Ever since his breakout role in Kathryn Bigelow's (Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty) first feature film, the 1982 drama The Loveless, Willem Dafoe has packed his acting résumé with an impressive and wide-ranging filmography that includes Platoon (1986), Wild at Heart (1990), The English Patient (1996), Shadow of the Vampire (2000), Antichrist (2009), and the Spiderman franchise. He plays the bad guy very, very well (most recently he lent his devilish glare to the new Mercedes-Benz commercials, pictured above), but he's also taken on some unexpected characters, like The Life Aquatic's meek and insecure Klaus.
You'll see the Wisconsin-born star in six new films this year alone, acting alongside Philip Seymour Hoffman, Robin Wright, and Rachel McAdams in Anton Corbijn's adaptation of John le Carré's A Most Wanted Man and Crazy Heart director Scott Cooper's Rust Belt crime drama Out of the Furnace, with Christian Bale, Zoe Saldana, Casey Affleck, and Woody Harrelson.
Details caught up with the busy actor to talk about his return to working with Wes Anderson in The Grand Budapest Hotel, how he chooses his commercial gigs, and his first, very unhip car.
DETAILS: You're currently filming The Grand Budapest Hotel with director Wes Anderson. You've worked with him twice before. How has your relationship evolved since your Life Aquatic days?
WILLEM DAFOE: Each time was different for me, largely because my function in the film was different. In The Life Aquatic, scenes were fleshed out a lot in the shooting, and he folded me into a lot of scenes improvisationally that weren't necessarily scripted. For Fantastic Mr. Fox, I was doing a voice, so it was brief studio work. Now, with The Grand Budapest Hotel, Wes is more precise than ever in his approach. He has storyboarded the whole movie in an animation of line drawings with him doing all the characters' voices. It's beautiful. We are quite faithful to that storyboard.
DETAILS: Very little has been released about the film. Can you tell us anything about your role?
WILLEM DAFOE: The story line, I can't tell. I can only say that Wes has been inspired by the comedies of Billy Wilder and [Ernst] Lubitsch. It has almost the feel of a farce. Sometimes too many recognizable faces are distracting in a film, but here, with so many very recognizable cast members [Editor's note: The list includes Saoirse Ronan, Ralph Fiennes, Edward Norton, Jude Law, Owen Wilson, Bill Murray, Adrien Brody, Tilda Swinton, Jeff Goldblum, Harvey Keitel, Jason Schwartzman, and F. Murray Abraham] even in the small roles, it should be a lot of fun for the audience. After shooting at night, we all have dinner together; you look around the table and it feels like you're at the Vanity Fair Oscar party!
DETAILS: Two of your upcoming films, A Most Wanted Man and Odd Thomas, are based on novels. How heavily do you refer to the original source?
WILLEM DAFOE: I generally read the screenplay first, since that's the blueprint for what we're doing. Then I read the source material later for details, information, and inspiration. I seldom go back to the source material again.
DETAILS: You were in the opera based on Marina Abramovi's biography, and your wife has collaborated with her multiple times. What's a dinner out with Marina like?
WILLEM DAFOE: Marina is a friend, was a neighbor in New York City, and is someone I've admired for years. She's always fun, she's a very good cook, and she's a champion dirty-joke teller.
DETAILS: As an actor, you have an incredible range, not only in terms of the kinds of roles you've taken on, but also in the kinds of films you choose—from small, independent films to big-budget Hollywood movies. Do you have a preference?
WILLEM DAFOE: No. Truly, part of my work is reinventing my approach and mode of working for each role, project, and director. Flexibility is possibility. I don't like to repeat myself.
DETAILS: You play the Devil in the new Mercedes-Benz commercial. You also starred in a ridiculously great Jim Beam commercial, and you've walked the runway for Prada. We're guessing you get hit up a lot for commercial gigs. How can you tell whether or not a commercial is going to be up to your standards?
WILLEM DAFOE: Just like film or theater projects, my choices are instinctive. When it's something out of my normal field of work, it has to have a special appeal and the people involved have to interest me. I did Jim Beam and Mercedes-Benz with director Dante Ariola. I liked how he involved me, and I liked his previous work very much. The people at Prada are very smart and think outside of the box, so I was happy to be part of what they were doing.
DETAILS: Since you star in the new Mercedes-Benz commercial, we have to ask: What was your first car?
WILLEM DAFOE: I came from a big family, and my first car was a hand-me-down from my parents. At 16, I had a definitely uncool, beater '68 Ford station wagon painted an ugly green color that doesn't exist in nature. It got me around but probably didn't help my love life.
— Drumm (@perrindrumm), associate Web editor at Details
• • •