Willem Dafoe on Barebacking, Playing a Martian, and Indie Traumas

daybreakersACE HOTEL, MANHATTAN -- "This is as safe as barebacking a $5.00 whore," notes Lionel "Elvis" Cormac, a former vampire who’s regained his mortality, in the highly entertaining new sci-fi thriller Daybreakers.

Smiling impishly, Willem Dafoe who plays Lionel, notes, "Nothing was improvised...but there’s a couple of lines [in the film] that when I hear them, I can think that’s my line. I can remember the one about 'barebacking.' I thought, can we say that? That’s kind of racy. This word 'barebacking' is quite specific. I know it more from -- oh, boy, I’m getting -- it’s kind of gay cruise parlance. I’m not sure if it’s a hetero thing."

"You just made it hetero," I note.

"It’s a phrase that deserves to be out there," Dafoe laughs.

Dressed in basic black, Dafoe seems quite relaxed and carefree even after a year when he was seldom off the screen. Amongst a smorgasbord of his 2009 offerings, there were the panned (Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant; My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done); the acclaimed (Fantastic Mr. Fox); and the highly controversial (Antichrist).

So how does this actor’s actor choose a role? For example, what caused him to accept the part of Tars Tarkas in John Carter of Mars, which he starts filming later this month.

"The idea that I was going to play a ten-foot Martian warrior, you know," Dafoe replies.

"I live very much in the independent cinema world, and that’s great. And that’s where we find a lot of great filmmakers -- and sometimes more freedom to make personal films. But the flipside of that is that sometimes, there isn’t a kind of protection or care, or there’s an emotional rigor, but sometimes you don’t have the technical stuff to work with. You can have lousy lighting. No time to prepare properly. You’re very vulnerable.

"So when someone asks you to make a movie directed by Andrew Stanton (WALL-E) with Disney behind it, a big tent-pole movie, you jump at it. I know from making Finding Nemo how these Pixar guys are. They are very thorough. They are very vigorous. They really get it. It’s like a real pleasure, because you get so protected because they are so well researched, and you get so much help trying to make something. So I think I got excited about that. I like to go back and forth, but it was time to do a big picture again."

As for Daybreakers with its exploding vampires and its humans being farmed for their blood, it has a big-picture look but was created on an extremely low budget. What was the attraction?

"I felt like doing something kind of fun and entertaining,” Dafoe says. “I think it’s pretty unusual that you have a film like this where there are things for actors to do, and there are scenes, fun scenes, a good integration of action stuff with dramatic scenes. A good sense of humor about itself, but not so goofy that it’s a send-up. Daybreakers walks a lot of lines, but it does it, I think, in a kind of skillful way."

As for the picture’s message?

"I never know what the message is," insists Dafoe. "Will you please tell me? No, I never do. Some people think that means I don’t care. Or I’m trying to be evasive. But I don’t need a message. I get a feeling. It’s lots of things to me, but I don’t think it all crystallizes in a little thing that hits you with a wand at the end. Daybreakers is an entertainment that has some content. I like that a lot."

As do we. - Brandon Judell

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Mr. Judell is featured in Rosa von Praunheim's forthcoming documentary New York Memories. In the spring, he'll be teaching "The Image of the Jew in Post-World War II European Cinema" and "Gay and Lesbian Literature" at The City College of New York. He has written on film for The Village Voice, indieWire, Detour, and The Advocate, and is anthologized in Cynthia Fuchs's Spike Lee Interviews (University Press of Mississippi).

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