Willem Dafoe Explains What Brought Him Back to Yorgos Lanthimos and Emma Stone in ‘Kinds of Kindness’ | Video

Cannes 2024: The four-time Oscar nominee reflects on his latest project with Hollywood’s buzziest artist-muse duo

Willem Dafoe couldn’t help but get back to play in Yorgos Lanthimos’ surreal, often brutal but beautiful playground in “Kinds of Kindness.” 

Fresh off his paternal twist on a Frankenstein-esque mad scientist in awards darling “Poor Things,” Dafoe reunites with the arthouse auteur alongside Emma Stone for this new three-part film, which premiered at the 2024 Cannes Film Festival on Saturday. 

Starring with Stone, Jesse Plemons and Margaret Qualley in an at-times gnarly script by Lanthimos and his former “The Lobster,” “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” and “Dogtooth” collaborator Efthimis Filippou, Dafoe embodies three men of varying degrees of intensity across the three parts of “Kinds of Kindness.” As Dafoe said of Lanthimos while in conversation with TheWrap’s Steve Pond on Sunday: “He gives me interesting things to do.”

“His films are the kind of films that I love, particularly this one, where the audience can kind of make the movie their own movie because they bring their experience to it,” Dafoe said. “He doesn’t tend to point to things. There’s a complexity and a richness in the material that different people are going to see different things. And when you’re curious, you go towards something, you learn something and I think that energizes you and it gives you a better life.”

Read on for Dafoe’s full interview as part of TheWrap Conversations at the Brand Innovators Salon D’Affaires below. 

Was there something about the experience of making “Poor Things” that made you think, “Yeah, I’ll do whatever this guy asks”?

Pretty much. I’ve always been director-driven. Director is probably one of the most important, if not the most important element when you’re deciding what to do. Because I feel most comfortable when I can really give myself to a director. I feel free and I feel most comfortable to do the best work and have the most fun. So once you have a good time, not only do you want to repeat that, because you have a shorthand, there’s a trust there. But also, there’s something beautiful about being in the fabric of a director’s work.

But obviously, he’s not looking for just one thing out of you, because he has you playing three different roles in this one. 

I think he looks for a certain kind of actor that is game, works from a physical place, doesn’t need a lot of explanation or discussion. We talk very little. And his direction is very specific and very concrete. We don’t talk a lot. He gives you a beautiful setup, gives you things that tell you a lot and set you up beautifully and then you’ll try to inhabit them. Sometimes, I think he doesn’t even know where things are going or what they mean. But he’s very responsible in the respect that he owns everything. 

Yorgos typically doesn’t do traditional rehearsing. He brings you all together to basically play theater-style games. 

It depends on the film, of course, but generally, it’s unheard of that for two weeks before, the cast is there to do rehearsals just to fool around and get to know each other. And that’s what he does. And that time is crucial, because he really makes a company. Without being cute about it, you get familiar with each other, you embarrass each other, you fail in front of each other and you get to know people’s strengths and their weaknesses. And also, who he is gets revealed to you because he’s very good at directing these theater games. I’m from the theater, I still work in the theater, but I grew up on this stuff. So it’s like, “Really, we’re going to do that?” But what elevated was his beautiful way to set them up. It’s very important.

Are they tied specifically into the movie characters in any way?

We don’t deal with the text. We don’t deal with psychology. We don’t talk about things so much. We may deal with the text, but we’ll use it as an abstract thing, as words, not trying to explore character and meaning – just to get familiar with it and kind of, not create associations, but just be free to have those words become your words. If you do something enough, it becomes yours, you know? And particularly when you don’t attach meaning to it. It’s like the training that you do as an athlete or a dancer. You do these things, and then it gets in your body, and then you use that as part of a language.

He basically filmed the three back-to-back. Were there breaks in between? 

A weekend! We shot quite quickly. It’s not a big budget movie, so it was pretty chop chop. Normally when I’m working on a movie, I don’t feel compelled to or even want to particularly watch movies because I don’t want those things in my head. But I watched all of his stuff all over again in my downtime while I was working on this movie, and it was really fun. It kind of cemented my thoughts about him. And I remember when I first saw these movies matching how I felt about the movies then and how I felt about the movies now, because in some cases there were big jumps.

Which Yorgos movie changed the most in your head between the first time you saw it and this time?

I think I appreciated much, much, much, much more on a second viewing “Killing of a Sacred Deer,” which compared to the early experimental ones and the shorts and things like that, it’s sort of more conventional, but I think it’s a beautiful movie.

I felt like there was a lot of the DNA of “Killing of a Sacred Deer” in this one.

Yeah, they’re both kind of Greek tragedies.

Now, I wasn’t at the press conference you guys did yesterday, but my understanding is a lot of people were asking Emma about the nudity and the sex scenes in it.

I was there and I don’t recall that. Guess what? Sometimes stuff gets reported in a funny way. The emphasis is on the wrong syllable.

What I want to ask about is the kissing scene between you and Emma because I’ve never seen a camera get that close to lips before. 

Well you’re watching the wrong movies! Yeah, that was very fun to do. And I love Emma. She’s beyond what you think if you like her as an actress. She’s for me personally – and, you know, it’s kind of not fun to have other actors gush about other actors, and I always have a hard time when people say, “How was it working with so-and-so?” What are you going to say? “They were a drag, they’re selfish.” So it’s no fun to talk about other actors. But in this case, I can say she’s really special. It’s clear from her performing she’s special because she’s free, but she’s also got chops, and that’s the combination you want – to know how to go between control and abandon and know what the right measure is. But above all, I like being with her because she brings out something in me that not everybody brings out, and that’s a playfulness and a sweetness that I don’t always have.

I ran across a mention of a Q&A you did with Roger Ebert at Cannes about your career of making more than 40 movies. And that was in 2000. That’s like 24 years and a great many movies ago. Has what you’re looking for out of acting changed a lot over the years?  

Sure it’s changed, but it’s still mysterious to me … I just know that I am more relaxed. I’m connected with my life more, I know why I perform a little bit better, better than I maybe used to. That shifts. I think it’s natural with getting older that when you’re young, you’re trying to make your way in the world, you’re trying to stake your claim, you’ve got to say, “This is who I am.” When you get some years behind you, the ambition becomes more personal, more practical. It’s not abstract. You’re not trying to please other people, you’re trying to function and find some kind of peace and where you serve the world and yourself the best possible. That may sound pretentious to say, but in the end, you know, that’s what drives you. 

When in my most sentimental mode, I always feel like we’re put on this earth to walk each other home. That’s what I always think, and if you really believe in that, you really practice that – and I don’t all the time, nobody does, it’s really hard – I think that that’s a good life. So that’s my response to making movies. I look for those opportunities. Hopefully, movies change, I change, the world changes. It’s new every time because of what I just said, not because of me.

Watch the full video interview below.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

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