[Article] NIGHTMARE ALLEY - Willem Dafoe, Sideshows & Pickled Babies
Courtesy Searchlight Pictures
In Guillermo del Toro’s latest visual masterpiece, NIGHTMARE ALLEY, charismatic but down-on-his-luck Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) endears himself to clairvoyant Zeena (Toni Collette) and her has-been mentalist husband Pete (David Strathairn) at a traveling carnival, where he crafts a golden ticket to success using this newly acquired knowledge to grift the wealthy elite of 1940s New York society. With the virtuous Molly (Rooney Mara) loyally by his side, Stanton plots to con a dangerous tycoon (Richard Jenkins) with the aid of a mysterious psychiatrist (Cate Blanchett) who might be his most formidable opponent yet.

Recently, Nightmarish Conjurings took part in the global press conference for the release of NIGHTMARE ALLEY which featured the cast and crew of the film. During the junket, actor Willem Dafoe, who plays ruthless sideshow barker Clem Hoatley, discussed what attracted him to this complex role, reconciling Clem’s brutality and humanity, and how the production design informed his performance.

Kicking off the junket was Deadline’s Executive Awards Editor and moderator of the conference, Joe Utichi, who began the conference by asking Dafoe what attracted him to the role as a sideshow barker. Dafoe explained:

“I have very strong memories as a child going to sideshows. They were still around when I was a kid and those carnival people, particularly the people at the sideshows, were kind of darkly romantic figures. They were a little scary, but they were also sort of charming. As a young kid growing up in Wisconsin, they seemed worldly because they were travelers and they could spin a story. I have a pretty strong imagination from that experience of what it would be like to be a barker.

[Once you] arrive [on set] you start to accumulate details and exterior things that get you even more deeply into the character and then you apply yourself to the scenes. Guillermo trusted me to find my way, not a lot of handholding, but when we got there we really started to mix it up. So it was fun, but I think what was really principal was my memories from when I was a kid, I had a very formed idea of carnivals. The reality that was created by the production design beautifully of this very complete, almost truly functional midway with essentially everything working, it was a beautiful world even if it’s a little dark.”

Willem Dafoe and Bradley Cooper in the film NIGHTMARE ALLEY. Photo by Kerry Hayes. © 2021 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved

Mike Reyes from CinemaBlend went on to ask the Oscar-nominated actor how he was able to reconcile Clem’s brutality towards the geeks, his humanity towards others, and how that helped with his performance. Dafoe stated:

“You can’t judge the character. You can just give him opportunities. He’s pragmatic and you appreciate that he does take care of his own, but he’s also a guy that probably grew up and came of age during the Depression. He’s probably maybe even been in prison, you know? He’s a guy that pragmatically sees the world as winners and losers, prey and predators. He’s got this kind of dark fatalistic view of the world but, at the same time, he cares about people around him. The way he expresses how to turn a man into a geek, which is a cruel story, you also get the sense that he doesn’t enjoy this. He’s just getting on. It doesn’t justify it, but to his mind, the onus is on the nature of the people, human nature, the nature of desire, the nature of addiction, and the nature of fate. That’s all sort of in the mix. He’s a dark character but he’s also not. He’s not out to destroy people. He’s compassionate towards certain people. He’s human but is a very flawed character if you judge him morally but, of course, that’s not my job as an actor. My job as an actor is to try to imagine him as a full person capable of many contradictory behaviors.”

With a better understanding of Clem and the world in which he exists, Daily Dead‘s Heather Wixson took it a bit further by asking the acclaimed actor how the production design helped inform his character, especially in regards to the little specimen jars of horror that take up a majority of Clem’s tent. Dafoe explained:

“I know Guillermo was especially fond of those little jars. The production design was beautiful because of the detail. It was built out in the country because there were lots of land to build this carnival. You’d approach it and particularly at night, you’d see the lights coming on. You’d enter this world and it was like waking up as you entered it. People would start to move about, and the organization of the production itself becomes the organization of the carnival. Then you would see the people that you know as the characters. There are all these mirrorings of functions and worlds.

You start your day and the life of the movie is paralleled by the life of the carnival. It’s a world that’s easy to enter [and it’s] a wonderful position to start in. You also have relationships to other people’s functions because your thing is not only to make the scene but also to make the carnival work. The production design was very important. As far as the so-called pickled punks, that’s so ingrained in my brain because I was traumatized by seeing those at sideshows when I was a kid. I didn’t make stories for all of them, but I [sure] did for a few.”

For more on NIGHTMARE ALLEY, check out our review here. NIGHTMARE ALLEY is now exclusively playing in theaters. Stay tuned for more information on when the film hits Digital and Video on Demand.

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