Poor Things is an odd film full of odd characters, but perhaps none is more peculiar than Willem Dafoe's Dr. Godwin Baxter. An eccentric scientist, Godwin achieves the unthinkable when he brings a dead woman back to life using the brain of her unborn baby. He names her Bella Baxter; she calls him "God."
Dafoe's Poor Things journey began with a phone call from filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos and Emma Stone, who stars as Bella and also produced the movie. "I vividly remember the call, because I was so excited to hear from them!" he says. "I've followed Yorgos and Emma's careers closely, so when they called me and described this fabulous character they wanted me to play, that was a good day."
Dafoe was particularly struck by how the two described Godwin Baxter. "They told me he was a physician and a teacher, and also that he was deformed" — his face and body are heavily scarred by a lifetime of experiments inflicted upon him — "so right off the bat, he seemed to share one aspect with the monster in Frankenstein and another with Dr. Frankenstein himself."
A four-time Oscar nominee, Dafoe has inhabited such disparate roles as an idealistic Army sergeant (in 1986's Platoon), the actor Max Schreck (2000's Shadow of the Vampire), a kindly motel manager (2017's The Florida Project), and Vincent van Gogh (2018's At Eternity's Gate), but perhaps no role has required the commitment of Poor Things. Especially considering Dafoe would be acting through layers of prosthetics. "Committing is so important to performing," he tells A.frame. "You have to be able to say and believe, 'I am this character and this is happening,' so that everything else can fall away and you can be present in an almost superhuman way."
A.frame: I know your prosthetics took hours to put on and take off. I imagine wearing them wasn't fun, but as an actor, do they make it easier for you to get into character? Or are they a distraction?
It's always easier, and it's not fun to wear them, but it also is. You decide to make it fun, because it's an opportunity. It's something that takes you away from yourself in a very concrete way. It becomes a trigger for the imagination. If you don't look like yourself and you don't feel like yourself, then what are you? You get to play your scenes with a certain kind of wonder. It's beautiful. Working with a mask is wonderful, so you put up with the inconvenience and the discomfort. In fact, you get used to it getting put on, and you use that time as preparation. It's like you recede and the character comes forward. By the end of the makeup process, you're set to go. It's like you were born again, because you've had this experience of actually becoming this guy, and now you get to proceed with your new life. It's a beautiful ritual that gets you to where you need to go.
Speaking of preparation, I know that you got several weeks of rehearsal time on this film. I also know you've worked on films where you've had zero rehearsal time.
I've worked on movies that were totally improvised! [Laughs]
Do you have a preference? Are you someone who likes to rehearse beforehand, or do you like saving it for when the camera is rolling?
Each case is different. I'll also say, Yorgos really uses his rehearsal time to make a company. During that time, we play theater games, we touch each others' faces, and we do all kinds of things to create mutual trust and confidence. We actually worked very little on the scenes themselves. Almost not at all, in fact. Sometimes we'd use the script within the context of the theater games we were playing, but the point of those games was not to understand the text better. It was to relate to each other in a way where we could feel comfortable and like a family. It's very practical and useful, and it's not possible to do on every film, because not all actors want to do it and a lot of directors don't.
It also adds three weeks to the schedule, which is a financial consideration in and of itself, but I think it's well worth it. It didn't feel frivolous or indulgent. It was useful and a lot of fun, and it made us feel like a real company. Even now, as we're all doing press and we're back together, it’s like we picked up right where we left off. We could do another movie together right now, because our relationships have all been formed. We all have bonds between us now that are very loose and forgiving and positive.
Godwin essentially goes through every stage of parenting in this film. What was it like to get to portray such a human journey in a movie as big and strange as Poor Things?
You just play the scenes. I'm a father and a grandfather, so I know the stages of life that Godwin's going through very well, but it's really all about what's in the scenes. I'm never pointing to the scene that came before the one I'm performing or the scene that's going to come after. I'm always just trying to be present for each moment. In life, you can't anticipate what's going to come next. Your assessment is totally correct and I absolutely agree with it, but I'm also not thinking about that when I'm playing the character any more than a parent might think, 'Well, I've been through this stage, and now I'm at the point where I'm missing my kid, and this is what's going to come next.' Life's not like that. As a viewer, you can see better than the character, much like how you can see the life of someone in your family better than they can, because you have the distance to see it clearly.
Yorgos' films are all made with real maturity, but they also have a very juvenile spirit in them. What's it like to work with someone who allows you to inhabit both sides of that spectrum at once?
I like both of those things. [Laughs] On the one hand, I'm like a little, transgressive kid who likes to be silly and juvenile. But that doesn't feed you after a certain point, and you can get disgusted by being too silly, because it doesn't have any roots in anything else. You need something else, so then you long for substance and meaning and an emotion that sticks. You've identified what it is that makes Yorgos' films special very correctly, and the funny part is that to go deeply into one you need the other. They're related. At least for me, one brings the other. You can f**k around and be silly and do things that titillate you because they're against social conditioning, but when you break through the barrier of repression and you've regressed a bit, then you're wondering where you're at. Then you really try to cling onto meaning and reason and a sense of direction — a purpose. That leads you to a more disciplined approach, and after a while, that in turn becomes a little stifling in its own way.
You've identified something that I like about his films. Both of those elements are definitely there to varying degrees in every movie he's made. He's quite an impressive guy. He's soft and gentle and sweet, but intellectually, he's a real polymath. He knows so much about so many different things, and he has a great sense of culture but not in a showy way. He's just got a good sense, and I learned that in the rehearsals we did. We'd be doing different theater games, and in a lot of those games, you have to set certain rules and conditions. You use music and movement to express or explore certain things. His talent for choosing the right music or orchestrating certain movements showed his intelligence and a real depth of understanding. So, he's got that going for him, but at the same time, he really believes in kicking the hornet's nest a little and having fun in a way that is very close to my personality and taste. I was very happy to work with him, because he himself has those qualities that you mentioned about his films.
At the start of the film, Godwin has a very strict approach to being a scientist, but he realizes that it serves him better to apply a looser, more compassionate grip. As an actor, has your own process similarly evolved? Do you try to be as strict with yourself as Godwin does?
It's always about moving between the two extremes. In this case, it's about finding the balance between terrific discipline and terrific abandon. In performing, there's the craft and the clarity of purpose, but there's also the letting go and trying not to worry about stuff being neat. It's about having a feeling and learning to move between a sense of abandon and a sense of control. If you go too far in one direction, you have to go back in the other in order to keep things balanced. We do that in life, too. Trying to maintain too much control makes you tight and you die, being too wild makes you reckless and you die. You have to taste both worlds, but you can't stay too long in one of them. Otherwise, you fall off the cliff.
At this stage in your career, what draws you to one project over another? Is it primarily the filmmaker or the role?
Mostly the filmmaker. You want to be in the room with people who excite you, who you think you're going to learn something from, who you think you're going to get to share a real adventure with, and who are going to fill your life for a period of time with things that you never expected. Of course, you look at the material, too, and you ask yourself, on the crudest level, 'Do I want to do these things? Do they resonate with me? I'll have to learn this for the role, but is learning that going to enrich my life? Do I have pre-existing information about this subject that I want to test? Or do I know nothing about it, and I want to learn?' It's really an incredibly practical process.
You can be wrong, but I feel like if you know why you chose to take a certain leap, even if the project doesn’t work out for whatever reason, you can still live with the result. Personally, I don't have to think too much about the result, because I always know why I started to go on each journey. If it doesn't work out, then oh, well. I always want it to turn out well, of course, but I can't control everything! So, it's better to just be responsible for my work and to be honest with myself at all times about why I did it. I try not to be too obsessed with the end result. What I'm obsessed with is being present and trying to find something in every moment that I can latch onto. That's when you're engaged and that's when you feel strong. That's when life feels good and you feel like you're contributing something and connecting with what's important. It's an elevated state of being, and I'm like an addict. I chase that feeling, because I've found that it's the thing that sustains me in life.
By Alex Welch