Home Entertainment Willem Dafoe thinks you’re ‘missing the point’ about sex in ‘Poor Things’

Willem Dafoe thinks you’re ‘missing the point’ about sex in ‘Poor Things’

Willem Dafoe thinks you’re ‘missing the point’ about sex in ‘Poor Things’


The actor discusses the role that is likely to garner him his fifth Oscar nomination, the possibility of teaming up with Martin Scorsese again and the challenges of streaming

Willem Dafoe has had quite the week in Hollywood. (Bertie Watson/Searchlight Pictures)

Willem Dafoe has played some delicious monsters and villains in his time: Green Goblin in “Spider-Man,” murderous Bobby Peru in David Lynch’s “Wild at Heart,” Max Schreck (a bloodsucker playing a bloodsucker) in “Shadow of the Vampire.” But as Godwin Baxter in Yorgos Lanthimos’s “Poor Things,” he has embarked on something new — a hideously scarred man who looks like a monster but is in many ways a total sweetheart. Alone in the world, Baxter resurrects a dead woman, Emma Stone’s Bella Baxter, and through the feats of alternate-universe Victorian science, guides her through rapid stages of development and sexual awakening as if she were newly born.

The supporting role, which teams him up with Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos (“Dogtooth,” “The Favourite”), looks likely to earn Dafoe his fifth Oscar nomination. The Washington Post spoke to the 68-year-old actor a couple of days after he’d left the Golden Globes empty-handed, only to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame the next day, with such friends as Pedro Pascal, Patricia Arquette and “Poor Things” co-star Mark Ruffalo cheering him on. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: You’ve had quite the week!

A: Yeah, it’s been a crazy week. A good week, though.

Q: When you got on your knees and kissed your new star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, I was like, “That is the one and only time someone should put their lips on that sidewalk.”

A: [laughs] That’s probably true, and maybe I shouldn’t have, either. But the passion overtook me.

Q: At least you knew no one had walked or peed on it yet!

A: It’s as new as a freshly dug grave.

Q: Are you saying it made you feel old?

A: No, it’s just the kind of setup they have. There’s a rug around it. So it’s like a freshly dug grave where they have it prepared and then they lower the body and then they finish it off and it’s there for good. It had a little bit of that feeling. But I don’t want to color it that way, because I can honestly say it was a joyous afternoon, and good friends and some directors that I really loved working with showed up. They didn’t have to, but they found their way there. I really enjoyed it. And after all that, it kind of settled in on me that that is something that probably will live beyond me.

Q: Who are your companions on that stretch of sidewalk?

A: First of all, the location is great. It’s Hollywood and Vine; you can’t get any better than that. And right next to me is [1950s TV host] Clifton Fadiman and [comedian] Jonathan Winters, who was a very singular kind of performer. So I’m in good company.

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Q: And you said that Erik Weisz, a.k.a. Harry Houdini, is the only other person on the walk from your hometown of Appleton, Wis.

A: Yeah. He was born in Budapest, but his father was the cantor at the [Appleton] synagogue. He grew up there until he left and became Harry Houdini.

Q: And now you’re having an incredible run with “Poor Things.” What made you want to play this guy who is in some way like Dr. Frankenstein?

A: I really loved Yorgos’s movies and found him to have a very specific voice. They were complicated and they were surprising. And as he started to do English-language movies, you think, “Oh, this is someone that I’d like to work with.” So when Emma and Yorgos called me out of the blue, and pitched it to me, I liked the whole idea. I liked the character. It was a no-brainer.

But what it becomes is always different, and in this case, much of the pleasures of that character come out of his relationship with Bella. Okay, it leans into the Frankenstein myth a little bit, but it’s very different because the creator was repelled by his monster in the original Frankenstein. It’s out of control, where, in fact, Godwin Baxter kind of falls in love with his creation. So it has that beautiful tension where he chooses the higher love, that he’s got to let her go because he realizes for her to have a good life, she has to leave him.

The easy thing is to describe it as a fatherly relationship. I think it’s a little more complex than that because of his past and the fact that he’s been experimented on [by his scientist father]. So there’s a part of him that’s been hurt. And when he reanimates her, he’s giving himself a new life through her.

Q: Ramy Youssef’s character asks if ‘God’ has created Bella to be his lover, but you’re saying it’s more like they’re soul mates.

A: [Sex] is off the table, which gives the possibility of a more complex relationship. There’s a moment when he’s reading her stories, and it was so tender, but it’s also a little charged because she’s got no models for relationships, really, because she’s totally new. She’s not socially conditioned. You get the feeling that she wants him to be there with her physically. And he’s not going to allow that. I don’t want to overplay that, but that’s sort of the beginning of her sexual awakening, because she starts to feel that stir. And where she directs it is not necessarily in a traditional way. She’s just feeling.

Q: When I wrote about the film in September‚ a woman on Twitter responded that it’s a movie directed by a man and written by a man (Tony McNamara), based on a book by a man (Alasdair Gray). So of course they’d create a fantasy woman who’s totally uninhibited and can’t get enough sex. What’s your response to that kind of criticism?

A: I think people that focus just on the comedy and the sex in the movie are kind of missing the point. There’s something else going on about personal liberation in the way you live your life. And ways of thinking independently. It’s no accident that the writer of this book set it in this imagined Victorian time, which is a time where it’s very repressed, it’s very male-dominated and comes after the Industrial Revolution, and you will have all this sense of creating a society that functions like a machine. So I think that’s all in the air.

Q: What was the most surprising thing Emma did while you were acting together?

A: The level of intimacy and complexity she had with Yorgos is really beautiful. He brought her in very early, and when we were there, it was clear that it was all centered around her and we were there to support her. And she wore it very beautifully in the sense of she had a certain command and she took that center without being a diva. She’s very cool. She’s fun to play things with.

Q: You wear a ton of face prosthetics. I’m curious how walking around with those terrible scars made you feel.

A: Well, you feel different. And people do react to you differently, because even if they don’t intend to, they’re not seeing you. So you see the world reflected to you in a different way. And, of course, that’s a great tool for your imagination because you don’t feel like yourself and that opens the door to being someone else.

Q: Is it true that Yorgos cast you as ‘God’ because you’d already played Jesus in “The Last Temptation of Christ”?

A: That sounds wacky. That’s not a good enough reason. I’ve played lots of stuff. I don’t think so. I mean, I have a personal connection to [the character]. I come from a medical family. I grew up around clinics because my job as a child was janitor at my father’s clinic, and I used to go on rounds with him. So I’m used to dressings and blood and puss and sutures and instruments. But I had never done a movie that really leaned into that. My father, who lived to 97 but passed, I felt like he was always on my shoulder a little bit, and I don’t always have that for every role, so there was a pleasure in that.

Q: How did it feel to learn that Martin Scorsese is making another movie about Jesus?

A: I thought “I probably won’t be in that one!” Not because I won’t want to! Just because it is the wrong thing.

A: I’m happy he’s returning to material that’s dear to him. I’m very curious about how he’s gonna approach it.

Q: Maybe there’s a different character you can play.

A: It’s true. I always allow myself that possibility.

Q: I’m excited about your upcoming movies “Nosferatu” and “Beetlejuice 2,” in which you said you play an undead cop.

A: I kicked myself [for sharing that] because I think Tim Burton doesn’t want to have any spoilers. So I kind of blabbed a little bit. I’m not going to do it anymore! Just know that it’s a continuation of “Beetlejuice” more or less, and you’ve got a lot of the same elements returning, which is a beautiful thing. It really felt genuine. It’s not just a, like, a money grab or something.

Q: You also mentioned in a Guardian article that you feel like “challenging” movies don’t do well in home streaming because people like “stupid” fare at the end of a long day.

A: If you read the original article in the Guardian, it’s really well written. But that got picked up and it’s framed like this is a beef of mine. It makes it feel like I’ve got a chip on my shoulder about people watching movies at home. I don’t, but the truth is that people are distracted when they watch movies at home. People use [movies at home] like a drug or relaxation, which is cool. That’s why I say, ‘They want to watch something stupid.’ They want something to distract them. That, in itself, I’m not complaining about. I watch movies on my computer. It’s not the size of the screen. It’s the attention. The best movies, you, as a watcher, “make” with the director and the actors. And when you have to go toward it [and have a night out discussing the movie], then you’re more involved and it’s much more rewarding. It feeds you more.


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