Willem Dafoe frankly doesn’t give a damn if he misses out on a best supporting actor Oscar for a third time next month.
“That is not what I do this for,” said the dry, self-deprecating star, who was also nominated for Oliver Stone’s Platoon in 1987 and for Shadow of a Vampire 13 years later.
Yet he will be sore if The Florida Project, the break-out low-budget film about poor kids growing up in the shadow of Walt Disney World in Orlando, gets nothing.
Dafoe told AFP he was “disappointed when (its director) Sean Baker didn’t get some love because this is very much his film and he made a beautiful movie.”
“I was hoping either the film or him or one of the other performers would get recognised but it didn’t happen.”
He was not alone. Critics swooned over the performances Baker drew from the three children he cast – one of whom he found in a supermarket – and first-timer Bria Vinaite, who he spotted on Instagram.
The subtly moving story Baker shot in a cheap motel along the Kissimmee Strip leading to the theme park, using some of its homeless residents as extras, was a surprisingly heart-warming hit and topped many best-film-of-the-year lists.
Poor outside gates
Dafoe plays a world-weary janitor who tries to protect Vinaite’s character, a tattooed single mother, from herself.
Living hand-to-mouth with her seven-year-old daughter (Brooklynn Prince) from hustling and charity handouts, the film is both a tender and unsparing portrait of families trapped in poverty at the gates of what Disney calls ‘The Happiest Place on Earth.’
Baker and much of his cast lived in the hotel while working on the film, and Dafoe said the experience opened his eyes.
“Some of the residents had two or three jobs they just couldn’t earn enough to get out. They are paying the price for an apartment almost, and all they had was a single room. Some were just horribly addicted, some are caught in a weak social welfare system – there was a whole rainbow of experiences and you would not have seen that had you not been living with them.
“When you get to know the people and hear their stories, you have a different understanding (of poverty),” Dafoe added. “That helps root the story to make sure that the movie’s not bullshit.”
For many of the motel’s residents, the filming was “like the circus had come to town”, said the actor, who made his name with the ground-breaking New York theatre company, The Wooster Group.
“They might have been more excited, of course, if Brad Pitt or Jennifer Lawrence was there, but I was the best they could do,” he joked.
‘This is too much!’
Dafoe, 62, said the genius of the atmosphere Baker created on set with his partner and acting coach Samantha Quan meant that the actor found himself both being and playing the only responsible adult around.
“It was really like having children,” he laughed. “We would wind them up and let them have fun. It was not what you would call a very ‘professional’ atmosphere.
“They really set up structures so the kids could play. And sometimes you would think, ‘Oh man, this is too much!’ I really loved those kids, but my character has to rein them in, so you have this beautiful double thing where what was going on set reflected my job in the movie, so you can invest in it even more deeply.”
Dafoe said he signed up straight away for the project because he so loved Baker’s previous film, Tangerine, a bitter-sweet portrait of a transgender sex worker’s eventful love life which he shot on an iPhone.
On paper, Bobby the janitor didn’t look like much at all, Dafoe admitted, but “Sean wrote additional scenes, we improvised, there were all sorts of accidents. I was really surprised to see how it evolved.
“It is an unusual role because it does not have the hallmarks of a big juicy performance – there are no big scenes or transformations or anything wildly extreme. He is a simple guy who has a good heart. He represents us, the audience, the hope that things are going to work out and that you should try to make this world a better place in whatever humble way you can. I am very touched by that.”