“You don’t know the things that you need to do until you meet them,” the one and only Willem Dafoe says about his career. Which is perhaps the best way of understanding how the veteran actor, with four Oscar nominations and a wild range of projects behind him, decides on each new project.
“It’s nothing calculated, it’s kind of natural,” Dafoe says about his habit of jumping from smaller to larger productions. “I always do that. I always go back and forth. I have no rules. I try to look at each project for its own merits. I think, you know, unconsciously, you like variety, just to balance things out, to do exercise different muscles. So there’s a natural tendency to try to balance it but it also happens naturally, I find.”
His newest film, the Focus Features drama Inside, couldn’t be smaller than, say, a Spider-Man: Dafoe stars as Nemo, an art thief who’s just broken into a fancy New York penthouse apartment belonging to a renowned collector, but gets trapped inside by the high-tech security system — leading to a months-long confinement in the space.
While other actors do make occasional appearances in the piece, it’s pretty much a one-man show. In fact, one of the most surprising aspects of Inside is that while the film (set in a single location with a single actor) feels like the platonic ideal of a movie shot during the pandemic lockdown, director Vasilis Katsoupis actually conceived of the idea in 2010, and reached out to Dafoe in 2018 about potentially starring in it. “There was a long process, a courtship, and also a long process of research on the director’s part before we shot it. It precedes COVID by a lot of time,” he says.
Though the film might feel more relatable now, following everyone’s lockdown experience, Dafoe does think it’s not a direct analog. “I think people have a special relationship to it because the guy is stranded and he can’t go out. But it’s very different in the respect that during COVID, it was a collective experience. We were all going through that together. [Nemo] is really plucked from his life and put down in a situation that he couldn’t imagine. So there are some similarities in the isolation and self-searching that comes with being alone, when you’re not used to being alone. But it’s actually quite different.”
In the film, Nemo grows increasingly unbalanced as his entrapment continues, a journey reflected by his relationship to the art within the apartment. “It kind of happened organically,” he says about that element. “That’s not originally what I thought the would be presented to me by the film. But yes, there are questions about what our relationship is to art and what being an artist is because in fact, my character does start to interact with the art that exists, and starts to play with it and starts to create.”