“ I never thought acting could be a profession. I thought I’d end up joining the Merchant Marines.” Valentino coat, Frame Denim jeans, Rag & Bone shoes.
1 WOOSTER: NANCY CAMPBELL/COURTESY OF SUBJECT. COLAGRANDE: MICHAEL KOVAC/GETTY IMAGES FOR MOET & CHANDON. 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 physi cally 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 1 Dafoe (left) with Spalding Gray and other Wooster Group actors in 1979. 2 With his wife, director Giada Colagrande, in 2018. 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 Find out what Dafoe’s 7-year-old co-star Brooklynn Prince taught him at THR.COM/VIDEO 2 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.” THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER 59 FEBRUARY 7, 2018
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