7 months ago


Here is a typical day in

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. 1 “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 lowincome 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 With Brooklynn Prince in The Florida Project. 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-inchlong 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 nearubiquitous 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 3 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. PREVIOUS SPREAD: PROP STYLING BY KYLE SCHUNEMAN AT THE REX AGENCY. GROOMING BY SONIA LEE FOR ALBA1913 AT EXCLUSIVE ARTISTS. THIS SPREAD: FLORIDA: COURTESY OF A24. PLATOON: ORION PICTURES/PHOTOFEST. SHADOW: LIONSGATE FILMS/PHOTOFEST. CHRIST: UNIVERSAL PICTURES/PHOTOFEST. SPIDER-MAN: COLUMBIA PICTURES/SONY PICTURES/PHOTOFEST. THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER 56 FEBRUARY 7, 2018

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 “ He got ahold of a gorilla suit and climbed the side of a building.” 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 4 1 From left: Dafoe with Sheen and Tom Berenger. 2 As Max Schreck in Shadow of the Vampire. 3 The Green Goblin in Spider-Man. 4 On the set of The Last Temptation of Christ with Scorsese. 2 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-offactly. “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.” THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER 57 FEBRUARY 7, 2018

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