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If you can become one of the most acclaimed and iconic actors in the business without letting the business define you, that’s a pretty neat trick. Nice work, Willem Dafoe! But wait, you say. What about all the villains – the outlaw biker in The Loveless, the counterfeiter in To Live and Die in L.A., the drug dealer in Light Sleeper? The Green Goblin, for Pete’s sake? Okay, duly noted, and he certainly makes a delightful psychopath.
But consider this. His first Academy Award nomination came with his breakout role in 1986’s Platoon as the compassionate Sergeant Gordon Elias. The Los Angeles Times called his smile of pure sweetness at the film’s end one of its most lingering images. There was his determined FBI agent Alan Ward in the excellent Mississippi Burning, the broadly comic turns in Mr. Bean’s Holiday and the shamefully under-distributed Go Go Tales. Oh, and then Jesus, of course – not such a bad guy. Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ may have been more controversial than Dafoe expected, but his performance was widely praised. The New York Times wrote, “Willem Dafoe has such a gleaming intensity in this role, so much quiet authority, that the film’s images of Jesus are overwhelming even when the thoughts attributed to him are not.” We submit that for every Rat (Fantastic Mr. Fox) there’s an equally compelling Gill (Finding Dory).
Maybe Dafoe has made a career of defying expectations by not having any. He once told The A.V. Club, “If you know what [your performance] is before you even start, it’s not as interesting,” and that could also apply to the way he’s approached his career. Inspired by improvisational theater, he had no immediate dream except perhaps escaping his hometown of Appleton, Wisconsin. He studied drama at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee but left after a year and a half. He moved to New York in 1976 to apprentice at avant-garde theater troupe The Performance Group, and later joined the Wooster Group, a renowned experimental theater.
He took a break from that world to try movies in 1980. His first, Heaven’s Gate, did not go well; he was summarily dismissed for ill-timed laughter on set. Nevertheless, the break extended to over 100 films. You know the big ones, but here we pause to provide a too-brief cheat sheet of don’t-misses you might’ve missed: The Boondock Saints (1999); Pasolini (2014); The Hunter (2011); and most definitely, Shadow of the Vampire (2000). Even a short survey shows his talent lies beyond being able to play good or evil; it’s playing characters that walk the line between, electrifying the screen in the process.
So you might imagine he’s a pretty complex, process-y kind of artist. Or not. He’s basically a guy who loves pretending and believes most “character work” is simply done in casting. He’s pliable, game for anything, not particularly needy as an artist, and thinks script and story provide the best framework for his characters. “A lot of actors get into this profession to be king of the world. I don’t want to be king of the world,” he told The Guardian in 2013. “For me the thing is not to have expectations and let them harden. The best thing an actor can be is ready. Be flexible, be ready.” If that sounds like a director’s dream, maybe that’s why so many cast him repeatedly in their films. And for that matter, he actually doesn’t want to direct, calling himself a better doer than a watcher. Indeed, one review of The Hunter meditated on the pleasure of just watching Dafoe do stuff. “The movie is at its finest when it just sits back and watches him track his semi-mythical prey through the misty Tasmanian wilderness. As he checks maps, skins marsupials, sets traps and examines paw prints, his stern face looks as etched and weathered as the landscape – and it’s somehow fascinating. Jean-Luc Godard said all you need for a movie is a girl and a gun; all The Hunter needs is Dafoe and a dead wallaby.”
Lucky us, then, that he still loves doing stuff, and continues to do so much of it. So far this year, we’ve been treated to his work in Sean Baker’s The Florida Project and What Happened to Monday. And coming up, he’ll star in the drama Opus Zero and appear opposite Kenneth Branagh and a bevy of big names in November’s highly anticipated adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express. And never fear, Marvel-heads: he has a forthcoming Nuidis Vulko double-header in Justice League and 2018’s Aquaman.
Does any common thread emerge in a CV that spans 40 years? He may not have a process or a plan, but he’s always specialized in being there – being present, open and available to possibility. Another neat trick for an artist of his experience and status. “I set myself challenges every time I work,” he told IndieWire last year. “Ideally, I approach everything as though it’s the first time – with a beginner’s mind and an amateur’s love.” And bottom line, it’s probably that love that sustains him. Dafoe recalls director and frequent collaborator Paul Schrader once telling him, “You know what your problem is? You actually like doing this.” To which we say, sounds like a pretty good problem to have.