Los Angeles Willem Dafoe likes characters on the margins of society.
"Because that's where the most personal and specific stories are often told," he says.
The 45-year-old actor starred in 1988's "The Last Temptation of Christ," a humanized depiction of Jesus that angered many Christians. These days he's close to the other end of the good-evil spectrum with his creepy reinvention of one of cinema's most enduring horror icons in "Shadow of the Vampire."
Dafoe has spent much of his 20-year film career hanging out at the fringes, where characters tend to have more, well, character.
"The more you move to the center, the more generic they become and the more recognizable they become," Dafoe says in an interview to promote "Shadow of the Vampire," a darkly comic fantasy about the making of the 1922 silent classic "Nosferatu."
In "Platoon," his breakout film in 1986, Dafoe played a complex Vietnam sergeant who has lost faith in a cause he once believed in yet remains the perfect killing machine. The role earned him an Oscar nomination for supporting actor.
In "Tom & Viv," he had a go at poet T.S. Eliot trying to cope with his demented wife. In "Mississippi Burning," he played a straight-laced FBI agent who adapts to his partner's rougher ways while searching for missing civil-rights workers in the 1960s.
Dafoe's fringe characters also include a man bent on vengeance over his severed thumbs ("The English Patient"); a gas station attendant who does unauthorized spinal implants for virtual-reality games ("eXistenZ"); a villain who coats himself with live leeches ("Speed 2: Cruise Control"); a shaven-headed, sinister prison kingpin ("Animal Factory"); and a Lucifer-like figure who tempts an angel ("Faraway, So Close!").
Now comes "Shadow of the Vampire." Dafoe was nominated for a Golden Globe for supporting actor and seems likely to receive an Oscar nod next month.
"Shadow of the Vampire" co-stars John Malkovich as director F.W. Murnau, so engrossed in his artistic vision that he hires a real vampire to appear in his movie with deadly results for his cast and crew.
Dafoe chuckles when he recalls that he was the first choice of the filmmakers including producer Nicolas Cage to play the pallid, bat-eared Max Schreck, the actor who originated the Nosferatu character.
"I don't know what that says about me," Dafoe says. "On principle, I suppose you could say because it's such a heavy prosthetic job that you could make almost anyone, externally, look like Schreck to some degree. So it had to do with something that they attribute to me as a performer. And I'm not sure what is. But I don't have to know."
Director E. Elias Merhige said he and Malkovich spent a lot of time hashing out how the obsessive Murnau should be played. Dafoe, however, just wanted to jump in and start skulking around as Schreck.
"Willem's more like, 'Well, you know what? Shut up and just give me the teeth, give me the corset, give me the makeup, put on the ears, give me the nails, and let's work,"' Merhige says.
Sacrifices on the set
For authenticity, much of Dafoe's work on "Shadow of the Vampire" was shot at night among old castle settings and ruins in Europe. Dafoe had to undergo a three-hour makeup job each day, plus an hour to remove the vampire getup.
The movie toys with the notion that the vampire and the film director are two similar beasts, an idea that resonated with Dafoe. The actor said he has worked with directors who put cast and crew in harm's way physically or emotionally.
"Schreck has the line, 'We are not so different, Murnau,' something like that," Dafoe said. "There's something about the world of directors and the power and momentum of a film production that lends itself to someone sacrificing everything for the shot, for the effect.
"It's funny for film people, because they've seen it before, it rings true. No names," Dafoe adds, laughing, "but it rings true."