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.”
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.
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 this water, as it would put them at risk of contracting malaria or cholera. Still, Dafoe thought it 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. The actor 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. All seven of Dafoe’s siblings followed in their parents’ footsteps by entering the medical field, but when Willem dropped out of the University of Wisconsin to pursue acting, his parents were not pleased.
His parents refused to support him financially. “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, although he admits “I knew that if I really needed money, it would be a phone call away.”
16. That’s a real wallaby he skins in 2011’s The Hunter
2011 Australian drama film The Hunter casts Dafoe as a woodsman, who at one point skins a dead wallaby. No props or SFX were used: Dafoe had to learn how to skin the dead animal for real from a Tasmanian tracker, and perform this on camera in a single take “because they only had one animal,” as the actor explained to The Guardian.
“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, is impaled in Spider-Man and is even (obviously) crucified in The Last Temptation of Christ.
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 remarkably, 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, the infamous control freak 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.
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 soda pop.
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.
11. He keeps a journal and has written in it almost every day for 40 years
Willem Dafoe keeps a journal, which he has written in almost daily 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 involved, which led to LeCompte dumping 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. The actor made his debut as the Birds Eye mascot for the UK frozen food company’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.
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 Max Schreck in E. Elias Merhinge’s metafictional horror film, Shadow of the Vampire. While Schreck was a real-life actor famous for portraying Count Orlok in 1922’s Nosferatu, the film reimagines him as an actual vampire.
Shadow of the Vampire earned Dafoe his second Best Supporting Actor nomination at the Academy Awards; he lost to Benico Del Toro in Traffic. Dafoe has since been Oscar nominated on two more occasions, as Best Supporting Actor for The Florida Project in 2018, and Best Actor for At Eternity’s Gate in 2019. Sadly, he’s yet to land a single win.
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 Batman. 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. This never came to pass, although Dafoe later enjoyed a highly noteworthy comic book movie role as Norman Osborn/The Green Goblin in 2002’s Spider-Man, briefly in 2004’s Spider-Man 2, and finally in 2021’s Spider-Man: No Way Home.
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.
4. He 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.
However, 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, 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
Dafoe and Robert Pattinson share most of their scenes on director Robert Eggers’ film The Lighthouse, yet when cameras weren’t rolling the actors barely spoke at all. 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 on the low-budget production.
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, and happily they got on famously.
2. He’s been nominated for a couple of Golden Raspberry awards
As well as being a four-time Academy Award nominee, Dafoe has also been up for a couple of the infamous anti-Oscars, the Golden Raspberry awards. In 1994, Dafoe was nominated for Worst Actor at the Razzies for his performance opposite Madonna in Body of Evidence. (He lost out to Burt Reynolds, who ‘won’ for 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
Unlike many actors, Willem Dafoe isn’t a big fan of going to the gym. However, he is a devotee of Ashtanga (“eight-legged”) yoga, and tries to fit in an hour and a half of it every day. The actor has been practicing daily for 30 years, ascribing 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.