Willem Dafoe's Life Advice
Credit: Henry Garfunkel / Redux

What was the best advice you've ever received?
The most useful advice comes from experience, but my wife is always telling me, “Don't spit on your luck.” She's Italian, and they can be very superstitious, but her reminder is useful because I'm always figuring out the worst possible scenario and accepting it, so anything above that is gravy. That doesn't work out so well, because you carry around too much negativity. If you're looking for the dark side, you're always keeping score.

You've worked with some strong-willed directors. How do you navigate personalities like that?
Usually I'm careful about the people I work with, because I like to try to submit to the director's vision and then make it my own. So I expose myself to a lot of failure and maybe a lot of abuse, but you have to give yourself to someone else. I fall in love a little bit with all the people I work with – I have to. I'm always struck by what great people we are when you're in love. Why? Because you're generous. Particularly when you first fall in love, you really give yourself to that person.

Which have you learned more from, your successes or failures?
When you fail, it puts you in a place where you're more desperate and more motivated. You're always better when you're hungry than when you're sated. Also, success is false protection because the heat gets taken off you. For me, fear and confusion are sometimes good places to start.

You've been involved in some very risqué and controversial movies – The Last Temptation of Christ and your work with Lars Von Trier. How should someone handle that kind of scrutiny?
I'm not that affected by it. The truth is when you're making the project you're making it for yourself – for your own reasons and hope there's like minded people out there who will respond. If you're thinking too much about the audience you censor yourself. When I'm in that process of making a film – having my little adventure, that's what I concentrate on. It's other people's job to worry out what the film is. Of course I care, but once the film opens and people respond to it I have my truth and then when I listen to hear what they have to say, particularly with Lars Von Trier or The Last Temptation of Christ – I don't think they were particularly talking about the movie.

How should a man handle change?
I'm always erasing the slate. That's sort of the intention. I think it's the greatest strength in the world because you don't get stuck. As animals we don't like change, it's confusing , but the nice thing about being an actor is you're allowed to try different things. You disappear into something else and that's a wonderful feeling because it's a sense of engagement that's very difficult to get in daily life. You can get it sometimes with sex, you can get it sometimes with drugs, you can get it with food, you know pleasure things – but that kind of disappearing, allows you to drop your petty stuff. As I'm saying it sounds almost like a Zen thing – but that's where I find my pleasure.

You dropped out of school and moved to New York to become an actor. What was that like?
It was traumatic. I had a lot of growing up to do. I was from a paper mill town in Wisconsin and had kind of an unremarkable but very nice, comfortable upbringing. I came from a big family were both my parents worked. Very middle class. I have no complaints with my childhood. Then when I moved to New York it was like I felt two social classes. I'm living in a bad neighborhood and I'm living with people who have very different concerns and different lives. I had lots of catching up to do. The truth is, growing up in the '50s and '60s in Wisconsin you didn't know a lot about what was going on in the world – even though Vietnam was on our TVs every night. It's just kind of a classic thing you see with a lot of middle-class white boys who want to be artists. They meet some rough people with rougher lives and what they're doing seems much more authentic.

Do you miss the old New York that you came to?
I do, but that's a sucker's game; that's like missing when you were young. It's gone. Get over it, you know? I think things loop. New York will do that thing again. It'll probably fall apart and there'll be a thriving artist community again, if there isn't one now anyway. Things come in cycles, and when I was a young man I caught a good cycle of New York.

How should a person handle regret?
You can be aware of them, but you shouldn't sit in them. If you see a pattern happening over and over again then you fix it. Of course I have regrets, but I think I push them away because they can really depress you and make you live too much in the past and second-guess yourself. You can get too much in your head. 

What's the best way to grow old?
Have work that you love and also some sort of physical or spiritual practice. Get some kind of healthy routine. For me that's yoga practice.

What piece of music do you go to for inspiration?
It slides around, but the only constant is old Bob Dylan. I can go back to him over and over again, and I can remember hearing lyrics and songs when I was 18 and recall what I thought, and they're still meaningful – sometimes in a different way to me now. Back then it was 'There's another world out there and I'm not seeing it, but I feel it – another way of looking at things.' Dylan's incorruptible. He's the guy that's really the model for keep on going and doing. A troubadour. That's a performer's thing, you know, ride out with your boots on.