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Arts & Life

Willem Dafoe On 'The Lighthouse'


"The Lighthouse" may be a good film for the weekend of a nor'easter. It's filled with wind, rain and rawness, cold, coal fire, black and white and Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe as two lighthouse keepers who struggle against storms, isolation and maybe their own nightmares.


ROBERT PATTINSON: (As Ephraim Winslow) What made your last keeper leave?

WILLEM DAFOE: (As Thomas Wake) He believed that there was some enchantment in the light. Went mad, he did.

SIMON: He sure did. Robert Eggers directed the film from a script that he wrote with his brother Max. Willem Dafoe joins us now from the studios of NPR West. Thanks so much for being with us.

DAFOE: My pleasure. Thanks.

SIMON: At this point in your career, you could probably do a James Bond film in Monaco. (Laughter) Why make this film on a cold spit of land in Nova Scotia?

DAFOE: Oh, God, that's part of the pleasure. I mean, listen; I saw Robert Eggers' first film "The Witch," and wow. The thing that I responded to so much in "The Witch" was his ability to not only capture a period film without pointing at it, without overstating it, but also, he creates a world that's so complete. And I knew he would do it with this juicy lighthouse location.

SIMON: Thomas Wake, the senior lighthouse keeper - you play him. He's bewhiskered, cranky and, if I may, flatulent.

DAFOE: You know, who isn't?

SIMON: Well, you're right, of course. But this plays a central role in getting to know your character. Let me put it that way.

DAFOE: (Laughter) OK, all right.

SIMON: You told Esquire, Thomas Wake is me if I was Thomas Wake.

DAFOE: Right.

SIMON: How do I understand that?

DAFOE: That's a little double talk. Basically, the idea that's inside us are all characters. And I could be Thomas Wake. It's just if my life would've taken a different path at a different time.

SIMON: Yeah. So these two lighthouse keepers are brought together for four weeks of rotten weather and, with regard to your character, not very bracing food. We'll get to that.

DAFOE: (Laughter) OK, I was about to chime in.

SIMON: Defend your cooking, if you like.

DAFOE: (Laughter) Exactly.

SIMON: But - your character's cooking. But it's like a marriage with nothing going for it.

DAFOE: There's something (laughter). Yeah. What happens, I mean, without giving too much away, they don't get relieved.

SIMON: Yeah.

DAFOE: So basically, they're stuck with each other. And you see all the strategies that people take when they're kind of stripped of a future and they're challenged by each other and things don't go so well. And then you take food away from them, and then you start to drink. And then the weather gets even worse. And interesting things happen.

SIMON: Yeah. There are lots of moments in the film where a viewer might wonder if it's real, a nightmare, madness or what? I wonder if you had to know to play your character.

DAFOE: Not really. Characters are real through actions, and you've got to be there and have things happen to you and try to make things happen. What it means for an audience will be many different things. And from an actor's point of view, if you try to control that too much, I think it stifles impulse. It stifles your ability to find true behavior. And it makes you somewhere deeply a showboat and self-conscious.

You've got to be free from that, I think, and particularly when you're dealing with language that's very elevated. One of your big, you know, jobs is to root it, not to make a show out of it - to really find the beautiful images and use them as normal speech. So that's really the challenge.

So I'm not thinking of these different modes or these different perceptions that the audience is going to have. For me, it's all happening. Perhaps the director has to think of that, but I'm not framing it. I'm the animal in the frame.

SIMON: A lot of people might think your first movie was "Streets Of Fire," but no, right?

DAFOE: Well, you know, I made some little downtown movies before that. And as far as a real feature that played in theaters, the first one was "The Loveless," which was Kathryn Bigelow's first feature.

SIMON: Academy Award-winning director, yeah.

DAFOE: We've heard of her now, right?

SIMON: Yeah.

DAFOE: But I had been involved in movies, among them playing a glorified extra in "Heaven's Gate." But...

SIMON: That's what I was going to ask you about.

DAFOE: OK, well...

SIMON: Do I get one question about "Heaven's Gate"?

DAFOE: Yes, you can do 10 if you think that's interesting for you.

SIMON: I wouldn't go that far, but, you know.

DAFOE: (Laughter).

SIMON: It - I'm sure it's not deserved, but it's often considered just about the biggest flop in Hollywood history.

DAFOE: It's not deserved.

SIMON: And I know you had a role that didn't even make it to the screen.

DAFOE: That's not quite true. That's not quite true. Yeah.

SIMON: So if I were to - if I were to download "Heaven's Gate," I could find you.

DAFOE: Yeah, if you had my mother sitting next to you to nudge you when I came on the screen...


DAFOE: ...Which isn't going to happen because she's been dead for a while (laughter).

SIMON: Yeah. I like to think our mothers are up there together watching it.

DAFOE: OK. On a loop. (Laughter) That's a thought.

SIMON: Oh, my gosh, are we sure it's heaven if they're up there watching this film over and over? Oh, my word.

DAFOE: My mother was not a perfect woman...

SIMON: Yeah.

DAFOE: ...But I did love her.

SIMON: I know what you mean. So what did you learn from being in "Heaven's Gate"?

DAFOE: Many things. I mean, it's hard to say. You know, I got fired from "Heaven's Gate" for laughing during a lighting setup.

SIMON: Laughing during a lighting setup?

DAFOE: Yeah, yeah. We were sitting for eight hours in a lighting setup, and things were very tense because, already, the movie was running way over. And executives were coming and hassling Cimino to, you know, pick up the pace and not spend so much money and all that. So it was very tense.

SIMON: Michael Cimino was the director.

DAFOE: Yes. And we were sitting in the lighting setup, and someone next to me told me a joke, and I laughed out loud.

SIMON: (Laughter) I'm sorry. Oh, my mistake.

DAFOE: Yeah, sorry. Oops. And that's exactly what it was. And he was under a lot of pressure. He turned around and said, Willem, step out. And then once he did that, you know, I think you heard this audible (gasping) from all my colleagues.

SIMON: Yeah.

DAFOE: And they just said, OK, you're finished. And I said, what happened? They said, nothing. Your character's finished.

SIMON: So what did you learn, aside from don't laugh during the lighting setup?


DAFOE: That's probably the most important thing I learned. It was a wake-up to studio filmmaking, which I've had good experiences with.

SIMON: Do you know that there is one line you utter in this film that's already halfway to being iconic?

DAFOE: I think I might know. Does it have to do with cooking?


DAFOE: OK, but there's other ones, too. Yes, it's pretty good. It's good.

SIMON: But I guess we shouldn't - people should have to pay the price of admission to hear it, huh?

DAFOE: Absolutely (laughter).

SIMON: So I can't get you to say, aye, you're - no, I can't get you to say it.

DAFOE: You do it.

SIMON: All right, let me try it, OK?

DAFOE: Yeah.

SIMON: You're fond of me lobster.


SIMON: All right.

DAFOE: Don't quit your day job (laughter).

SIMON: Well, I did my best, all right?

DAFOE: You did well.

SIMON: And I didn't laugh during the lighting, so...


SIMON: Willem Dafoe - he stars alongside Robert Pattinson in "The Lighthouse." Aye, thanks very much for being with us. Thank you very much for being with us, Mr. Dafoe.

DAFOE: Aye-aye.

SIMON: (Laughter).


A L LLOYD: (Singing) Hurrah, me yaller girls, doodle let me go. Oh, doodle let me go, me go. Doodle let me go. Hurrah, me yaller girls, doodle let me go. Oh, all around the sofa, lads, and wasn't it a show? Hurrah, me yaller girls, doodle let me go. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.