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Six definitive films: A beginner's guide to Willem Dafoe

American actor Willem Dafoe has successfully established himself as one of the most talented performers in the industry. Ranging from popular roles like the Green Goblin in Spider-Man to parts in cult classics like The Boondock Saints, Dafoe has displayed an impressive versatility and has received several prestigious accolades, including Golden Globe wins and Oscar bids.

In an interview, Dafoe explained his approach to acting: “It’s tension. Everything drops away and you have a kind of superhuman awareness. You’re engaged in a way that’s not normal life. And naturalism or not, I think for all performances it’s that double thing of, you’ve got to be absolutely receptive and relaxed but you also have to be aware of a kind of tension that exists. Be cool as you’re walking across that floor but the floor is covered in broken glass. To take those two opposing things is where we live somehow, and I think that elevates your awareness and elevates your stake in what you’re doing.”

Adding, “I try not to think about success. Sometimes things work for you, sometimes things are successful for you and they aren’t for other people. Real success I suppose is opportunity, being able to have opportunities over and over and over again. Opportunities to continue to do what you love to do and go deeper into what you do… It’s amazing how some beautiful films are so maligned and some bad films are so appreciated. So, you can’t get into that game. Yes, it doesn’t mean I live above that because I don’t, I’m totally aware and totally hoping that I have commercial success with a movie and all that like everybody. Success is sleeping well at night.”

On his 66th birthday, we revisit Willem Dafoe’s wonderful career as a top actor by looking at six definitive works from his outstanding filmography as a celebration of his undeniable talent.

Willem Dafoe’s 6 definitive films:

Platoon (Oliver Stone – 1986)

Oliver Stone’s 1986 war film attempts to depict the horrors of the Vietnam War through the art of cinematic violence, transforming the experience into a bloody spectacle. Dafoe plays the role of Sgt. Elias, an idealistic soldier caught in the middle of a historical event that can only push one deeper into the caverns of pessimism.

The director said: “It was a real test of character, because no one wanted to make it in America, it was made by an English company. The America people even then were very afraid of talking about what was going on in their own back yard and what was going on; American soldiers were all over central America at that point too, interfering in these countries.”

The Last Temptation of Christ (Martin Scorsese – 1988)

Starring Dafoe as the titular character, Scorsese’s thesis on religion is an indispensable exploration of the duality of faith and doubt. While Christian fundamentalists were enraged by Scorsese’s ambiguity, others continue to find spiritual solace in the vital questions that the film raises.

The actor revealed: “So much was required of me. Actors want to be challenged, to be put in a position where the heat is turned up. And we had a master filmmaker. Look, it was a low-budget movie. People forget that. We were healing the blind in the afternoon and up on the cross in the evening. That’s not a complaint – it was kind of a blessing.”

Light Sleeper (Paul Schrader – 1992)

Paul Schrader’s 1992 neo-noir features Dafoe as an insomniac whose existential crisis shapes his vision of the world. Drawing elements from Taxi Driver, Light Sleeper constructs a compelling world that is ruled by restlessness, drug dependence and tragedy.

Dafoe recalled: “I was really struck when I did a film many years ago called Light Sleeper, a Paul Schrader movie. I played a white-collar drug dealer, basically. And that’s not my story, I don’t live in that world but I thought if my life was different, I could be this guy. So occasionally you relate or you imagine that things could have been different.”

Antichrist (Lars von Trier – 2009)

Lars von Trier‘s celebrated psychological horror film stars Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg as a married couple who find themselves in an unfamiliar world after the death of their child. Antichrist won several awards, including a Best Actress win for Gainsbourg at Cannes.

While talking about what attracted him to the role, Dafoe explained: “I think the dark stuff, the unspoken stuff is more potent for an actor. It’s the stuff we don’t talk about, so if you have the opportunity to apply yourself to that stuff in a playful, creative way, yes I’m attracted to it.”

The Florida Project (Sean Baker – 2017)

One of Dafoe’s finest performances of all time, Sean Baker’s 2017 drama paints an intimate picture of life in a Florida motel where Dafoe is the manager. For his brilliant work, Dafoe received an Academy Award nomination as well as a Golden Globe bid for Best Supporting Actor.

“I saw Tangerine and I was taken with it,” Dafoe said. “I was always curious as to what Sean was up to next. When I heard that he was casting The Florida Project, and that there was still a role open, I got my hands on the script. I read it and I thought it was very good. We had a meeting, and I liked him very much. I didn’t know all of his work but I liked how he presented to me how we were going to work on this movie. So it was really a no-brainer.”

The Lighthouse (Robert Eggers – 2019)

Robert Eggers’ critically acclaimed work of psychological horror is a fascinating exploration of isolation and insanity. Set in the 1890s, Dafoe and Robert Pattinson star as two lighthouse keepers relegated to an island where they slowly discover the fundamental terrors of the human condition.

“It’s not comfortable, but at the same time, it’s the only way to do something like this. And of course, the weather is a huge, huge part of the movie and you just accept it and you love it actually, because the weather tells you how to perform, it tells you what the story is. It’s also the thing that routes it from being just a bullshit little tale and makes you have some skin in the game,” the actor elaborated.