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Willem Dafoe on Working with Philip Seymour Hoffman and His ‘Fault in Our Stars’ Fame

No Comments 26 July 2014

A Dapper Dafoe

A Dapper Dafoe

From the Green Goblin to Nosferatu, Martin Scorsese’s Jesus Christ to Lars von Trier’s Antichrist, actor Willem Dafoe has cultivated a career out of taking risks. This year his gambles have paid off handsomely: At age 58, the Wisconsin native is having one of the best years of his career. He recently starred in this summer’s smash weepie The Fault in Our Stars and the ensemble comedy The Grand Budapest Hotel. This Friday, he dons a German accent and a slick suit to play a dodgy banker in John Le Carre’s espionage thriller, A Most Wanted Man (the film, which opens Friday, is one of the last to star the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, who died earlier this year).

Arguably the hardest-working man in show business, Dafoe discussed five of his latest roles with Yahoo Movies:

A Most Wanted Man

As Tommy Brue, Dafoe serves as a foil to Hoffman’s Günther Bachmann, a German spy on the verge of a nervous breakdown. “I didn’t know Hoffman personally before [we made the movie], but to work with him was to feel like you knew him for a long time,” Dafoe told Yahoo Movies. Of their scenes together — some of which take place in a sedan racing through Hamburg, Germany — Dafoe said: “His character bullied me in those scenes. You may be in a car and it may seem deceptively simple, but a lot is going on.”

The Fault in our Stars

In this smash adaptation of John Green’s young-adult hit, Dafoe played Van Houten, an embittered, alcohol-addled novelist who’s sought out by young lovers Hazel (Shailene Woodley) and Gus (Ansel Elgort). “The other day I was walking down the street in New York,” Dafoe says, “and these 11-year-old girls mobbed me and shouted ‘Van Houten!’ It was like the first time I had ever been recognized in my life. It was like starting all over again it was so unexpected. Sure, kids see Spider-Man, but there was a different kind of passion that young teenagers have when they saw me. They didn’t see an actor that played Van Houten. They saw Van Houten [himself].”

The Grand Budapest Hotel

In Wes Anderson’s latest ensemble-comedy, Dafoe played a menacingly silent assassin. “Wes has a way of assuring you of a good life adventure when you work on one of his movies. Wes showed me an animated storyboard with line drawings for the picture, and I remember after seeing it, I joked, ‘Wes, you don’t need any of the actors. You have a movie right here!'” As far as the atmosphere on the set of the film — which co-starred Ralph Fiennes and Bill Murray — Dafoe says it “was like the actors’ retirement home.”

Nymphomaniac: Volume II

When discussing his latest collaboration with renegade director Lars von Trier — in which he plays the scheming superior to Charlotte Gainsbourg — Dafoe downplayed his participation in the sexually explicit movie. “My involvement was minimal, a couple of days… When I watch it, it’s almost a movie I’m not in.” But he had more to say about their previous collaboration: “Looking at Antichrist, Lars was feeling very insecure and a little ill, he had great ideas, but he didn’t know whether he could actually finish the movie. He used to say, ‘I may not come to set tomorrow or I may not finish this movie.’ It was always scary, and required a huge amount of trust on our part.”

Pasolini

In Abel Ferrara’s biopic — which will open this fall, after premiering at the prestigious Venice Film Festival — Dafoe plays the title character, the controversial gay Italian director (The Decameron), poet and writer who was assassinated in 1975. ”Pasolini is someone I admire a great deal,” said Dafoe, who splits his time between New York and Rome. “He fascinates me. I immersed myself in Pasolini for three months, wore some of his clothes and carried a pen that Maria Callas gave him. Those little details connect you like little relics to the material. They put you in touch with the ghosts.”

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Movies, Oscar Race

50 Years After Sidney Poitier, ’12 Years a Slave’ Makes Its Own Oscar History

No Comments 07 March 2014

Resounding applause. A humble speech name-checking the requisite agent, filmmaker, studio executive, and the Academy. “For all of them, all I can say is a very special thank you.” And in that rather unremarkable way, history was made as Sidney Poitier broke through and won Best Actor for “Lilies of the Field” at the 1964 Academy Awards.

Fifty years after that watershed moment, Sunday’s historic Best Picture win for “12 Years a Slave” was remarkable in that same unremarkable, quietly dignified way. A film about the singular journey of a black man — directed by a black man and starring a mostly black cast (both Best Picture firsts) — simply fulfilled its promise as a Very Important Film, The Oscar Favorite. “12 Years” was pegged as the top Academy Award contender from its debut at last September’s Toronto International Film Festival, and it was a position the film never shook in a year hailed by the Washington Post as “a flat-out, stone-cold, hands-down spectacular year in movies,” a year that saw the makeup of the Motion Picture Academy become younger and more colorful.

[Related: Oscars: The Night's Big Winners]

With each win along the road to the Academy Awards, “12 Years a Slave” delivered.

And while “12 Years” did not score the most trophies Sunday, it took home the big prize as Steve McQueen, who also directed, and fellow producer Brad Pitt (winning his first career Oscar), were among those collecting the statuettes for Best Picture. Its other wins included Best Adapted Screenplay for John Ridley and Best Supporting Actress for astonishing newcomer Lupita Nyong’o.

The in-your-face, disturbing drama recounts the true story of Solomon Northup, an American freeman kidnapped and sold into the most brutal bondage in the antebellum South. Difficult subject matter that no doubt turned off some filmgoers just as it turned off some Academy voters (a few of whom went public in the days before the ceremony admitting they couldn’t bring themselves to watch).

The film grossed about $130 million worldwide, considerably less than “Gravity’s” $700 million-plus haul. But McQueen’s film embodies the kind of highbrow material that allowed the Academy to pat itself on the back. This is a film already deemed “impactful” enough to become part of the standard high school curriculum.

[Related: Complete List of 2014 Oscar Winners]

As much as the industry appreciates the bottom line, its members like to use the Oscars to serve the public, in this case bringing a relatively little-known chapter in American racial history to a much broader audience.

Fox Searchlight picked up on this sentiment, reflected in the distributor’s recent marketing campaign and its simple two-word tagline: “It’s Time.” Time for what? For a tough look at the Peculiar Institution, and a movie that puts the African-American experience front and center. And it didn’t hurt that the film had Pitt as producer, co-star and cheerleader-in-chief. As he told a Toronto audience: “If I never get to be in a film again, this is it for me.”

Back at the Princess of Wales Theater in Toronto at the Canadian premiere, McQueen closed out the night, saying: “There are actors and there are artists. These are artists: surprising, thrilling, dangerous and brave.” Clearly the Academy agreed… and followed the script to the end.

“Two things could happen tonight,” host Ellen DeGeneres quipped at the top of the show. “’12 Years a Slave’ could win Best Picture. Or you are all racists.”

Poitier arrived onstage Sunday to a thunderous ovation, accompanying Angelina Jolie to present the award for Best Director. It underscored a legacy that extends not just to “12 Years a Slave’s” Best Picture win, Nyong’o’s triumph in her first feature, and the nomination for Chiwetel Ejiofor in the title role. Somali native Barkhad Abdi got a nomination for Best Supporting Actor in “Captain Phillips.” Add to that the principal players in “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” “Fruitvale Station,” “42,” “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom,” and “Blue Caprice,” and it has been a strong year for people of color at the movies. The Academy acknowledged it needed to diversify its membership and inducted a new class accordingly.

[Related: 2014 Oscars Red Carpet Arrivals]

That said, outspoken actor Isaiah Washington is among those not ready to declare a complete racial victory just yet. “Killers and slaves, butlers and maids: it sounds like it’s going to be a great Oscar night for people,” Washington, who played a serial killer based on Beltway Sniper John Allen Muhammad in “Blue Caprice,” and did not see any Oscar attention despite a fine performance, told Yahoo earlier this season.

While “12 Years” took home the big prize, another filmed shared the limelight. “Gravity” scored the most awards, led by Best Director for Alfonso Cuarón, and represented a major moment for the much-maligned science-fiction genre.

“2001.” “Star Wars.” “Close Encounters.” “Alien.” “ET.” “Avatar.” Dinged by sci-fi’s reputation as low-brow — a relic of its roots as B-movie 1950s popcorn fare — not one of those films, despite near-unanimous critical acclaim and mainstream success, was deemed significant enough to earn the kind of Oscars that validate a genre.

After Sunday, however, sci-fi matters.

Like “12 Years,” Gravity exploded on the scene in Toronto, as Cuarón’s thriller about an ill-fated space mission starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, took hold of the public imagination, soared and never fell back to Earth.

With a 97 percent fresh score on Rotten Tomatoes and fueled by mind-blowing 3-D visual effects, “Gravity” has been a success by any measure, with a leading seven wins on Sunday, including Cinematography, Film Editing, Visual Effects, Sound Editing, and Sound Mixing. Cuarón, who also shared the film-editing award, became the first Mexican filmmaker to win Best Director.

While “12 Years” and “Gravity” cashed in their early momentum with a clutch of gold on Sunday, “American Hustle,” the third member of what had been a three-horse race, fizzled in the home stretch.

Only a year after his “Silver Linings Playbook” was nominated then largely ignored, David O. Russell’s flashy period caper earned a whopping 10 nominations, with A-list stars Jennifer Lawrence, Amy Adams, Christian Bale, and Bradley Cooper gaining nominations in each of the acting categories. But at the end of the night, “Hustle” came up empty.

Notably, “American Hustle” premiered later in the season, well after Toronto. It entered the fray after frontrunners had already established themselves. And not only did it fail to make up for lost time, it was also bested by another early entry: “Dallas Buyers Club.” The moving drama about an unlikely AIDS activist rode outstanding performances from Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto dominated the male acting awards, along with a third statuette for Best Makeup and Hairstyling.

[Related: Things You Didn't See at the Oscars]

In addition to “American Hustle,” high-quality films “Nebraska,” “Philomena,” and “The Wolf of Wall Street,” the latest flashy collaboration between Leonardo DiCaprio and Martin Scorsese, were also shut out.

In the end, 2013 was a vibrant and competitive year, where movies in space and earthbound, comic and tragic, arty and action-packed competed. The Best Actress category reflected a rise in strong roles for mature women, while the battle for the Best Actor was so competitive that many deserving performances (Tom Hanks, Robert Redford, Oscar Isaac, James Gandolfini) didn’t even sniff a nomination.

Even President Obama joined the discussion at the national water cooler, hosting a series of screenings at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

To quote Poitier from 50 years ago, 2013’s year in cinema deserves “a very special thank you”: movies still matter — and are essential to the American dialog about who we are now, and how we define ourselves in the future. We have the capacity to both reach for the sky in the future, and face down our darkest demons in the past.

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Movies, Oscar Race

Yahoo! Movies Live Oscar Post-Show

No Comments 06 March 2014

I had a great time collaborating with Marc Istook, Amy Paffrath and Lindsey Calla on the Yahoo Movies video event:

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Celebrity, Movies, Oscar Race

Oscars Q&A: Steve Coogan Navigates between the Rocks of Schmaltz in ‘Philomena’

No Comments 30 November 2013

Steve Coogan and Judi Dench in Philomena In the arthouse hit, “Philomena,” an elderly Irishwoman searches for the son she reluctantly gave up for adoption. Credit comic Steve Coogan for bringing her story to the big screen. The “Night at the Museum” actor optioned the Martin Sixsmith bestseller, produced, tapped director Stephen Frears (“The Queen”) and co-wrote the script with Jeff Pope. He also wisely snagged Dame Judi Dench to play the title role. Coogan also crafted a juicy role for himself as the cranky, recently fired political journalist Sixsmith, who turns to Philomena’s human interest story as the subject of a marketable book with very little interest in humans himself. It put the British comic actor in the perfect position to, as he told Yahoo Movies last week over the phone, “navigate between the rocks of schmaltz.”

Question: The movie starts almost like an episode of the brilliant British TV show “The Thick of It,” which spawned the movie “In the Loop” and the HBO show “Veep.” Sixsmith gets sacked from his job at the ministry and it’s instantly clear this man has just been trampled.

Steve Coogan: It’s funny, that’s one of the notes from Stephen [Frears]. We wrote it originally with only a slight reference to Martin being fired and Stephen gave us a good note to include it. It shows Martin at a low point.

Q: Since Martin is based on a real man, was Sixsmith as cranky as the character in the movie or did you bring that?

SC: I brought that. When I interviewed Martin there was always a kernel of truth. I said to him, how did you feel when you were fired? And he said, “I felt sorry for myself.” I put a lot of myself into Martin. I said I need to change you a bit for this story. When I spoke to Martin about his character, we both referred to him in the third person. The character is a mixture of Martin and me. The cynicism is me and the spikiness. And, although that is me, I’m also aware of the limitations of that viewpoint. I want to attack my own cynicism.

Q: In contrast, Philomena could not be less cynical – but that doesn’t make her a pushover either.

SC: We see her on the surface at first. She’s from an an old conservative generation of women who on one level have a simple view of life, maybe not intellectual but have an intuition that is incredibly incisive. She’s actually experienced life. And Martin’s in some ways a journalist and an armchair theoretician. He has had the luxury to let his thoughts flow freely from his fingertips, while Philomena has had to get on with her life. She’s a doer. She walks the walk and Martin’s all talk.

[Related: Critic's Pick: 'Philomena']

Q: The beauty of the movie is that it sheds light on the human condition, but that condition also includes laughter.

SC: Jeff and I were very keen not to have it be too portentous, to seduce the audience by having them laugh along the way rather than hitting the characters over the head with a book.

Q: Coogan and Dench are not two actors often mentioned in the same breath. Was she always your Philomena?

SC: Whenever I considered who would play the part, I kept thinking Judi Dench. She’d played Iris Murdoch, and I said there aren’t a plethora of great parts for older actors. They tend to be supporting roles. They play an old person and that’s the most defining characteristic of that part. But Philomena, she’s just a human being and her age is only part of it. It’s not what defines her. She had a life. She was young once. So we hoped it would attract her as an actor. We went to her house and told her the story. She was a little trepidatious about playing something like this; she’s no different in that regard. She wants to do something a little different. She has an Irish background and it appealed.

Q: The scare factor: Were you worried about playing opposite Dame Judi?

SC: I was so preoccupied with producing, writing and getting her I almost forgot that I would have to act opposite her. I was a little daunted. And then I saw Judi trying to figure out how she was going to do it at the camera test. She was talking to herself in the character. I saw that she was flesh and blood and she had to struggle with things. I thought, “Oh, good, she’s not able to do it immediately.” She’s a working actor. That was good to see.

[Related: 'Philomena' Wins Appeal to Overturn R Rating for 2 F-Bombs]

Q: As an actor more accustomed to getting laughs than sobs, what worried you about playing the dramatic scenes?

SC: I said to Frears, I don’t want to be overacting. All I did was listen to and react to what she was doing. It would have been a lot harder acting with someone who wasn’t experienced. I just saw Philomena, when I was making her laugh, not Dame Judi Dench. The chemistry we had was real. I spent a lot of time in the car with her, laughing. She used to accuse me of having Botox and Collagen. Stephen wasn’t overly deferential. She likes that. When she was saying she wasn’t happy with some element on set, he’d say in front of her, “Has anyone got Helen Mirren’s number?” That would rattle her a little bit. She’d give him the evil look out of the corner of her eye.

Q: Did you pull out your Bond impressions for Dench since she’s played M so often in that franchise.

SC: Yes. I did my Bonds repertoire. She’d say, “Do some more of this, or that.” I became a performing monkey for her.

Q: A performing monkey that wrote her a role that may land her an Oscar, and potentially one for you as well for adapted screenplay.

SC: It’s a bit surreal but gratifying. It’s a story I pursued from reading something in a newspaper. The process itself is good, and the recognition is fairly nice, but part of me is very nervous. You can be killed with kindness, as Carrie Fisher might have said. I already started writing the next thing with Jeff. It’s good to talk about what you do, but it’s more important to get on with the work. My father used to tell me a Chinese proverb: before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water; after enlightenment, chop wood carry water. You’ve still got to do a day’s work.

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Celebrity, Movies

Oscars Q&A: Jared Leto: ‘I Didn’t Know If I’d Ever Make a Film Again’

No Comments 30 November 2013

"Dallas Buyers Club" star Jared Leto

Ever since “Dallas Buyers Club” premiered in Toronto two months ago, the Oscar buzz has been building for Jared Leto, who plays a drug-addicted transgender woman with AIDS and a way with blush and lipstick.

Leto’s Rayon partners with Matthew McConaughey’s rodeo rider-turned-activist Ron Woodroof to bring potentially healing but illegal drugs to HIV-positive Texans in the wild west of the epidemic, the 1980s. However, the Thirty Seconds to Mars musician, 41, best known for TV’s “My So-Called Life” and Darren Aronofsky’s “Requiem for a Dream,” hadn’t acted for film in six years. While waiting in the wings to play a gig in Frankfurt on a successful world tour, the singer-songwriter paused to tell Yahoo Movies how Rayon lured him back in front of the camera.

Question: Jared, what reservations did you have taking this role as Rayon?
Jared Leto
: None. None.

Q: Then why the long absence from movies?
J.L.
: I had some hesitation about making a film. I hadn’t made one in six years. I didn’t know if I’d ever make a film again. [He takes a deep breath.] I’d made films for a number of years and I was pursuing other things, mostly Thirty Seconds to Mars. We’ve had more success than we ever dreamed possible, playing in arenas and stadiums around the world and making our dreams a reality. I was content and challenged and inspired and doing a lot of work with film. I was behind the camera a bit. I made a short film, a documentary, music videos, commercials.

[Related: Thirty Seconds to Mars Talk Oscars at iHeart]

 

Q: So, acting was never your first love?
J.L.: I started out studying to be an artist and painter. That’s what I thought I would be until I discovered photography and film while I was in arts school. I was at the School of Visual Arts at the time and quickly dropped out because I wanted to make art. I was too impatient to remain at the school.

Q: What helped change your mind and accept the part in ‘Dallas Buyers Club?’
J.L.: In some ways it was a test. I wanted to see if there was anything left in that world for me. I also fell in love with the role, with Rayon. It was an incredibly gifted group of people and I wanted to be part of it. I suppose in some ways I was seduced and wanted to experiment and see what it would be like to return to the screen.

Watch Jared Leto in action in a clip from “Dallas Buyers Club”:

Q: Did playing Rayon change the way you look at women?
J.L.: I have a newfound respect for what it takes to be a lady — and sometimes it takes a village. It wasn’t easy, but it was worth it: the waxing, the heels, the eyelashes, the wigs the skirts, the tights, off with the eyebrows, and on with the eyebrows.

Q: Was Matthew McConaughey’s involvement a factor?
J.L.: McConaughey was a big contributor. It was a definite plus that he was starring in the film. He’s a guy who’s been doing some phenomenal work. What an opportunity to get in the ring with somebody of his caliber. I thought that he and I could do something special.

Q: The characters the two of you play are opposites, yet complementary Rayon’s flamingo pink, Ron’s green.
J.L.:
I think they are definitely on opposites sides of the color wheel. They’re definitely flip sides of the coin. The thing of being on either side of the coin is that they both are very much a part of each other. They do speak to each other in a really polarizing way: the way they interact, the way they connect. They’re from completely different sides of humanity: One is a f–king cowboy from Texas, the other is a drag queen. In some ways it’s like the movie “Midnight Cowboy,” with Dustin Hoffman’s street urchin and Jon Voight’s slightly naïve cowboy. The characters are so different they somehow fit.

[Related: Matthew McConaughey Talks Sharing Jared Leto's Pink Robe]

Q: When we talked to McConaughey in Toronto, he had high praise for you: “He got rid of all the s–ts and giggles, all the props, all the pansie-ations. He got rid of all those frilly things that would be legitimate.” And we observed that there was a scene where Ron puts on Rayon’s signature pink bathrobe reflecting how far his character has come. Can you comment?
J.L.:
There’s a parallel moment where I wear Ron’s suit to see my father. The first and only time that I wear men’s clothing in the whole film and it’s Ron’s oversized suit. In that scene, because I had been wearing women’s clothes for so long, I felt like I was in drag.

Q: Did playing Rayon change the way you look at women?
J.L.:
I have a newfound respect for what it takes to be a lady — and sometimes it takes a village. It wasn’t easy, but it was worth it: the waxing, the heels, the eyelashes, the wigs the skirts, the tights, off with the eyebrows, and on with the eyebrows.

Q: You must have movie offers flooding in. What’s your next step?
J.L.:
My next step is on to the stage in Frankfurt in front of tens of thousands of people to play an incredible show with the rest of the guys touring Europe and then back to the states. I don’t know what the future holds as far as making films. There is so much that I love about film, and I’m always excited to see a great film. I’m really thankful to have played this part. It changed my life in many ways.

Watch Matthew McConaughey and Jennifer Garner talk “Dallas Buyers Club”:

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