Jay Dixit: Can you give an example of a life experience—even a negative life experience—that you feel like you’ve drawn on and translated into good work that you’re proud of?
Willem Dafoe: Not so much. Because that’s different. Because I’m a believer in pretending and I don’t believe you can use substitution. You can’t take something from your life and apply it to fuel something else. You can, but I think it’s a cheat. Because you don’t sit with the real situation and you have to make an expectation about what your reaction should be.
If there’s a funeral scene and you’re standing in front of the coffin, the normal thing would be—funerals are sad—people cry. “I don’t feel like crying? Well, let me think of something sad from my life so I can cry.” So you cry and everybody says, clap, clap, “Oh, God, that’s so emotional, he’s so sensitive! He’s crying at somebody’s funeral!” They project onto you. Because they see it and they identify. “Oh, he’s crying! The character is really moved!”
But there’s another part of you that says you’re missing something. It’s better to sit there, look at the character, look at the face, look at the skin, put yourself… think of who you are, who they are in the context of the fiction that you’re making, and sometimes you can get an unexpected and truer response.
And that is when you’re making something—as opposed to illustrating “People crying at funerals because they’re sad.” You may find something more interesting where people don’t—I mean, obviously, this is quite broad—people don’t cry at funerals because they’re sad. That may be more resonant.