Actor Willem Dafoe honored in Frankfurt | Film | DW | 09.10.2020
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Film

Actor Willem Dafoe honored in Frankfurt

One of the most versatile and sought-after actors of his generation: Willem Dafoe has won the B3 BEN Award in the category "Most Influential Artist."

Willem Dafoe was still a teenager when he decided to become an actor. At age 17, he started studying theater but found the program too theoretical. He decided to join an experimental theater group instead that toured the US and Europe. The varied work — not only on stage, but also behind the scenes — enabled him to develop concentration and precision in his acting.

US director Michael Chimino offered him a first film role in the Western Heaven's Gate (1980). But Dafoe was fired from the production, and his supporting role was removed from the movie during editing. He didn't get a credit for his brief appearance in the final cut.

Dafoe then gained renown with the action film Streets of Fire (1984), in which he portrayed the cool leader of a motorcycle gang. Two years later, his part in the Vietnam drama Platoon earned him an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor.

Acting as an intuitive challenge

Dafoe, born William James in Appleton, Wisconsin on July 22, 1955, never let setbacks stand in his way. He even felt that winning the Golden Raspberry, the infamous "award for the worst actor," in 1993 was an incentive to keep going.

Building an impressive and unique acting career over the years, he's appeared in over 100 films. Beyond these, Dafoe is a stage actor and co-founder of the successful experimental theater company The Wooster. 

film still 'Mississippi Burning' with Gene Hackman and Willem Dafoe (United Archives/picture-alliance )

Dafoe in 'Mississippi Burning,' a 1988 biographical crime thriller involving the Ku Klux Klan

Considered one of the most versatile actors of his generation, he's often embodied difficult, introverted and headstrong characters such as the taciturn lighthouse keeper in The Lighthouse (2019).

To Dafoe, difficult characters are a challenge, like climbing mountains. "I do it purely intuitively," he told DW during the Berlinale in 2018. "Of course I take a close look at the script and the role, but the environment and director of the film is also important. I always look at the big picture. You never know exactly what a role is until you play it."

Pushing his limits

The actor with German, English, Irish, Scottish and French roots has worked with renowned directors from the US and Europe, such as Paul Schrader, Abel Ferrara, Julian Schnabel, Wes Anderson and Lars von Trier. Among his collaborations with the Danish director was the controversial Antichrist from 2009, where he starred alongside Charlotte Gainsbourg.

The actor has portrayed all kinds of characters, from brutal murderers and treacherous villains to respectable family men and courageous anti-heroes.

Film still 'The Florida Project': Willem Dafoe (picture-alliance/AP Photo/A24)

His role as the manager of a motel in 'The Florida Project' (2018) earned him an Oscar nomination

In embodying them, he's also known to push his limits: "As an actor you always try to get to the point where you merge with the material, with the role, and that's exactly what I want to work towards," Dafoe said. "My aim is to connect everything. It's really a life's work, maybe I'll never get there, but I'll try. Simply to radiate that presence when you become one with the story in every moment."

Dafoe therefore always dives into his characters' biographies. In At Eternity's Gate (2018), he portrayed the painter Vincent van Gogh in a severe depression during which he infamously cut off his ear. Director Julian Schnabel, himself a painter, drove the actor to the brink of complete physical exhaustion during the shoot to depict the artist's madness as realistically as possible — and it turned out to be one of Willem Dafoe's best performances. For it, he received the Copa Volpi for Best Actor at the Venice Film Festival.

Now Willem Dafoe is honored at the Biennale of the Moving Image with the B3 BEN Award in the category "Most Influential Artist." Although he will not be able to attend the award ceremony in Frankfurt due to the coronavirus pandemic, he said he was greatly honored to receive the prize.

Adapted by Elizabeth Grenier

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