Willem Dafoe came into The Florida Project ready to be transformed, and working in a cheap motel helped him get there. The 62-year-old actor has been collecting accolades — including a Golden Globe Award nod and Screen Actors Guild Award nomination — for his performance in the Sean Baker film, which was set and shot at the Magic Castle hotel in the shadows of Orlando’s Disney World.
Dafoe said filming at a real hotel that houses homeless families like the one at the heart of the film changed his perspective as a performer. “The beautiful thing is you learn things and then you can apply it to the pretending. And I love that situation, where you’re not really just drawing from your impressions and your thoughts, but you’re really getting outside of yourself,” he said in a recent interview. “That’s always when the best things happen, when you’re a little — you’re new, you know? You have a better chance to enter into a kind of new way of thinking. And being around the people of our story and being in the actual place, it guides you. It just tells you what you need to do, and that’s always thrilling because you feel like it opens your mind and your heart and broadens the possibility of how you are.”
Immersive settings, and real settings, allow him to connect more deeply with his characters, he said. He just finished playing Vincent Van Gogh in Julian Schnabel’s At Eternity’s Gate, which shot in various European locations where the artist spent time. “When you do that, you can’t help but, with a little imagination, feel his presence there; or imagine that that a tree, that old big tree that is 200 years old, was in his presence and now you’re in its presence and there’s some sort of connection,” Dafoe said. “So you’re aware of those things and you do kind of connect the dots and make a connectivity that you wouldn’t normally have.”
He said that while all his past characters stay with him, some make more of an impression than others — Van Gogh among them.
“Great experience, really beautiful, really challenging, but the first thing I want to do is shave off my beard to try to get back to a neutral place,” Dafoe said. He returned from Europe the morning of the Golden Globe nominations and was awoken after little sleep with news of his supporting actor nod. The veteran actor is deeply appreciative of the recognition.
“The nature of performing, the nature of making things, the nature of making movies, it isn’t a science. It’s not precise. It’s full of all kinds of variables. So, no matter how long you do it, it’s an uncertain life, so you’re always happy for encouragement. You’re always happy for someone to say, ‘Keep going, keep going. We like what you’re doing,'” he said. “From day to day, the whole the whole prospect of performing is you’re kind of wiping the slate clean every time, so you’re starting from zero. And that zero is not that different from the zero that you were at when you had never made a film before. So it helps to be encouraged.”