Willem Dafoe on Why It Took So Long to Host ‘SNL’ and How He Kept ‘Spider-Man’ a Secret

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Though he’s been an acclaimed actor for five decades, earned four Oscar nominations and starred in several blockbusters, Willem Dafoe will take on a new challenge this weekend when he hosts “Saturday Night Live” for the first time Jan. 29.

The announcement was met with massive enthusiasm online, with many people expressing disbelief Dafoe had never hosted before. It’s not his first “SNL” experience, however, as he did star in the 2000 short film “The Procedure,” written and directed by Adam McKay, about a man who has his favorite song implanted in his brain. The surreal short was actually pulled from airing in the live show and later appeared as a replacement sketch in re-runs; it’s difficult to find online, which has only increased its legendary status.

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Dafoe also made a cameo during host Will Forte’s monologue last Saturday, and judging by the ecstatic audience response, it’s an episode many people are looking forward to – including Dafoe. Variety’s Awards Circuit podcast spoke to Dafoe a week before the show; listen below:

Asked why he’s never hosted before, Dafoe says that perhaps the timing was never right. “I think there was never the right combination of things,” he says. “Because it’s nice to pair it to a movie or something. And yes, I’ve had some successful movies in my career but they aren’t always the ones that you can hang a ‘Saturday Night Live’ appearance on.” (For example, he jokes, can you imagine an “Antichrist” sketch?)

But given Dafoe’s output in the last year alone, the timing could not be better. He appeared in five films, including re-teams with directors Paul Schrader for “The Card Counter” and Wes Anderson for “The French Dispatch,” as well as supporting roles in “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” and Guillermo Del Toro’s “Nightmare Alley.”

And then there’s the performance he can finally talk about: Dafoe reprised his role as Norman Osborn, a.k.a. Green Goblin, in “Spider-Man No Way Home,” a character he hasn’t played since a cameo appearance in 2007’s “Spider-Man 3.”

Dafoe says he was as surprised as anyone when he was approached about bringing Osborn back. “It’s always a little difficult when you die in a movie to come back in any sequels,” he says. “I thought I was finished. When they initially said, ‘Would you like to reprise this role?’ I thought, ‘Really? How does that happen?’ I was kind of stupid about it.”

After the powers that be “walked me through it,” Dafoe agreed to sign on, even though there wasn’t necessarily a script at this point. But ultimately, he’s pleased with how it all turned out. “I’m used to working on all kinds of movies, and sometimes they have such resources that I get jealous,” he says. “And if the people aren’t sincere, and if they aren’t believers, it feels like such a waste and feel so cynical.”

Such was not the case with “Spider-Man,” says Dafoe. “I can say, and maybe drank the Kool-Aid, but these are people that really are believing in what they’re doing and giving themselves to it in a very full way. I’m not just talking about really good actors. I’m talking about the effects people, the camera department – they’re all very top level. And then when you have the resources and possibility of making a popular film, that’s all pretty attractive.”

As for keeping his participation secret, Dafoe says it “was a fun little game” – one he is impressed the film pulled off. Asked if he had to be dishonest with anyone in his life about it, he replies, “No, no. I’m a bad liar. But that wasn’t necessary. Often I go off and people don’t ask where!”

Spider-Man: No Way Home” sees a much more sympathetic Osborn than audiences might remember. In the new film, the Oscorp CEO finds himself pulled into a universe, confused and disoriented, and still struggling to keep the Green Goblin persona at bay. He actually turns to Peter Parker and Aunt May for help in a heartbreaking scene. But Dafoe points out this is just a continuation of the character from the 2002 film.

“One of the beautiful things about the original is it was a double roll,” he says, pointing out that director Sam Raimi gave him “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” to read before filming. “It’s a split personality, a guy that’s conflicted. It’s that classic thing of a devil on the shoulder and an angel on that shoulder.”

Dafoe can also currently be seen on screens in “Nightmare Alley,” playing Clem Hoatley, the veteran of a traveling carnival who mentors Bradley Cooper’s newcomer Stanford Carlisle on the life. Not unlike with “SNL,” the pairing of Dafoe and Del Toro seems so natural, it’s hard to believe it’s the first time they’ve worked together.

“I have always loved his movies. I remember seeing ‘Devil’s Backbone’ and thinking, ‘I’ve got to work with this guy,’” says Dafoe, “It was just a matter of him calling up and saying, ‘Listen, I’m going to do this movie.’ At one point he even said, ‘I’m not sure what character you play. But I would love you to work with me on this.’”

Variety’s Awards Circuit podcast is hosted by Clayton Davis, Michael Schneider, Jazz Tangcay and Jenelle Riley and is your one-stop listen for lively conversations about the best in movies. Michael Schneider is the producer and Drew Griffith edits. Each week, “Awards Circuit” features interviews with top talent and creatives; discussions and debates about awards races and industry headlines; and much, much more. Subscribe via Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify or anywhere you download podcasts. New episodes post every week.

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