In the family drama “Fireflies in the Garden,” two-time Academy Award-nominated actor Willem Dafoe (Platoon) plays Charles Taylor, a stern father who has raised his son Michael on fear and discipline. Now a grown man, Michael (Ryan Reynolds) must reexamine his childhood and the pain he went through at the hands of his father when tragedy strikes the family.
During an interview with me, Dafoe, 56, talked about the importance of living through a character to keep the personality genuine and about his own relationship with his father.
Talk about your character Charles Taylor and what drew you to the role. You usually don’t gravitate towards family dramas.
That’s true, and I think that’s probably the answer right there. I like to mix it up and sometimes I elect to find a different way of working and telling different kinds of stories. I think it’s important to renew yourself by switching your circumstance. This represented that to me. It was also a good opportunity to tell a story that is sort of not in fashion now. There is something about it that is not very topical. It’s kind of classical. It’s not particularly cool – cool as in hip.
How you were able to confront the darker aspects of your character? Where do you think Charles’ anger really stems from?
Oh, I think fear; fear and pressure are not uncommon things in our society and culture to identify with. He’s a guy that’s struggling. He’s very ambitious and finds his identity in position. Out of love, he wants that same thing for his son. He reaches and approaches and disciplines him in a kind of painfully violent way.
What do you hope a film like this, if anything, exposes about the father/son relationship? It’s a theme that has been visited before in a number of films. Is there something specific in Charles and Michael’s relationship you really hope comes out?
That’s a hard thing because I usually trust my instincts. I think different people are going to see different things in the story. Clearly, it’s an abusive relationship and it is born out of fear. I don’t know what to say because I don’t want to lead people in their interpretation. One thing that is worth mentioning in the story is we see these seeds of a certain kind of behavior planted and then we see them flower. We see certain guilt and certain regret. Those things are addressed. I think at the end, there is a hopeful feeling they are going to be able to forgive each other and have a new understanding.
You’ve played some seething characters in the past like your character in this film. Is it easy to leave your work on the set, or do you have to sort of live with that character until filming wraps?
Oh, you live with it a little bit. I used to think that only the camera activated the character, but as I get older I feel like it’s strange the characters do stay with you a little bit longer. The truth is, when you’re performing, you’re willing yourself to take on someone else’s circumstance. Unless you’re willing to maintain that when you walk away from the set, it doesn’t stay because the characters are really revealed through the story and applying yourself to those actions. What stays are certain actions. Like, if you’re shooting for 12 hours and you’re shooting a very difficult scene, one part of you wants to escape and find refuge. But the truth is, if you’re working 12-hour days and going to bed, the workday starts to really infect your thinking. If it’s an intense shoot and a condensed shoot and you don’t have a lot downtime, it can have quite an affect and can take on a life of its own.
You come from a rather large family. Can you tell me a bit about your relationship with your father and what kind of man he was as you grew up?
It was very good. He’s still around. He’s 94 years old, God bless him. There were some similarities [between my father and Charles] in the respect that he came from a generation that was very driven. Everything was based on achieving and producing and accumulating respect and wealth and comfort. It was a generational thing; people that had lived through the Great Depression I suppose. And I think in an interest to protect their own children and prepare them for life, they were very difficult and tough on them sometimes. That didn’t happen with my father so much. I was at the end of a long family of eight kids, so I think the first children got a very stern father. By the time they got down to me, he was kind of mellowed by life and seeing what happens when you treat kids sternly. By the time he got down to me he was sweet as pie. There’s a perfect example of a guy that learned that tough love wasn’t always the best way.
This December will mark the 25th Anniversary of “Platoon.” Looking back on your career now and the amazing things you have accomplished, what does a film like that mean to you as an actor?
It was a very important film for me. I loved shooting it. We were very lucky that it found critical and popular support. It’s a film that I was really happy to be a part of. It was a very special film. It was a personal film. It was a film that really affected people deeply.