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Interview: Willem Dafoe Talks Pasolini, Abel Ferrara, and More

The actor discusses becoming a Pasolini rather than the Pasolini, the great filmmaker’s death, and more.

Interview: Willem Dafoe Talks Pasolini, Abel Ferrara, and More
Photo: Kino Lorber

While preparing for The Last Temptation of Christ, Martin Scorsese recommended that Willem Dafoe watch one film for his research: Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Passion of St. Matthew. Dafoe, who had seen little of Pasolini’s work beyond Salò, would become fascinated by the Italian director’s filmography, as well as by his writings, poetry, and politics. Around 20 years (and three collaborations) later, Abel Ferrara called on Dafoe to lead his own film about Pasolini and the actor jumped at the chance.

From its early stages, Ferrara’s film evolved from a Rashomon-like retelling of Pasolini’s mysterious death (murder, accident, conspiracy?) to a more multifaceted, up-for-interpretation look at his last few days, with a focus on his creative process (editing Salò, working on his unfinished novel Petrolio, etc.) and philosophical outlooks (outlined in two on-screen verbatim interviews). Pasolini, the end result, premiered at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival before moving on to the New York Film Festival.

It was at the festival that I spoke with Dafoe about becoming a Pasolini rather than the Pasolini, how prophetic Pasolini was about globalization by way of consumerism, and his views on the circumstances surrounding the acclaimed filmmaker’s death.

What drew you to playing Pasolini?

It was something that evolved through conversations with Abel. We both had a connection to an interest in Pasolini. I loved his work. And I was fascinated by his life, and then, inspired by what an original thinker he was, what a courageous person he was.

At last night’s Q&A, you mentioned that one of the better discoveries you had while getting into the role was that he was so “prophetic.” In what ways do you see that?

It’s not just the flat thing about “We Are in Danger,” which he says, and which was the title he had suggested for his unmade film [Petrolio]. He really kind of understood a kind of evolution that was happening. Now we see that it’s happened—thanks to technology, thanks to being collected a little bit more. We see homogenization. We see a conformity. We see a sense of false security, false progress, and I think we’re all kind of experiencing it and we don’t feel it because the Internet, the new information age, gives us a false freedom, but it’s getting worse. People are more manipulated. Not to get paranoid, but things are flattening out. Such fragmentation. On the Internet, people only go where they want to go. They don’t get their feet put to the fire of discourse. It isn’t there anymore. And he was very much about putting the feet to the fire and saying what really is going on. He never accepted the party line. He was intellectually brilliant, restless, passionate, and he was fighting the fight. And I feel that deeply. That’s what’s so inspiring about him. He was a politically engaged artist, but not in a didactic way. In a very personal way that he was trying to fight for what is beautiful and what is human. That’s a high calling. And if you have some talent to fight that fight, fantastic.

This is your fourth film with Abel. Can you discuss how your relationship makes things easier on a set?

Abel brings people into the room and asks them to work with him. So we’re further down the line on that. We have a greater understanding. We go back and forth much easier. Of course, I’m working as an actor and he’s the director, but those roles are a little more loose. I’m making a film with him and I happen to be playing the character.

And such an iconic character.

I’m fond of saying, because I think it explains it, in order to be free to do what I need to do, I’m playing a Pasolini, not the Pasolini. In Last Temptation, I’m playing a Jesus, not the Jesus. If I’m thinking I’m playing the Jesus, I don’t know where to begin. Similarly, there are many Pasolinis. You can approach who he was, or think about different parts of his life in different ways. There’s a million movies there. We’re choosing one, and that’s what we concentrated on.

How was it having Ninetto Davoli, the great love of Pasolini’s life, involved in the film? He approached you all during production, right?

Right. We also had the woman who plays my mother [Adriana Asti], who worked with Pasolini and was a dear friend. Pasolini’s cousin, who’s played by my wife in the film, was around and helped us a great deal as well. It was wonderful because they were a part of his life. They not only gave us advice, but also gave us factual information. And they were very generous when they thought we were getting something that captured his love of life or captured his character or captured the feeling. They would let us know, and that of course is a vote of confidence that encourages you to keep on going.

Abel has said that you’re a “fearless actor.” [Dafoe laughs] Even with that, what sort of trepidations did you have approaching this role?

Other than you don’t want to make a bullshit movie, like always. But this one’s loaded because I live in Italy some of the time, and he lives in Italy some of the time. Pasolini is an iconic figure. I’m finding out that he’s not very well-known in this country. But there, working-class people, middle-class people, the cultural elite, everybody has a relationship to Pasolini. And even people that don’t know his work have a relationship to him, because he’s a symbol of a guy that was an original voice that was silenced. So the natural tendency for Italians is to fight authority, be suspicious of authority. He’s their guy. They fight for the underdog. They fight for the guy who fights against the system.

How did you come to understand that appeal?

I think he’s an inspiring, for me, romantic figure, because he’s an accomplished artist who was engaged in really trying to see things as they were, not to be lulled into accepting other people’s [notions], not taking your perceptions from other people or from society. There are many beautiful things I keep on thinking about. He did this very particular documentary, a straight-up documentary. In the ‘60s, in quite-conservative Italy, he went around various places—conservative areas, urban areas, rural areas—and interviewed sophisticated people, rich people, poor people about their attitudes toward sex. Sounds goofy, but he was a beautiful interviewer. One of the impressions I got was that these people didn’t know how they felt about sex. They took so much about how they felt about sex from the society, and there’s a kind of tragic thing about that. Because it’s their body, it’s their feelings, it’s a private thing, but they were taking their attitudes and what guided them from the outside world. I’m not saying that was his intention, but Pasolini was clearly a guy who was listening to himself, and his sexuality was guided by the passions he had, and I think similarly he was very driven to see what was behind the veil. He had a beautiful restlessness. He was energetic and he never clung to a party line. Aesthetically, artistically, in almost all of the forms he worked, he was almost always hard to pin down. And also, in his political affiliations, sometimes he’d piss the people off he was aligned with because he’d contradict the party line or he’d contradict the conventional thinking of the group. And he had an incredible talent for this. And it wasn’t just the case of being a provocateur.

Not a rabble-rouser.

No, he was naturally a guy who got turned on by a certain kind of purity and vitality.

A certain kind of humanity within his philosophy. Humanism, but with a bit of provocation.

He’s so kinky because he’s such a refined, cultured classicist, in some ways. But then, asked in an interview who are your favorite people, “My favorite people are people with a fourth-grade education.” Because at that time in Italy he felt like that the education system was robbing people of their identity, of their truth, of their inner experience. They were teaching them to think a certain way, and the people that weren’t educated were more free and took their feelings, their thoughts, their life, their experience. So it’s interesting. In that Furio Columbo interview that’s in the second part of the film, all of that’s kind of laid out very quickly. But those are all things he said.

The film resonates so much right now, with him saying lines like “Narrative art is dead” and “Hollywood is the Devil.” What are your thoughts on that?

Again, he was a beautiful thinker and he saw what was in place and what was acting on people and he saw how people were reacting to the powers.

The powers that be, that are still around, possibly worse now.

They’re more refined now.

You mentioned in interviews specifically that he put in the stepping stones of awareness for what would become Bush, Berlusconi…

I think he was hinting at globalization. He was hinting at multi-national corporations. All of these things trumping the individual. A culture that came from a history that was evolving. If you read his early writings, and I’m not a Pasolini scholar, it’s interesting to see him writing, for example, on one of his favorite subjects: young boys. When he’s writing one of his first novels, he writes about their bodies and being with them in a very beautiful way, in a very poetic way, in a way that I can see with his eyes, and that’s quite powerful. Toward the end of his life, he’s talking about those same boys and saying that he’s disgusted by them, that it’s changed, that they’re corpses. He’s seen this evolution through the boom years of Italy and seen how consumerism and some kind of Americanism, some kind of capitalism, has transformed these people to, as he says in the Furio Columbo interview, wanting the same thing. When everybody wants the same thing, and that’s held up as a right and competition is held up as a right, then it becomes kind of a brute. The irony is you think you’re going forward and everybody’s getting what they need. The truth is that you’re going backward, you’re creating a murderous society, where there isn’t differentiation. People are being flattened out and they’re all competing for the same one thing.

Going back, how else did you prepare for this role? You spoke with friends and have done so much research. How long was this process? How was getting into his clothes, figuratively and literally?

We had to figure out what kind of movie we wanted to make. So gathering the material was pretty huge and with the writer.

I’m still mesmerized by how you encapsulated Pasolini so well in your performance working in his own words.

Very little of the dialogue is invented. It was pulled from so many places. One little contribution I made that was kind of interesting, I think, was the scene that he has with the boy, with [Giuseppe] Pelosi, at dinner [toward the end of the film, on the night of Pasolini’s death]. It’s a very simple scene, but it’s a very important one, and of course, nobody knows what really happened as far as what they talked about alone. But I read that Pasolini had a lot of court cases not only for his work, but also for his social life, and once—people think this was a conspiracy too, that this was a set-up—a boy that worked in a store said he tried to seduce him and he filed a charge against him. And there was testimony where the kid revealed what they talked about as he was trying to seduce him. We lifted a couple things from that.

That bit of Pasolini asking the boy about what he does with his girlfriend and whether they go dancing was from that court case?

Yeah. He also asked if he had any problems with the cops. You can imagine that this is kind of sweet, but also a little seduction. We pulled from lots of different places because, while it’s really our impression of him, we wanted to be guided by him and use the material that was concrete. You’re always inventing some things, but those were the bones for us.

What do you think of his demise? Murder versus assassination?

Abel went through a period where he was fascinated by it. I wasn’t hooked. It’s something of a national pastime in Italy. It’s like the Kennedy assassination. Ask almost anybody about who killed Pasolini and you’re going to get lots of different answers. And that’s interesting, but people have also made films about that and people talk about it at coffee shops and all that.

This isn’t a documentary. This is a film and this is your Pasolini.

I was more interested in his thoughts and his work and this portrait of this dissident artist. Artist as man outside waking up society. This is the one that I’m interested in. At least that’s the impulse, maybe it’s become something else. It’s interesting because a friend emailed me and he said many things, most of them positive, but he also said, “I’m glad you avoided making the film about that.” He said, and maybe this doesn’t resonate with you, but it does with me, “and besides, why give the killers so much credit?” So much play, you know? The guy’s dead, and whether it was a conspiracy or whether it was a hate crime or whether it was a robbery gone wrong, all those things had the same result. The motives and how that happened is very important from a justice point of view and understanding, but the truth is that he was murdered and he died prematurely. For our story, that’s a dramatic end to a dramatic story—so it’s tough. People can make a movie about that, and they have. That’s not our movie.

“Tell the truth but tell it slant”
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