Obviously, the 54 year-old actor is not an actual vampire, nor does he play one in the Lionsgate feature Daybreakers, which opened on Friday. The film -- written and directed by Michael and Peter Spierig -- places us in the year 2019, 10 years after a vampire outbreak began. When the vast majority of the world's population needs human blood to survive, food is bound to become scarce. Humans are farmed for their blood, and what few are not being used as vessels live in constant fear.
Sounds scary, right? It definitely is, but as Dafoe points out, there is a strong element of science fiction as well, a genre fusion that gave him some initial reservations.
"It is a mix, because it uses part of the language of the vampire myth but also, it borrows from splatter and borrows from horror, which sounds terrible, because when you speak about a movie that's a little bit of this and a little bit of that, that doesn't sound very good to me," he admits.
"But the truth is, it's integrated pretty nicely, and I think of it more as a kind of science fiction movie, because, not that it's so futuristic, but the basic premise is taking us where we are and moving us a little bit, and then landing this vampire thing over it."
Ethan Hawke stars as Ed Dalton, a vampire who refuses to feed on human blood. He is a skilled hematologist who is struggling to find a suitable blood substitute in order to save starving vampires and the humans they desperately hunt. After a run-in with survivor Audrey (Claudia Karvan), he is introduced to Dafoe's Elvis, a human who, through a freak incident, might hold the key to the world's salvation.
Dafoe is no stranger to secondary roles that are fascinating enough to steal the show. "He's sort of half comic relief, and he's kind of a half balance, to if Edward Dalton is a serious main protagonist, he's a foil to loosen things up, and also he's a device to help the story along," he says of Elvis.
Dafoe does not choose roles carelessly, and can explain exactly why he decided to become Elvis. "First of all," he says, "I like doing action stuff and I like genre movies. I felt like doing something entertaining and fun, and normally those movies, it's very difficult for me to get interested in making them, because what the actors have to do isn't so interesting. But in this case, I felt the character was kind of fun -- he was cool, he's unflappable, he's got this wonderful character arc. I liked the basic idea that a blue-collar car customizer is one of the people who's going to save the human race. I'm not a car guy at all, but as a fantasy, as a picture of this kind of hipster, laid back but ready-for-action kind of guy, that's a fantasy I can get behind."
Although Dafoe and Elvis are clearly different, "all the characters are me, they're just aspects of me revealed through the story. It's all make-believe," he says.
Elvis's "character arc" involves the use of burn makeup effects, which Dafoe describes as a collaborative challenge. "I've done very extreme makeups before, but it's time consuming, it's not always comfortable, and to start your day off by sometimes as long as three hours in the makeup chair is a lot. Also, it's a tedious process, because they're done in individual pieces; there's that handmade aspect to it that makes it always a little but dicey. So it's not like you can just sit back and relax for three hours. You have to work with them to make sure that the makeup stays on track."
Makeup, however, is one of many things that help Dafoe enter his roles so deeply, and the hours of tedious application are worthwhile once he's found himself beneath the character's surface.
"For me, you're always looking for these triggers that really make you feel free and make you change your orientation so you get excited, so you discover things, so it doesn't feel like work, so you aren't just crafting a point of view or interpreting something -- you're actually making something. And when you make something, and when it's fun and it's free and you're stimulated, then it has a certain kind of natural grace to it, and also a truth to it. That's what you look for.
"You don't always find it. Sometimes the opportunity's not there, and sometimes you're just not able to. So every time I approach something, it's always a little game to find the proper approach. And, of course, it's always varying. Sometimes you have to do lots of research, sometimes you have to do very little. Sometimes the trigger can be a costume, sometimes it can be a look, sometimes it can be a scene, sometimes it can be physical thing that you impose on yourself -– it can be a million things."
He then explains that when he is building a character from within, the key to placing himself in the film as a whole is the tone. "It's about finding the tone to really enter that world and serve the story well," he says. This was particularly an important issue to tackle when filming Daybreakers.
"The tone is very important because of this mixed genre hybrid that this film is. You have to kind of switch gears, from going through kind of broad little laugh lines to action to moments of dramatic stuff to kind of gnarly violence to kind of semi-violence. You're going out of these different modes, and you always have to be kind of light on your feet to know where to place your intention and your imagination."
Dafoe has appeared in major studio films (he is well-known as Spider-Man's Green Goblin), as well as many smaller-scale features, and has found that his passion is better sparked by independence.