Willem Dafoe on The Lighthouse: ‘It’s a good discipline to know how to be by yourself’

Willem Dafoe goes full salty sea dog in Robert Eggers’ much buzzed about new period horror film The Lighthouse, and there’s fire in his eyes when he meets our interviewer.

Lou Thomas
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Willem Dafoe at the premiere of The Lighthouse at the BFI London Film Festival

Willem Dafoe at the premiere of The Lighthouse at the BFI London Film Festival

Within seconds of being introduced to Willem Dafoe, he’s strangling me and pinning me against a wall as he breaks into one of his trademark grins, his eyes aflame with a demented mischief. Of course, the mock strangulation causes no harm and serves as a unique ice-breaker. It’s a fittingly wild and hilarious start to a leisurely afternoon chat with the actor about The Lighthouse, writer-director Robert Eggers’ tremendous character piece about two lighthouse keepers living and working together on an island off the coast of New England in the 1890s.

Dafoe plays Tom Wake, the elder of the two ‘wickies’, a boss, father-figure, teacher and companion to Ephraim Winslow, a quieter, younger man who has signed up for a month under Tom’s tutelage and is played by Robert Pattinson. For the most part Eggers’ film is a two-hander, with the two sparring and surviving as Ephraim tackles menial tasks while seagulls loom ominously and visions of mermaids and strange nocturnal goings-on abound.

Both actors inhabit their roles with great care and vigour while facing the grim weather in Nova Scotia, where the film was shot, while Eggers’ melliflously fruity script and Jarin Blaschke’s black-and-white cinematography are a treat for the eyes and ears.

In a Hollywood career spanning four decades, Dafoe has done it all, from playing Jesus in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) to arch-villain the Green Goblin in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man (2002) via the delightfully unhinged criminal Bobby Peru in David Lynch’s Wild at Heart (1990).

At the 2019 Academy Awards he received his fourth Oscar nomination for playing Vincent van Gogh in Julian Schnabel’s At Eternity’s Gate (2018). During our conversation at a hotel in Mayfair, London, which took place ahead of The Lighthouse’s UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, he’s open and keen to exchange ideas and good humour.

What inspired you to get involved in the film?

I cultivated a relationship with Eggers after seeing The Witch (2015). I thought, “Wow. Get me a meeting with this guy.” I liked him a great deal. He knew my work from the theatre as well as films. He had a good film culture. He was smart. He was a self-starter. I liked how he talked. I liked his movie. We said, “Let’s try to do something,” and we tried. This is really the first one that came together.

He didn’t consult me at all. It was one of many projects he had floating. Then one day, he just said, “Listen, I think I got it.” Here’s the script. It’s going to be you and Rob Pattinson. He’d decided this already. It was really more or less, “Yes or no?” I had to catch up a little bit on Rob Pattinson’s movies. Other than that, it was a no-brainer. As I read the script, there were many pleasures to imagine.

You could call it a horror film, you could call it a comedy. How would you describe it?

It is a comedy of sorts, a very dark comedy. It’s got horror elements, but you hate to call it a horror film because then people are disappointed if they don’t have jump scares or a specific demon who’s going to suck your blood or something like that.

Willem Dafoe and director Robert Eggers at the BFI London Film Festival

Willem Dafoe and director Robert Eggers at the BFI London Film Festival

It’s a character portrait, a genre film with a very elevated language, both in the text, in the visual language, and also in performance language. Genre films are generally considered meat-and-potato, accessible things. This is a character study; it has elements of Bergman and Tarkovsky.

The film’s set in New England in 1890. Did you conduct much research into the time and place?

Eggers is a freak for research. He lives in these times. He’s one of these guys in his imagination. When I said I wanted to do this, he presented me with many things to watch, many things to read, many things to listen to. Everything from sea shanties to pictures to videos of interviews of old lighthouse keepers, vintage footage to accent tapes. You go as deep as you want to go.

Then, there’s some things that you have to prepare. Like the accent is very particular, and you’ve got to decide which one to use, and which one to use in relationship to Rob Pattinson. After a while, we tried many things, but then we start to realise that there was only one accent to do because it was written that way and anything else tended to fight it.

We came up with this West Country, almost Robert Newton [who played Long John Silver in the 1950 version of Treasure Island] thing. We’re not thinking of him – that’s just where we arrive – and when you find the proper register, your voice, and you start to live with those things and you can feel natural and rooted in this very theatrical form, then you say, “This is it.”

Then we bring in dialect coach Howard Samuelson, to keep Rob [in check] if we hit any wonky notes. He’ll come over and say, “That didn’t quite sound right.” Not too academic, but deeply researched.

How much of a sea dog are you?

Pretty much. I love the ocean. Even though I grew up in the middle of the states, New England sea lore was a big part of my imagination as a child. The sea is so powerful and beautiful and frightening.

One key aspect of the film is Tom and Ephraim’s isolation. The isolation is what causes the madness, or seems to be connected to the madness at the very least. How do you respond to being isolated yourself?

I’ve got some experience. I’m not going to do it perfectly, but the Blaise Pascal quote, “You can basically trace all the miseries in the world, to the fact that a man can’t sit alone,” I think about that a lot. I travel a lot. I’m married; sometimes my wife isn’t with me. I’m by myself a lot, and also I’m in different cultures sometimes, sometimes places where I don’t speak their language, so I am isolated. Being isolated is a pleasure, and it’s also difficult because we’re social animals and I’m sociable.

Willem Dafoe at the premiere of The Lighthouse at the BFI London Film Festival

Willem Dafoe at the premiere of The Lighthouse at the BFI London Film Festival

It’s a good discipline to know how to be by yourself, because most social interaction, it’s warm, it’s nice, it’s pleasurable, but a lot of social intercourse doesn’t go that deep. When you’re by yourself, you really have to deal with shit.

The behaviour on the screen – fighting, farting, smoking, drinking, dancing, laughing – is often untamed and elemental. Is there anything you wouldn’t do on screen?

I don’t know. I’m not a masochist. I’m not going to hurt myself, but morally, comfort-wise, it depends. I’m pretty much game for everything. And I’ve done many things.

For example, I’ve always felt like I’ve never liked anybody to stand in for me. I don’t even like a stand in. Sometimes it’s necessary because of practical things, but I don’t even like a stand in, because when people start doing things for you – like stunt men, that kind of thing – it breaks the experience; it breaks the train of things that become the performance.

You’ve played a really wide range of unusual, often outlandish characters. Where do you think this film ranks in terms of your crazier characters?

I don’t think of them as crazy. They’re just folks. They’re just people. The ones that have experiences that are different from my experience are the ones that are often a pleasure. Also, characters that get to do things that obviously we can’t do in real life. It’s a guilty pleasure. It’s titillation, and it’s speaking to our dark side that socially we can’t exercise.

In the unlikely event that you stopped being an actor, would you ever consider working in a lighthouse?

I doubt it.

If not a lighthouse keeper, what’s the lowliest job you’d consider doing, if you didn’t act?

You know, I like doing simple things sometimes. I have a great love for washing dishes. I wash dishes every day. Yes, I could be a dishwasher. I have been a dishwasher, and I used to love it.

You don’t have someone come and do that for you?

No, I do it for my wife.

The Lighthouse (2019)

The Lighthouse (2019)

Can you tell me about working with Robert Pattinson?

We had very different ways of working, and of course we were working in really difficult situations. It’s not like we became the best of friends, or we’d go out every night, because there was no going out every night. I was living at this little fisherman cottage near the set, and when we’d finish I’d go home, make a fire, eat, go to sleep. Wake up, make a fire, do my practices, and then go off to work. That’s the way it was.

Then on the set, he would tend to eat by himself. I’d eat with the crew, so I didn’t talk to him there. I would only see him basically in the context of the scene, and even when we weren’t shooting I like to stay on the set. He had more preparation to do so he tended to be off in his trailer.

It’s interesting that after, I thought we were very different, but it was the difference between the characters and the approach of how we were working; which was fine – there was no bad feeling. It was just that tension of our characters – the approximated tension of our characters.

Then when we finished, someone asked me to interview him for Interview magazine. I talked to him, and I enjoyed the conversation so much. It was like, “You fucker!” Why didn’t we become friends on the shoot? Because many of the things he said, I felt very kin to. Also [with] his choices being very director-driven. His interest in a certain kind of cinema. We had much common ground, which was never explored socially when we were working because quite frankly there wasn’t time or interest because we had our hands full.

The look and feel of the film is distinct and atmospheric. What was it like on set?

We’re shooting out in the elements, so you’re always trying to get warm and you’re always changing out of wet gear and into new gear to get wet again. What you see there is kind of what it felt like. Cold, wet, miserable. That lighthouse, we built that. There was a real light on it that could shine 16 miles, they said. When you’d be on top of it, it would sway sometimes.

That must have been scary. You were actually living like that?

A little bit. A little bit.

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