“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.”
The experience might have leant itself towards a personal exploration of what it means to be an artist — even what it means to be an actor — but Dafoe says “it’s true, but I can’t think about that. If acting is about doing things, pretending and committing to an action, and having it work on you… While this is very pure that way, because you don’t have a lot of window dressing, it is very stripped down, and it’s very transparent.”
Nemo’s struggle to stay alive and sane as the film progresses, he adds, means that “as the audience watches, they can see that this guy, it’s very clear what his motivations are, and what he needs to do. How he deals with those things is felt very viscerally, because you’re so with him. You’re complicit in it because there’s essentially no other characters or other relationships to identify with. So he’s it. Him and the location and the art is basically what you’re dealing with.”
While Dafoe says that he often gets a sense of whether he wants to do a project from the script, but “the script is one part. The director is very important for me — the way we’re going to shoot, if there’s any particular location. All those things enter into it and give me a picture of what I will imagine is an adventure, or going towards something or learning something or having an experience. Something to enrich my life and hopefully will transform me in a way that that is useful for me and also for what I do.”
His passion for the craft is clear, but what keeps him excited about acting? “It’s the same thing as when I was 18 years old. Many things are different, but it’s always changing. Particularly making movies but also theater, they’re so collaborative, you don’t control it absolutely. There is no such thing as perfection. It’s all about going towards something and making things and that’s always shifting. So what acting is to me depends on the situation. It’s this wonderful job that is always different.”
Inside debuts in theaters on Friday, March 17th. The studio has teamed up with SuperYaki to create a limited edition collection of apparel inspired by the film.