Willem Dafoe Spent Six Hours a Day in the ‘Poor Things’ Makeup Chair. He’s Not Complaining

When Poor Things premiered in Venice over Labor Day weekend to rousing reviews and no stars in sight, Willem Dafoe watched from afar with a little bit of heartbreak, if also a lot of confidence that the film was landing—even thriving—without any of the usual red-carpet bells and whistles. “I thought, This is better!” he says with a laugh. Flash-forward two months later and, with the SAG-AFTRA strike tentatively resolved, this year’s unusual awards season dynamic has rapidly started reverting to its old self. Suddenly, Dafoe can talk about the movie that may net him his next Oscar nomination—one unlike any in his distinguished filmography.

The new Yorgos Lanthimos film is, true to the Favourite and Lobster director’s idiosyncratic spirit, brazenly original—an arty take on the Victorian-era novel by Alasdair Gray that spins the Frankenstein legend into a demented, raunchy, strangely touching tale of female empowerment and coming of age. The story begins with Dafoe’s Dr. Godwin Baxter, a mad scientist whose disfigured face would seem most at home among a Surrealist painting collection, completing a horrific experiment: He reanimates a 30-something corpse by replacing her defunct brain with that of an unborn child. We then meet Bella (Emma Stone) as both adult woman, rushing with sexual desires, and helpless baby, just learning how to walk and talk. In that, a most dysfunctional father-daughter dynamic emerges, one that Dafoe plays—while roaming Dr. Baxter’s townhouse, as it teems with his disturbing creations—in an increasingly tender, even heartwarming key. When Dr. Baxter and his protégé (Ramy Youssef) decide it’s time to let Bella go and have her explore the world, he mourns in his empty nest.

Dr. Baxter’s face, we later learn, has been completely maimed by the work of his father, also a surgeon. That trauma is applied both to the way he spends his days, breeding pigs with ducks and horses with carriages as if the animals are mix-and-match Legos, and to the interiority of Dafoe’s performance. Before shooting began, the make-up team would mock up scars for the actor so he could prepare having a sense of what the character could look like. As he got into filming, it was easy to get into that troubled headspace, given the amount of time he spent being turned into Dr. Baxter, down to the finest details. 

“Four hours in, two hours out every day—I’m showing up at three o’clock in the morning, sitting in the chair, meditating and trying to deal with standing still. You can’t sleep because it’s intricate enough that you’ve got to work with the people applying it,” Dafoe says. “Then everybody else comes in at seven o’clock, and your day starts. You do a full day. Then you take it off. It’s a grind, but I liked working with a mask in there—quite literally, a mask.”

Dafoe developed a nickname on set: “They dubbed me ‘Kirk.’ They thought I looked like Kirk Douglas.”

Dafoe in Poor Things.

Yorgos Lanthimos

This is hardly Dafoe’s first transformation for the camera. He’s been Oscar-nominated for bloodsucking in Shadow of the Vampire and has portrayed Jesus, Vincent van Gogh, and (kind of) Hunter S. Thompson to great acclaim. But the sheer detail of a Lanthimos production allowed him to slip into this utterly original realm and find his bearings. The role matched the surroundings. The sets were “spectacular,” stuffed with intrigue. “In every spare moment, you’d just wander,” he says. “I’m wandering because there are beautiful things around. Books! You’d read these books with, like, beautiful scientific diagrams.” The set design was unlike anything Dafoe had encountered before. “You had so many things that defined the world—unless you were asleep, you had to live in it,” he says. “That’s ideal for an actor, because it’s like nothing else. You fold into it. Everything tells you what to do.”

This may explain the unexpected intimacy of Dafoe’s work here. The magic of Poor Things is the way its monochrome colors, fish-eye camera lenses, and disarming visual effects somehow complement aching, intricate characterizations. The film brims with humanity, its actors staying grounded in a dreamy sci-fi environment. “Invention on the actors’ part is kind of overrated—it’s what people always like to talk about, but I think the real roots and the real value of an actor is how they can be there to show up and receive all this stuff,” Dafoe says. “You don’t have a showy performance, regardless of how big it is or exaggerated, if you’ve got a thing that’s rooted. And where does that come from? It comes from the world.”

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