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Willem Dafoe on why his new one-man film 'Inside' is drawing comparison to 'Finding Nemo'

The celebrated actor also weighs in on that viral "Smile Man" GIF.

INSIDE, Willem Dafoe, 2023. © Focus Features / Courtesy Everett Collection
Willem Dafoe in Inside. (Photo: Focus Features/Courtesy Everett Collection)

Willem Dafoe is so beloved among film buffs it’s hard to imagine anyone will mind that his new film Inside has only one central actor: Willem Dafoe.

The four-time Oscar nominee plays Nemo, an art thief who becomes trapped in a billionaire’s deserted New York City penthouse, increasingly desperate to survive as the days wane on with minimal food and water left behind. And despite its one-man cast, the Vasilis Katsoupis-directed thriller is still thoroughly taut thanks to Dafoe’s bold, characteristically committed performance.

“It is just a different way of working, and so much of what I'm doing is based on actions, and is physical, and those are both things I feel very comfortable with,” Dafoe, 67, tells Yahoo Entertainment in a new interview. “A certain kind of dramaturgy, a certain kind of traditional scene work is thrown out. In this case, it's liberating. You've gotta find another way to express things, and finding that way was part of our work.” (Watch full interview below.)

What the film is not, at least to Dafoe’s knowledge, is some unexpected homage to Finding Nemo. More than a couple YouTubers have pointed out the curious parallels between Katsoupis’s arthouse thriller and the Pixar 2003 animated favorite, though. Dafoe’s character is named Nemo. He’s essentially trapped in a glass box. There’s even a Dory-like Blue Hippo Tang fish (but you can imagine what happens to it with a starving art thief). Dafoe even voiced a fish, the Moorish idol Gil, in Finding Nemo and its 2016 sequel Finding Dory.

“Can I tell you something? I didn’t even know that this character’s name was Nemo,” Dafoe admits. “That didn't end so much. It's only after the fact that people started talking about, ‘Hey, did you see there was like a clown fish in there? [Or] were identifying all the tropical fish in the tank from Finding Nemo.”

INSIDE, Willem Dafoe, 2023. © Focus Features / Courtesy Everett Collection
Willem Dafoe in a scene from Inside. (Photo: Focus Features/Courtesy Everett Collection)

Inside continues a remarkable run of high-quality, deeply original films from Dafoe, from The Florida Project (2017) and Vox Lux (2018) to The Lighthouse (2019), Nightmare Alley (2021) and The Northman (2022). To what does he attribute his ability to keep finding such singular work?

“I've got an excellent agent and an excellent manager. I love them, but I also read a lot,” says Dafoe. “I check things out. I try to think outside the box. I try to do what's right for me and not take the industry standard or do what my colleagues do, necessarily. That sounds a little full of myself, but no, I read a lot. I do. And I'm always looking for things that excite me. I love to work and the big thing is… I always want to find a way to re-see myself, or re-see what I do. So when I see opportunities to do that, I jump on them generally. So I'm always in the search of that.

“I have no nothing to sell. I like being on a film set. I like the collaborative nature of it. I like the social aspect of it, and it's an adventure. Every day is different. But somewhere deeply, I'm always looking for something that'll kick it up and make me do something that I haven't done before. Because God knows we all need a kick in the pants.”

Online, people have long gotten a kick out of a viral GIF of Dafoe, sitting in the back of a car, with wild eyes and manic smile, as the camera pushes gradually in on him. And though it’s one of the most common images you’ll see of him, it’s actually from one of his least-seen projects: a 2013 short film Dafoe did called The Smile Man, directed by Anton Lanshakov.

“That's a short film I made as part of this competition that gave money to young filmmakers to make these short films,” he says. “I'm aware of these things [online] because people tell me. I try not to seek them out, but sometimes when people tell me I get sucked into checking them out.”

And yes, he does get texted his Smile Man GIF.

“Oh yes,” he laughs. “It’s usually family or somebody that gets titillated by it and wants to share it.”

Inside opens in theaters Friday, March 17.

Watch the trailer: