Actor Willem Dafoe discusses portraying Tars Tarkas in Andrew Stanton's John Carter, hitting theaters nationwide March 9
Actor Willem Dafoe has been impressing audiences since the 1980s, with Oscar-nominated roles in Platoon and Shadow of the Vampire, big-budget movies like Clear and Present Danger and Spider-Man, cult classics like Boondock Saints, and practically everything in between. Willem Dafoe will next be seen as Tars Tarkas in John Carter, which arrives in theaters nationwide March 9. The actor talked about the motion-capture process he went through to portray the Thark, working with director Andrew Stanton, and much more. Take a look at what he had to say below.
I was reading that this film may hold the record for the longest period in development hell. There was a version that was being worked on way back in 1931. I was curious how familiar you were with this whole Barsoom series before you first read for Tars?
Willem Dafoe: I came in pretty plain. I knew very little about it, to tell you the truth. The initial attraction was really (director) Andrew Stanton. I certainly was a huge fan of Tarzan as a kid, and I certainly knew who (author) Edgar Rice Burroughs was, but I wasn't aware of the Barsoom series. It reminded me of when I did Spider-Man. I had never read a Spider-Man comic book in my life, so sometimes it's nice to come in plain for something.
Tars is a rather complex character. He's the first one to interact with John, and there is a lot of history with his daughter Sola. With a character like this, doing it as a voice...
Willem Dafoe: You know, let me stop you right there. It's not just doing the voice, and that's really significant. We played the scenes, I did Tars Tarkas. It's not just a voice. When people see things that are filtered through motion-capture, they imagine it's just the voice, but anyone that really watches clearly, it's my gestures and I think they'll be able to see a beating heart behind Tars. It's not just simply computer generated. We played all those scenes, and we played them and then the animators simply took the gestures and the movement and put it all in a different form. I performed it on three-foot stilts, with a camera on my head, and dots on my face, so they can correspond my movements and expressions to the nine-foot tall creature that they're making.
This is Andrew's live-action debut. I was curious if you could take us through the process of getting the chance to work with him, and his style as a director, especially on a huge undertaking like this?
Willem Dafoe: I worked with him on Finding Nemo, and, in that case, I was just doing the voice, but it was the same guy. When I worked with him on Finding Nemo, he was incredibly good with story, he's incredibly good with approaching a scene from every angle. He's really well-researched. Those guys at Pixar have really developed a good way of working. They really believe in trial and error. They built that into the schedule, into their process. When I worked with him on doing the voice, he would exhaust all the possibilities. He would do it as many ways as he thought were possible, and that was always exciting. With Tars, it was a similar thing. He was very clear about what he wanted to accomplish in each scene, and my job was to try and help him accomplish that. Given all the technical tasks, it became sort of like a fun game to find out how to deliver all those scene.
When you were on the set, did you find yourself going back to the books at all, to get you more in tune with the character? Or was it just Andrew guiding you the whole way?
Willem Dafoe: To start out, we wanted to really see the world we were creating. He and many people working on the film, grew up on the books and are very passionate about them. To share their passion, one of the first steps was to read the books, and I did. That really helped me to share their passion and know the world we were creating. Then, once we started working, I don't remember so much going back to the books, but just really trying to play the scenes. We had to learn the Thark language (laughs). It took a lot to get really agile on the stilts. There were many things to do.
What would you say was the bigger challenge? Working on those stilts or getting the language down?
Willem Dafoe: The language is used fairly minimally, but it's very important. It really helps define the world, and who the Tharks are. Sometimes, with all this technology, the trick is to embrace it and try to make it work for you and have fun with it, rather than to have it flatten out the scenes. The trick is always to stay in the scenes, and embrace what could be seen as obstacles, as tools, to find different impulses and a different kind of energy and a different kind of character than you've ever been able to portray before.
We ran a featurette on the site not too long ago, and in it you said there really wouldn't be a Star Wars and a lot of other movies without the original John Carter story. How do you think genre fans will respond to seeing this original inspiration for all these other films and book, on the screen for the first time?
Willem Dafoe: I don't know. It will be interesting to see, but when I watched the movie the other day, one of my feelings about it was it has real depth. It's not something that's very superficial. It's got a long history to it, and you feel that history. This was really born of the first imaginings of what outer space would be like, and imagining other worlds on other planets. It has deep roots, I'd say, a lineage.
I'm also very intrigued with another adaptation you have coming out later this year, Odd Thomas. It has a wonderful cast, and you play this father figure to Thomas.
Willem Dafoe: That's true. I'm getting to that age, I guess, where I play father figures (Laughs). Who would have thought?
I was wondering if you could talk a bit more about the character, and working with Anton (Yelchin)?
Willem Dafoe: I adore Anton. I think he's a really great actor. He's really bright, and I remain in touch with him after shooting the movie, because I think he's a really bright kid and such a great talent. (Director) Stephen (Sommers) is incredibly energetic. This is a real passion project for him. It's always nice when you're working on something that's special for the director. Other than that, I don't like to talk about it too much at this point. I should probably keep on talking about John Carter, because there will be time to talk about Odd Thomas when it comes out. I'm glad you're interested in it.
What would you like to say to people who might be on the fence about John Carter, about why they should check it out March 9?
Willem Dafoe: Oh God (Laughs). I don't really know what to say. That's not really my job, but what I will say that the proof is in the pudding. They should go and see it and then we'll talk about it (Laughs). I don't think they'll be disappointed. I think it's a very special film, so if they're on the fence about it, without having seen it, you can only assume that they should examine their prejudices (Laughs).
Excellent. Well, that's my time. It was great to talk to you, Willem. Thank you so much.
Willem Dafoe: OK, great. Bye-bye.