Willem Dafoe Cuts Like a Blade

The high-cheekboned actor wears a leather jacket and turtleneck and slicks back his hair in Out of the Furnace. Is that his O-face in the Nymphomaniac posters?

Kerry Hayes/Relativity Media

“He has such an interesting face.

That’s the first thing Crazy Heart and Out of the Furnace director Scott Cooper says about Willem Dafoe. He’s right. You can’t not stare at Dafoe (and his exceedingly pointy cheekbones) whenever he’s on screen, whether it’s in Platoon, Spider-Man or his newest release, Out of the Furnace. In the film Dafoe plays John Petty, a gambling boss in the crumbling industrial town of Braddock, Pennsylvania, who gets Iraq war veteran Rodney Baze (played by Casey Affleck) into a rigged fight for cash. The fight ends up taking a deadly turn and Rodney’s brother (Christian Bale) takes matters into his own hands, plotting vigilante revenge.

Though Cooper says Out of the Furnace is based in part on personal, real-life events (the grandson of a Virginia coal-miner, Cooper lost his own brother to a person like Harlan DeGroat), the character of John Petty was invented and written for Dafoe. He “always enters his scenes like a blade, disturbing the molecules,” Cooper says. “But he can also play a man who cares. He cares about Rodney, he cares about Russell, but in the end, it’s business.”

Of course, Dafoe’s face also played a part in the decision to cast him. “I wanted a guy who looked a little Eastern Bloc and who maybe came to Braddock as John Petrovich but shortened his name to John Petty,” says Cooper.

When I called up Dafoe to talk about playing John Petty, he was at home and busy signing some “urgent papers” (read: deciding the fates of nations). He also almost had his phone line hijacked by someone else in the house (at whom he then screamed, “Johnny, I’m on the phone! Jeez louise, it’s a circus right now!”), but he still graciously talked about playing John Petty, going virtual for a PS3 game, and whether or not that’s his real O-face in the poster for Nymphomaniac.

The Daily Beast: You’ve said you grew up in a kind of factory town as well. Were there any parts of the story or the setting that felt sort of familiar for you?

Dafoe: Just the whole factory milieu. An industrial place that, economically, has a strong base go into decline. It didn’t happen so dramatically where I grew up, but it was something that I recognized from other places in the Midwest that I had been.

Your character John Petty is such a conflicted guy. On the one hand he’s almost like a paternal figure to Russell and Rodney but on the other he has his business to run.

I always like those characters that are a mixed bag. In this case he has done some pretty unsavory things but he basically seems like a decent person, although it’s skewed through his particular prism of needs. He does take care of people and he does care about the Baze brothers and he does try to help them the best he can, conditioned by who he is and what he does. Which, in a world that’s not black and white, I think makes us look at our lives and other people around us in a more sensitive manner. We’re more empathetic when we see characters like this.

How much did you love that turtleneck and leather jacket?

Ha! One of the pleasures—you know, it takes place in 2008, but a guy like that character probably got his fashion sense from about 20 years ago when he was a young man and he wanted to strut his stuff, you know? It was a very particular kind of out-of-date but flashy style, that Croatian superfly kind of thing. I liked the clothes and I like very much the hairdo that I came up with. Sometimes those externals really help you because they make you feel different and they help you with the pretending.

You styled your own hair?

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Oh yes, ma’am! I wanted this guy to have a slightly son-of-immigrant feel, even though he doesn’t have an accent or anything. I just wanted to get a little bit of that ethnicity that you feel in that Pittsburgh area where there were a lot of Ukrainians and Croatians. I remember when the Wall fell down in Europe, I would see a lot of these guys from former Yugoslavia coming west to work and that hairstyle was something that I saw sometimes. It was a kind of weird vanity. [My hair] was kind of a little bow to that, a little homage.

I feel like there might have been a lot of pressure on Scott Cooper for this, his second project after Crazy Heart. How do you think he handled it?

Beautifully! Two of the things that come to mind about Scott right away is he’s an incredibly positive person and he’s very encouraging. He was an actor, which really conditions how he deals with actors and how he speaks. He knows how important the morale and the tone of the set is. He was always straight-ahead and anytime there was a hiccup or anything, he was really good at dealing with it. So I think he may have felt the pressure, but he wasn’t showing it.

Earlier this year you were in Beyond: Two Souls. Did you go on and play the game afterwards to see how it turned out for yourself?

You know, I haven’t yet. The company gave me a PS3 and they gave me a copy, but I left it in Europe. When I go back there, I’ll play it. I’ve never played video games except for many years ago, the very crude ones like, you know, Super Mario and Sonic the Hedgehog. (laughs)

Those are the best ones!

Those are good ones? I just know that the ones now are so much more sophisticated, it’s a whole different thing. But I will check it out! It was fun to make because it was a whole real motion-capture experience. Very intense and a lot of fun. Also, Ellen Page was just incredible to work with, she’s smart, she’s funny, and she’s fierce as anything. She’s so tiny but she has a beautiful work ethic.

The posters for Nymphomaniac are probably the most memorable posters of the year. Was that your natural “O” face?

(Laughs) Ah, no, that’s all invented, I’m afraid. It’s not a reflection of anything particularly private and it’s not a reflection of the character necessarily. Lars, I love him as a filmmaker and he has a good way of getting people interested in seeing the film, so if that was part of it, I was happy to participate. I thought those posters were pretty entertaining.