There are actors with range, and then there’s Willem Dafoe. The sharp-featured Dafoe has played roles as diverse as Jesus (in Martin Scorsese’s controversial “The Last Temptation of Christ”) and the bloodsucking ghoul Nosferatu (a deliciously over-the-top turn in “Shadow of the Vampire”). He repeatedly has bared body and soul in Lars von Trier’s intense sex dramas, writhed with Madonna in the erotic thriller “Body of Evidence” and voiced animated children’s characters in “Finding Nemo” and “Fantastic Mr. Fox.”
“The thing is to find a work situation that really feeds you, really challenges you,” he said by phone last week. In “A Most Wanted Man,” opening locally Friday, Dafoe plays a shady German banker enmeshed in an international terrorist investigation. The film stars the late Philip Seymour Hoffman as a German spy chief, in one of his final screen roles.
“A Most Wanted Man” is spycraft without motorcycle chases and explosions. Based on the novel by John Le Carré, it views the West’s intelligence bureaucracy as a futile runaway machine that does evil in defense of good. Dafoe’s character is a Le Carré specialty, a man of decent impulses enriched by laundering crooked money. By phone, Dafoe, who turns 59 Tuesday, said he was drawn to the character’s moral complexity.
“I don’t watch a lot of television, but Le Carré’s work inspired the greatest TV drama I have ever seen,” he said, referring to the BBC production of “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” starring Alec Guinness.
He also was impressed by director Anton Corbijn’s drama “Control,” which charted the last days of the suicidal Ian Curtis, lead singer of the late-1970s English post-punk band Joy Division.
“Wanted Man” was an opportunity to go toe-to-toe with Hoffman, another powerhouse New York actor. Through the shoot, Dafoe said, there was no sign of turmoil in the late star’s offstage life. “He was very easy to work with, he was smart, absolutely solid and reliable every day, a pleasure to work with. A good colleague and, of course, a great actor.”
Dafoe, an Appleton, Wis., native, has become something of a stock player in Wes Anderson’s films, playing a pleasant oceanographer in “The Life Aquatic,” a temperamental rat in “Fantastic Mr. Fox” and a golem-like thug in “The Grand Budapest Hotel.”
“I like to work with a director who has a strong vision, and his is very personal and precise. It’s a very complete vision. He’s passionate about it,” Dafoe said. “It’s a pleasure to be part of helping him make the movie he wants to make. The opposite of work is fun.
“I was always interested in performing, but where I grew up in Wisconsin, nobody I knew was an artist. It really didn’t enter into my imagination. I guess you could say I was a kind of a realist as a kid. I never decided to be an actor, because I didn’t train so much formally. I went to university for three semesters.
“Then when I started performing I didn’t know it was going to be a career. It was something I enjoyed that seems almost temporary. When I realized it was more than temporary, being a working actor was my only ambition.”
Dafoe, who appears on stage regularly, is currently appearing in a two-man play with Mikhail Baryshnikov. “The Old Woman,” an absurdist nightmare comedy staged by avant-garde dramatist Robert Wilson, recently finished a celebrated run at the Brooklyn Academy of Music Opera House. Dafoe, who confessed that “I like to dance more than everything,” said he relished working alongside the internationally renowned ballet star. For his part, Baryshnikov gets to sing.
“To shorthand it, I’d call it surrealist vaudeville. We’re dressed alike so we look quite similar. We sort of share a role. Sometimes I’m him, sometimes he’s me,” he said. The actors run through their playful paces in white-faced kabuki-style makeup.
“We’re preparing to take it on the road in South America,” Dafoe said. “We’re calling it ‘The Misery Tour’ because we’re touring Brazil and Argentina,” still smarting from their World Cup losses. “Just kidding,” he added.