IAR EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Willem Dafoe Talks 'Out of the Furnace'

Wednesday, 04 December 2013 21:20 Written by  Jami Philbrick
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IAR EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Willem Dafoe Talks 'Out of the Furnace'

After more than 30 years in the business, Willem Dafoe continues to be regarded as one of the finest actors of his generation. 

Dafoe first gained attention for his performances in the early ‘80s films Streets of Fire, and To Live and Die in L.A., but it was his role in Oliver Stone’s Platoon that earned him an Academy Award-nomination. Since then he has appeared in a wide variety of popular and acclaimed movies including The Last Temptation of Christ, Mississippi Burning, Wild at Heart, Clear and Present Danger, The English Patient, The Boondock Saints, American Psycho, Shadow of the Vampire (earning him his second Academy Award-nomination), Spider-Man, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, Inside Man, Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Hunter, and John Carter. Now Dafoe returns to the screen with a supporting role in the ensemble drama Out of the Furnace, which opens in theaters on December 6th. 

Out of the Furnace was directed by acclaimed filmmaker Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart), and based on a screenplay he co-wrote with Brad Ingelsby (The Dynamiter). In addition to Dafoe, the film truly features an all-star cast that includes Academy Award-winners Christian Bale (The Fighter), and Forest Whitaker (The Last King of Scotland), Academy Award-nominees Casey Affleck (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford), Woody Harrelson (The People vs. Larry Flynt), and Sam Shepard (The Right Stuff), and popular actress Zoe Saldana (Star Trek Into Darkness). 

Set in the economically depressed steel industry town of Braddock, Pennsylvania, which is right outside of Pittsburgh, Bale plays Russell Baze; a local steel mill worker taking care of is ailing father and his girlfriend Lena (Saldana). Affleck is Russell’s brother Rodney Jr., a soldier about to go back to Iraq for another tour. Their lives change forever when a cruel twist of fate lands Russell in prison, causing Lena to leave him for Braddock police officer Wesley Barnes (Whitaker). Years later, home from the war and dealing with posttraumatic syndrome, Rodney Jr. is lured into a dangerous world of underground fist fighting by John Petty (Dafoe), a bookie and fight promoter who is family friends with the Bazes. Rodney Jr. owes Petty money and in order to pay off his debt, he begs Petty to set up a fight for him in an out of town fight club. Last seen with notorious fighting kingpin and meth dealer Curtis DeGroat (Harrelson), Rodney Jr. soon goes missing. Now released from prison, and with the local police unable to do anything, Russell must risk his freedom in order to find out what happened to his brother. 

I recently had the honor of speaking with the great Willem Dafoe about his work on Out of the Furnace. The Oscar-nominated actor discussed his new movie, how his personal history helped inform his character, why he didn’t do research for the role, what he looks for when choosing projects, his acting approach, working with Casey Affleck and Woody Harrelson, how Christian Bale has grown as an actor since American Psycho, collaborating with director Scott Cooper, and what he is looking for from a director. 

Here is what Willem Dafoe had to say about Out of the Furnace:

IAR: To begin with, I had the pleasure of visiting the set of Out of the Furnace in Braddock, Pensylavania and speaking with you while you were filming. You mentioned that when you were younger you did some theater in nearby Pittsburgh and were therefore familiar with the area. You also said that you had grown up around a paper mill and could relate to the steal mill town of Braddock. Can you talk about how your own personal history helped inform you to play your character in this film?

Willem Dafoe: It helped. I’m a Midwesterner. I come from a fairly conservative background in the sense that Wisconsin in the ‘1950s and ‘1960s, while it had its glimpses of liberalism, it was pretty traditional. Growing up in a paper mill town and seeing the papers close down certainly was mirrored by a much more dramatic decline that happened in Pittsburg. Pittsburg was strong in my imagination so when I read for the script I sort of knew who these people were. I spent some time there in the theatre, but also shooting movies over the years so I was familiar with this world. 

You told us on set that you actually joined the cast late, after they had already begun shooting. Did your familiarity with the Pittsburgh area come in handy because you didn’t have any time to do research for the role?

Dafoe: It’s the kind of role that you could do an insightful amount of research or you could do no research. A lot of it was coming into the world they were making and seeing what the tone was. It was about finding my place in that community and fitting in with what had to be accomplished in the scenes. It’s not always the best way to work but it’s not a bad way to work. I had a lot of fun with creating the external things like hairdo, a look and clothes. I worked with the costume designer to come up with a very specific look. But really when you come late and they’re already in production you take a lot of cues from the other actors and of course from the director, but also the world that’s been created. 

You also mentioned on set that when you’re looking for roles, you’re looking for a character that can transform you, and you often think; if things had turned out differently I could have been this person. Was that your approach with this character?

Dafoe: Sure, sure. That’s pretty funny that you say that because that does sound like something I would say. I always like taking characters that also challenge your idea of the way things are. It’s very easy to say he’s a sleazy small town gangster and stop at that and then kind of do a certain imitation. But if you start some place else, make it a little more personal and you do give yourself that idea of this could be me, it’s a different kind of process. With a role like this it’s an interesting problem to have when what you’re doing in a survival choice that you’ve chosen, but it goes against your heart. So here’s a guy who is a member of the community. He knows the Baze family and is almost paternal with the brothers, but in the end, business is business and that conflict is interesting to me because we all have conflicts like that. It’s sort of between the right thing and the thing that feels good. It’s the easy way and the more complicated, but ultimately maybe in the end the best way. All those things are in the mix so when you play a character like this, even though it’s not you, it does make you reflect on the choices in your life. 

Most of your scenes in the film are with Casey Affleck and Woody Harrelson. Can you talk about working with those two actors, their approach and how it’s similar or different from your own?

Dafoe: I can’t say exactly what their approach is because that’s not something you discuss and it’s probably different for each role. But Woody I know a little bit because I knew him from director Oren Moverman (Rampart). I also knew him because I did a little part in a Paul Schrader movie called The Walker, which Woody starred in. So I knew him a little bit and I felt pretty comfortable with him. It was clear he had a big character to play. That he was going to play it big and run with it. I think it was fun to watch him do that. It was always important to let him do that, but also at the same time make the scenes work. With Casey, I didn’t know so much. He works probably a different way than I do, but he was always struggling to find the freshness, which I like. He wouldn’t really settle in. He would always kind of float and try things from lots of different angles. You take what’s coming at you and you deal with it. Both are different and its kind of fun to see how you’ll all come together to make this thing. It’s always a mysterious question of chemistry. There’s lots of moving parts. Some people make adjustments. Some people stand. It’s always interesting to see what happens. 

You do have one scene in the movie with Christian Bale. Can you talk about how he’s grown as an actor since you first worked with him on American Psycho?

Dafoe: He gave a great performance in American Psycho. I think that movie is a very well made movie. He was a very good actor then. He’s got a real grace. He’s just very thoughtful, strong and committed. He works in a very graceful way. My scene with him was quite brief, but there was a little whiff of a reunion, like two people that had been down the road re-meeting after a very long time. His approach is quite simple, quite concentrate, but direct. 

Finally, can you discuss your experience working with director Scott Cooper on Out of the Furnace? Also, as an actor, what are you looking for from a director when you are on set?

Dafoe: So many things condition it. I’m looking for someone that’s burning with a passion to make this thing. In this case, Scott is really positive and extremely confident. He’s definitely passionate and he really set the tone and claimed the story. He has a very clear idea of how he wants things to look and be. But, at the same time since he was an actor, he really makes the situation … I think I heard Christian say this and it’s probably true, that he makes the situation what he wishes he had when he was an actor. He’s quite accommodating. He gives actors a lot of chances to be comfortable and get to where they need to go. 

Out of the Furnace opens in theaters on December 6th.

To watch our exclusive video interview with Christian Bale about Out of the Furnace, please click here

To read about our visit to the set of Out of the Furnace, please click here

FULL DISCLOSURE: Out of the Furnace was produced by Relativity Media, iamROGUE's parent company. 

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