'The Florida Project' Explores 'A Very Specific World' Of Homelessness, Actor Willem Dafoe Says

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Willem Dafoe and Brooklynn Prince in "The Florida Project." (Courtesy A24)
Willem Dafoe and Brooklynn Prince in "The Florida Project." (Courtesy A24)

Actor Willem Dafoe received his third Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor for playing a motel manager in "The Florida Project."

Dafoe, who spent time with a motel manager to prepare for the role, says the film is set in "a very specific world."

"It's the world of people who actually don't have homes, who are living, temporarily, long-term, in budget motels outside of the amusement parks in central Florida," Dafoe tells Here & Now's Jeremy Hobson. "We shot this film at an actual working motel."

The film receiving just one Oscar nod was somewhat disappointing, Dafoe says. But he's proud to be its "standard-bearer."

"I'm representing the film, and it's a film that I think is very good," he says. "It's got authenticity, and it's about what's going on now. It's an important film to me."

Interview Highlights

On what he learned spending time with a motel manager to prepare for the role

"Well many things. I mean, initially I met with him just to see what kind of person he was, certain external things like how he dressed, how he presented himself, how he spoke. But I think the biggest takeaway from my initial meeting with him was how proud he was of his job, and how he was very passionate about his job. He seemed like a very sort of normal, not extraordinary — if I can judge like that — guy, a working-class guy. But he had this extraordinary love for the people. It was his community. And I think he was always walking this line between cutting people slack, and being the authority on the property, because he wants to keep his job and he wants to keep the motel going."

On his character coming across as a father figure

"He's certainly protective, as I said. He really took pride in the fact that that motel — although it's a very modest motel and the people are really struggling — for him, it's a better place. So this beautiful kind of sense that he does his bit. He knows his limitations, but he does his bit to make his little world a better place. Now mind you, as I'm working on the role, I'm not thinking about that. I'm really just thinking about being a good motel manager."

On what it was like to work with child actors in the film

"I mean the setup was that they were really allowed to be kids. And even though there was a strong script and there's very clear scenes, we know what has to be accomplished in the scene, Sean Baker, the director, knew very well that he had to give them a lot of room, because they're the ... we really see most of the film through their eyes, and it was important for them to be free and have a kind of, you know, indulge them in a certain kind of chaos, let them be kids, to let them play.

"One of the things that we did is we really made, not only are we shooting out of working motels, so we've got all these people kind of telling us their stories and giving us a good feel of the world, but we're also creating a parallel world. I mean our roles on the set were kind of parallel to our roles in the movie. Bobby, the motel manager, the character I play, loves these kids. But he also wants to wring their necks sometimes, because they create a lot of problems for him. And that pretty much happens on set as well."

Christopher Rivera, Brooklynn Prince and Valeria Cotto in "The Florida Project." (Courtesy A24)
Christopher Rivera, Brooklynn Prince and Valeria Cotto in "The Florida Project." (Courtesy A24)

On the environment in which these kids grow up

"Most of these families are single-parent, usually single-mother, families, they're living in a one-room motel room, so there's no privacy. So particularly in Florida, when the weather's nice most of the time, those kids just go out exploring. I mean they go to school, but this particular story takes place during summertime. And they're not supervised, and also the parents are usually ... they've got their hands full, just trying to make ends meet, and kinda scamming, or figuring things out or dealing with their problems. So these kids kind of run wild — they grow up fast, they grow savvy fast, they develop their own grift. Some of them are very sweet, some of them get hard. But these kids, Sean loves the 'The Little Rascals,' and he points out that, we've gotta remember that that was a Depression-era film, I guess film shorts, and that kind of inspired some of the high jinks of the children in the story."

On whether there's a role he hasn't played that he really wants to

"No. I'm never attracted to roles, I'm attracted to situations and to people. Because, the truth is, you don't know what a role is until you do it. And a role is defined by many things, but the only thing you really know is where it sits in a story, or where it sits in an adventure, or where it sits in the relationship to a director's vision. And that is always what draws me. Because if I see a role that I think, 'Wow, this would be great, this would really be fun,' or, 'I really could do something with this,' those are usually the roles that I won't surprise myself with.

"So I always try to find things that I have enough contact with, that I have enough interest, I have something about it that attracts me. But I don't know what it is, and the process of making the movie is finding out what it is. And actually, sometimes, even by the end of the movie, you may not know, but you went through an experience that will, for an audience, mean something."

This article was originally published on February 21, 2018.

This segment aired on February 21, 2018.



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