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Willem Dafoe attends a screening of Inside, in New York City, on Feb. 28.ANGELA WEISS/AFP/Getty Images

There is a certain joy when you see the name “Willem Dafoe” come on-screen. The prolific actor can be both wild leading man and sneak-attack supporting player, his wiry frame and Cheshire grin elevating any project that he attached himself to. The actor is so compelling that he even makes the new film Inside imminently watchable – despite a rather patience- and tension-testing premise in which audiences follow the plight of an art thief as he struggles to survive inside a high-tech panic room after a robbery gone wrong.

Ahead of the release of Inside, Dafoe spoke with The Globe and Mail about the fine art of preparation.

In your film’s opening, your character recalls being asked what three things he would save if his home caught fire. So, what would you take with you?

You know, many people have asked me this and I can’t come up with an answer, so I’ll just say I’d let the house burn down and then start from scratch.

That’s a good non-answer, although I’m embarrassed as I thought I’d be the first person to ask you that.

Good questions, sometimes, everyone has them.

The film features only one actor, you, in a confined space. Which feels like it’s the perfect kind of filmmaking experiment for pandemic-era restrictions. Was it conceived as such?

No, actually the original idea came along years before the pandemic. But the development process was very long, and the filmmakers had a lot of research to do in designing the house that my character breaks into, as well as determining what kind of art collection would be inside there.

There is a neat coincidence, then, that this one-man show was shot during a period where such a thing was a feature, not a bug.

This is very different from the pandemic, though, in the sense that we all went through that experience collectively. Here, my character really is stuck there, alone. Maybe people will have pandemic flashbacks when they watch this movie.

Is that what attracted you to this project, that solitary element? It’s like a piece of one-man theatre.

I knew it would have to be physical, and we’d have to invent the process while we did it. There was a script, but there was so much that we had to invent, and that we knew we couldn’t invent, until we got onto the set and started to interact with the space and the art pieces. I knew there was going to be very little text, so it’s a different kind of performance. I like dealing with objects, with tasks, with movement.

How much pressure did you feel as a performer, given there are no co-stars to bounce off?

You’d think you would feel a lot of pressure, but I didn’t because I had a lot of hands-on collaborators from all the different departments. You can’t imagine my relationship with the prop department, how intimate that was. The art department. I had a lot of people behind me, so when the camera is always on me, it becomes something habitual and easy. I’m not really alone.

Willem Dafoe in director Vasilis Katsoupis' Inside.Wolfgang Ennenbach/Focus Features

How much do you rely on that team when you’re asked to play a character who is losing his grip on reality slowly, steadily? And you’re shooting this in chronological order, so you keep going deeper.

The first day we started shooting, I stopped shaving, stopped cutting my nails, I let the fatigue work on me a little bit. And then when the camera is turned on and you go into performance mode, it energizes you. As always on a film, there are people always there, just like in a theatre.

Given the collection that’s depicted in this film, I have to ask how much of a fine-art collector are you?

I’m not, because I don’t have that thing in me that wants to possess stuff. I also don’t have that kind of money to buy a lot of art, right? It’s expensive.

But surely the Spider-Man people are paying you okay.

You know what, I take care of a lot of things, what can I say? But my relationship with art has more to do with growing up in a time when artists were coming of age. When I was younger in New York, the art market exploded, and in my many years working in the Wooster Group [theatre company], we were working with artists in some form or another. But my relationship with art is more appreciating than collecting.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Inside opens in theatres March 10.