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Willem Dafoe says the first-time actors on 'The Florida Project' had a leg up on him

Willem Dafoe and Brooklynn Prince in
Willem Dafoe and Brooklynn Prince in "The Florida Project."
Courtesy of A24

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Willem Dafoe has played a wide range of characters in his nearly four decade long acting career.

He’s probably best known for taking on darker, edgy roles— and more than a few villains. But in "The Florida Project," directed and co-written by Sean Baker, Dafoe plays a tough but compassionate manager of a budget motel.

Part enforcer, part father figure, almost full-time social worker, Dafoe’s character Bobby watches over the motel’s many long-term residents, most of whom can’t afford permanent housing.

The story centers on a six-year-old girl named Moonee, played by Brooklynn Prince, and her mother Halley, played by first-time actress Bria Vinaite.

Willem Dafoe stopped by The Frame studios recently to talk with host John Horn about "The Florida Project."

Interview Highlights

On what it was like working with first-time actors in "The Florida Project":

When Bria and Brooklynn were cast, Sean's partner Samantha Quan worked with them, and also Sean [Baker]— they did a little acting workshop to create their relationship also make their room and stuff like that. So they were kind of ahead of me on the game, so when I got down there, they had their room in the motel all fixed up and I remember the first time I met Bria and Brooklynn, their room was all set up, and Bria was so inhabiting this character that I thought Who is this woman? Does she live here? And it's not that Bria has that life, but she has a parallel life that she could apply to be this woman, and she did it in a really deep way. The other thing is, people that aren't used to performing, they're all in. They have nothing to compare it to and there's no careerism or ego. This is an adventure for them. So with someone, a skillful director like Sean, who creates an environment and a way of shooting that makes them feel comfortable, they can go real deep, they can be really present. 

On Sean Baker's investigative, almost documentary-style approach to making the film: 

There's also a parallel for actors. They sort of do the same thing. I go down there, I do my research, I start living with those people and hearing their stories. With time, they become me. And of course I'm encouraging that. But it's just natural. You learn things, and as you learn them not only does it give you a kind of authority to do the pretending of the fiction that you're making, it also guides the thing that you're making.

JH: When you go down and start that part of the process are you a blank slate? Do you have assumptions that need to be challenged? 

You always have assumptions, you always have too much garbage. But the process is to try and get rid of it. But you got to start somewhere. So you may start with prejudices or an idea, but you do things to correct those or challenge them. 

On receiving character insights from real-life motel managers before shooting:

I talked to some motel managers. One in particular, who actually worked once upon a time at the motel that we were working at. And I didn't do wildly extensive research with him, but I did talk to him to hear stories, to look at him, see what he looks like, what kind of jewelry he's wearing. All those things you kind of clock and you think, Does this point me in a direction, does this direct where I'm going to take this character? You know, What's he wearing around his neck? What's the story behind that? Can I get behind that, do I need that? What's with the watch, why is that watch so chunky? That tells me about who this guy may be. And he was very helpful.

The biggest thing was that I was really taken by his pride in his work. He really was a believer. That was his place and he was going to make it a better place. And he was able to do that. He wasn't all love and light though, he was tough. There was a part of him that was really tough, and he even had some judgements about the people. But he had been through a lot and had seen a little bit of everything and he somewhere believed that if you cut people slack and give them some room, you help them. They can find their way and then everybody's better off. 

On what 'The Florida Project' has to say about hidden homelessness:

It points to lots of problems. Some of the people that were living there had two or three jobs. And they just couldn't make it. It points to certain kinds of problems about the social welfare system and minimum wage and all these things. This movie doesn't point fingers. I think more deeply, it talks about our social responsibility to each other. It kind of suggests, or at least from my point of view, that we're better off taking care of each other. And you have the choice. Do you spend your energy or your resources on education and helping other people? Or do you spend it on prisons and cops? It comes down to that sometimes.

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