Nominee Q&A

Willem Dafoe on How Awards Season Has Changed Since His First Oscar Nom 30 Years Ago

Courtesy of A24

The nominee also talks about how he researched his 'Florida Project' character and the fellow actors he's been most excited to meet for the first time in recent months.

As Bobby Hicks, the caring but beleaguered manager of the Magic Castle Motel in Sean Baker’s The Florida Project, Dafoe, 62, earned his third best supporting Oscar nomination — his first since 2000’s Shadow of the Vampire. The actor talked with THR about why he took the role, building the character and how awards season has changed since his first nomination, 30 years ago for Platoon.

How fast do you know you want to do a film?

A huge part was Sean Baker. When I saw Tangerine I put him on my radar. And when I saw he was going to do another film and he was casting, I got my hands on the script and once I read the script, I had a meeting with him. I liked him so much and he told me how he was going to do it. That was pretty much it.

I read that you once said acting scared you. Is that right?

“Scared” is probably the wrong word. “Uncertainty” is closest to it. You never know where it’s going to go, but if you look around the company you keep, and you know your intentions in making the movie and they’re pure and interesting, then it’s just about diving in and finding the best way to get the proper level of engagement.

How did you build the character?

I didn’t know who the character was because I was unfamiliar with the world we were portraying. In the interest of respect and authenticity, I didn’t want to lean on any previous knowledge of who I thought this character could be. I went out and interviewed a bunch of these guys who had a similar life, had a similar job. That really helped — not superficially in how they dressed, where they came from, how they talked, but more deeply about their attitudes toward life. What was amazing is they were fairly normal, working-class guys, but they had this beautiful capacity to care for people. They took real pride in their work in being managers and that they made the place a better place for people.

Do you see your character differently when you see it onscreen?

I’m always a little surprised because I don’t think of myself as an interpreter. I think of myself more as trying to inhabit a character. If you’re too conscious of what you’re trying to portray, it limits you because you start to anticipate what it’s all for, and I think it ruins the reality of it for you.

As you go around during awards season, do you get a chance to talk with your peers?

Yes, I do. I don’t live in Los Angeles. And some of these events aren’t just awards presentations — they’re also where people give speeches that are sentimental and reflect on their careers. It makes me feel a part of the community more than I’d say I normally do. Have you met anyone for the first time whose work you admire? Actually, quite a few people. Angelina Jolie. I had never met her in person. Richard Jenkins, Michael Stuhlbarg — I had never met them.

You were nominated for Platoon in 1987. What’s different about being nominated this time?

Thirty years ago it was very exciting because I was entering a new level of exposure, so it represented having more opportunities. But now I have a deeper appreciation because I like performing more and more, and it becomes more and more mysterious to me. And I’m happy that I’m still in the game. Even though the whole development of the awards season is much more complicated and much more intricate, somehow it means more to me this time than it did the first time.

This story first appeared in a February standalone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.