At this point in his career, Willem Dafoe has the luxury of doing the films he wants to do. The actor’s tastes generally stray towards indie, but he’s unafraid of the mega-blockbuster when he does venture from his comfort zone. It’s hard to imagine Dafoe wasn’t offered other “big” films after his acclaimed turn as the Green Goblin in “Spider-Man,” but for the most part, following the superhero franchise, the actor reverted back to his roots of smaller scale filmmaking. But this spring finds him back at the multiplex in Disney’s “John Carter.” “I’m always happy to make a movie no matter what the size of it that looks like it’s got a pedigree and has a chance of being beautiful,” Dafoe tells The Playlist during a recent interview in Carefree, Arizona.
"John Carter" first landed on Dafoe’s radar because of director Andrew Stanton, whom the actor worked with on “Finding Nemo” as the voice of Gill. “I trusted him from that experience,” says Dafoe. “He was really fun to work with. He really brought a very playful and game side out of me.” The fact that it would be Stanton’s first foray into live action territory didn’t worry the actor. “He made a movie about a little robot that is silent for 7/8th’s of the movie, just this little robot in this landscape. If you can do that and hold an audience and tell a beautiful story, a moving story, I think you can make a pretty great live action movie.”
And so, Dafoe donned stilts and a mo-cap suit to portray Tars Tarkas, the Martian friend to John Carter (Taylor Kitsch), a character first penned by Edgar Rice Burroughs in 1917. While Dafoe doesn’t physically appear as Tarkas in the film, his likeness and voice are a big part of what makes the eight-foot-tall green man of Stanton’s vision. Below, you'll find some highlights from our chat with Dafoe.
When John Carter first arrives on Mars, known to its inhabitants as Barsoom, he doesn’t understand a word of their language. Later on, he's given a potion that allows him to better communicate with the Tharks. Dafoe says it was important that he learn the language for the first part of the film and that getting the dialect down helped to inform his character. “We learned the Thark language, which is used pretty minimally but it was important to find the voice. I don’t want to mythologize the voice, but I wanted to find a voice that I could speak from. Because you’re dealing with a creature and it’s weird enough that he’s speaking English after his Thark. A linguist actually made a Martian language. It was folded into part of this school on how to be a Thark. We’d sit around and repeat after each other to try to get some uniformity of pronunciation and rhythm.”
Since Tarkas towers over the human-sized John Carter at eight feet tall, Dafoe performed his part on stilts. The actor says he generally got the hang of it, but he had the occasional misstep. “[You had] to try to be as graceful as you could,” Dafoe says with a wry smile and a chuckle.
Green Screen, Motion Capture And The Technicalities Of Portraying Tars Tarkas
Dafoe has some familiarity with green screen work from the “Spider-Man” films, but the extensive mo-cap work on "John Carter" was a new experience for the actor. He says his unique theater background helped ease the transition. “I feel comfortable with it. I come from 25 years of working in live theater where the actors were like technicians. There was a real integration of the actors with the technology. There was lots of recorded and live video, lots of technical obligation," he explained. "I’ve always been kind of empowered by that rather than to see it as a pain in the ass or an obstacle. It’s an extra challenge, but it also helps you. When you make something, you always need something to ground the thing, to give it direction. It’s got to come from some place. Of course it comes from you, but something that’s concrete, undeniable, something that you can at least point to on some level and say, ‘It started with this.’ Technology frames the experience in a way that you can really do more interesting things because it’s rooted.”
With “John Carter” hitting screens this week and “Battleship” this summer, Taylor Kitsch will quickly go from TV star to matinee idol. We asked if the young actor turned to Dafoe for any advice and how he handled his first big lead role. “He doesn’t need my advice,” Dafoe tells the Playlist. “I didn’t have a bad moment with him. I like him a lot. He’s really unpretentious, sweet and hard-working. Physically, he does a beautiful job. You can see some of it, but I don’t think you know the full extent of his athleticism and tenacity and grace with some of that stuff. That wirework is hard to do. Also, while we play out a lot of the scenes, there are some examples where he has to do a sort of dancing through the action and he does it quite well.”
Blockbusters vs. Independents
Mentioning that Dafoe isn’t normally associated with blockbusters, the actor laughs. “No, for better or for worse.” So why John Carter?” “[Stanton],” says Dafoe, “but also, you don’t measure the size, you’re conscious of it. You’re conscious of it more in the respect of, it’s not what people think. It doesn’t have to do with me. It’s not so much about my pay day because there isn’t as much of a difference as you think between a big movie and a small movie because the small ones need you more. So sometimes they will pay. A big movie just means that it’s a movie that will be supported and distributed with a lot of care because they want to protect their investment. And that’s nice because sometimes I’m involved in movies that I love dearly, but when they go to the market place, because they aren’t a film that’s made for a mass audience, it’s a struggle. And sometimes the fact that it’s not supported makes it much more vulnerable to all kinds of judgments that the bigger movies never get subjected to.”
"John Carter" opens in theaters nationwide this Friday, March 9th.