Willem Dafoe Is Adamant About His ‘Poor Things’ Character: Don’t Call Him a Mad Scientist!

TheWrap magazine: “Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong!” Dafoe says. “That’s being lazy. That’s not what he is”

Willem Dafoe
Photo by George Pimentel

In “Poor Things,” a movie that glories in strange characters, Willem Dafoe gives Emma Stone a run for her money as the strangest of them all – and maybe he gets extra points because his strange character essentially created her strange character.

Dafoe plays Dr. Godwin Baxter, who was experimented upon by his father as a child in director Yorgos Lanthimos’ twisted version of Victorian England, based on the 1992 novel by Alasdair Gray. Baxter, his face and body riddled with scars and deformities because of his father’s quest to figure out what a human body can do, finds himself drawn to experimentation of his own, and ends up creating a young woman, Bella (Stone), by transplanting a baby’s brain into the body of her mother, who died in childbirth.

Dafoe was recruited for “Poor Things” by a tag team of Stone and Lanthimos, who’d worked together on the Oscar-nominated “The Favourite” in 2018. “I didn’t know Emma personally, but I knew her work,” said the actor who was nominated for a Golden Globe for “Poor Things.” “And I knew all of Yorgos’ films through the years, and I thought ‘The Favourite’ was just a knockout. So when they both called me and described roughly what it was, I knew it was something that interested me.”

Sporting a latticework of facial scars, Dafoe’s Baxter gives off sinister mad-doctor vibes but also truly loves his creation, Bella. Lanthimos, whose other films include “Dogtooth” and “The Lobster,” creates a twisted world that allows Dafoe to become a mesmerizing and simultaneously fatherly, sinister and tragic figure.  

“In some of the descriptions I’ve read, they call me a scientist,” Dafoe said of the early reports from “Poor Things” screenings. “Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong! That’s being lazy. That’s not what he is.” Then he admitted that a common Mary Shelley comparison might have some truth to it. “It’s sort of a ‘Frankenstein’ story, but his father was a scientist, and he’s been experimented on. He himself is sort of the monster, but he believes in science because he’s basically sacrificed his life for it, thanks to his father.

“And he sees this as a wonderful scientific opportunity – not for any craziness, but for his passion for science, because he believes in it. He makes this creation and adores her, and she adores him. It’s a really interesting dynamic.” A pause. “I mean, everybody’s gonna focus on her sexual adventures” – he laughs — “but their relationship is a beautiful story.”

Willem Dafoe Poor Things
Searchlight Pictures

That story is set in a steampunk Victorian setting bursting with inspiring touches. “I always feel like the best thing a director can do is give you a beautiful world to enter, and then the world tells you what to do,” Dafoe said. “The amount of detail and care was incredible. You’d enter a room and it would be overstuffed with things that really told you about that world. Sometimes I would just wander through the house. That was the best way to inhabit the character. There would be a bookshelf, and you could open up a book and it was really about brain surgery or things like that.”

To work out details of the character, he took inspiration from Gray, a Scottish author who died in 2019 – from Gray’s creation, of course, but also from Gray himself. “There were some videos of Alasdair Gray speaking about his work,” Dafoe said. “And he’s quite a colorful character. While I wouldn’t say I copied anything, he certainly was an inspiration. I think the Godwin Baxter character had some elements of him in it.”

In addition to Dafoe’s usual methods of preparation — reading the book on which the film is based, poring over the script, learning the accent — the actor also decided that he needed hands-on medical practice. “It’s fun to learn how to put in stitches and how to do some operations,” he said. “I did those things to put me in the game, and it was practical because I had to do them in the movie.”

He grinned. “You don’t know how hard it is to sew a big wad of money into the hem of a dress with big prosthetic thumbs and a curved surgical suture needle! You gotta practice that.”

But some of the keys to Baxter came not from Gray’s imagination but from Dafoe’s relatives. “I don’t know whether it’s significant, but I come from a medical family,” he said. “I grew up around surgery, I grew up around labs. I used to be the janitor who would clean up the clinic my father worked at. So as the cleaning kid, I was very intimate with dressings, sutures, blood, urine and all other things. All that is in my head. And of course, the beautiful thing about the character is that ultimately he chooses the higher love, really. And that’s something I have aspirations to, too.”

For the record, Dafoe regrets talking in some early interviews about the six hours he would spend in the makeup chair every to have extensive prosthetics applied to his face. “That disclaimer has been on my mind,” he said. “I really should keep my mouth shut about that.”

Besides, he didn’t even try to come up with explanations for how he got each of the scars that criss-cross his face. “I didn’t feel that need,” he said. “You can create backstories or reasons for things if it helps give you the authority to say, ‘I’m that guy.’ But I don’t need that any more than I think about my face when I’m walking down the street. It’s just me. And what he says gives me more food for thought than thinking about the past.”

In the end, he said, “Poor Things” provided exactly the kind of experience he looks for more than four decades into a career that began with a small, uncredited role in Michael Cimino’s “Heaven’s Gate” and included Oscar-nominated parts in “Platoon,” “Shadow of the Vampire,” “The Florida Project” and “At Eternity’s Gate.” “My mantra is always, if I learn something, then I have a shift of how I see the world. When you have that shift, it opens you up to imagining a different world. It really tickles your sense of wonder and your sense of imagination. And that’s where you want to be. You want to engage in something that you don’t quite know. Going toward it, you embark on this adventure where you tangibly feel yourself being changed.”

But to make the commitment to that kind of experience, he needed the security of collaborators like Lanthimos and Stone (who not only starred but also produced the film). “You’ve gotta feel confident, and you’ve gotta feel like their vision is worth the leap,” he said. “It’s ‘jumping off the cliff and finding your wings on the way down’ – that’s an old Kurt Vonnegut quote, and that’s the excitement for me. A good script is a beautiful thing, but it has to get put on its feet. A great character is a beautiful thing, but you don’t know what it is until you get there.”

A version of this story first appeared in the SAG Preview/Documentaries issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine. Read more from the issue here.

Lily Gladstone Wrap cover
Photo by Jeff Vespa for TheWrap


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