Willem Dafoe is no stranger to playing villains, but in his new film with Nicolas Cage, “Dog Eat Dog,” his character Dog is responsible for a surreal amount of bloodshed. Dafoe talked to CBS News about how he channeled his character’s rage, the imminent presidential election and what he can say about his role in the upcoming “Justice League.”
“Dog Eat Dog” has been described as a heist movie, but I think that’s a little disingenuous to say it’s just that. How would you describe the movie?
I think it’s a black comedy about three criminals, three people who have been left behind, and it’s the old story -- they try to make a big score and it doesn’t turn out so well.
Did you talk to any ex-cons for your role?
You know, I’ve made some movies where I’ve done a lot of research with ex-cons, including a movie based on an Eddie Bunker book called “Animal Factory,” and he was around so I got to know him and get friendly with him and some other people he had been in prison with and I got to know them. I’ve done some other things about prison life, so I know of a certain kind of mentality and culture. I didn’t feel the need to do that research so much … I had enough to work with.
In the opening scene of the movie, we see your character, Dog, brutally murdering two people Do you think he’s evil? Misunderstood?
No, I think he’s a brutal -- he can be brutal. He’s a guy who grew up in a prison. He’s not educated, he’s totally alienated, disenfranchised. He’s a criminal. He’s also drug-addicted, so all of his frustrations that we see very graphically by all of his insecurity and neediness and his kind of need for love and attention get turned into a horrible rage. I think we recognize that it doesn’t justify the horrible rage, but I like that character aspect that is very contradictory.
How did you channel that vulnerability?
Ah, it’s easy. [Laughs.] You know, if you’ve ever heard someone do a coke rap where they’re high but they feel unsettled, but they’re high so they’re feeling OK and good enough to talk about themselves and their pain -- that is in my imagination, so I just sort of pretended I’m that guy. Also, I’d like to find someone who can’t relate to a certain kind of dissatisfaction with life or feeling like they didn’t get enough love or attention.
This movie kind of seems like a throwback to the ultra-violent movies with dark humor like “Natural Born Killers.” Did you think about that while you were working?
That was something to deal with and something to fight because we know this story and it wasn’t about making a transgressive film. We wanted to make a crime thriller, but for now that wouldn’t cover the same territory.
But it’s such a well-worked genre that we sort of poked all over the place. We’re so used to -- particularly younger people -- are used to patching together all these bits of information that you can make a Frankenstein’s monster out of these different movies. There’s probably some Martin Scorsese, Guy Ritchie, Quentin Tarantino in there, but that’s not our intention. Our intention was to try to make an engaging crime thriller that speaks to us today and is fun and taps into what’s great about cinema.
What are your thoughts on the election? We’re so close now.
I always get confused whether actors should express their private beliefs because there’s something important about actors being neutral and you hate to be a liberal Hollywood cliche and jump on the bandwagon. I live out in the country a lot and I travel a lot and work, so I don’t really have my finger on the pulse, but I check in on things and I will vote and I think one of the candidates is not qualified for the job. It would be a disaster if he won.
I know you got cast in “Justice League” and can’t talk much about it, but is there anything you can tell us?
I can tell you “Justice League” is an ensemble film and I won’t lie, my involvement isn’t enormous. I’ll be there but I’m not a principal character. It’s more to introduce me for another film because the character I play, which they have kind of allowed to get out there a little bit, is an advisor to Aquaman. He’s an important Atlantian character.
Do you prefer playing the villain or the good guy?
I don’t know the difference. I want to play good characters, complex characters.
“Dog Eat Dog” will be in theaters in Los Angeles and New York on Nov. 4, with a theatrical expansion, VOD and Digital HD on Nov. 11.