Willem Defoe: John Carter, Extra-Planetary Life And Hollywood Humiliation

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Willem Defoe has an on-off love affair with Hollywood, but he's still a fan of a good story
Willem Defoe has an on-off love affair with Hollywood, but he's still a fan of a good story

For a self-professed East Coaster who only goes to Hollywood to work, Willem Defoe has been in some pretty high-budget, attention-grabbing vehicles, with co-stars ranging from Spider-Man to Madonna, and a bunch of aliens in this week's epic release, John Carter. But then he's also the manager of a theatre company running small projects we'll mostly never hear about. So which one is the more accurate portrayal?

He grins preternaturally widely, Batman's Joker without makeup. "I mix it up. I'm not the kind of actor who creates a persona and then balances the material to the persona, which is one way of doing it, and can be beautiful (who CAN he be referring to?) so who I am is not the issue.

"People probably don't know who I am, even as an actor. In some films, I'm very disguised, some times less... and in this one..." grins even wider... "clearly.”

"When I'm in Hollywood, whether I'm doing well or not, it doesn't matter, there's always a little humiliation involved"

Defoe is referring to his understated turn as Tars Tarkas, a Barsoomian warrior native in stop-motion blockbuster John Carter, director Andrew Stanton (WALLE, Toy Story)'s first foray into 'real' directing - "he knows exactly what he's doing," says Defoe.

"This is probably the biggest thing I've done," he continues, "this is a huge movie, and you can be wowed by the scope, but at the same time, I can really say without sounding like a pitchman, it's driven by character and story, and that's what makes it special, strong."

Stanton's love affair with Edgar Rice Burroughs, who first penned John Carter’s journey to the planet Barsoom, where civil war veteran John Carter is first transported and then must work to protect the inhabitants, dates back to his childhood. Does Defoe share the same inspiration?

"Only Tarzan," he recalls. "When I was a kid forced to go to church, sometimes I would hide, and my family would go off, and I would then re-emerge and turn on the TV, and where I grew up, every Sunday morning, it would be poker shows, religious shows or re-runs of Tarzan."

If Defoe's relationship with storytelling runs deep, his love affair with the film industry seems more fragile:

"It can do wonderful things, but I feel a member of that community only now and then," he reflects. "Most of the time, I don't share their values. When I'm in Hollywood, whether I'm doing well or not, it doesn't matter, there's always a little humiliation involved, because of this split between the things I think important and the things they do.

"For many, many years, you would go to Hollywood and you could have success and people might be encouraging, but in the end, they really were more interested in Sylvester Stallone or Arnold Schwarzenegger. I don't dislike them, and they do a particular thing, but I relate more to the figures of downtown New York.

Can a man who dallied with Madonna in Body of Evidence really claim not to like dining with the devil?

"Hey, don't get me wrong, I like a good life, good food in fabulous places, not feeling like a bum, and we all get scared if we don't know what we're doing, but as an actor, you kind of get used of it - it's like a little treasure hunt."

So if it's not the bottom line, what instead does Defoe put stock in?

"Keeping yourself interested, not getting cynical, finding a way so you keep on tricking yourself, so that every time you build a structure, you dismantle it and build a new one, otherwise you’ll keep on building on the same one, and after a while... it becomes a thing you're a slave to.

"Being involved, making things that are interesting, being involved at some level in the culture, the discourse, that is positive, that is about things bigger than us, that's all. I'm old-fashioned."

Finally, talking of things bigger than us, the question I'm asking everyone today involved with this particular extra-planetary blockbuster, does Defoe believe in life out there?

Another wide, conspiratorial grin. "Yes, and hopefully more intelligent than us, so they can come to visit and take care of us."

John Carter is in UK cinemas on Friday. Click here for more on the film, and to watch the trailer.

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