Willem Dafoe on the meaning of his 'Florida Project' role: 'It changed me'

Ethan Alter
Senior Writer, Yahoo Entertainment
Willem Dafoe and Brooklynn Prince in The Florida Project. (Photo: A24)

W.C. Fields once famously advised his fellow thespians to avoid working with children or animals. But that wasn’t an option for Willem Dafoe when he signed on for The Florida Project, director Sean Burns’s follow-up to his much-acclaimed 2015 feature, Tangerine. (The film opened in limited release on Friday and will expand to more theaters over the next month.) As Bobby, manager of the not entirely ironically named Magic Castle Motel — a run-down, garishly pink pit stop a stone’s throw away from Disney World — Dafoe functions as as the de facto guardian of the numerous children, as well as the mothers and fathers, who have made the place their semi-permanent home in the midst of hard economic times. “I had to fit in with them,” the actor tells Yahoo Entertainment after being reminded of Fields’s warning about starring alongside kids. “It was their turf.”

The father of a now-grown child himself, Dafoe understood this, and even encouraged The Florida Project‘s youthful cast — most of whom had never acted in a film before — to act like … well, kids. “Their behavior paralleled what was happening in life, because their characters were totally amped up, totally spoiled, totally excited, and totally chaotic in in order to make them feel free,” he explains. “Sometimes they’d have trouble shifting gears when it was time to get to work. And that’s exactly what happens with Bobby; he loves those kids but sometimes there’s work to do, and he’s begging them to back off, because he needs room to do his thing. Anyone who has ever been a parent or been around children can relate to that.”

Parents, of course, would never dare to pick — in public anyway — which of their children is their favorite. It’s clear in the film, though, that the apple of Bobby’s eye is a 6-year-old dynamo of a girl named Moonie, played by Brooklynn Prince. Part of the reason he’s protective of her is that Moonie’s mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite), is practically a child herself, and struggles with the responsibilities of being a parent. “Brooklynn has a great set of skills,” Dafoe says of his pre-tween co-star. “She’s a little firecracker, and comes up with a lot of interesting things. She can improvise, but she’s a kid first.” Prince awards the veteran actor high marks as well. “We played Thumb War,” the now 7-year-old ball of energy told us in a separate interview. “He also saved us seats at lunch, and I got to Facetime with his wife! He wasn’t like, ‘I’ve been in this movie, and it’s better than this movie.’ He was a very humble guy.”

Dafoe as Bobby in The Florida Project. (Photo: Everett Collection)

For all his devotion to Moonie, at various points in the film it’s implied that Bobby has his own troubled track record rearing children. Dafoe points to two scenes that feature his character’s grown son, Jack (Caleb Landry Jones), as Rosetta stone moments for a man whose history is otherwise left deliberately vague. “Those scenes humanize Bobby and give him a life without telling you who he is. There’s a moment where Jack says, “I told Mom, ‘Happy birthday,'” and Bobby goes, ‘Why’d you do that?’ It’s the simplest thing, but it expresses volumes. You see the whole thing: a marriage gone bad, a guy that’s been nice being aggressive to his son. It’s all there.”

As a general rule, Dafoe prefers to play characters who don’t come with extensive backstories. In the case of The Florida Project, he discovered who Bobby was by spending time in his world. “We were working in a working motel, so I met people that were the model of Bobby, and I would watch them. I see what kind of watch they had on, or how they’re dressed; certain things that could help me create a character without constructing it on paper. I wasn’t strict about where he came from, because I felt I could play the part without that. It’s better to use your energy to deal with what’s happening [in front of you]. So the scenes of Bobby dealing with all of these different people in different ways and being kind of the connective tissue throughout the movie — I wanted to serve that function without the audience knowing whether he’s a nice guy right away. We find that out as he does it.”

Since its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in May, where it was quickly snapped up by the entertainment company A24, The Florida Project has quietly established itself as potentially one of the distributor’s indie breakout sensations in the vein of Moonlight and Ex Machina. And its recent run on the fall film festival circuit in cities like Toronto and New York has further stoked Oscar talk, particularly for Dafoe. It would be the actor’s third nomination overall, and the first since his 2001 Best Supporting Actor nod for Shadow of the Vampire.

Whatever happens over the course of the looming awards season, Dafoe indicates the film gifted him with something more valuable than a statue. “It changed me,” he says of The Florida Project. “I got to know these people, so I became educated. And when you become educated and understand other peoples’ conditions, it naturally makes you more aware and compassionate in how you treat yourself and others. I think that’s one of the strengths of the movie: it reminds us of our responsibility to each other. And it’s not just a moral responsibility — it’s a practical one.”

The Florida Project is now playing in a limited theatrical release.

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