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Willem Dafoe had to cut into real kangaroo carcass on set of 'The Hunter'

TORONTO – In the new film “The Hunter,” Willem Dafoe’s mercenary character shoots a kangaroo, pulls out its organs and uses them as bait in an effort to trap the seemingly extinct Tasmanian Tiger.

It’s a scene that was “very real,” says the two-time Oscar-nominated actor, noting a female kangaroo hunter gave him two carcasses to use for the scene that was shot in Tasmania.

“She said, ‘Be very careful because they’ve been dead for a little while’ — they stank to high heaven — ‘And if you go too deep, because in their insides the gasses started forming, they’d probably explode and you’ll be covered in guts and whatever it last ate,'” Dafoe recalled with a laugh in an interview at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival.

“So the pressure was on and thank God … I come from a family of surgeons and I have some genetic memory in there or something,” he added, noting shooting the scene was “so simple it’s shocking.”

“I remember this from watching operations in real life: once you open up that outside part, everything gets objectified. So when I was there I knew exactly what to do.”

Opening Friday in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, “The Hunter” is based on the Julia Leigh novel and tells the story of a biotech company that wants the DNA from what may be the last remaining Tasmanian Tiger.

When Martin (Dafoe) starts to hunt down the dog-sized creature for the company, he begins to re-examine his life.

Dafoe said he learned survival skills for the role from local trappers and a “very poetic soul” who taught him how to make snares and de-scent himself so animals wouldn’t follow him.

“I really thrive on filming in remote locations because the world drops away,” said Dafoe, a Wisconsin native who was nominated for the Academy Award for his roles in “Platoon” (1986) and “Shadow of the Vampire” (2000).

“The movie world seems far, far away, your personal life seems far, far away. Everything gets a little more focused because the line between your regular daily life and the exotic, pretend life in the film gets blurred, so you can sort of pretend in a deeper way.”

Directed by Daniel Nettheim, “The Hunter” co-stars Frances O’Connor as the depressed wife of a missing zoologist. Sam Neill plays a powerful local.

The psychological drama touches on the debate over logging in the area and Dafoe said the people playing characters on both sides of the issue in the film were not actors.

“In the film the loggers are loggers and the people that are green activists are green activists,” explained the 55-year-old. “It’s a very real thing, and I was really wowed because on one occasion they were working the same day, so they were having lunch next to each other and it was sort of a beautiful thing. Like, a ceasefire had been called because they really don’t have an understanding between each other and they really are enemies.

“It was sort of beautiful to have them put it aside for working on the film, and then you knew as soon as they finished their day they would go back to their posts.”

Another real element that struck Dafoe? That some people in the area really do believe there’s a Tasmanian Tiger out there, despite its apparent extinction from extensive hunting.

“Even when we were there, I remember right in the middle of shooting there was a serious sighting. Periodically people have sightings and now there are even people with videos. They put them on YouTube and they’re always grainy,” said Dafoe.

“It’s become kind of like the Yeti of Tasmania, and it’s an interesting thing because it’s a potent symbol. It means a lot of things because it’s really connected to the past and to the history of colonization, the history of how they’ve dealt with the nature.”

“The Hunter” opens in Edmonton on April 20 and in Calgary on April 27.