Willem Dafoe is probably not the first name that comes to mind when you are thinking about an inspirational Disney movie, in this case Togo. The film tells the story of a man and his dog sledding through the wilderness to bring a serum to Nome, Alaska to save the local children from an outbreak of diphtheria. But here he is, playing the real-life character of Leonard Seppala, who ran the longest portion of the great serum run of 1925 with his dog, Togo, leading the way.
It’s an extraordinary story that has never been fully told until now. In our conversation, we talk about what brought him to the role, the challenge of working with dogs in brutal weather, and the joy of acting across from Julianne Nicholson.
Awards Daily TV: When I spoke to (Togo director) Ericson Core a few weeks ago, I told him if you were trying to invent a movie I wouldn’t want to see, it would probably be a Disney film with a man and a dog. (Laughs) But then I saw that you were in it and I thought it might be something different. And it was. In fact, I would say it’s more Jack London than it is Disney. What drew you to the project?
Willem Dafoe: You look at the elements and see how it feels. Ericson approached me about it and presented to me as a very personal project to him. He’s a wilderness guy, he’s a great dog lover, and he has a relationship to nature that’s special. And he’s an incredible DP – he shoots all these fantastic action sequences. He kind of walked me through what he wanted to do and that sounded pretty exciting. We weren’t just going to mock this stuff up, we were going to actually do it. We were going to be out in the mountains, and out in the cold on an expedition to try to find out what this movie was (going to be) with some animals (Laughs), and a tough Canadian crew.
It all sounded like a great adventure. It’s always nice when you have to learn something that puts you in a parallel experience with the story. It really helps you to feel like you own the story, or have some authority in the pretending. That was something of the case with this. When he told me how we were going to shoot it, that was very exciting. It was going to be shot as a movie, as if it was on a big screen, and with very low CGI, and we had a good schedule. You never have enough time, but Disney really supported him shooting a lot of the action sequences practically – I think that was all it for me.
ADTV: I know that the shooting schedule changed dramatically due to unseasonably bad weather and the early scenes between you and Julianne Nicholson, which were to be shot later on, got moved up to the third day. Was it difficult switching gears like that?
WD: It was okay because Julianne was fantastic. That was beautiful casting. We got along really well, and something about her and I having to deal with all those changes made us accomplices. When I say changes, not just changes in the scenes, but dealing with the weather, dealing with the tough logistics of the movie – that really brought us together. Starting out with the intimate scenes forced us to come to it quickly.
ADTV: Julianne is quite wonderful in the movie in a part that could have easily been a “the wife” role. It certainly wasn’t in this film. What was it like working with her in these difficult conditions on this film?
WD: She bought a lot to it. It’s also in the writing – It’s a really well written role. You get suspicious sometimes because of the taste of the moment and the hunger for fuller female roles can be forced, but this was very natural, and it’s kind of beautiful that through her, this kind of laconic, tight Leonard Seppala character, my character, really comes to a better understanding. She’s very important. If that would have been canned, or if it would have been corny, or if it wouldn’t have been deeply invested, I’m not sure it would have worked so well. It’s really a credit to her as an actress. She’s a great actress. She’s very much in her body. Like Ericson, she had a relationship to nature when we were out there. It was just a a pleasure to be with her. I always get self-conscious when you’re going to talk about your fellow actors, because it’s an intimate thing, but I I can say without reservation that it’s one of the most enjoyable times I’ve had with an actress where I thought there was a genuine understanding and chemistry there.
ADTV: So, let’s talk about your other major co-star, Diesel, who plays Togo. Ericson told me that you are not naturally a “dog person,” and you’re surrounded by dogs the whole movie (laughs), how did you manage your performance with them?
WD: You learn quick. (Laughs). When he says I’m not an natural dog person, I just never had a pet. I never had a dog. Most of my adult life I’ve been very nomadic and very much an urban person. So, I didn’t know dogs well. I love working with animals because they’re a wildcard,. You expect them to be animals, and that’s what they were there for – we weren’t trying to anthropomorphize them make them smile and make them look cute, that sort of thing. We wanted them to do what they do, and that is basically pull that sled, and we built the scenes around what they are made to do. They always keep you on your toes, because you have to come to them.
You can’t force them into your game. You have to be sensitive to what they need and you have to find a rapport with them that’s obviously beyond words. You almost have to be telepathic in your understanding of what they need. (Laughs). Not only is that important in the action sequences, but even more so in the dramatic scenes. Most of all you’ve just got to get patient – they bring you to the story. They help just like nature. Nature is making the story. We’ve got to get out of the way sometimes and let nature tell us how to tell the story. The dogs are a huge part of that. I enjoy that way of working, because not only does it keep you on your toes and you learn things, it has you walk this line where nothing’s ever canned. Because you can’t control it. You have to take what’s there and work with it, and I like that.
ADTV: Ericson said he would not be so eager to jump into another movie with a bunch of dogs. Would you say the same?
WD: (Laughs) Depends. As I said, it takes a lot of patience. But I will say for the for the action sequences the dogs are fantastic. That’s what they do and that’s what they love to do. That’s their nature. That’s what they’re trained to do. I had to be there for them. They weren’t there for me. That’s an interesting place to be for an actor.
ADTV: You mentioned the physical aspects of the role. Among other things, you had to learn how to drive a sled. What was it like to approximate the duties of this character?
WD: Well, you’re not really approximating, because you’re doing what he does. You’re not doing it to that degree that he does, and you’re probably not doing it as skillfully as he does, but I was with those dog before we started shooting. I got to know them. I got comfortable around them. I got comfortable with their equipment, and I got comfortable with the sled. It looks deceptively simple. A guy stands on a sled and the dogs pull him, but it’s not so simple. You’ve got to be aware of the dogs. You’ve got to be aware of the terrain. You’ve got to be aware of balance, and you do crash and you do have problems. And I did sometimes. It’s the actions that root the story. That’s what really puts you in the story and those landscapes are so fantastic. To be among those dogs in that landscape really puts you into the story. Also, I had fantastic people training me. World champion sled people whose life’s work is working with these dogs and with sleds. I got to know their character and their relationship to the dogs, and that was an education, and a great experience for me.
ADTV: What does it feel like to be pulled along by the dogs on the back of a sled?
WD: It’s thrilling because it’s so silent. You’re driven by this animal energy. Those dogs are so athletic and so strong. It’s incredible. When they want to run they really run. The sleds are quite light. You have no protection. It’s you and the dogs and some rope and some wood. You’re flying through that landscape. Once you get in the groove and feel comfortable, you lose yourself in nature in a way that’s really pleasant. I’m sure it’s the attraction Seppala had, not only for the dogs, but for this way of life.
ADTV: Speaking of flying through the terrain on the back of a sled, I can’t say I expected to hear you reciting a canine-modified version of Shakespeare’s St. Crispian’s Day speech while being pulled along by dogs. (Laughs) Was that a lot of fun to do?
WD: It was fun. It’s a beautifully written speech, and it’s kind of a good gag and does give a sense of history. Seppala was a European, and he would have known Shakespeare. He was a cultured man even though he was a frontier man. It touches on his solitariness out there – the fact that he’s transposing this St. Crispian’s Day speech for the dogs is sort of a beautiful expression. He’s entertaining himself to fight the loneliness and encourage the dogs along. It was just fun to do…the cadences and I love words. A lot of fun.
ADTV: So much of your performance as Leonard Seppala is internal. When you are playing such a restrained character, what is your approach?
WD: My approach is to learn how to do the things he does, try to do them skillfully, try to do them with a certain kind of conversation, and take on what I imagine his worries would be, and his way of life. The reason he’s so laconic, and the reason he’s a sort of a discipline freak, and so controlling is he’s had some disappointments in his life, and he doesn’t want to have those return. He’s got a little trepidation in him, a little fear. He’s always staving that off with being really well prepared through training, and taking care of his stuff. I know that temperament. It reminds me of people I know. I think that was a key. I’m not so much trying to judge, or telegraph, or think of making a guy that’s tense or isn’t hoping, I’m just trying to apply myself to the actions in the story. When I’m preparing to do things with the dogs, I’m just pretending I’m keeping everything in order and trying to keep on top of it. That’s easy to do when you’re in a very chaotic natural setting and you can’t control everything.
ADTV: My favorite scene in the film is when the father brings his daughter to the Seppala home to thank him for bringing the serum back and saving his child. Then she asks you whether an ailing Togo is going to die. Which is the moment in the film where Seppala really spills open and exposes his pain. Can you talk about that scene?
WD: I think that here’s an intensely private man and all of a sudden he’s done going through this very challenging run and he comes to appreciate his dependency on Togo and what Togo means to him. He hasn’t quite digested that. The outside world is starting to push him to describe what that is, and he needs time to think. He realizes that he put Togo in peril by needing him to do this dog run. There’s a weird kind of combination of love and guilt, and also fear that Togo won’t be around forever. So, there’s a lot of emotions going on there and he’s trying to deal with them. Then when innocently, this little girl poses this very simple question to him, it’s heartbreaking – he can’t take it. He just has to get away. He walks out into the night, and it’s really his wife that once again brings him back and gives him a context, or a way to think about his life and his relationship to this dog.
Sasha, Ryan, and Clarence have been stuck with me since April 27, 2018. Co-creator (with Ryan Adams) of the Reframe feature, staff writer, interviewer du jour, and a proud member of GALECA and the Indiana Film Journalists Association. I also scribe on boxing at NY Fights. My essay "My Black Grandpa" was shortlisted as "Best of Folklore" by The Bitter Southerner in 2018. My first work of fiction, "Eat 'Em Up, Tigers!" was published in Detroit Stories Quarterly in the 2020 summer edition.