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Willem Dafoe on the Actor’s Life

Reflections on a four-decade career at Gotlieb Center event

Willem Dafoe’s career has included more than 100 films, the latest the sleeper hit The Florida Project, which snagged him his third Academy Award nomination.

Before a packed house at the Tsai Performance Center Monday evening, Dafoe said that he welcomed the chance to play kind-hearted motel manager Bobby, a departure from the many villains, tough guys, and con artists he’s played over the years.

“People were seeing me in a different light,” he said. “This was a movie about a simple man who understands the interconnectedness of people.”

During the 90-minute on-stage interview with theater historian Harvey Young, dean of the College of Fine Arts, Dafoe, a thick beard covering much of his trademark cheekbones, offered insights into his life and a career spanning four decades. The event was part of the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center (HGARC) Friends Speaker Series (Dafoe’s papers are held by HGARC).

Dafoe noted that one of his most controversial roles, Jesus in the 1988 film The Last Temptation of Christ, was an actor’s dream. The epic drama, directed by Martin Scorsese and based on the book by Nikos Kazantzakis, depicts Jesus’ mortal misgivings and sexual desires. Banned or censored in several countries, the film was the subject of protests by Christian groups in the United States.

Raised as a Methodist in Appleton, Wisc., he said, he took a workmanlike approach to the role of Jesus, as a man who did not want the job he had been given by God. He also noted that expectations were high—he was playing Jesus, after all.

Willem Dafoe

Willem Dafoe was most recently nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role for playing a soulful motel manager in The Florida Project. The nomination was his third.

“The idea is that you shouldn’t feel like you have to sell something, or be obsessed with the result,” he said. ‘We’re not interpreting him, we’re inhabiting him. So you want to cleanse yourself of expectations.”

Now 62, Dafoe said he became fascinated by acting at a young age. One of seven children, he performed in community theater and later enrolled at the University of Wisconsin, but left before graduating to pursue a career in New York’s burgeoning experimental theater scene—a decision that did not thrill his parents, he said. The actor noted his connection to Boston: his mother, a nurse, was from Dorchester, and his father attended Harvard Medical School.

In New York, Dafoe discovered the creative freedom he had hoped for, helping found well-known avant-garde theater collective the Wooster Group in the late 1970s with some other performers, among them the late Spalding Gray. In those early days, Dafoe said, the performances were often inspired by the cast members’ real-life experiences.

“We made every show as if it were our last. We weren’t trained actors, we were kids, and we wanted to make things. We wanted to make things and live simply.”

His film career began inauspiciously: being fired from a role as an uncredited extra in Michael Cimino’s 1980 Heaven’s Gate. The film turned out to be one of the biggest box office failures in Hollywood history, leading to the collapse of its parent studio, United Artists.

It wasn’t until 1985, Dafoe said, with the release of To Live and Die in L.A., that his film career began to take off. His starring role as counterfeiter Eric “Rick” Masters drew immediate notice. The next year, alongside Tom Berenger and Charlie Sheen, he starred in Oliver Stone’s searing anti-war saga Platoon as idealistic sergeant Gordon Elias. The part earned him the first of three Academy Award nominations. (His second came in 2001 for Shadow of the Vampire.)

Dafoe acknowledged that balancing the competing demands of film acting and his work in experimental theater was difficult, noting that it became harder to land the stage roles he wanted because he had to travel so much for location shooting. He left the Wooster Group in 2005 after 26 years.

“In film, you’re always going to places for a moment and trying to capture lightning in a bottle…reacting to things,” he said. “Theater reanimates, you breathe life into it. They have different timing.”

Dafoe modestly described his current film career simply as “making things.” He said that no matter the part, all of his roles have required him to develop a willingness to be open, even in the face of a flop or failure.

The goal, he said, is to stay invested in the process.

“You…invite yourself to be transformed,” he said. “It’s always a little scary, but you have to be willing to let that go.”

At one point during his conversation with Young, Dafoe caught himself, saying with a laugh that he sounded “New Agey.”

With films as diverse as Mississippi Burning, The English Patient, Spider-Man, and The Grand Budapest Hotel under his belt, Dafoe earned some of the best reviews of his career for his work in The Florida Project. In a New York Times review, A. O. Scott says the actor was “never better.” And a recent Vanity Fair profile of Dafoe calls his character, Bobby, “the soul of the film.”

His performance resulted in numerous accolades. In addition to the Oscar nomination, he was named best supporting actor by the New York Film Critics Circle, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, and the National Board of Review.

To prepare for the part, Dafoe said, he interviewed motel managers to observe and learn from them, and he came to admire their pride in a job that comes with its share of hardship.

He said he also viewed the film as an opportunity to learn from cast members, many of whom had never acted in a film before.

“Doing brings inspiration,” Dafoe said. “We don’t always have a calculation, we don’t always know where we’re going to land.”

Megan Woolhouse can be reached at megwj@bu.edu.

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