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Willem Dafoe on Possible “Collapse” Amid Entertainment Industry Changes: “You Can Only Get Screwed So Much”

Willem Dafoe thinks something “radical” like an industry “collapse” is possible if the negotiations between SAG-AFTRA and the AMPTP don’t get resolved.

The Poor Things and Pet Shop Days star spoke to Vanity Fair for a story published on Monday promoting the new Patricia Arquette-directed Gonzo Girl, which was granted a SAG-AFTRA interim agreement and held its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. During the conversation, Dafoe opened up about the experience of having four films running during the fall film festival season but only being able to promote one due to the ongoing actors strike, which began on July 14 after the AMPTP and SAG-AFTRA did not reach an agreement.

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“To be in Venice with three films and not be able to go broke my heart. But then I thought, ‘Is it just because you want to have a good time?’ I live in Italy, and it’s exciting to see friends, it’s exciting to dress up,” the actor told the magazine when asked about whether it was “strange” to see his films premiere without promoting them.

Despite the “fun” of the festival season, Dafoe noted that particularly when it comes to independent films, it’s also “important for talent to get involved.”

“That’s why I’m so grateful to hear that we got an interim agreement. And the word on that of course is, if a little independent company can do it, why can’t a big studio?” he continued.

Interim agreements have become a contested issue amid the strikes. Signed by non-AMPTP producers, the agreements allow SAG-AFTRA members to participate in the production and publicity of projects during the ongoing work stoppage. They also require productions to adhere to subscription revenue, residual asks and other negotiation issues put forth by SAG-AFTRA.

Some stars like Adam Driver and Julia Louis-Dreyfus have used their approved appearances at festivals to promote not just their films but SAG-AFTRA’s negotiating asks, while others like Seven Veils star Amanda Seyfried have declined to appear at premieres, or, like Viola Davis, have hit pause on their productions in solidarity.

Actress Jessica Chastain recently expressed that she was “incredibly nervous” to attend the Venice Film Festival in support of Michel Franco-directed Memory, noting that “some people on my team advised me against it.”

“I am here because SAG-AFTRA has been explicitly clear that the way to support the strike is to post on social media, walk the picket lines and to work and support interim agreement projects. It’s what our national board and our elected leadership has asked us to do,” she said at a recent press conference for the film.

Dafoe has taken a somewhat similar stance as Chastain, telling Vanity Fair that he did not “wrestle” with the decision to appear at TIFF. “Not at all. Because SAG supports it. And I think we’ve got to keep it going,” he said. “I get their strategy, but I also think sometimes particularly hardcore industry people, they don’t think about the world enough. The world market. If we don’t participate in these film festivals, if we don’t participate in the selling of movies abroad, before you know it, we’re all going to be watching German action movies.”

The actor added that because he and his co-stars are “here with the blessings of SAG,” he doesn’t know why “someone wouldn’t come.”

“I know a lot of people didn’t. I guess they’d feel like it’s not showing solidarity, but SAG endorses it and it’s encouraging. So no, I didn’t feel strange,” he continued. “I feel stranger than I’m not working because I had some things that I wanted to do very badly and who knows if they’ll get back up again. Then I sit myself down and say, ‘Don’t be selfish. Don’t think about yourself, think about the future.’”

Dafoe added that based on the shape of the negotiations, “clearly there are some things to work out” amid an industry that has changed noticeably since he first entered it.

“I never talked about what I do as a business, but the business around what I do has changed so much where stuff has to be addressed,” he said. “The proliferation of the middleman and all kinds of things, and profits up and salaries down. I don’t do it for the money. But you can only get screwed so much.”

He also dismissed the idea that the current pause is different from previous lulls in working opportunities for him, noting that the pandemic was more of a moment where he stopped to think about his career and how he wanted to navigate it going forward. For Dafoe, the strike is “substantial, but it’s not a killer” in terms of his own schedule, and that the “uncertainty” is the strangest of it all.

“[Periods of waiting] happens to me sometimes anyway — even when I’m making three, four movies a year, there’s a three-month break — but during that time I’m preparing something. I’m dreaming about it, and I’m thinking about it, and I’m excited about it. Everybody needs a little bit of a carrot. And when you don’t have that carrot, when you’re told that carrot may not be there, it’s like, OK, maybe that does put it back on yourself. But I’m like a child that wants candy. I won’t accept that,” he explains. “And if it doesn’t get resolved, then something radical will happen. There will be a collapse.”

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