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MOVIES : Mild at Heart : Willem Dafoe is making the leap from incendiary character actor to romantic leading roles opposite Susan Sarandon and Madonna

April 19, 1992|KRISTINE McKENNA | Kristine McKenna is a frequent contributor to Calendar. and

Willem Dafoe is briefly in Los Angeles from his home in Manhattan to rehearse with Madonna, his co-star in the upcoming film, "Body of Evidence," currently shooting in Portland. His trip comes at the tail end of a three-month vacation, and when he's asked how he spent those three months, he says, "I worked around the garage." This is somehow hard to picture. Dafoe is far too driven to while away the hours puttering.

Juggling a family, a thriving film career and work with avant-garde New York theater company the Wooster Group, where he's been a core member for 15 years, Dafoe comes on like a casual, laid-back guy. But one needn't talk to him long too detect that there's a supercharged engine revving inside him.

Having established himself as both a leading man and a character actor capable of handling roles ranging from a revisionist Jesus tortured by ambivalence in Martin Scorsese's "The Last Temptation of Christ" to the hilariously psychotic sleazeball Bobby Peru in David Lynch's "Wild at Heart," Dafoe gambles on high-risk roles that are paying off well for him. After he garnered his first critical notices in 1982 for his performance in Kathryn Bigelow's cult biker film "The Loveless," Dafoe was typecast for a few years in weirdo-killer roles, but he's now making the leap to romantic lead.

In the Roger Donaldson film "White Sands," which opens Friday, Dafoe plays a deputy sheriff in the American Southwest whose pursuit of some bad guys leads him into a steamy romance with Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio (it's literally steamy--the love scene takes place in the shower). Dafoe also has the lead in "Light Sleeper," the new Paul Schrader film set for fall release in which he's cast as an aging drug dealer in the throes of a spiritual crisis and a failed reconciliation with former girlfriend Dana Delany. In both films, Dafoe is in virtually every frame.

"A strong leading man can maintain an element of mystery into the second hour of a film and make you feel they still have some surprises left to show you, and Willem is very good at that," says Schrader. "He modulates his performances very carefully so you feel there's always something left to come, and for me that's the essence of his intelligence as an actor."

Dafoe's handling of interviews is also carefully modulated. Talking with the 36-year-old actor at a Beverly Hills hotel, he is warm and friendly but utterly private. A classic New York actor, Dafoe can talk endlessly about the craft and psychological subtleties of his work, but ask about his personal life or how he feels about someone else's work and he clams up. Asked which playwrights, directors, films and actors have been particularly significant for him, he looks uncomfortable and begs off with a vague "it shifts around quite a bit." When it's suggested that he has many friends in the business and is just being diplomatic, he laughs and concedes that's true. In the course of conversation, the question of whether he's ever taken LSD comes up and Dafoe looks aghast, asks that the tape recorder be turned off, and explains that he can't answer questions like that because they haunt public figures for years after. Dafoe's extreme discretion seems rooted in the fact that he has no interest in becoming the kind of celebrity whose life is routinely dissected by the media--he just wants to act.

"I can't remember ever wanting to do anything else," says Dafoe, whose career began early in Appleton, Wis., where he was born and raised. The second youngest in a family of eight children, Dafoe explains that "my parents came from working-class families but they were bright people. My father is a surgeon who graduated from Harvard medical school at a young age, my mother's a nurse and they work together--I suppose I'm imitating my parents in that I also work with my partner." Dafoe has been in a relationship for 15 years with the Wooster Group's artistic director, Elizabeth Lecompte, with whom he has a 9-year-old son.

"As a kid, I was very involved in sports, and performing started young for me--I was in lots of high school plays," he continues. "I wasn't one of those kids who saw a lot of movies, though, and I've never been an obsessive movie nut--I've always been busy working. After graduating from high school I went to college in Milwaukee for a short time, then I dropped out and started working with a theater group called Theater X. Once I got out on my own I dropped about two economic classes and was living among types of people I'd never encountered before and I loved that. It gave me a political awareness I'd never had--I was a middle-class person who all of a sudden became poor and that radicalized me a bit. Nonetheless, I'm still the product of a puritanical Midwestern upbringing. I have a fairly conservative moral code," he adds with a laugh, "and I can't imagine anyone wishing anything else.

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