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Willem Dafoe: What I’ve Learned

Published in the March 2012 issue

There’s a real wisdom to not saying a thing.

Turn off the sound in a movie, and if you can tell what’s going on, the movie should work.

“Don’t spit on your luck.” My wife always says that. Good Italian woman. It’s like a mantra for her.

Spitting on Tom Cruise in Born on the Fourth of July was pretty much fun if I remember right. Not to be taken personally, certainly.

Let’s hope I never end up on a deserted island, because I could never make a decision on which three CDs to take with me.

My father used to say, “You don’t deserve it if you can’t take care of it.” I’ve always been haunted by that.

Let’s say you’re a really boorish pickup artist. Certain phrases aren’t available to you in a foreign country, because you don’t have the language available to you. So you have to put a kind of new sincerity into these little phrases. Maybe that’s why some men do better in other countries.

Corruption is something you face all the time. Avoid it.

I have no doubt that if I met Bob Dylan, it would be disappointing — and annoying to him. But that’s why I like Bob Dylan.

I was really lucky. The father of a friend of mine had tickets and he said to his son, “Who do you want to invite along?” That’s how I got to go to the Ice Bowl. I felt really guilty. I was a Green Bay Packers fan, but I was twelve years old and there were people who would have killed for that ticket. I was so worried about being cold that I put on so many socks that I think I cut off the circulation in my feet. I must’ve gotten frostbite. When I got home, my feet were screaming pain. Only in retrospect do you appreciate how fantastic that game was.

You gotta leave Wisconsin behind when you’re playing Christ, right?

I think you do your best when you’re doing it for someone else. Think of when you’re first in love, what power that gives you. You’re like Superman — because you’re doing it for someone else.

Before we started filming Platoon, we had these Vietnam veterans take us out in the bush, and for two weeks, with no contact to the outside world, they taught us how to do soldierly things… It was beautifully practical, and it created a special stake. We wanted to respect their experience. You always have to earn your right to pretend.

At some point when I do a role, I feel like I’m the only guy to do it. Nobody else should be doing this. You always gotta get to that place where you own it.

Of course the devil could tempt me. What he could offer me would be that state where you disappear into an action. When you disappear into doing. It’s the sensation that I seek over and over again. When you’re in motion and doing something and the world drops away and you become that thing. I would take that if I could sustain that forever.

If you call it a risk, it’s probably not a risk.

I was born William, but I was called Billy growing up. I didn’t like it. It was diminutive — it didn’t have any force to it. So as a kid I was always looking for a nickname. It doesn’t take a psychologist to tell you that would be a form of mask.

When I went to Milwaukee, I was living in this house with a bunch of crazy people, and one guy really took it upon himself to call me Willem. Willem. And it kind of stuck. When I became an actor, I thought of changing my name back to William, but that seemed too formal and British. So I just stayed with Willem and now go through life with a fake name.

I remember the first time I saw my name on a marquee. I was in Hong Kong. To Live and Die in L.A. I never thought I cared about those things, but it was exciting. Probably because it was in Hong Kong.

Why do I die so much? It’s confusing to me. Maybe it’s because I like strong characters. And it’s natural that in a story sometimes they want to get rid of those strong characters.

Celebrity is okay as long as you know it’s not about you.

The things that you worry about aren’t the things you should worry about. The things that you don’t worry about are the things you should worry about.

Sometimes there is no second or third take.

It’s never one or the other. It’s always that balance between control and abandon. How much control, and how much do you let it go? You’re always regulating between the two.

As I get older, I die less.

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15. Tommy Lee Jones [who plays an American military officer in Captain America] is really scary. Because he’ll take his time answering a question. It feels like he’s ignored you. He does it long enough for you to feel completely humiliated. I said hello to him and then there was a long pause and then he said, “Do you like opera?” He’s got a very, very dry sense of humor.

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Claudia Bassols

From our colleagues: “In 2008, she joined Mario Batali and Gwyneth Paltrow for the culinary road trip on the PBS show Spain… on the Road Again. More recently Bassols has appeared as a judge on Iron Chef America and on the big screen in The Eagle Path, directed by the Muscle from Brussels, Jean-Claude Van Damme. She’s extremely natural, friendly, and warm. She doesn’t feel like a diva for being a famous actress here. She’s just a regular girl who enjoys a regular way of life (at least as far as we know).” A perfect day with Claudia: “We would probably take her to a beautiful old house, lost somewhere between the regions of Basque Country, Galicia, or Cantabria, close to the seaside, so we could have a great intimate dinner.”

A short conversation:

ESQUIRE: You split your time between Barcelona and L.A. As a foodie, is there any food you wish you could bring with you to L.A.?

CLAUDIA BASSOLS: At the beginning, I would suddenly crave ham, and I would desperately seek for it. I would go to Whole Foods. The most approximate thing I would find would be prosciutto, which was never satisfying.

ESQ: Sorry about the ham. Anything else?

CB: Actually, before ever moving to the States, I was always a big defender of driving with stick. I was always like, automatic sucks. I hate it. And then I bought myself a Land Rover here, which is automatic. And I just love it. It’s a great car.

ESQ: Have you picked up any Americanisms?

CB: I love little things, like catch-22. My friend was telling me the other day, “You’re not using it properly.” And “That’s the cat’s pajamas.” Hilarious.

ESQ: Now that this is all official, what’s your first order of business as Spain’s ambassador?

CB: You know what, actually? Well, I don’t know if this would go down well, but I’m thinking maybe there could be these buildings where people could go and take naps.

ESQ: That’s original. So this is open to the public?

CB: Totally altruistic, no weirdness about it. You know? I just need a nap right now.

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I don’t wear anything.Nothing belongs in the bed but bodies.

…AT 11:00 P.M. /// READING

I usually read in bed. I’m going back and reading all the classics that I didn’t read when I was supposed to be in high school. Next on the list is Emily Dickinson.

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