'You do your best work when you're scared'

He has played goodies, baddies, creeps and goblins. But Willem Dafoe's latest film posed new challenges. He talks to Steve Rose about his hits, his flops – and the perils of skinning a wallaby

It is a perennial paradox. Studios spend vast sums of money bringing together the efforts of hundreds of skilled technicians, well-drilled actors and extras – yet cinema is often at its most compelling when simply showing an individual silently going about their business. There are countless examples: James Stewart stalking Kim Novak in Vertigo, David Hemmings poring over his prints in Blow-Up, Daniel Day-Lewis scrabbling underground in There Will Be Blood. We tend not to regard "just doing stuff" as acting – but perhaps making it all so absorbing is actually the hallmark of a great actor.

In his new movie The Hunter, released tomorrow, Willem Dafoe does "stuff" very well. His character is searching for the last Tasmanian tiger,
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