Willem Dafoe is having a busy spring at the cineplex: he's had roles in the sci-fi epic John Carter and in the apocalyptic drama 4:44: Last Day On Earth -- and in the new eco-thriller The Hunter, Dafoe plays a mercenary hired by a mysterious biotech company trying to track the untrackable: a Tasmanian tiger.
The animal has been declared extinct, but throughout the film, townspeople whisper, even boast about recent sightings. Dafoe admits he didn't know much about the Tasmanian tiger before the film.
"I had to look on the internet for more information when I read the script," Dafoe tells NPR's Rachel Martin. "It's so potent a symbol for the people of Tasmania — and the people of Australia — because it was basically hunted into extinction by the colonists. The thought that it still survives, that there is still one out in the wilderness, lives in the people's minds."
The Hunter was filmed in Tasmania, and Dafoe says the Australian island setting played an important role in the film.
"There are huge sequences where I'm just in the nature of Tasmania, which is quite wild, quite unspoiled, for the most part," he says. "It's a huge character in the movie."
Dafoe adds sometimes that character proved a challenge to work with.
"The weather is always changing, and you always have to make adjustments," Dafoe says."You always have to respect it, and it tells you where the story needs to go sometimes."
And there was plenty of room for improvisation.
"We had a strong screenplay, which is based on the Julia Leigh novel of the same title," Dafoe says. Still, "there were huge sections that we had to really make it on the day. ... There [are] sequences when I'm out in the woods where it says, 'he sets a trap.' We get to decide what that is: Why does he set a trap? What does it mean to the story — is it atmosphere, is it advancing the story? Does something happen to it? We were always developing the story as we were shooting it."
Dafoe says he was attracted to the film for the location and the story but also for the mercenary character he plays.
"There is a very tightly focused narrative, and there's this kind of eco-noir plot line for him trying to find the tiger," Dafoe says. "And then there's the inner journey. ... It's a very slow reveal. One nice thing about this role is that I'm in practically every frame of the movie, so I really get to sit with it and have the story work on me."
The film doesn't reveal much about Dafoe's character.
"All we know is he's a man that's some sort of mercenary, some sort of weapons expert," Dafoe says. "He's very laconic, he's quite cut off socially."
Dafoe, who's made a career of taking roles at both ends of the movie spectrum, in both independent films and blockbusters, says that there isn't a lot that's different from playing a character like Martin in The Hunter and Tars Tarkus, a nine-foot-tall alien warrior in John Carter.
"When you're actually doing the doing, you don't know the budget of the film, you don't know the size of the film, you don't make judgments about what kind of character it is or what kind of movie it is," Dafoe says. "You're doing what you're doing, you're pretending, you're acting, you're performing."
Dafoe stresses that in John Carter, he was actually performing.
"It's a motion-capture performance," Dafoe says. "I always got a little bit irritated when people say "voiced" because that's not it at all. You spend six months walking on three-foot stilts and all this motion capture equipment, shooting the scenes, developing the character. ... Then animators animate to what you did later, and then people just think it's voice."
"Sometimes," he jokes, "it tests an actor's ego."
Ego or no, Dafoe says he's interested in all manner of film projects.
"The only through-line is I'm attracted to strong directors with vision that like to make personal stories," Dafoe says. And 4:44, John Carter and The Hunter, he says, "were passion projects of the director. That's a real consistent theme for projects I select."
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. Actor Willem Defoe is known for his gripping film portrayals of characters who are usually unstable, villainous or downright creepy. Whether the Green Goblin in "Spiderman."
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "SPIDERMAN")
WILLEM DEFOE: (as the Green Goblin) Misery, misery, misery. That's when you kill someone.
MARTIN: Cult actor Max Schreck in the "Shadow of the Vampire."
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "SHADOW OF THE VAMPIRE")
DEFOE: (as Max Schreck) The mark of age beside the immortal youth.
MARTIN: Or master counterfeiter Eric Masters in "To Live and Die in L.A."
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A.")
DEFOE: (as Eric Masters) Kind of makes me feel like river dancing.
MARTIN: But Defoe makes a different kind of character in his latest film called "The Hunter." It takes place in the wilderness of Tasmania, where a mysterious biotech company is trying to track down the untrackable - a Tasmanian tiger.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE HUNTER")
DEFOE: (as Martin David) He claimed his report's from a reliable source - two confirmed sightings in the past year. Until now, these sightings have been kept secret but word always gets out.
MARTIN: The animal has been declared extinct, but throughout the film, townspeople whisper - even boast - about recent sightings. Actor Willem Dafoe plays the man hired to hunt the Tasmanian tiger, and he joins us from our New York bureau. Thanks so much for talking with us.
DEFOE: Thanks. My pleasure.
MARTIN: I'd like to start off by having your describe this character that you play in the film "The Hunter." His name is Martin David. Who is he and what's he after?
DEFOE: That's a good question.
MARTIN: Well, thanks.
DEFOE: No. Because he's something of a mysterious man. I can more - without giving too much away, I can kind of chart his journey, his inner journey. But who he is, we really don't know. All we know is he's a man that's some sort of mercenary, some sort of weapons expert, and he's been hired by this biotech company to go to Tasmania from Europe and find this last surviving Tasmanian tiger. But we really know very little about him. He's very laconic. He's quite cut off socially. So, he doesn't tell us much about him. We only know he's there to do a job and that's where he starts.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE HUNTER")
DEFOE: (as Martin David) This has all the signs of a tiger kill. She eats the heart first. And this is the cave she's been in. She probably has dens all around the area and she moves between them, but sooner or later she'll move back here. I wonder if she's the last one, alone, just hunting and killing, waiting to die.
MARTIN: What did you learn about the Tasmanian tiger? I mean, the whole story is laden with this question of is this thing really out there? Is it a myth or are these animals alive?
DEFOE: It's so potent a symbol for the people of Tasmania and the people of Australia because it was basically hunted into extinction by the colonists that came there. The thought that it still survives, that there is one still out in the wilderness, lives in the people's minds. There are sightings all the time. And it's almost like they're hoping to be let off the hook and that there's a possibility to make up for the sins of the past.
MARTIN: The film was filmed in Tasmania. What was that like?
DEFOE: Totally. It was fantastic. I don't think I would have made this movie if it hadn't been filmed in Tasmania. It was very important to root the story. There are huge sequences where I'm just in the nature of Tasmania, which is quite wild, quite unspoiled - for the most part. It's a huge character in the movie, and we had to play scenes with it in the respect that the weather is always changing. You always have to make adjustments, you always have to respect it. And it tells you where the story's going to go sometimes.
MARTIN: Did the plot get twisted around a little bit as a result of what Tasmania had in mind?
DEFOE: All the time. As far as logistically and - yes. But on the other hand, when we were out in the bush, even though by the time we started filming we had quite a strong screenplay, which is based on the Julia Leigh novel of the same title, "The Hunter," there were huge sections that we really had to make it on the day in the respect of there's sequences when I'm out in the woods where it says, he sets a trap. We got to decide what that is? Why does he set a trap? What does it mean to the story? Is it atmosphere? Is it advancing the story? Does something happen to him? We were always developing the story as we were shooting.
MARTIN: You have played your fair share of bad guys and even weird guys, and maybe have been a bit typecast. I read somewhere though that you at one point in your life had intentionally cultivated this kind of tough guy image when you were just starting out in New York City in the '70s. Is that right? Were you pursuing that kind of image?
DEFOE: That's a long time ago. But I think just naturally, you know, a square kid from Wisconsin without much culture and not much sophistication, you know, he's trying to pass in New York City. He's attracted to the downtown theater scene. He's working with artists and painters and dancers and people that he didn't really encounter in Wisconsin. So, you start to identify with, you know, a kind of a bohemian, lefty world, you know. And that's not what I grew up necessarily. So, with that, coupled with being a performer, I think some sort of tough guy mask developed.
MARTIN: You have made a career taking roles at both ends - I think it's fair to say - both ends of the movie spectrum...
MARTIN: ...small, low-budget indie films and big old blockbusters. And it so happens that as "The Hunter" is coming out, the sci-fi epic "John Carter," based on the novel of the same name, just came out in early March. And you play a completely different role. You play an alien.
DEFOE: Right. Tars Tarkas, 9-foot tall, alien warrior king, green, four arms, thin.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "JOHN CARTER")
DEFOE: (as Tars Tarkas) When I saw you, I believed in something new and coming to this world.
It's a motion capture performance. I always get irritated. I try not to read press but I did read a little bit, and I always get a little irritated when people say voiced, because that's not at all. You spend six months walking on three-foot stilts and all this motion capture equipment shooting scenes, really developing the character, making the scenes, shooting the movie, and then animators animate to what you did later. And then people think it's just a voiced. Sometimes it tests an actor's ego.
MARTIN: So, more than testing your ego, I wonder if you could tell us what you get out of both characters, both ends of that spectrum - playing Martin David in "The Hunter," what does that give you, and playing Tars Tarkas?
DEFOE: The only through line is I'm attracted to strong directors with vision and like to make personal stories. And in both cases, very different movies, but one consistent thing about that. And also in another movie, "4:44," that Abel Ferrara directed that's coming out soon, all three were passion projects of the director. That's a real consistent theme for projects that I select. You know, when you're actually doing the doing, you don't know the budget of the film, you don't know the size of the film, you don't even make judgments about what kind of character it is or what kind of movie it is. You're doing what you're doing. You're pretending, you're acting, you're performing.
MARTIN: And lastly, what's coming up for you? You've had such a long and varied career. Are there still things - I imagine your answer is yes - that you have not done yet that are still important to you that you'd like to pursue?
DEFOE: Always. I don't know what those are, but I know they're out there. It's a big old world.
MARTIN: Actor Willem Defoe. He has several movies coming out this year, including the Australian film "The Hunter." That film is now available on demand. The film opens nationwide in theaters April 6th. Thanks so much for talking with us, Mr. Defoe.
DEFOE: Great. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.