The second night of the Santa Barbara International Film Festival got underway on a cool February evening amid flashing cameras and buzzing excitement as attendees awaited the red carpet arrival of Willem Dafoe. The esteemed actor was on hand to receive the Cinema Vanguard Award, given to artists forging their own, unique paths on the forefront of incredible filmmaking. Dafoe was being recognized specifically for his outstanding role in Sean Baker’s The Florida Project, released last October. Moderator Pete Hammond got the evening underway by unleashing a scroll stretching from his hands to his feet — with some slack still left lying on the stage floor — of all the awards and nominations Dafoe has received during his illustrious career. Hammond then introduced a montage of Dafoe’s work before the actor himself came up on stage.
Humble and quick to laugh, Dafoe spoke highly of people he had worked with, even director Michael Cimino, who fired him from his first film role for giggling — “I was a glorified extra,” Dafoe said — in the 1980 film Heaven’s Gate. “I don’t hold anything against Michael,” he said. “We even worked together again after that.”
Dafoe was born in Appleton, Wisconsin, the youngest of eight children; two of his brothers attended the event. Dafoe said, “I like coming from a big family. Our house was kind of crazy… but we took care of each other.” The community theater in Appleton prompted Dafoe’s enthusiasm for acting. Later, he moved to New York and joined the Wooster Group, which he has been a part of for 27 years and “spent every day there that [he] wasn’t on a movie set,” he said.
Known for his gruff and villainous characters, Dafoe explained, “I was always attracted, not to villains but people on the outside — outsiders. That’s more romantic. That allows for more original thinking.” Referring to his role as the compassionate Bobby Hicks, the motel manager in The Florida Project, Dafoe expanded on that idea, saying, “[It] was a world I didn’t know. Doing the film I got to know that world, and see from a new perspective… I had to fit in their game.”
Dafoe, who earned his third Academy Award nomination for his role in The Florida Project, had this to say regarding the accolades: “[It’s] good to draw awareness for the film…but it’s important for actors to not get too focused on awards.” The nomination is for Best Supporting Actor. He received his first two nominations for Platoon and Shadow of the Vampire in the same category.