The choices people make in the wake of their looming deaths are often indicative of their true personalities and motivations. The insecurities people contend with about their self-worth are also driving factors in how people act. These decisions and anxieties are bravely placed in the forefront of the new Abel Ferrara written-and-directed sci-fi fantasy drama ‘4:44 Last Day on Earth,’ which is now playing in select theaters.
‘4:44 Last Day on Earth’ follows successful actor Cisco (played by Willem Dafoe) and his younger, apprehensive lover, the naive painter Skye (portrayed by Shanyn Leigh), as they, along with the rest of humanity, struggle with the ending of the world. At 4:44 am the next day, scientists have discovered that the entire world’s population will die, due to irrevocable forces of nature, including excessive global warming. While the two have accepted their pre-determined deaths, Cisco and Skye are still struggling to come to terms with themselves, their relationship and their seemingly broken bonds with their loved ones, including his ex-wife and daughter.
Dafoe generously took the time to speak with us at a roundtable interview at New York City’s Regency Hotel about what attracted him to the role of Cisco, and why he likes working with Ferrara. The actor, who also started his career in the theater and founded the New York City-based experimental company The Wooster Group in the mid-1970s, also discussed his next play.
Question (Q): What attracted you to the character and story in ‘4:44 Last Day on Earth?’
Willem Dafoe (WD): First of all, I think it was Abel. I’m very director-driven, and am attracted to people who have a very specific way of working and have a very specific vision. Once I attach myself to something, my job is to become the doer. I’m the doer that realizes what audiences see. Also in the process of doing that, it becomes what I see.
I like Abel, he came to me and told me the scenario. The scenario didn’t resonate with me immediately, necessarily. But we started working on flushing out some of the sequences in the scenario and started writing back and forth. Then I got sucked in.
It’s interesting in the respect that it’s a movie in which audiences participate. If you don’t get hung up on what the science is, or that the story is about the end of the world, and if you accept the conditions of the story, this is a story about how two people have decided to spend their time in this situation.
I think it’s interesting for me, not only as an actor, but as a person, to keep going back to the question of what is our relationship to each other, how we spend our time and how I’m spending my time. I think the audience keeps going back to that, too.
I was at the opening in Venice, where Abel is quite respected, much more than here-he has a following in Italy and France-and this screening was beautiful. You felt this audience, when the end comes, it was communal, they could have linked arms. (laughs)
I didn’t expect it, I was very moved. Not just by the movie, but by the audience. You felt everybody recognize that everyone struggles, and they recognize the struggles in everybody else. I think that’s important, and one of the biggest functions of telling stories. It’s art and entertainment to find common ground.
Q: Abel has said that fiction serves to refine, or make the truth more concrete. Can you speak about that notion?
WD: My guess is that he’s probably referring to this weird convention of the world’s going to end, and everybody accepts it. The movie only works if you say okay, I’m good, instead of, how did this happen, who’s responsible, is it really scientific, is it global warming? That all gets short-handed in the story. If you accept it, I think you can concentrate on the truth of these people and how they’re dealing with their lives.
The heat is turned up, as a way to intensify the struggle we all have about what’s to do, what gives your life meaning, what’s important? You know that your life’s going to end, and you’ve got 24 hours to scramble for the meaning of your life, it’s pretty interesting. People do what you think they do. They start to say their good-byes, they start to make amends, they try to enjoy the people they’re with, they try to have some pleasure. All of those things are happening in the movie.
Q: At the start of your career, you said you were dying to play a hero, but you thought you would never get cast that way, because you have a face that reads as mean. When did that change?
WD: Five minutes after I said that. (laughs) I was worried that I was going to get type-cast. At the beginning of your career, you’re seen as a character actor. You’ve got power, but you don’t look like the boy next door. So the opportunities tend to be the strong character parts when you’re young, and tend to be the bad guys.
For many years, movies were my side work. My place were I was was the theater, and it still is to some degree. When I would do movies, I was a little concerned about being type-cast. Opportunities would always draw from the same realm.
I’m less concerned about that now, because in a funny way, movies aren’t particularly in a good place right now. The movies I’m getting offered are more wide-ranging, and there are more possibilities.
Q: Speaking of your theater work, you started your acting career in the theater in the 1970s and ’80s, particularly in Amsterdam. Would you be interested in returning there to perform in theater again?
WD: In April, I’m opening a show in Madrid, Robert Wilson’s ‘The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic,’ and we tour with it afterward.
Q: How long will you be touring, and where will you be going?
WD: Well, it’s a big piece, and the first installment is just Madrid; Theater Basel, with the art fair; and Amsterdam.
Q: When do you start rehearsal?
WD: We start rehearsal in April, but we already made it. We started the workshop in Madrid a long time ago, and then showed it in Manchester, in the new (international) festival. We showed it in July, and we’re getting back together in April. We’re rehearsing in Madrid.
Written by: Karen Benardello