Trevor Johnston meets Willem Dafoe, star of Platoon, The Last Temptation ofChrisr and now Triumph ofthe Spirit. Also, Gremlins 2 and Miss Firecracker reviewed.


Where There’s AWillem. .

Soon to be seen in David Lynch’s controversial Wild At Heart, actor Willem Dafoe has learned the habit of picking rich roles in contentious projects. His latest release, Triumph of the Spirit, has attracted much attention for the authenticity with which it seeks to recreate the horror of the concentration camps. Trevor Johnston is impressed with a performer who has the guts to match his intelligence.

If it took three hours sleep and a transatlantic flight to make me seem that smart and articulate. then maybe I should try it sometime. Despite all I the odds. Willem Dafoe is in good form for a brief i promotional visit to London. Perhaps it‘s the lack ; ofproper shut-eye, but having to talk about - Triumph ()fthe Spirit to a bunch of press people ' is bringing back the experiences ofshooting the film twelve months earlier with even greater clarity. Yet. as the actor confesses to being ‘bombarded with associations and memories‘. he has more reason than most to recall the filming of this particular offering.

Based on the true story of a Greek boxer, Salamo Arouch. who was transported with his Jewish family to the Nazi death camps in Poland, Triumph ()f The Spirit recounts the events whereby he was forced to take part in exhibition bouts for the entertainment ofNazi officers. It‘s a grim testimony to the power of human endurance. but one made even more sobering by the knowledge that the cast and crew actually spent four months in Auschwitz filming on the original location ofthe narrative‘s terrifying catalogue of suffering.

The name of Arnold Kopelson. producer of Oliver Stone‘s Oscar-winning ‘Nam odyssey on the credits. and the presence of Dafoe‘s familiar taut features remind one that this is still a Hollywood movie. but (over-emphatic score aside) it‘s to Triumph of The Spirit‘s credit that it escapes any possible charges ofexploitative sentimentality. For Dafoe. the fact that they were

going to be shooting in Auschwitz was crucial to his involvement.

‘If that had not been the case.‘ he answers in a slow-moving drawl formed somewhere between his Winconsin birthplace and the New York bobo art scene he‘s inhabited since the late 70s. ‘the film would have been different. I would not have been in it. I felt that shooting there would be something to root us. As a performer that provided a frame for my meditation on what happened there. just as the story is a series of actions for tne to go through to have something revealed. The facts. the history. we felt would keep us honest.‘ '

And the experience of actually being there in that place'.’

‘Profound numbness. There was this anticipation that you‘d feel a heavy sadness. that you‘d suddenly break down weeping for all the people who died there. that you‘d have some understanding of the horror. It didn't happen to me. Somehow I felt ashamed and guilty. but that‘s a normal reaction really because it‘s so beyond our experience. It truly boggles the mind. Your imagination keeps asking you “what if'."‘. “What ifl had been there?" “What would have happened to me'."‘.‘

‘Ina film like this however. the answer isn‘t as important as the question.‘ he adds. admitting too that he is satisfied with the finished piece (‘lt's not perfect. but then it shouldn‘t be. I like the movie'.) With that. we feel we can finally move away from the subject. but after such a stretch of considered moral discussion you do feel a little trivial asking him about. say. his cameo role in John Waters‘ (fry Baby. where he pops up as a leering jail warden giving Johnny Depp an

3 .u *1 i ' I ' - 5 ’0. especially hard time. For the record, Waters, he describes as ‘a buddy, we hang out together whenever I‘m in Baltimore.‘

When you‘ve become a high-profile actor, got your Oscar nomination (for his emotive Sgt Elias in Platoon). and live in the expectation of leading roles for the rest ofyour life, Dafoe has continued to buck the conventional Hollywood wisdom by, for instance. accepting third billing in David Lynch‘s bravura Cannes victor Wild at Heart, playing a villain (‘he‘s pure bad, more like a force of nature‘) in pursuit of fated lover Nicolas Cage and Laura Dern. It could be the psycho showcase to top his earlier exercise in extravagant malevolence in William Friedkin‘s high-gloss policier To Live and Die in LA , in which he dispatches one victim with the relishable words ‘Early Ming? Your taste is in your asshole.‘

In the meantime. he continues to work with NYC avant-garde theatrical ensemble The Wooster Group. You may have spotted him in their 1985 Edinburgh Festival performances of The Road to Irrtmortality. and you‘ll have another chance to gawp when the company visits Glasgow‘s Tramway later in the autumn for an exclusive British run ofa piece he reckons is ‘like Chekov‘s Three Sisters done by Japanese kabuki players. We have a director who‘s so challenging that l have to keep working with her. because any piece she does could be her last.‘

He neglects to mention that the said director is none other than his longtime partner and mother of his children, Liz Le Compte. Jet-lagged or not. this cookie still has his wits about him.

Triumph oft/1e Spirit (/5! opens at the Glasgow ()deon from Frill-1149:1451.

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