Willem Dafoe: Oscar’s Enigmatic Underdog Wants to “Disappear”
The actor made six films last year, has 100 screen credits and three Oscar nominations (including for this season’s on-the-cheap breakout 'The Florida Project') in a nomadic career that has resisted both fame and routine: "I remember my life by my movies."
Here is a typical day in the life of Willem Dafoe: He wakes up early, usually around 5 or 6. He meditates, has a cup of coffee and writes in his journal for a while. Then he checks his email, does some yoga and makes breakfast. If he’s prepping for a film, which he almost always is, he’ll go over his lines for a couple of hours. If he’s not, he’ll read a book, take a walk around his West Village neighborhood or — his favorite activity of all — do some laundry.
“It’s one of my great pleasures,” he says, dead serious. “I love it so much, I have to resist the urge to do a lot of hand washing when I’m in hotels. Sometimes, when I’m in a strange city, I go to laundromats. I did that in France recently — I was shooting a movie there — and it was a beautiful experience. For some reason, people are really nice to me in laundromats and I have these great encounters. Talk about fun and sexy …”
Of course, what makes Dafoe different from most people — aside from enjoying laundry — is that in his life there’s really no such thing as a typical day. Every one of them is pretty unusual. Today, for instance, the 62-year-old Oscar nominee — he’s up for best supporting actor for his role in The Florida Project, A24’s $2 million slice of life about kids from low-income families living in cheap motels near Orlando’s Disney World — lounges on a shady terrace at a hotel overlooking downtown Santa Barbara, where he’s about to take another lap around the awards season circuit as it hurtles toward the finish line. He’s dressed in hipster casual — black jeans, white T-shirt and a scruffy graying beard (a remnant from his recent turn as Vincent Van Gogh in Julian Schnabel’s upcoming biopic, At Eternity’s Gate) — but in a few hours he’ll spruce himself up, slip into a suit and step onto a stage to accept the Santa Barbara Film Festival’s Vanguard Award, honoring what the program calls his “unique contributions to film.”
In Dafoe’s case, unique is putting it mildly. He has played everybody from Jesus (in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ) to a tropical fish (in Finding Nemo). He shared a foxhole with Charlie Sheen in Oliver Stone’s 1986 Vietnam War epic Platoon (which got him his first Oscar nomination), wore 6-inch-long fingernails and a prosthetic pointy head to play silent film star Max Schreck in 2000’s Shadow of the Vampire (which got him his second) and zoomed around New York on a flying hoverboard as the Green Goblin in 2002’s Spider-Man (and its two sequels). And that’s just scratching the surface of his résumé — there’s also his lesser-applauded performances in 1993’s Body of Evidence (in which Madonna dripped hot wax onto his naked body) and in Lars von Trier’s 2009 drama Antichrist (in which Charlotte Gainsbourg crushed his testicles), along with a slew of other roles big, small and occasionally completely overlooked. Over the past 37 years, Dafoe has racked up credits on more than 100 films, churning out two, three or sometimes even four or more a year (last year, he did six, a personal best, plus voiceover narrations on two documentaries).
But here’s the thing about Willem Dafoe. Despite his prodigious output and near-ubiquitous onscreen presence during the past four decades, he’s never quite popped as a full-fledged movie star. He’s gotten plenty of nominations, and the critics adore him. But nobody gossips about him. Photographers don’t camp outside his home (or even know where it is). Fans let him wash his underpants in peace at laundromats. Dafoe insists he doesn’t want to be a bigger star than he already is and prefers that nobody know about his offscreen life. He says it makes it easier to “disappear into roles.”
Still, disappearing isn’t exactly a winning strategy when you’re up for an Academy Award. So he slouches into his chair on his hotel terrace, gives his gray beard a couple of tugs and, for a few of hours anyway, lets a stranger rummage in his laundry bag.
For starters, his real name is not Willem. It’s William. As a teenager in Appleton, Wisconsin, he was called Bill, or sometimes Billy, and there was a period during his early childhood when his older brothers teased him with the nickname “Bleeblob” (for reasons no family member will reveal but which they hint are hugely embarrassing).
He was the seventh of eight children, all crammed into an overstuffed colonial where there was almost zero adult supervision. Dafoe’s dad was a doctor and his mom a nurse, and because they were seldom at home, he was raised mostly by his five sisters. “My parents started out as Eisenhower Republicans,” he says, “but by the time I came around they had loosened up.” Luckily, he thrived on the chaos. Once, when he was 8 years old, he shut himself into a closet for two days. He wasn’t hiding or depressed. He just wanted to feel what it was like to be confined in a small space for a long period of time, like the astronauts in the Gemini rockets on the news. “Nobody in my family noticed,” he remembers.
“He was always a performer,” says his brother Don, 67, a transplant surgeon in Laguna Beach who drove up to Santa Barbara for the film festival. “He was always doing crazy stuff to create a stir. I remember once when he was 10 or 12 years old, he got ahold of a gorilla costume and climbed the side of a building in downtown Appleton, like King Kong.” Adds brother Richard, 65, a commercial litigation attorney in Dallas who also attended the Santa Barbara ceremony, “He was always doing creative things. If he got a term paper assignment, he’d find a way to act it out in class instead of writing it.”
Occasionally, Dafoe’s creative spirit landed him in hot water, like the time he borrowed his high school’s video camera to shoot a documentary and got expelled for making what the principal called “pornography” (“There was a bare bottom in it,” Dafoe says). But he didn’t want to stick around Appleton, anyway, so he bolted for Milwaukee, where he camped out on a friend’s sofa, started sitting in on drama classes at the university and eventually fell in with a small theater troupe where he first began learning to act. “But I never thought acting could be a profession,” he says. “I didn’t know anybody that made their living in the entertainment industry. It was just something I liked to do, something I had fun with, a social thing. I thought maybe I’d end up joining the Merchant Marines or the Army.”
He started taking acting more seriously when he came to New York in the mid-1970s. That’s around the time he gave his name a Dutch makeover, dropping the “ia” and adding an “e” (although “William” is still on his driver’s license and passport). “It’s not like I was looking around for a stage name,” he says, “But I knew that I didn’t want to be a William or a Bill or a Billy.” It turned out to be a smart move; the new cool moniker helped him fit in with the downtown crowd he was hanging with. Before long, he was the youngest actor in the Wooster Group, a theater company in an old metal stamp factory in SoHo that mounted wacky experimental productions, like a version of Our Town with all the actors in blackface while sex videos played on monitors on the stage. The critics weren’t always kind, and money was always a problem (Dafoe made extra bucks by doing figure modeling for art classes), but it was here that he met his mentor and muse — and, for a long time, his partner. Theater director Elizabeth LeCompte was 33 and Dafoe was 22 when they began a relationship that lasted for nearly three decades (their child, Jack Dafoe, is now a 34-year-old public policy researcher) until they parted in 2004, after Dafoe met Italian director Giada Colagrande, 42, while shooting The Life Aquatic in Rome. “I wasn’t looking for anything, but I fell in love,” he says matter-of-factly. “And so my life changed.”
After the breakup, Dafoe was “excommunicated” from the Wooster Group, where LeCompte remains as director. But for many years, that small theater was Dafoe’s center of gravity, even as Hollywood beckoned. Technically, the first film he shot, in 1980, was The Loveless, a low-budget biker drama co-directed by Monty Montgomery and a young first-time auteur named Kathryn Bigelow. But that film’s release was delayed for two years, so Dafoe’s first appearance in movie theaters ended up being a small part in Michael Cimino’s much more high-profile Heaven’s Gate. Dafoe spent three months on the set of that infamous train wreck as a “glorified extra” before getting fired. “We were standing on the set in full costume and makeup and they were adjusting the lights, and the woman next to me whispered a joke,” he says. “I laughed too loud. Cimino whirled around, looked at me and said, ‘Willem, step out!’ and he sent me back to my hotel room. An hour later, I was presented with a plane ticket and told to go home.” He can’t recall what the joke was but remembers “it was something dirty.”
Dafoe never had the face of a leading man — “I’m like the boy next door, if you live next door to a mausoleum,” he once said of himself — but even in his 20s and 30s he had the right bone structure and wild intensity to play villains, like the counterfeiter in William Friedkin’s To Live and Die in L.A. He was even talked about for the Joker in 1989’s Batman, until Jack Nicholson snagged the role. “[Screenwriter Sam] Hamm said something about how physically I would be perfect for the part,” Dafoe recalls, “but they never offered it to me.”
It was a much more angelic character that would put him on Hollywood’s radar. “Originally, the part was supposed to be for a Native American,” says Oliver Stone of Sgt. Gordon Elias, the kindly G.I. who gets riddled with machine gun fire in a rice paddy at the end of Platoon. “But we couldn’t find a Native American actor for the part. So we changed the character to white and looked around for an actor who had a different sort of face. We didn’t want to cast a classically handsome actor.” Stone, who later cast Dafoe in Born on the Fourth of July opposite classically handsome Tom Cruise, believes it’s precisely because of Dafoe’s unusual features (The New York Times once described his face as looking like a “demiurge as rendered by a cubist”) that he’s had such a durable career. “He’s not a movie star,” Stone says. “He’s not good looking in that way. But that’s why he’s still working. He hasn’t fallen into the movie star trap. He’s stayed an actor.”
After his nomination for Platoon, Dafoe was offered just about everything — and, judging from his rambling credits, he didn’t turn much away. Dafoe gives lots of reasons for why he picks the projects he does — “Sometimes it can be a very simple thing, like, ‘Wow, I want to ride that motorcycle and wear those clothes'” — but in truth it’s not always easy to discern a guiding logic behind his choices. He’s the kind of actor who can shoot a highbrow drama like 1997’s Affliction one month and turn around and make Speed 2: Cruise Control the next. “Oh, I turn down things,” he insists. “I won’t say which ones, because that’s not nice to the people I’ve turned down.”
As he’s grown older, Dafoe’s pace hasn’t slowed. In the past year, he’s starred in Kenneth Branagh’s remake of Murder on the Orient Express; done a dystopian thriller called What Happened to Monday; nearly appeared in Justice League (his underwater scenes as Nuidis Vulko got cut from the final print, but he’ll be back as the character this year in Aquaman); learned to paint like Van Gogh (Schnabel was his personal tutor); and, of course, performed his nominated turn as the father-figure motel manager who looks after his downwardly mobile tenants in The Florida Project, a film that had him practicing his craft with a parking lot full of 6-year-olds and first-time actors. “When I cast Willem, everyone was like, ‘Oh no, he’s a villain, he’s a bad guy,'” says director Sean Baker, whose most famous previous work was his 2015 iPhone-shot Tangerine. “But Willem made the character his own. He came down to Florida a week early and picked out his wardrobe — he’s the one who came up with the sunglasses — and met with actual hotel managers around the area, looking for inspiration. And he was great with the kids. Very casual with everyone. Very approachable. He never played the diva.”
For Dafoe, working with children was a bit like experimental theater. “Since the movie is from the kids’ point of view, you have to invite the chaos,” he says. “The biggest challenge was to stay calm and be patient. I was ready to grab the wheel if we were going to crash, but [I] had to let the kids drive [the movie].”
Dafoe doesn’t chew any scenery or have any over-the-top outbursts in The Florida Project — on the contrary, he gives such a quiet, low-key performance that his acting is practically invisible. That makes it a surprising choice for the Academy, which usually nominates more robust roles. Dafoe himself seems a little taken aback by all the attention. Or maybe it’s just that it’s been a while since his last go-around on the awards circuit and he’s feeling out of practice. “It’s changed so much since my first nomination,” he says of this year’s race. “It’s so much more developed and sophisticated, with a lot more outlets. My first nomination for Platoon, I didn’t even have a publicist. I didn’t even know what day they were announcing the nominations. My son’s babysitter called to tell me I was nominated.”
One change he particularly likes, though, is the rise of the #MeToo movement. “I’ve worked with a lot of women directors,” he points out. “My wife is a female director. I see the inequalities. I see how difficult it is. And it’s having an effect on me because I can see how things are shifting. When I read scripts now, red flags go off sometimes. Like, if I’m reading a script and all the women are taking off their clothes, I’m like, ‘OK, what is this?’ What can I say? I’m being educated.”
“I live a nomadic life,” Dafoe observes, nodding at the leafy surroundings of the hotel terrace. “Last year it was five months in Australia, two months in England, three months in France …”
He and his wife have homes in New York and Rome, but he rarely spends more than a month or two at either. For most of the year, he’s on the road, hopping from one film set to the next. Sometimes his wife travels with him, sometimes not (“She is my home,” he says). But the constant movement has given Dafoe a unique sense of continuity. While the rest of the world measures their lives in moments — birthdays, anniversaries, weddings, deaths — he measures his in film productions. “I remember my life by my movies,” he says.
Later in the day, at the Arlington Theater in Santa Barbara, a couple hundred people turn out — including his two brothers, who don’t have nearly as fantastic hair but do bear a family resemblance around the eyes — to watch Dafoe get his Vanguard Award. Just before he steps onstage, Dafoe gets to watch his whole life-slash-movie-career flash before his eyes. There’s a five-minute pre-ceremony clip reel of his greatest moments. Or at least what somebody thought were his greatest moments. “They mostly showed my studio movies,” Dafoe points out afterward, a little disappointed. “They left out a lot of other films.”
Of course, a more complete reel would last longer than one of von Trier’s movies. And Dafoe is constantly adding titles. He reportedly has signed on for an adaptation of Jonathan Lethem’s crime novel Motherless Brooklyn, about a 1950s detective with Tourette’s syndrome, that Edward Norton (who’ll be directing as well as starring in the lead role, with Dafoe playing his brother) has been trying to get made for years. “I’m always working on something,” Dafoe says, demonstrating his gift for understatement. “I don’t always know what’s right for me, but I know what turns me on and what makes me happy.”
It turns out there’s not much in Dafoe’s anything-but-typical, laundry-loving life that makes him unhappy these days.
“To tell you the truth,” he admits, “I’m not crazy about folding.”
This story first appeared in the Feb. 7 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.