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Film

Willem Dafoe on the movie that changed his life

Willem Dafoe has always viewed cinema with a regarded profundity. As the star once proclaimed, “Great theatre is about challenging how we think and encouraging us to fantasise about a world we aspire to.” As such, Dafoe has always been drawn to movies with a sense of wonderment. He might be a mainstream star, but it is underground roles that he relishes the most. 

As he once said, “I think on some level, you do your best things when you’re a little off-balance, a little scared. You’ve got to work from mystery, from wonder, from not knowing.” The greatest unknown will always be the first feature that you find yourself in as an actor. For Dafoe, he believes that this Promethean moment in his life may well have been the most pivotal.

When The Talks asked him which movie changed his life the most, he mused: “That’s hard to say. Probably the first one, The Loveless, or maybe To Live and Die in L.A. Obviously Platoon, but it’s a little bit too obvious. It changed a certain amount of recognition and gave me a different status for a while, but it also brought some problems. After Platoon it was very hard to find good roles.”

It’s not often you hear a star say that their breakthrough actually closed a lot of creative doors, but Dafoe is no typical big star. As he explained: “You get everything offered to you and nothing is right. And you get somehow overwhelmed.” Immediately after Platoon, he found himself starring in much more commercially geared roles like SaigonBorn on the Fourth of July, and Flight of the Intruder. These might have bulged his bank account, but they left him creatively confused. 

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As he added: “There are some times when I think I should have kept it rolling. That’s what most people that are interested in movie careers do. Even if they fall on their face, once you get a break or a little attention you should go, go, go, go! But I was still working at the theatre and I had a different kind of view of who I was and what I wanted to do and I was really waiting for the perfect role after I got this kind of recognition. It didn’t come for a long time and then I finally got tired of waiting and I went back to work.”

Nevertheless, his early role in The Loveless has remained a touchstone throughout everything that has followed. Created by Kathryn Bigelow and Monty Montgomery, the film sees Dafoe in the leather-clad lead as Vance as a motorcycle gang causes havoc when they descend on a small southern town while to a race in Daytona. 

The film might have been small-time and met with solid reviews that, nevertheless, failed to set the world alight. However, as Dafoe has often reminisced, it thrust him into a new creative territory and he has been looking for that same exploration ever since. The movie’s closest cinematic companion is probably The Wild One, and with that in mind, it’s perhaps no surprise that the Hollywood outsider that Dafoe represents was enamoured by it. 

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