Actor Willem Dafoe seeks out the 'hidden homeless' in new film

Willem Dafoe on startling reality in The Florida Project.

Willem Dafoe and Brooklynn Prince in a scene from The Florida Project.

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Elevation Pictures / A24

Willem Dafoe and Brooklynn Prince in a scene from The Florida Project.

Portraying the manager of an Orlando budget motel may have been make-believe for Oscar-nominated actor Willem Dafoe, but filming The Florida Project was eerily steeped in reality.

“Even when we were shooting, they were renting part of the motel out to tourists,” laughed Dafoe during a recent interview. “We’d be preparing a scene and they’d be ‘we got to let them through — these people are checking in!’”

It is exactly that brash authenticity that has The Florida Project earning accolades ever since it premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last month. Directed by acclaimed filmmaker Sean Baker (Tangerine), the realist drama focuses on a stretch of roadside budget motels that shelter impoverished, homeless families just on the outskirts of the extravagant Walt Disney World Resort.

“There are probably dozens and dozens,” admitted Dafoe of the number of low-cost inns that allow the “hidden homeless” such long-term temporary arrangements. “Sean gave me the names of all the places and he’d say this one’s really bad, this one’s medium and he’d also say, this one they won’t want you at so you’ve got to be really discreet how you case the place — but there were quite a few because he only gave me the best ones for research.”

The highly anticipated movie’s setting isn’t the only aspect with a strong link to realism either. A fixture in films for over 35 years, Dafoe was forced to adjust to working with a large group of amateur thespians and non-actors.

Most notably surrounded by a cast of inexperienced pre-teens who lead audiences through this squalid world with open, innocent eyes, Dafoe admits his patience was often tested when acting opposite the precocious, undisciplined kids.

“Of course they don’t know camera and they can’t repeat things but they’re very present,” admitted Dafoe of his juvenile co-stars. “Sometimes it wasn’t easy but that kind of paralleled my character — he loves these kids but he also wants to strangle them. And ya, that was about right.”

Dafoe on ...

Kids on set: “It was a little traumatic for the parents because the parents are very disciplined, very much into having a certain kind of etiquette but we discouraged that,” he said of his preteen co-stars. “We wanted them to be these wild childs.”

His defining movies: “I learn more about the person, or at least their viewing tastes, when they tell me what movies they remember,” said Dafoe of his fans’ favourite films. “It’s very particular when someone at this stage comes up and says Auto Focus — but it means something.”

Content over character: “I didn’t even know about this hidden homeless problem of these people living in these budget hotels,” admitted Dafoe of The Florida Project’s central setting. “Sometimes I don’t even think about the character — I just look at the whole thing.”


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