known these people.
Did you grow your hair out for this?
Dafoe: No, no. I let my hair grow until I have a reason to cut it. [laughs] I was very late to join the cast, and I’m happy to, but I didn’t have a lot of prep time for this.
You had a big green-screen movie come out this year.
Dafoe: I did, I did.
How does this compare to that experience?
Dafoe: [laughs] Very different, of course. That’s six months on stilts with all the technology, and this is much more stripped down obviously. And yeah, the scale is so different.
They told us that, at this bar, a lot of the dressing comes from the actual bar that we’re in.
Dafoe: It’s a beautiful set, and when I entered it, I couldn’t figure out whether it was actually a functioning bar or how much they sweetened it. And then I went to the toiler [laughs]. It’s a functioning bar. It’s been used for forty years. Your nose tells the story.
Did you find it harder to play these fantastic characters or the more grounded characters?
Dafoe: Different pleasures, different challenges. I’m always looking for some kind of trigger that encourages me to change my way of thinking or be transformed. Sometimes it can be fantastical. With a character like this, it’s always fun to say, “Well, if my life was different, I really could be this guy.” And that’s really where you start.
Dafoe: He’s really very encouraging and he intuits things and he puts himself in your shoes as an actor, because he is an actor. I think he prides himself on thinking in actors’ terms.
This is a pretty big ensemble cast. You have scenes with Casey, obviously. Any other actors?
Dafoe: Yeah, with Casey. I have scenes with Woody, I have scenes with Christian.
Mainly in that office?
Dafoe: No, no. I was told not to tell you some parts of the story. [laughs] No, I get out of that office and I do my field work.
Without giving anything away, can you give us an idea of where your character’s at in the movie?
Dafoe: Broadly speaking, I like to think of him as a bookie with a heart of gold. [laughs] No, he’s a bookie, but he has a relationship with the family. He’s a member of the community, so his business is his business and he can’t be soft there, but he also knows these people; he knows their parents and he’s known them since they were little kids, so it pains him when these guys can’t pay off their debts and he has to come after them.
He knows Casey and Christian?
Dafoe: Yeah. He knows their father and knows their family. He’s invested in them when he probably shouldn’t be, and I think that’s an interesting aspect of the character because he’s conflicted. He’s a local guy and, in this kind of environment, his kind of activity thrives and it preys on the people, but he also cares for the people because they’re his community. He’s between a rock and a hard place. I think that was one of the attractive things about the character. Superficially, he’s a small-time criminal, but he’s kinda sweet in how he deals with Christian and Casey’s characters.
Are they brothers?
Dafoe: They’re brothers. Oh, did I tell you something you didn’t know?! [laughs]
Dafoe: You know, I came here and they had already been shooting and I’d be a liar to say I did any special accent work. There’s a very special Pittsburgh accent. “Yinz”, do you know that? “Yinz” is like, “y’all” … It’s very specific to hear. “Yinz goin’ down to…” It’s a mix of a Southern thing and a mountain thing. It’s where a lot of different accents come together and it’s real stick, so basically I just listened to people on the set for what the tone and the accent was. I wasn’t going to hambone my way with some fancy accent. I took a cue from the world that was already created when I arrived.
How is it working opposite an actor who’s off camera, but trying out different things to get a reaction?
Dafoe: Oh yeah, I’ve done that before. I like that. Sometimes it keeps it loose and it opens it up. You don’t get too loaded. You have to stay on your feet, you have to listen, you have to keep on going back and trying to figure out what it is. Rather than delivering a performance or structuring something that is forced, you play off each other. Sometimes you misstep, but as long as you’re playing off each other, there’s an energy and a truth that drives you through. Sometimes you don’t know where a scene is supposed to go, so when you open up and make it loose, you find a way. The director’s gotta sit there and that’s where the real director comes in, guiding those sorts of improvisations on top of the script. I think the general tendency is that you try to do the scene, you loosen it up, and you go back to it, because the script is a strong script. You don’t want to throw that away.
Dafoe: I hate to do that. I’ll just say that one of the attractive things about doing this movie is it’s a throwback, as in we don’t make these kids of films anymore. It’s period feel, it’s a portrayal of a community, it’s a very American story. Dealing with the underbelly of the American dream, and you have a depressed area in the story. To see how people negotiate between the temptation of criminality and how to find their way out, and find a life, is something that normally movies don’t talk about.
I’m part of the community, the community that was established. My character’s a little outside of it because of my job, but also part of the community. That parallels me in this acting community; I was last man in on it.
Are you the antagonist in this?
Dafoe: They don’t want me to say. [laughs]
You said it was layered because you know the family but you get involved…
Dafoe: No, I don’t want to say … I’m in the mix.
For more on Out of the Furnace:
- OUT OF THE FURNACE Set Visit Recap, Including 15 Things to Know about the Film
- Casey Affleck Talks OUT OF THE FURNACE, Filming in Pittsburgh, Playing a War Veteran with PTSD, and Working with Writer-Director Scott Cooper
- Scott Cooper Talks OUT OF THE FURNACE, His Artistic Influences, Filming Christian Bale Working in an Active Steel Mill, & Exploring a Violent but Vanishing Culture