Will Dafoe’s Big Role Be a Blessing? : ‘To Live and Die in L.A.’ Led Him to ‘Temptation’


Ironically, it was in Willem Dafoe’s portrayal of a crazed counterfeiter in the movie “To Live and Die in L.A.” that director Martin Scorsese found his cinematic Christ.

Dafoe isn’t about to question the irony.

“The breakthrough (in film roles) for me was ‘Platoon,’ ” says the actor who was nominated for a best supporting actor Oscar as Sgt. Elias in that film. “It was important for audiences to see me as someone other than a bad guy. So I figured there was no way I could have gotten this part in Marty’s movie without ‘Platoon.’

“I found out later,” Dafoe says, laughing and shaking his head, “that when Marty cast me, he hadn’t seen ‘Platoon’; he only saw me in ‘To Live and Die in L.A.’ ”

Bad guy or good guy, Dafoe, 33, is determined to remain above the religious fray over “The Last Temptation of Christ,” which opens Friday in the United States. The film, based on the Nikos Kazantzakis novel of the same name, co-stars Barbara Hershey as Mary Magdalene, Harvey Keitel as Judas and rock star David Bowie as Pontius Pilate.

The film had originally been scheduled for a slow city-by-city release in September, but last week Universal Pictures moved the release date forward by a month.


Various Christian denominations have condemned the movie for, among other things, its portrayal of Christ as self-doubting and lustful. Certain fundamentalist groups have even been calling for the film’s destruction, saying they’re willing to reimburse Universal for its $10-million cost.

“This is a deeply religious movie for Marty,” Dafoe insists. “It’s not a debunking; it’s not a riff. It’s a way to articulate his deep feelings. Sure, part of the idea was to humanize Christ. It’s short on heavenly angels. But, in the end, it’s triumphant in the way people who subscribe to the Jesus story want it to be, and I think it is.” Beyond that, he was reluctant to discuss his own beliefs.

Dafoe, who has a distinctive face with high cheekbones, takes on a discernible intensity when he talks about “The Last Temptation,” has some strong feelings about the subject.

“The bottom line is forgiveness,” he says. “These days, it’s a radical idea--the power of love to control the immediate response of doing something bad to someone because they’ve done something bad to you. That snowballs. It breeds hate.”

Paraphrasing his character in the movie, he adds, “Embracing your enemies ruins that little formula of hate.”

Between his stage work with the Wooster Group, the movie “Platoon,” an upcoming film on racial tension titled “Mississippi Burning” and the current “Last Temptation of Christ,” Dafoe doesn’t seem hesitant to take on hot political topics.

“I’ve been lucky to be in a couple of films that have raised some political discussions,” he says. “People ask me, ‘Are you a political person?’ Well, what do you want to hear? That I’ve been to some rally, that I donate money? If I have, and I tell you, it’s like wearing a badge. You’re political in the way you conduct your life, the kind of work you do. I guess you could say I’m not a mainstream kind of guy.”

Dafoe pauses, then says, “Some people warned me against playing Christ. They listed all the actors who played Christ and what happened to them, and what happened to the movies. It will be interesting to see how people will react to this one.”

One of eight children who grew up in a family in Appleton, Wis., Dafoe took the usual state college drama classes, but didn’t wait around to graduate. He joined an experimental theater company in Milwaukee, eventually going to New York in the mid-'70s. Soon after, he became a core member of the Wooster Group, which has staged its share of controversial productions at downtown Manhattan’s Performing Garage.

Dafoe’s movies include “The Loveless,” “Streets of Fire” and “Roadhouse 66,” in which he usually played young punks or at least somewhat menacing characters. He was also seen briefly in “The Hunger” and “Heaven’s Gate.”

Earlier this year, following his break as “the good sergeant” in “Platoon,” Dafoe co-starred in the thriller “Off Limits” as a tough but tender MP. “It was fun to work with Gregory Hines, and Bangkok was a blast,” was all he’d say about that project.

In the recently completed “Mississippi Burning,” to be released at Christmas, he plays what he describes as “a Kennedy-style, Northern liberal,” an FBI agent investigating the murder of three civil rights workers by the Ku Klux Klan in the 1960s in Mississippi. Dafoe says it’s a fictionalized version of the real Neshoba County murders of 1964.

He’s also in “Dear America: Letters Home From Vietnam,” a documentary recently seen on HBO, nominated for an Emmy and due in theaters next month. In it, he and others--including Robert De Niro, Kathleen Turner and Robin Williams--read actual letters from soldiers who fought in the war.

Despite the film activity, Dafoe still finds time for the Wooster Group. The unconventional troupe (“There is lots of text in our work, but psychology and narrative are not necessarily important”) recently staged a trilogy, the last of which was coincidentally titled “The Temptation of St. Anthony.”

Dafoe, who’s made Manhattan’s SoHo his home for 11 years, lives with the Wooster Group’s artistic director, Elizabeth LeCompte, and their 6-year-old son.

Asked how having a child has changed his perceptions, Dafoe laughs and says, “It makes you conscious that most of the time you’re making things your kid can’t see. He will some day. But, I mean, a kid wouldn’t take kindly to seeing his father get shot 500 times in the jungles of Vietnam.”

Dafoe doesn’t think his personal life warrants much attention.

“There’s no story there. I’m a pretty boring guy. I keep my life simple so I can keep the work exciting. The Garage (Wooster Group’s performance space) always keeps me busy. We performed in Israel earlier this year for the first time.

“The key is staying vital. I don’t want to get boxed into a corner and feel like stuff is happening to me.”