“In the end, nobody remembers grosses and nobody remembers how much you get paid,” says the actor Willem Dafoe — one of the most recognizable and admired big-screen character actors of the last 30 years, and a best supporting actor Oscar nominee, for the third time, for Sean Baker‘s The Florida Project — as we sit down at the offices of The Hollywood Reporter to record an episode of THR‘s ‘Awards Chatter’ podcast. “All that stuff? Yes, it has its allure, and yes, I want that. But I want that to create new opportunities [to continue to act].”
Over the last 40 years, few have acted more — or in more of a variety of projects — than Dafoe. While always maintaining a presence in New York experimental theater, he has racked up a filmography that includes Walter Hill’s Streets of Fire, William Friedkin’s To Live and Die in LA, Oliver Stone’s Platoon (which won the best picture Oscar, and for which he received his first Oscar nom in 1987) and Born on the Fourth of July, Alan Parker’s Mississippi Burning, Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ, David Lynch’s Wild at Heart, Anthony Minghella’s The English Patient (which won the best picture Oscar), E. Elias Merhige’s Shadow of the Vampire (for which he received his second Oscar nom in 2001), Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, Paul Schrader’s Auto Focus, and the list goes on.
Now, at 62, he is receiving more acclaim than ever before. His portrayal in The Florida Project of Bobby, an Orlando-area motel manager with a tough exterior but a heart of gold, already has been recognized with best supporting actor prizes from the National Board of Review, National Society of Film Critics, New York Film Critics Circle and Los Angeles Film Critics Association, as well as Gotham, Critics’ Choice, Golden Globe, SAG and BAFTA noms. And it could well bring him his first Oscar.
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LISTEN: You can hear the entire interview below [starting at 21:30], following a conversation between host Scott Feinberg and Adam Irving, a filmmaker who received a best first documentary feature Critics’ Choice Documentary Award nom for his 2016 directorial debut Off the Rails, about this year’s Oscar snubs of Jane and Kedi, doc Oscar theories of Adam Benzine and Bryan Glick and the power of Netflix in the awards sphere.
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Dafoe was the seventh of eight kids born to parents who worked in the medical profession in Wisconsin. His legal name at birth was — and today still is — William, not Willem. But he began hanging with an artsy crowd at a young age and, as he explains it, “One of my more baroque friends, when I was a teenager, called me ‘Willem‘ — said with a flourish — and that kind of stuck.” Dafoe, who himself possessed an independent spirit from a young age, left high school, and home, after school officials deemed an art project of his to be inappropriate. “I was just so fed up, and also a little fed up that my parents didn’t support me on it, that basically I left town.” He moved to Milwaukee, where he lived on a friend’s couch for a while, took college courses and ultimately started working with a small traveling theater company. At one of its stops, he met Richard Schechner, the leader of the New York experimental theater company The Performance Group, who encouraged him to come to the Big Apple and join the downtown theater scene. By the time Dafoe arrived in 1977, at 22, Schechner had left the group; it had been renamed The Wooster Group and was now under the oversight of Elizabeth LeCompte. Dafoe, “totally turned-on” by the work that the group was doing out of a garage in SoHo, joined it, and LeCompte became his life partner for the next 27 years.
Through Dafoe’s work in the theater, film offers began coming his way. His first big-screen role was supposed to be in Michael Cimino‘s Heaven’s Gate (1980) — eventually an infamous flop — but he was fired midway through the tense production, so it ended up being in Kathryn Bigelow and Monty Montgomery‘s low-budget The Loveless (made in 1980, released in 1982). Thus began decades of jumping between The Wooster Group and outside offers. His opportunities in front of cameras were generally more limited than his opportunities on the stage — his face read as menacing to many, leading to a slew of early roles as villains in films like Streets of Fire (his first studio film), To Live and Die in LA (which brought him to the attention of Stone and Scorsese) and Wild at Heart — but Dafoe worked to avoid being typecast. “Habit can brand you, but, as an actor, it can limit you,” he says. Ironically, his greatest early recognition came for playing “good guys,” one a Vietnam War soldier in Stone’s Platoon and the other Jesus in the highly controversial The Last Temptation of Christ. His profile grew considerably as a result of those films, as well as two others shortly thereafter: Mississippi Burning, for which he appeared on the cover of Time, and Born on the Fourth of July, another Stone-directed film about Vietnam War soldiers, only now in the aftermath of the brutal war.
Dafoe never became a full-fledged movie star or household name, but rather an actor whose familiar face always suggested that a film was worth watching, regardless of its type — and indeed few have demonstrated more range than he has. He seems as at home in a period-piece costume drama (he plays T.S. Eliot in 1994’s Tom & Viv) as in a vigilante action film (he plays an FBI agent in 1999’s The Boondock Saints), and as at ease in a gritty indie (like 2002’s Auto Focus, made with his most frequent collaborator, Paul Schrader) as in a big studio behemoth (like that same year’s Spider-Man, in which he plays Norman Osborne/The Green Goblin). He may have never been better than he was as Max Shreck, the actor who played a vampire — or the vampire who played an actor playing a vampire — in Shadow of the Vampire, which required a “radical transformation” and may be his greatest performance to date. (“It was actor Heaven,” he reflects.) His cinematic choices only got riskier after 2004, when his relationship with LeCompte ended, and with it his association with The Wooster Group. (Losing his theatrical home “was painful,” he acknowledges.) Around that same time, perhaps not coincidentally, he began making a host of movies with the likes of Wes Anderson, Lars von Trier and Abel Ferrara, which are, in their own way, as “experimental” as anything.
Through it all, an unmistakable humility has somehow endured, to the extent that Dafoe sought out an opportunity to work with Baker, a filmmaker who theretofore had made his name helming microbudget films starring first-time actors — sort of modern-day neo-realist works. For The Florida Project, Dafoe went down to Florida, ahead of his collaborators, in order to meet with real motel managers and get a sense of how they dressed, spoke and operated. He then practiced his craft opposite far less experienced actors, ranging from 6-year-old phenom Brooklynn Prince (“a natural performer, smart”) to twentysomething Instagram discovery Bria Vinaite (“she’s fantastic”), and was delighted to do so. “I suppose the biggest challenge — and I don’t think I’ve admitted this — was you have to stay calm and be patient and not try to drive,” Dafoe explains. “You’ve gotta let the kids drive, if you can imagine that. I’m ready to grab the wheel if we’re gonna crash, but you’ve gotta let the kids drive. And, in the end, they were sweet kids, and the story protected us, our roles in the story protected us.” In a way, he even envied his scene partners, explaining, with a smile, “My ambition is always to not be an actor — to be an actor who doesn’t seem like an actor.”