Willem Dafoe is walking his own track (+trailer)

By Russell Baillie

As the big gun in The Hunter, Willem Dafoe heads into the Tasmanian high country to do some tiger stalking. He talks to Russell Baillie.

Willem Dafoe. Photo / AP
Willem Dafoe. Photo / AP

He's a rare species of actor, that Willem Dafoe. A chameleon of sorts.

The 56-year-old has played everyone from Jesus to the Green Goblin; from a Martian tribal leader - that's him behind the motion capture as Tars Tarkas in John Carter - to real-life characters like T.S Eliot and silent movie vampire Max Schreck.

He's tried a bit of everything in his 30 years on screen, even working as a pitch man for a certain brand of New Zealand beer.

Movie-wise, he's kept on at it, racking up a couple of films a year on either side of the studio/indie divide.

His latest has him back in a rare lead role. He's Martin David, a mercenary poacher of endangered wildlife on a mission to bag the last Tasmanian tiger from the island's wilderness for a bio-tech company.

It's the feature debut of long-time TV director Daniel Nettheim, and the film also stars Sam Neill as a guide of sorts to David, who finds himself stuck between local greenies and logging companies.

Here's Dafoe on his involvement in the film ...

So obviously the opportunity to work with Sam Neill was the reason you signed up?

Good old Sam. I can brag about Sam. Usually you get self-conscious when you are talking about other actors because you always assume the actor is just being polite but Sam is a very special guy. He's technically a Kiwi right?

Yes, he is a national treasure and we pretend to enjoy his wine.

You're bad. Maybe I don't know the wines in this part of the world enough but I enjoy Two Paddocks.

You've probably got yourself another case just for saying that. But why come all the way to Tasmania for a few months, where as scenic as it looks, it also looks cold and wet?

It was a combination of things. It was clearly a passion project for Daniel. He's been developing it for, like, eight years and he had lived with it in a way that I think he owned the material. But at the same time he really invited me to enter it and personalise it. He invited collaboration and the story is really great and I'm always looking for a good central role. This was a slow reveal. I liked the sequences in nature very much where I am doing things - that is performance stripped down to its most essential. So there were lots of pleasures. And of course filming in Tasmania.

Your guy is a loner who spends much of the time wandering around those high plateaus. Is that hard acting?

No, it's kind of what I hinted at before. Acting, for me, there are all kinds of performing but at the centre I feel much more comfortable with doing something. What I try to concentrate on is trying to find a truthful quality and receptive quality in the doing that allows you to react and receive the story ...

Does he remind you of other characters you've played or is he based on anyone you've encountered?

Not really. I don't encourage that. You like to fool yourself into thinking every time is the first time. Otherwise you fall into habits and rely on things and it's not interesting you know? The natural thing was to base him on myself if I were him in another lifetime. But that's coloured by the fact that I'm an urban guy. I like being outdoors but I am not necessarily handy. That's not my culture, it's not what I know. So I had to enlist a guy who knows bushcraft stuff to train me. It was important to be graceful and do it with some authority.

With that leading role, and one of an outsider in Australian film, do you feel a weight on your shoulders?

Yeah. I did feel a responsibility. [The film-makers] were really direct and they really wanted me to do it and it's seldom the case with people seeking me out that I am helpful in getting the film funded. In this case it was very important for the character to be an outsider. So it was a beautiful opportunity. They said "we can have a foreigner in this very Australian story". It's always the case that when people cast you they say "you were my first choice" but in this case I believed them. So that's flattering.

The film touches on the ecological politics of Tasmania. Did that affect filming?

There was little bit of the circus coming to town because movies are seductive - if you don't know them. Showing those landscapes - whether you're from either position - it's a good thing for them, I think. Because if you are a logger you say look at all this fabulous timber and if you are a greenie you say look at all this fabulous nature - so it's win-win. Ultimately, it's a story about our relationship to nature and Mother Earth but the film clearly doesn't take sides.

So now you can add "Australian eco-thriller" to the list of many genres you've worked in. And with two or three films a year, you're sure to add a few more to that list soon. Why the high work rate?

It's usually just a combination. I like to work. I don't work just to work. I've got to watch myself. But I like to work, I enjoy it, and there are more opportunities when you cast your net wide.

Which means it's quite a career you've got there. Do you ever sit back and think just that?

You know I am sort of embarrassed to say I sort of do. I remember when I first started, my ambitions were very modest. I just wanted to be a working actor. But it's like anything - once you have been lucky enough to receive some opportunities you want more and more. So the truth is I am half impressed and half like "oh God there's many more things I want to do ..." So I am of two minds.

Who: Willem Dafoe
What: The Hunter
When: Opens today

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