Florida Project: Interview with Actor Willem Dafoe

The Florida Project, directed by Sean Baker, world-premiered to great acclaim at the 2017 Cannes Film Fest.

Interview with Willem Dafoe

Innocent as a Child

Willem Dafoe: I came from a big family.  When you come from a big family you have to learn how to cooperate with everyone, particularly when you’re one of the younger ones and you have two brothers that’ll beat you up if you don’t cooperate with them, and five sisters,  But at the same time, because both my parents worked, I was very free.  I had a little Huck Finn in me, I was able to go out and create mischief. Growing up in a conservative paper mill town in Wisconsin in the 1950s, you had a sense that there was a bigger world out there, and I was always trying to find that. I was a little mischievous but nothing crazy.


Multi-Faceted Character

WD: I had my hands full because I had so many different hats to wear as this character. I was thinking very much as an adult. And I’m not sure, as is portrayed in this movie, the kids are innocent–they only know what they know, they don’t know a better life, they don’t know a worse life and they have this incredible sense of adventure and they make the most of where they are.  That’s beautifully expressed seeing that impulse through the eyes of the children. But you also can see the shadow of what may become of them if they don’t have good opportunities. Making the movie, I was dealing with the whole spectrum because my character was placed in a position of responsibility.

Sympathetic Character

WD: It’s worth mentioning that, you never exactly know what a character is until you do it.  When all is said and done, you have some ideas, you have some instincts, you have a nose for what your job is going to be or how the character will be expressed.  But with this one, I had no idea he’d come off sympathetic or empathetic. It is what I’m hearing from people as I start to talk about it and I’m please with that because that was not something that I necessarily intended. I played the scenes and I tried to be the character, and I tried to take care of people in the movie because that was my job. So it was interesting to see how that kind of happened organically.  For me, one of the nice things about the movie is it didn’t have that in its head so we didn’t have to create that effect–we created it out of circumstances. We didn’t force it. We aren’t beating the audience up into feeling a particular kind of way.



WD: The script was very complete, very tight, very strong. A lot of the movie is the script written by Sean Baker and his partner Chris Bergosh who sort of brought the story to him. But Sean is a master at not only structuring something and kind of traditional filmmaking, he also is used to taking opportunities when he sees them. If the birds show up on the set he’s like, Willem go over there, deal with those birds. And we’re filming and a scene happens. There’s some improvisation. With the children, he let them be very free. That was the best way because they were children first. They aren’t actors that are children, they’re children that some of them are becoming actors. The principal one, Brooklynn, has worked before but she’s still not contaminated, she’s still free. So he created situations where they could play very freely. That involved a fair amount of improvisation and sort of tricking them into serving the narrative but sometimes leaving the actual dialogue, like letting them express the situation in their own words. It was really a combination, both improvised and tightly scripted. And Sean, who edited the film, was very good at making that feel seamless.


Poor and Underprivileged

WD: We’re telling a very specific story but it does shed light on a kind of cycle of people who slipped through the very little social welfare net that there is in this country. It’s always been a problem. It becomes clearer and clearer, do you want to put your investment, your energy, into jails and cops or education and health and social welfare? It becomes fairly clear. This isn’t pointing a finger at any person or any time in particular, it’s always been a problem. But I think what is expressed and what moves me about the movie is that it really shows that the other person’s well being, our well being is dependent on the other person’s well being. And it’s not, I guess it’s a moral thing but it’s also a practical thing. And you see that in a very concrete way in this movie because it’s a community and it’s got lots of dysfunction and the people, because they’re living a precarious lifestyle, they have to resort to some kind of unsavory things and some behavior bordering on the criminal. But it shows that this cycle has to be broken by someone helping and giving new opportunities because if you just let it be and let just the…you’ve got to help these people to break the cycle.


Blurring the Line between Documentary and Narrative

WD: I don’t know, I’m an actor, If it was a documentary I wouldn’t have a job.  As a viewer, I like all kinds of movies and I’ve always been very attracted to movies particularly from other countries and other cultures because I don’t see them as industry movies because I don’t know who’s a professional, who’s a non actor, whether they’re famous, whether they’re rich, so I watch them with the same kind of contact that you might have with a documentary. And I like that. And in fact one of the interesting things about this movie was because there’s so many non-professionals and street casting and kids, I came in as kind of the experienced one. And my ambition was to fit in with them. But in a funny way, that’s always my ambition, to fit into the fabric of the story and also any time you can forget you’re an actor, unless it’s a very stylized thing where the whole show is about showing you’re stuff, you want to disappear, you want to disappear into the character. So the fact that there are these films that are mixing documentary elements and fictional elements, those are films that I’m very attracted to. For example in this movie we had so many real elements that helped root our story and helped us not turn it into a kind of confection to just make us all feel better and have a good, liberal, oh those poor people, those people became us. Because it was mixed, it was rooted, the reality of the place that we were shooting in where there were real people living there alongside of us, they were helping us make the movie, that rooted it. So I like this, I like this hybrid.


Personal experience with poverty

WD: I grew up pretty middle class. My parents, my mother was a nurse, my father was a surgeon and a very well educated one who could’ve had a Park Av. Practice but I suppose he was a little bit of a country boy so he went back to where he was from, Wisconsin and worked in this quite small town, this town of 50,000 people. And came from a big family, they were kind of Nixon Republicans, conservative people. I grew up very middle class, very Eisenhower, 1950’s, but with a big family. So, I never felt wealthy but I never felt deprived. And in that town there was some poverty but when you’re a kid, I probably didn’t connect with it as much. It probably scared me more because in the 1950’s Eisenhower era you’d look at those people and there was such a sense of upward mobility and you had parents that grew up in the depression, that they were like, they’d kind of point at those people and say, if you don’t work hard and if you don’t mind yourself, this is where you’re going. And so I grew up with that heaviness so I think I was straight and god fearing and pretty straight kid on one hand because of that fear, but also I knew that was an untrue equation. And I somewhere knew that that was me too. So I identified with that a little bit. And I think as I grew older and I wanted to become an actor and I didn’t have any money then, and then I was poor as a young actor. And even working as a young actor in the theater for many years, I was poor and living in bad neighborhoods. That opened me up and there was a big shift politically and my sense of what my relationship was to other people. Rebellious side? Yeah. Because a big family. You’ve got to find your identity, you’ve got to punch your way out a little bit.