The interviewer who joins Willem Dafoe on the Arlington stage Thursday night will have his or her hands full, as the Oscar-nominated actor resists personal disclosure. In one of the few interviews he’s given since being recognized by the Academy for his performance in The Florida Project, Dafoe told the U.K.’s Independent, “I don’t want people to know what I think.” It may seem like an odd approach to the hypercompetitive Academy Awards campaign that studios expect nominated artists to wage, but Sean Baker’s brilliant low-budget film is nothing like the typical big-ticket contenders from which acting nominations ordinarily emerge. There’s also the fact that for Dafoe, this kind of attention has become somewhat routine. His first Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actor was in 1987, when he got the nod for his role as Sgt. Elias in Oliver Stone’s Best Picture–winning Platoon. His second came in 2001 for the role of Max Schreck, the bloodsucking German film actor in Shadow of the Vampire; it made him the only actor in Oscar history to be nominated for playing a vampire.
Now, more than 30 years after his first bid in the category, Dafoe returns to the Oscar hunt for a role that represents a significant departure — not only from his default casting as a villain (see, for example, Spider-Man 2, in which he was the Green Goblin) but from what has become a very consistent career working both in big-budget Hollywood features and in foreign films, of which The Florida Project is neither.
What Bobby — the gruff but bighearted motel manager he plays in that movie — does have in common with many of Dafoe’s more than 100 other film performances is a direct presence and honesty that was first nurtured in Dafoe’s work as a performer in experimental theater. From 1977 until 2005, Dafoe was a member of The Wooster Group, downtown New York’s most enduring and influential avant-garde theater company. Located in a SoHo warehouse and home to, among other memorable talents, the late Spalding Gray, The Wooster Group has a history of upending conventions and flouting expectations that includes major controversies in nearly every decade of its existence. As recently as 2016, the group was enjoined by the estate of Harold Pinter from performing or publicizing its fascinating production of Pinter’s early play The Room. In the group’s 1981 masterpiece Route 1 & 9, Dafoe cavorted onstage in a raucous routine borrowed from the African-American comedian Dewey “Pigmeat” Markham. Throughout his singularly productive film career, Dafoe has been going home to a unique creative environment full of risk-taking and innovation. That’s clearly part of the reason he’s so adaptable when it comes to unorthodox productions such as The Florida Project.
The Florida Project takes place in a seedy motel just outside of Disneyworld. Shooting in a real motel with a cast of mostly children and nonactors, Baker created an updated version of the Our Gang comedies, but with a massive dose of documentary realism. Dafoe’s quiet dignity as Bobby provides the frame through which breakout performances by unknowns Bria Vinaite and 7-year-old Brooklynn Prince burst forth. It’s an unforgettable turn in an unexpected role — the kind of thing that has made Willem Dafoe’s career, and that qualifies him as a stellar example of contemporary cinema’s vanguard.