MOVIES : Mild at Heart : Willem Dafoe is making the leap from incendiary character actor to romantic leading roles opposite Susan Sarandon and Madonna

Willem Dafoe is briefly in Los Angeles from his home in Manhattan to rehearse with Madonna, his co-star in the upcoming film, "Body of Evidence," currently shooting in Portland. His trip comes at the tail end of a three-month vacation, and when he's asked how he spent those three months, he says, "I worked around the garage." This is somehow hard to picture. Dafoe is far too driven to while away the hours puttering.

Juggling a family, a thriving film career and work with avant-garde New York theater company the Wooster Group, where he's been a core member for 15 years, Dafoe comes on like a casual, laid-back guy. But one needn't talk to him long too detect that there's a supercharged engine revving inside him.

Having established himself as both a leading man and a character actor capable of handling roles ranging from a revisionist Jesus tortured by ambivalence in Martin Scorsese's "The Last Temptation of Christ" to the hilariously psychotic sleazeball Bobby Peru in David Lynch's "Wild at Heart," Dafoe gambles on high-risk roles that are paying off well for him. After he garnered his first critical notices in 1982 for his performance in Kathryn Bigelow's cult biker film "The Loveless," Dafoe was typecast for a few years in weirdo-killer roles, but he's now making the leap to romantic lead.

In the Roger Donaldson film "White Sands," which opens Friday, Dafoe plays a deputy sheriff in the American Southwest whose pursuit of some bad guys leads him into a steamy romance with Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio (it's literally steamy--the love scene takes place in the shower). Dafoe also has the lead in "Light Sleeper," the new Paul Schrader film set for fall release in which he's cast as an aging drug dealer in the throes of a spiritual crisis and a failed reconciliation with former girlfriend Dana Delany. In both films, Dafoe is in virtually every frame.

"A strong leading man can maintain an element of mystery into the second hour of a film and make you feel they still have some surprises left to show you, and Willem is very good at that," says Schrader. "He modulates his performances very carefully so you feel there's always something left to come, and for me that's the essence of his intelligence as an actor."

Dafoe's handling of interviews is also carefully modulated. Talking with the 36-year-old actor at a Beverly Hills hotel, he is warm and friendly but utterly private. A classic New York actor, Dafoe can talk endlessly about the craft and psychological subtleties of his work, but ask about his personal life or how he feels about someone else's work and he clams up. Asked which playwrights, directors, films and actors have been particularly significant for him, he looks uncomfortable and begs off with a vague "it shifts around quite a bit." When it's suggested that he has many friends in the business and is just being diplomatic, he laughs and concedes that's true. In the course of conversation, the question of whether he's ever taken LSD comes up and Dafoe looks aghast, asks that the tape recorder be turned off, and explains that he can't answer questions like that because they haunt public figures for years after. Dafoe's extreme discretion seems rooted in the fact that he has no interest in becoming the kind of celebrity whose life is routinely dissected by the media--he just wants to act.

"I can't remember ever wanting to do anything else," says Dafoe, whose career began early in Appleton, Wis., where he was born and raised. The second youngest in a family of eight children, Dafoe explains that "my parents came from working-class families but they were bright people. My father is a surgeon who graduated from Harvard medical school at a young age, my mother's a nurse and they work together--I suppose I'm imitating my parents in that I also work with my partner." Dafoe has been in a relationship for 15 years with the Wooster Group's artistic director, Elizabeth Lecompte, with whom he has a 9-year-old son.

"As a kid, I was very involved in sports, and performing started young for me--I was in lots of high school plays," he continues. "I wasn't one of those kids who saw a lot of movies, though, and I've never been an obsessive movie nut--I've always been busy working. After graduating from high school I went to college in Milwaukee for a short time, then I dropped out and started working with a theater group called Theater X. Once I got out on my own I dropped about two economic classes and was living among types of people I'd never encountered before and I loved that. It gave me a political awareness I'd never had--I was a middle-class person who all of a sudden became poor and that radicalized me a bit. Nonetheless, I'm still the product of a puritanical Midwestern upbringing. I have a fairly conservative moral code," he adds with a laugh, "and I can't imagine anyone wishing anything else.

"I traveled around Europe and America with Theater X for a few years, then moved to New York in 1977 planning to get out of avant-garde theater. But I looked around and nothing really appealed to me until I saw the Wooster Group, so I started working with them in small roles and earning my keep as a carpenter. I've been with them now for 15 years and I still love it," says Dafoe of the Wooster Group, whose freewheeling, multimedia approach to theater combines elements of dance, video, performance art, improvisation and experimental interpretations of conventional plays.

Actress Susan Sarandon, who co-stars with Dafoe in "Light Sleeper," has long been a fan of his work with the Wooster Group and says his experience there is central to his ability as a film actor. "Willem comes to acting from a highly original type of theater which revolves around the idea of experimentation and serving the piece rather than selling the personas of the performers, and because of that he's extremely flexible. I loved working with him because I like working in the moment--which is something not everyone can adjust to--and Willem really knows how to move with a scene as it develops."

Dafoe credits Lecompte, whom he met through the group, with "teaching me more about acting than anyone I've known. I met her when I was 22. She was 11 years older than me and was much better educated and more intellectual. She's always had a really beautiful way of showing me stuff and I have fond memories of her taking me to the Museum of Modern Art shortly after I met her. I've learned a lot just by watching how she lives her life."

Dafoe says he's also learned from his son Jack, whom Sarandon describes as "a fabulous, very original and magical child. I love seeing Willem with Jack because while Willem is very much a man, he's also very gentle and physical, which is a beautiful combination."

"I recommend having a child to everyone because it takes you off yourself a little bit," says Dafoe. "My son was truly a blessing because I didn't plan on having him so I had no expectations and needed nothing from the experience--I could only appreciate him."

Though Dafoe found a family and creative fulfillment through his involvement with the Wooster Group, he was beginning to feel restless by the early '80s and began pursuing a film career. "I'm ambitious and I like to feel myself up against the world," he admits. "Though the work the Wooster Group does is very beautiful, and I respect the people I work with there a great deal, it wasn't enough."

Making his debut in 1981 with a small part in "Heaven's Gate," Dafoe was next seen in "The Hunger," "To Live and Die in L.A." and "Streets of Fire." His breakthrough performance came in 1986 in Oliver Stone's "Platoon," which found Dafoe cast as the heroic Sgt. Elias, a doomed soldier who maintains his humanity while those around him are losing theirs. (His performance garnered him a best supporting actor nomination.) Two years later, he appeared in leading roles in "The Last Temptation of Christ" and "Mississippi Burning." He played a small role in Stone's "Born on the Fourth of July" and the lead in "Triumph of the Spirit" in 1989. The next year he turned in his memorable cameo performance in David Lynch's "Wild at Heart."

"No one else could've brought Bobby Peru to life the way he did--he was rock-solid perfect," says David Lynch. "Willem has a power onscreen that you just don't see and he should be a huge star--he's still sort of a well-kept secret."

Of his move into film, Dafoe says, "I wanted to be a movie star because that gives you the power to do the projects you want to do. If enough people think I'm a movie star then I have some leverage--plus, I like being a public figure. All performers have a streak of exhibitionism and I like doing things in front of large groups of people.

"Though I come out of the art community in New York, my movie work hasn't been a conflict for me there because those two worlds feed each other quite a bit," he adds. "I don't think making movies has really changed me--I still live very simply--and the Wooster Group is so strong that people don't come to see the guy in the movies, they come to see the group. There's no resentment from other group members because they're happy doing what they do."

Reflecting on precisely how he approaches his work, Dafoe explains, "I'm not one of those actors who stay in character 24 hours a day, although I've flirted with that approach because you try everything in attempting to discover what works best for you. But I found that for me that dissipates your impulses. If you've got a weepy scene coming up and you go around crying all day you're gonna cry yourself out.

"The way I look at it is, I think all the characters I play are basically me," he says. "I believe that under the right set of circumstances we're all capable of anything, and that acting allows the deepest parts of your nature to surface--and you're protected by the fiction as it happens."

On hearing that Dafoe identifies on some level with all the characters he plays, one inquires whether he owns a gun, as guns have figured prominently in almost all his films.

"It's true I've used a gun in almost every single movie I've been in," he says. "I suppose they function as a kind of dramatic shorthand--it's a resolver that heats up the story. There was a period in American drama where drunkenness was a popular convention for describing a certain state of mind and guns seem to function that way now. No, I don't own a gun, but I did learn to shoot them for my work and they're very seductive. I don't want to get up on a soapbox and talk about handgun control, but I think if you have a gun, somewhere in the back of your mind you want to use it, so I'd never get one."

In "Body of Evidence," he'll lay down the weaponry for some intensely erotic love scenes with Madonna that are described by a crew member as "pushing the envelope." An R-rated film written by Alison Cross and Brad Mirman, "Body of Evidence" also stars Joe Mantegna, Anne Archer and Jurgen Prochnow and is set for release early next year.

"I cast Willem in the lead because he's able to express internal conflict in an extremely subtle way," says director Uli Edel. "He has incredibly expressive eyes and with just a glance he can communicate many different levels of meaning. He also has the ability to communicate obsession, and this is the story of a lawyer who becomes obsessed with a client--played by Madonna--that overcomes his life. What we've shot so far with Willem has been amazing. There are fantastic courtroom scenes pitting Willem against Joe Mantegna--these are two of the best actors of their generation with very different styles going head to head, and what they do is pretty exciting."

Asked what attracted him to the part of attorney Frank Delaney, Dafoe says "I knew Madonna a little and I wanted to work with her because she interests me."

With "White Sands," Dafoe says "it was the story that attracted me to the film. The intricacy of the plot appealed to my sense of game playing."

The Schrader film presented Dafoe with the challenge of investing a passive, defeated character with a heroic dimension. Described by Schrader as an older version of "Taxi Driver's" Travis Bickle and "American Gigolo's" Julian Kay, Dafoe's character of John Latour differs from Schrader's earlier anti-heroes in that "the anger and the narcissism is gone--all that's left is anxiety, voyeurism and drifting," Schrader says.

"Before we started shooting I told Willem to watch some episodes of 'The Fugitive' starring David Janssen because he's one of the few American actors who's been able to make a passive, anxious character sexual. Willem watched some of Janssen's performances and came back to me and said 'Boy, that guy has a lot of tricks'--and I can see a few of Janssen's tricks in Willem's performance."

Though Dafoe was quite intrigued by the character of Latour, "I really fell in love with the script because it creates a very specific world and it points to something that's very much in the air these days. I think everyone agrees that this country is going through a period of deep disillusionment--there's a lack of center and direction, and people have lost their way. Who do people trust these days? Nobody, and things are getting worse. But just as the character in the film finally manages to rise from the ashes of his life, I believe in the possibility that new leaders will emerge out of people's discontent and they'll offer a new way of thinking and a sense of hope.

"I guess you could say I'm an optimist," he concludes. "I've been too lucky and seen too many beautiful things in my life to be anything other than an optimist."

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