Willem Dafoe Goes It Alone in Art Heist Thriller “Inside”

Willem Dafoe has appeared in over 150 movies.  But his latest film—Inside—might be the breakout role of his career 

The veteran actor with four Oscar nominations has played everyone from Nosferatu to Christ to Vincent van Gogh, with A-list directors (Martin Scorsese, Wes Anderson, David Lynch) and costars. Now, Willem Dafoe stars in the psychological thriller Inside, all by himself—the biggest challenge for an actor who’s always challenged himself. And, he admits, it’s a dream come true.

LAMag: You’re calling from Rome. Are you shooting or there hanging out with your wife (Italian director Giada Colagrande)?

Willem Dafoe: I live between Rome and New York. I’m here for a while, then shooting a new Robert Eggers [who directed him in The Lighthouse (2019) and The Northman (2022)] film, a remake of Nosferatu. Only this time, I’m not the vampire.

Dafoe as an FBI agent in Mississippi Burning with Gene Hackman.

Did being in Eggers’s The Lighthouse, with just you and Robert Pattinson, prep you for doing Inside, a whole movie on your own?

I didn’t feel like I was doing Inside alone; I was there with a whole crew of people. While there was a clear screenplay, there was lots of improvisation. Once you’re past the logic of what’s on paper, you get into the reality of it—it becomes its own thing. You’re in it.

Inside is made by a novice [Greek director Vasilis Katsoupis], right? Wasn’t that risky?

Sure, it was a little bit of a leap of faith. But I liked this guy very much. I liked his approach. It was going to be a real collaboration, so you take that risk.

As an art thief in the new release Inside.

Did you have any trepidation about being on camera alone every second? Um, I might sound like sort of an egomaniac here, but that’s sort of a dream! [laughs] Once you get the rhythm of the thing, you’re not self-conscious. Before you know it, you’re so engaged, and then it’s over! You can’t separate yourself from the film, which is freeing. That’s a lot of fun!

There are many scenes where you’re climbing high ladders, falling, and hurting yourself.

It was tricky. That stuff is so physical. I like doing things that get your mind off anything else. When acting boils down to actions, that’s when emotions that you couldn’t even imagine appear.

Here’s a great quote about you: “No one does descents into madness or isolation quite like Willem Dafoe.”

Hmmmm…Well, that’s therapeutic! [laughs] I guess that’s nice…

An Inside poster.

You’ve made something like 150 movies. Do you get sick of people asking about how many movies you’ve been in?

I mean, I try not to think about it, but I’d be a liar if I didn’t say it’s rewarding. It’s like, you wake up one day and realize you’re getting older and think, “Oh, my God,” you know? I can’t believe I’ve made almost 150 movies. Anyway, I don’t care how many movies. Even one would have been something.

Did being in experimental theater for so many years affect your choices?

Yeah, it absolutely influenced who I am as a performer. The feeling of exploration and adventure allows you to go to extreme places without having it harden into this seriousness. You can never be too earnest about these things. At the heart of performing, there has to be some sense of play and goofing around.

Though critics try, it’s pretty hard to label you, given that you’ve been Vincent van Gogh, a vampire, Christ, and everything in between.

Yeah, you’d think they’d get the idea that I don’t love labels, right?

Do you ever lose touch with what’s going on in the world?

Oh, God, all the time! But the truth is, when you return to the world, you realize just how cyclical everything is, particularly the news. I’m often around people who don’t speak English; I have a different life, different habits. I’m in my new world. That’s part of the adventure. You observe different ways to live—cultural differences in people—and that liberates you. I don’t mind dropping out for a while. But I do return.

Do you ever have culture shock going between New York and Rome?

I do! But I enjoy that. It’s like the pleasure of performing: you’re a different person in different situations—transformed. Even if you have a degree of celebrity, people look at you differently in different contexts.

It’s fairly ironic you got fired on your first movie [Heaven’s Gate (1980)], and the movie turned out to be a disaster.

That was quite humiliating; I got fired for laughing on set, before we were even shooting. Yeah, I gotta admit, there’s a bittersweetness to that situation! But I’m ashamed of enjoying that!

As a doomed sergeant in Platoon.

You don’t seem to have done a lot of pure money gigs.

Listen, I try not to make bullshit films, but it’s such a collaborative art form. Don’t get me wrong—I’m no saint. Money’s a consideration. Not only a matter of practicality, but it’s some measure of how much they value your participation. If they get you cheap, they might treat you cheap! [laughs]

You’ve been directed by your wife a fair amount.

Yeah, I have. But I’m used to that. I’ve always worked with partners. My previous long-term partner, Elizabeth LeCompte, directed me in Wooster Group [stage] productions. What can I say? I like working with them, with people who are curious, have many ideas. They turn me on.

Do you think that changing your name from “William” as a kid made you stand out?

The whole joke about the name change—it’s so ridiculous. Some people obsess on it, like I’m trying to fool them, trying to pull off some petty crime or something. I changed my name before I became a performer. And the irony is, when it came time to put my name professionally forward, it felt like a stage name to use my birth name! I anticipated that somehow I wanted to remake myself.

You’ve made a lot of movies since Inside, according to IMDb.

I have. Interesting things. I don’t think there’s a dog in the bunch. Some smaller roles, some leads—a mixture of things. I did a small role in a new Wes Anderson film, Asteroid City. And I made two films with Yorgos Lanthimos [The Favourite]—Poor Things and AND. Very happily. He’s a great talent, a free thinker.

And a movie that Patricia Arquette directed?

Yes! It’s based on a novel called Gonzo Girl, written by a woman who was assistant to Hunter Thompson, a fictionalized story about this famous writer with this looser lifestyle—a lot of drugs and drama. I play that Hunter Thompson-esque kind of character.

Watching your TV interviews, I kept thinking: “He’s so funny. Why doesn’t he do more comedy?”

You mean more intentional comedy? [laughs]


Um, I probably do more than you think, but it’s always through the back door. Listen, I thought Wild at Heart was high comedy!

In the controversial role of Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ with Harvey Keitel and Barbara Hershey.

Stay on top of the latest in L.A. news, food, and culture. Sign up for our newsletters today.