Known for bringing a certain intensity to his portrayals, Willem Dafoe says he was a natural to play a vampire

January 26, 2001|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN FILM CRITIC

Max Schreck endures as one of cinema's most bizarre-looking icons, one Willem Dafoe acknowledges he was a natural to play.

"Steven Katz says he wrote it for me," Dafoe says, referring to the role of Schreck in director E. Elias Merhige's "Shadow of the Vampire."

The new film imagines that Schreck, star of F.W. Murnau's surrealistic 1922 "Dracula" clone, "Nosferatu," really was a vampire, and that all the work that went into making him look so archetypically demonic was really no work at all.

Now, some actors might not take such a connection to Schreck as a compliment. Sixty-five years after his death, the stage-trained German actor is remembered for only one role: as the bat-like, cadaverous vampire of "Nosferatu," a chilling, macabre and decidedly creepy exercise in surrealism that had 1920s audiences recoiling from the screen, and that film students have been poring over for decades.

The few pictures of Schreck sans makeup that survive show a fairly ordinary-looking actor, Germanic in appearance, fond of staring at the camera with slightly downturned eyes and an ever-so-serious expression. But pictures of Schreck as the horrific Count Orlok are a staple of movie iconography: dressed all in black, completely bald, his ears and nose dementedly pointed, his gnarled fingernails half-again longer than his hands.

Not exactly a flattering physical specimen. But Dafoe's right: It's hard to imagine anyone else in the role. Physically, there's always been something wickedly off-kilter about Dafoe, whose piercing eyes often seem on the verge of exploding, and whose mouth seems forever locked in place somewhere between a leer and a grin.

"It makes sense," Dafoe says over the phone from New York. "The filmmakers knew that I'm an actor that likes to play with a large mask sometimes. They probably knew that I would like to play a larger-than-life character. I knew I would be working with those prosthetics, in a very unnaturalistic performance, and that excited me.

"And in a funny way, in a very roundabout way, it makes even more sense," he adds. "I've always felt some feeling for Klaus Kinski. And the fact that he played Nosferatu [in Werner Herzog's 1979 remake] loomed large in my imagination. That was a connection that I responded to."

Like Kinski, Dafoe brings a certain intensity to his characterizations (though, unlike the notoriously mercurial Kinski, Dafoe seems able to control it). In a career stretching back some 20 years, the 45-year-old actor has specialized in the unconventional, from a very human Jesus (in Martin Scorsese's "The Last Temptation of Christ") to the object of Madonna's kinky lust (in the unfortunate "Body of Evidence") to a paraplegic wrestling with Tom Cruise on a Mexican street (in Oliver Stone's "Born On the Fourth of July").

His filmography also includes such determinedly non-mainstream fare as "Wild at Heart," "Tom and Viv" and "American Psycho." His next film, while promising to be decidedly more mainstream, should offer Dafoe yet another chance to explore the roads less traveled. Just last week, he flew to California to begin filming "Spiderman," in which he'll play the certifiably insane Green Goblin.

Given that track record, playing an actor who's a real-life vampire fits right in. It also offers Dafoe the chance to play larger-than-life in a role uniquely suited to that style. At the same time, he avoids going over the top and turning Schreck into a parody. "Controlled" might seem like an odd adjective to describe someone playing a vampire, but it applies here.

Dafoe downplays such praise, however. "As long as you're trying to accomplish the things that you need to do in the scene, I don't know how you go over the top," he says. "The only way you go there is if you're gilding the lily, and you're standing outside of the role - if you're so giddy with how much fun it is that you're heaping on the hot sauce, you know?

"But you still have to remain in the world of the movie, you can't separate yourself from that world. The wonderful thing is, the world of this movie is so large that it could hold quite a bit. I think I seek out situations like that."

Making "Vampire," Dafoe says, offered the added benefit of reacquainting him with a cinema classic he hadn't thought about in years - not to mention an art form that's nearly extinct.

"Like a lot of people, I saw it when I was a college kid. I was struck by it, but I must admit, with time - it's been a while since I was a college kid - those images, as indelible as they were, got mixed up with things like Herzog's `Nosferatu' and `Dracula' and other horror movies.

"Going back to it, I was really startled. I was struck by the poetry of silent film, how beautiful the gesture language could be, how so much of what we see now onscreen is naturalistic, and maybe we've lost the poetry in cinema.

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