Last week, two-time Academy Award-nominated actor Willem Dafoe (Platoon) and actress Carrie-Anne Moss (The Matrix) talked to me about their new film Fireflies in the Garden, which opened at the Cinemark Tinseltown South Theater in Austin on Oct. 14.
In the film, Dafoe plays Charles Taylor, a stern father who has raised his son Michael on fear and discipline. Now a grown man, Michael must reexamine his childhood and the pain he went through at the hands of his father when tragedy strikes the family. In a supporting role, Moss plays Kelly Hanson, an ex-girlfriend of Michael who stands by him during his emotionally-demanding visit home.
Willem, talk about your character Charles Taylor and what drew you to the role. You usually don’t gravitate towards family dramas.
Willem Dafoe: 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.
Carrie-Anne, what about you?
Carrie-Anne Moss: The thing that drew me to Fireflies in the Garden was the script. I really wanted to be a part of it. It was such a powerful script. I have a support role in the film, but my desire to be a part of it was based on the whole story.
We don’t get too much information on the relationship between Kelly and Michael. We find out an alcohol addiction has come between them, but we don’t get much else. Is that background story something you work out yourself before you start shooting the movie?
CAM: Yeah, I do and I also talked to the director and he shared things that he wanted me to know. That back story is yours. That's sort of private work you do on your own.
Other than talking with the director, how do you actually create that story?
CAM: I write it down. I think about it. I go for a walk. I start to occupy a character. Suddenly, I’m in the kitchen and I’m cooking and things are coming up. I sit down and I do a lot of writing. But it also manifests in other ways. I’ll go for a hike and I’ll start thinking about it. Questions will come up in the moment. It opens up a whole floodgate of thinking.
Willem, talk about how you were able to confront the darker aspects of your character. Where do you think Charles’ anger really stems from?
WD: 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?
WD: 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?
WD: 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 that 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.
Carrie-Anne, this film has been finished for three years, but is just getting released. I know that part of the filmmaking process is out of your control, but as an actress is the waiting process difficult?
CAM: No, not for me, but I’m sure it is for the director because it’s his project and he’s been living and breathing it. But as an actor, you’re usually doing other things. I have kids. I kind of just trust things happen the way they’re supposed to happen. I don’t have that pressure, since I’m not a director or a producer.
So, as the months pass and then a couple of years, you never think to yourself, “I wonder what ever happened to that film Fireflies in the Garden?”
CAM: Not so much. When I heard they were coming out with it now and put a final polish on it and I saw it again, I was really glad they took the time. I think they brought it to a level that is really powerful. I really loved the movie. I loved everyone’s performances in it. I thought it was beautifully shot. I though it bridged the past and present in a really dynamic way. I thought it was great. I think people are really going to enjoy this movie.
So, when you see the final product and see how you were three years ago, do you see an evolution in yourself as an actress?
CAM: And in my life, too. You think, “Oh, yeah, my kids were this age and I was there and this was happening.” It’s like a breathing journal of your life.
Willem, 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?
WD: 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.
Carrie-Anne, over the course of your career, do you think you’ve been able to avoid getting typecast into roles based on your popular character in The Matrix franchise? I mean, sometimes actors who break out in something so mainstream just can’t seem to shed that role. How have you been able to do that?
CAM: I just never believed it. I think that would’ve happened if I continued to do roles like that. I never really believe in typecasting. I just though, “You know, that’s not for me.”
It’s been more than a decade since you starred in Memento. Looking back now, what has a film with so much depth like that done for your career in comparison to something more mainstream like The Matrix?
CAM: I’m so thrilled I was in that movie. I knew it was going to be interesting after I read it. I did it because of the script and I met the director (Christopher Nolan) and liked him so much. It was a pleasure to be in and I’m glad it did so well. But I don’t think of my career like that, so I don’t know what it did for me or what it didn’t do for me. I don’t really think like that.
Willem, 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?
WD: 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.