Acting is an art form, and behind every iconic character is an artist expressing themselves. Welcome to The Great Performances, a bi-weekly column exploring the art behind some of cinema’s best roles. In this entry, we examine Willem Dafoe’s Academy Award-nominated performance in Shadow of the Vampire.
A myth was born in the immediate decades following the release of F.W. Murnau’s classic silent horror film Nosferatu. Starring an astonishing Max Schreck, the film was meant to be a direct adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but the production was unable to obtain the rights, forcing Murnau and screenwriter Henrik Galeen to devise their own ghastly vampire named Count Orlok.
A far cry from Stoker’s suave bloodsucker, Orlok is bony and lithe, with fingers like knives and teeth as sharp as the rats he surrounds himself with. Schreck’s visual appearance is eye-popping, but it’s the actor’s avant-garde physicality that makes him truly unnerving. Schreck disappears so deep into his role that you wouldn’t be faulted for thinking the actor may well be a real vampire.
And that’s exactly what audiences thought. Schreck was very private, so his personal life was shrouded in mystery, with rumors spreading that he wasn’t an actor at all but a monster discovered by Murnau for the role. His surname did him no favors either, as Schreck literally translates to “fright.” This conspiracy theory was birthed in the 1950s by Greek writer Adonis Kyrou in his book Le Surréalisme au cinéma:
“In the role of the vampire, the credits name the music-hall actor Max Schreck, but it is well-known that this attribution is a deliberate cover-up. No one has ever been willing to reveal the identity of the extraordinary actor whose brilliant makeup renders absolutely unrecognizable. There have been several guesses, some even mention Murnau…Who hides behind the character Nosferatu? Maybe Nosferatu himself.”
Schreck, obviously, wasn’t a real vampire — Kyrou’s skepticism was likely one made in jest — but that idea would grow into the premise for E. Elias Merhige’s Shadow of the Vampire. A behind-the-scenes look at the making of Nosferatu, the 2000 film blurs the lines between the fantasies and realities surrounding Max Schreck, played by Willem Dafoe, in his performance as Count Orlok.
Shadow of the Vampire is a quasi-horror-comedy that is a love letter to the original film, but it’s also a clever indictment of the toxicity directors can create when enabling egomaniacal actors. Dafoe’s comically stylized portrayal of Schreck can be seen as a sly denouncement of why method acting is a technique that’s both scrutinized and spoofed.
Dafoe brings an intense, weird energy to every character he plays, but despite what you may think, he doesn’t describe himself as a method actor. As he recently told the Gentleman’s Journal:
“I was never really trained in that. I don’t even respond to that. I’m more like a dancer; I think in terms of everything, doing things and reacting. Don’t force it. If you don’t force it, you’ll find a purer reaction. Because, as an actor, you’re not meant to be selling a psychology; you’re not telling a story by punching buttons. You’re having an experience, and you need to approach that in good faith and an open way.”
Dafoe’s training began at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, where he studied for a year and a half before dropping out to join a local experimental theatre troupe. He moved to New York City in 1979 and quickly joined Richard Schechner’s The Performance Group, best known for devising Dionysus in ‘69, which Brian de Palma would later film.
Along with Elizabeth LeCompte and Spalding Gray, Dafoe left The Performance Group to found The Wooster Group, with which he is still active today. The company’s core artistic aesthetic is in taking existing texts, from playwrights like Anton Chekhov and Eugene O’Neill, and finding new ways to approach their underlying themes.
In a way, the artistic tenets of The Wooster Group are reflected in Dafoe’s performance in Shadow of the Vampire. He could have easily approached Max Schreck through the typical preparations of an actor, conducting exhaustive research into the man’s history to mine some inner psychology to how he believably became a monster.
Instead, Dafoe chose a more abstract path to creating a fictionalized version of Max Schreck by focusing strictly on what already exists: his on-screen performance as Count Orlok. As he told Venice magazine in 2013:
“I didn’t feel that compelled to find out that much about [Schreck] because, although any information can be useful, I was most interested in the Max Schreck of the performance as Count Orlock. That’s what I was dealing with.”
With his background in experimental theatre, Dafoe was able to take a broader approach to bring this vampirized version of Schreck to life. Since he doesn’t lock himself into playing an honest portrait of the actor, he can explore alternative ways his unique given circumstances can dynamically impact his character’s actions.
It’s a quality that, as Dafoe said, has more in common with a dancer than an actor. He isn’t weighing his performance down with overt intellectualism. Instead, he allows his impulses to be guided by the elements around him, from the film’s rustic sets to his stunning makeup design. As he also told Venice magazine, “The makeup…was everything because that became the key, that became the mask, that became the mode to find the character, because it was so extreme that it informed everything you did.”
Dafoe’s prosthetics do a lot of the leg work in transforming him into a vampire, but he also uses his heavy make-up as a tool to effortlessly mimic Count Orlok’s iconic physicality. He is an immaculate recreation of the character, from his posture and high shoulders down to the way his long fingers rap against his cheek. By focusing on the physicality of the character, and not the actor, Dafoe plays Max Schreck purely as the monster the rumors made him out to be.
We see it clearly when Gustav von Wangenheim (portrayed by Eddie Izzard) and Shreck are shooting one of their first scenes together. As F.W. Murnau (portrayed by John Malkovich) screams direction at them, Gustav accidentally cuts his thumb, causing Schreck to leap at him, suckling his oozing finger to the disgust of the crew. It’s a hilarious moment not only due to the fact that Schreck’s reaction is befitting of a blood-hungry vampire, but because it calls to mind the horror stories of method actors becoming a little too committed to their characters.
Even though the audience is always under the assumption that Schreck is a vampire and not an actor, his conduct is still reminiscent of the corrosive environment method actors can create. Schreck seems to delight in intentionally making everyone on set feel uncomfortable, whether it’s by never breaking character, staring menacingly at his co-stars, or catching bats mid-air and sucking their blood.
When the cast and crew bristle at Schreck’s antics, Murnau attempts to assuage their worries by referring to Schreck as an artist of the highest caliber. Catering to his every whim, Murnau’s allowances just further encourage Schreck’s bad behavior.
Rather than having the audience see Schreck’s actions as outright appalling, Dafoe’s performance allows us to laugh at the character by positing him as an enfant terrible actor. He whines and cries, making uncompromising demands from Murnau, like firing the screenwriter or cutting out entire set pieces.
Schreck may not be sending his cast a dead fetal pig, like Jared Leto reportedly did on Suicide Squad, but his behavior is still reflective of the ego-driven hubris of modern method actors. Dafoe’s Schreck is physically imposing, but his quirky performance allows us to view the character as nothing more than a budding diva given free rein by an enabling director.
Whether he’s playing a comic book supervillain in Spider-Man or a motel manager in The Florida Project, Dafoe has an eye-catching presence that is wholly unique. The expressiveness of his face, not to mention his intelligent acting method, is likely what won him the role of Max Schreck, and in turn, a nomination for Best Supporting Actor at the 73rd Academy Awards.
Dafoe, however, is less forgiving about his own features, telling the Gentlemen’s Journal, “I sometimes see pictures of myself, out of the context of acting. And I just look so ugly, I look so grotesque and weird. My face expresses things that I don’t even intend for it to express sometimes. It’s got a mind of its own!”
But it’s this honest self-awareness that I find has helped make Dafoe such an accomplished actor. He has a pointed understanding of his own strengths, and he has weaponized them to create a cadre of unique, engaging characters in every film in which he appears. In a career as storied as Dafoe’s, Shadow of the Vampire stands tall as one of his finest performances.