20 Things You Never Knew About Willem Dafoe
With more than 100 film appearances to his name, Willem Dafoe has truly earned his place among Hollywood royalty. A four-time Academy Award nominee, Dafoe has starred in everything from lighthearted romantic comedies to controversial horror movies to powerful dramas – and all with great success.
Here are some fascinating facts you may not know about this acting legend.
20. He spent a month at a military-style boot camp in preparation for Platoon
Speaking to Esquire in 2012, Dafoe revealed that before filming on Platoon began, the principal cast members were taken out into the wilderness for 30 days by Vietnam veterans including Captain Dale Dye.
“[We had] with no contact to the outside world, they taught us how to do soldierly things,” Dafoe recalled.
Captain Dye reportedly limited how much food and water the actors received, and fired blanks to wake them up whenever they tried to sleep.
Dafoe was joined by co-stars Charlie Sheen, Johnny Depp and Forest Whitaker on the gruelling training exercise.
Despite the harsh conditions, Dafoe enjoyed and was humbled by the experience. “It was beautifully practical, and it created a special stake.”
“We wanted to respect their experience. You always have to earn your right to pretend,” he said.
19. He went blind for three days while filming The Last Temptation of Christ
For his role as Jesus in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ, Dafoe wanted his eyes to look huge and otherworldly.
To achieve this, Dafoe tried to dilate his pupils as much as possible by being liberal with eye drops.
However, the bright Moroccan sunshine paired with Dafoe’s excessive use of the drops proved a dangerous combination.
One scene in the film required Dafoe to stare almost directly into the sun and it was while filming this that Dafoe lost his sight.
Thankfully, Dafoe’s sight returned after three days of blindness. It’s terrifying to think about what might have been had his vision not been restored.
This isn’t the only time Dafoe has endangered himself while filming – he did almost all of his own stunts for Spider-Man, and he fell seriously ill after drinking some suspicious river water while shooting Platoon…
18. He became delirious after drinking contaminated water on the set of Platoon
The Vietnam War film Platoon took Dafoe to the Philippines rainforest, where he came down with a serious illness after drinking dirty water from a river.
The actors were warned not to drink water from the river, as it would put them at risk of contracting malaria or cholera.
Still, Dafoe thought the water looked clean enough, and so he filled his canteen, dropped a purification tablet in and drank.
As the cast moved upstream, they found a dead pig rotting in the middle of the river. Dafoe’s heart must have sank when he realised what he’d done.
Dafoe subsequently had to take a break from filming as delirium set in. He was ill for 24 hours.
The brief illness didn’t seem to have affected Dafoe’s overall performance, however, as he went on to receive an Oscar nomination for the film.
17. His wealthy parents cut him off financially when he dropped out of university to pursue acting
Dafoe was one of eight children born to two parents who worked in medicine. His father was a doctor, while his mother was a nurse.
While all seven of Dafoe’s siblings followed in their parents’ footsteps by entering the medical field, Dafoe had other plans.
Willem’s parents weren’t too happy about his decision to drop out of the University of Wisconsin, and refused to support him while he pursued an acting career.
“They put all my brothers and sisters through undergraduate and graduate school. Me, nothing, because they thought I was goofing around,” Dafoe told Esquire in 2018.
Dafoe worked at a luncheonette counter and couch-surfed to get by. “I knew that if I really needed money, it would be a phone call away, but I kind of enjoyed the romance of living paycheck to paycheck.”
This literally sounds like a line from Common People, but we’ll let Dafoe off this time.
16. That’s a real wallaby he skins in 2011’s The Hunter
Dafoe stars as Martin David, the eponymous hunter, in 2011 Australian drama film The Hunter.
One scene sees David skinning a dead wallaby – a skill that Dafoe had to learn for real from a Tasmanian tracker.
“I only had one chance at it, because they only had one animal,” Dafoe told The Guardian in 2014.
Dafoe claims producers stressed that it was imperative he got the skinning right in one take.
“They said, ‘Listen, it’s been dead for a while. The gastric juices have been building up and it’s quite bloated. If you do this incorrectly, it’s gonna explode in your face.'”
The seasoned actor believes that he was able to approach the task with such calmness and precision due to the number of surgeons in his family. “I think it’s in my genes,” he said.
15. Over a third of his characters have died on-screen
To date, Dafoe has played over 100 roles, and over a third of them have died. In total, Dafe has died in 29 movies, two television shows, three video games, and a music video.
Dafoe has died in some pretty spectacular ways. He disintegrates in the sunlight in Shadow of the Vampire, and is even (obviously) crucified in The Last Temptation of Christ.
Most recently, Dafoe died in The Lighthouse, where co-star Robert Pattinson’s character kills him in a fit of madness.
It may surprise some people to learn that Dafoe has actually died on-screen more often than Sean Bean, who has only died 23 times.
However, Dafoe still has got a long way to go if he wants to break the record set by Danny Trejo.
Trejo currently holds the record for the most on-screen deaths, with his count so far totalling a staggering 65.
14. He pretended he could speak fluent Dutch in order to get his first film role
Auditions for 1980’s Heaven’s Gate asked actors to prepare “one monologue in English and one in another language.”
In order to bag a part in the film, Dafoe asked a friend to write out a Dutch speech phonetically, which Dafoe then memorised.
He was soon caught out when, at the audition, director Michael Cimino asked Dafoe to improvise some lines in Dutch.
Dafoe explained that he wasn’t actually fluent in Dutch, but unbelievably, still got the part.
Still, it’s clear that Dafoe was on thin ice from the get-go. After merely laughing at a joke on-set during filming, Cimino fired him on the spot.
You can still catch glimpses of Dafoe in the film, though he was ultimately left uncredited.
13. He learned to paint like van Gogh for his role as the artist in At Eternity’s Gate
Dafoe added Vincent van Gogh to his repertoire in 2018 after being cast as “the poster boy for the tortured artist” in Julian Schnabel’s hit biopic At Eternity’s Gate.
To get into the mind of one of history’s most famous painters, Dafoe read the anguished letters between van Gogh and his brother.
Much of the film’s dialogue was also drawn from and inspired by the correspondence between the two men.
Dafoe not only read the artist’s letters, but also studied his work and learned how to paint in order to prepare for the role, learning “a different way of looking, a different way of seeing” with the help of director Julian Schnabel.
Along with the production team, Dafoe also traveled to France to see where van Gogh lived.
“Some of these landscapes still exist,” Dafoe explained to Vanity Fair in 2018, recalling his visit to rural France. “The field next to where he’s buried, it’s quite pristine and preserved. So it was thrilling to be able to fill it with ghosts like that.”
12. He grew up in a strict Christian household where fizzy drinks were banned
Dafoe grew up in a distinctly Protestant household, with two very middle-class, teetotal, church-going parents.
“My father used to say, ‘You’ve gotta produce! You’ve gotta produce!’,” Dafoe told Esquire in 2018.
Dafoe claims his house was so strict that he and his siblings were not even allowed fizzy drinks or soda.
Dafoe went on: “occasionally my mother would have a book club, and the most exotic thing in the world was they’d pull out a coffee urn. They didn’t drink coffee!”
Dafoe remembers sneaking around with his siblings after these book club meetings to drink the leftover coffee with sugar and cream.
His parents, somewhat unsurprisingly, did not approve of Dafoe’s decision to pursue a career in acting.
11. He keeps a journal and has written in it almost every day for 40 years
Not many people know that Willem Dafoe keeps a journal, but he writes in it almost daily and has done so for over 40 years.
Speaking to Esquire in 2018, Dafoe revealed that he has “books and books and books” of his own writing.
“They’re very practical. Not even reflective. Just reporting as an exercise to learn how to express myself,” he says.
Alongside recording his thoughts, Dafoe says he also jots down “jokes, phone numbers, reminders, things I heard, things I saw.”
Dafoe keeps most of his journals in storage, while some are housed in his New York home.
The actor also sticks mementoes into his diaries, such as newspaper clippings, foreign banknotes and Polaroids.
10. He once shared an apartment with his girlfriend – and her ex
Dafoe met his future girlfriend, Elizabeth LeCompte, after joining New York-based theatre collective The Wooster Group.
The two became romantically involved, which led to LeCompte ending things with her then-current boyfriend, Spalding Gray, another member of The Wooster Group.
“It was complicated, because we were all working together,” Dafoe told Esquire in 2018.
As if that wasn’t awkward enough, the three ended up living together in the same loft.
“In fact, the three of us lived in the same loft, but we divided it in half,” Dafoe recalls.
Dafoe and LeCompte were together for 27 years before splitting in 2004. The couple have one son, Jack, and welcomed their first grandson, Tom, in 2016.
9. He was expelled from school for making a film with nudity in it
Back in high school, Dafoe filmed a documentary on a school camera for a communications class.
He interviewed three of his fellow students – and somehow, a “bare bottom” ended up getting recorded.
“But I wasn’t going to have any of this stuff in. I was going to cut that out,” Dafoe claimed on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert in 2018.
Unfortunately, while Dafoe was gone for lunch, a teacher found the footage and a classmate told Dafoe to go and see the principal.
Dafoe says he found his parents in the principal’s office and was accused of “making pornography” using the school’s equipment.
Brushing the incident off, Dafoe left town and enrolled at the University of Wisconsin where he began studying in the mid-70s.
8. He doesn’t like talking about the time he voiced a polar bear for a frozen food brand
Dafoe has played some big characters in his time, including Vincent van Gogh, Jesus Christ – and Clarence the polar bear.
Dafoe made his debut as the Birds Eye mascot 10 years ago, gracing small screens across the UK for the brand’s 2010 ad campaign.
Clarence stuck around for four years before being axed in 2014 as Birds Eye implemented a new Europe-wide marketing strategy.
Clarence was credited with boosting consumer awareness of Birds Eye UK. “He’s done a decent job, but we have a much bigger ambition now,” managing director Andy Weston-Webb told The Grocer in 2014.
Dafoe has since made a conscious effort to distance himself from the role and often gets embarrassed when the campaign is brought up in interviews.
In 2012, The Independent asked him about his time working with Birds Eye, to which he coolly responded: “This is the last thing I want to talk about.”
7. He’s the only actor to be Oscar-nominated for playing a vampire
Despite the abundance of movie vampires out there, Dafoe’s performance as Max Schreck was the first to ever receive an Oscar nomination.
In 2000, he starred as Schreck in E. Elias Merhinge’s metafictional horror film, Shadow of the Vampire.
Schreck, a real-life actor, was famous for portraying the vampire Count Orlok in 1922’s Nosferatu. The film reimagines Schreck as an actual vampire.
Dafoe has another one of his trademark, iconic on-screen deaths in Shadow of the Vampire.
In the film, Schreck is eventually killed when an in-universe film crew flood his room with sunlight – causing him to spectacularly disintegrate.
Dafoe lost out on the Oscar that year to Benicio del Toro, who won for his performance as Javier Rodriguez in Traffic.
6. He could have played the Joker in 1989’s Batman – and was even briefly considered for the title role
Dafoe was very much in the running for the role of the Joker in Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman film.
Screenwriter Sam Hamm suggested him for the role after noticing physical similarities between the character and Dafoe. The suggestion was never followed up, however, and the part eventually went to Jack Nicholson.
Dafoe was even briefly considered for the leading role. “Very early, they talked to me about playing Batman,” he told MTV News in 2009.
There’s still a possibility that Dafoe will one day play the notorious Joker – and it might happen sooner than you think.
Ever since Robert Pattinson and Dafoe appeared alongside each other in 2019 film The Lighthouse, fans have been dying to see them on-screen together again.
With Pattinson cast as the lead in upcoming film The Batman, fans have been clamouring for Dafoe to finally play the role of the Joker, over 30 years since the 1989 film. No producers have confirmed anything, but there’s always hope.
5. He filmed his own death-defying stunts for 2002’s Spider-Man
Dafoe first appeared as Peter Parker’s arch-nemesis the Green Goblin in 2002’s blockbuster hit Spider-Man.
Dafoe went out of his way to immerse himself in the role, and specifically asked the crew to let him perform his own stunts so as to create a more authentic performance.
The actor turned out to be a natural – unlike many of the professional stuntmen, he learned how to handle the Goblin Glider after just 15 minutes.
Dafoe did not let his character’s head-to-toe metallic emerald outfit stop him from performing wild stunts, either.
With the exception of CGI moments, about 95% of the villain’s stunts were performed by Dafoe himself.
There was just one instance where Dafoe slipped up: during a final fight between the Green Goblin and Spider-Man, Dafoe accidentally clipped Tobey Maguire on the chin.
4. He recently stopped eating lobster after one ‘spoke’ to him
Dafoe certainly enjoys vegan food and the various health benefits that come with it. According to a 2017 GQ article, the actor eats a “mostly vegan” diet nowadays.
Dafoe isn’t strict with his diet – apparently, he’s partial to a fish sandwich every now and then – so it would perhaps be erroneous to call him 100% vegan.
Although he could never give up fish sandwiches, there is one fish the actor refuses to eat nowadays – lobster.
After filming scenes for 2019 film The Lighthouse, Dafoe pledged to never eat one again.
Speaking to the Daily Mail earlier this year, Dafoe explained his revelation in more detail.
Dafoe claimed that while filming in Nova Scotia he felt as though one lobster was “speaking” to him. “So one day, I just stopped eating lobster, on that shoot,” he said.
3. He and Robert Pattinson barely spoke to one another on the set of The Lighthouse
Weirdly, Dafoe and Robert Pattinson hardly spoke to each other while shooting the 2019 film The Lighthouse.
Filming was so physically demanding that both men were too exhausted to socialise after shooting ended for the day.
And there was little time for small talk on-set. “Even when we’re in the interiors, it’s really cold and wet with flooding, so whenever you get a moment when you’re not working, you retreat to change clothes and prepare for the next scene,” Dafoe told World Entertainment News Network earlier this year.
During production, Pattinson stayed at a hotel in Nova Scotia with the rest of the film crew. Dafoe slept separately, staying in a little fisherman’s cottage in complete solitude, leaving little time for the two to bond off-set.
“It was only afterwards, when we started doing press, that we hung out a little bit and I got to know him,” Dafoe said.
Cheeringly, both hit it off immediately once they finally had a chance to get to know one another.
2. He’s been nominated for a couple of Golden Raspberry awards
The Golden Raspberry Awards (or Razzies) have preceded the Oscars for over 30 years now, humbling great actors by awarding them prizes for their worst performances.
Sylvester Stallone and Madonna have won the most Razzies out of anyone, but Dafoe has certainly had his fair share of nominations.
In 1994, Dafoe was nominated for Worst Actor for his role in Body of Evidence. He lost out to Burt Reynolds, who won for his performance in Cop and a Half.
In 1997, Dafoe was nominated again for Worst Supporting Actor for Speed 2: Cruise Control.
The film was panned by critics and audiences alike (it currently has an embarrassing 3% on Rotten Tomatoes).
Dafoe was pipped to the post that time by Dennis Rodman, who took home the Razzie for his performance in Double Team.
1. He practises 90 minutes of Ashtanga yoga every day
Dafoe is a big fan of Ashtanga (“eight-legged”) yoga, and tries to fit in an hour and a half of it every day.
The actor isn’t a big fan of going to the gym, but has been practicing Ashtanga yoga for 30 years.
Dafoe ascribes his interest in the physicality of yoga to the importance of physicality in his professional life.
“I’ve always been working with dancers or doing extreme physical things,” he told the Wall Street Journal in 2014.
He also believes that the practice has helped improve his acting abilities by refining his “equanimity” and “concentration” skills.
Dafoe also enjoys the community spirit of his Ashtanga classes and being surrounded by a group of people in such an intimate setting.