Cookies help us deliver our Services. By using our Services, you agree to our use of cookies. Learn More.

The Untold Truth Of Willem Dafoe

Willem Dafoe is one of the most versatile and impressive actors in the game. Writer-director Paul Schrader, who's worked with Dafoe on several projects, told Esquire that he viewed Dafoe as "a chameleon of an actor" and "fearless." Wes Anderson, who's cast Dafoe in multiple projects, said of the star, "I have always loved working with Willem because he has all the tools and skills and experience and clarity and confidence you could ask for. But he is also up for virtually anything."

He also called Dafoe "one of my favorite actors anywhere." And you know what? The same goes for us. Dafoe is awesome.

Whether it's an Oscar-nominated role in a film like "Platoon" or "Shadow of the Vampire" or a Razzie-nominated role in a movie like "Speed 2: Cruise Control," you know Dafoe is going to bring his all and throw himself into the performance. And today, we're taking a look at some of the lesser-known facts about one of the best actors currently working. From his real name to crazy facts about his impressive career, here's the untold truth of Willem Dafoe.

His real name isn't Willem

One thing that's striking about Dafoe is his odd first name. In passing, most people probably just assume it's "William." Well, here's a fun fact for you ... it is. The dude's actual first name is William, and in actuality, "Willem" is a nickname. 

Dafoe appeared on "The Late Show with Stephen Colbert," and he explained why he goes by the strange permutation of his first name. As he explained to Colbert, growing up, he came from a really large family. "Father's called William," Dafoe said. "Love the guy, but I don't want to be Billy. I don't want to be William Jr. You know, you want your own identity ... A friend of mine started calling me 'Willem,' like a lazy way of saying 'William.' I didn't even know how to spell it."

The name stuck and, by the time Dafoe started getting acting jobs, Willem felt more like his true identity than William.

He was expelled from high school

Dafoe has always been interested in arts and creativity, and like many of that ilk, that's gotten him into trouble on occasion. In an interview with Stephen Colbert, Dafoe recalled how a video project he made in high school got him expelled.

As the story went, Dafoe interviewed three different students for a class as an experiment in video editing. Dafoe described them as a Satanist, a nudist, and someone interested in legalizing pot. He claimed that he would've edited out any of the problematic sections, such as shooting the nudist in the nude ... or the section where the Satanist brought out his pornography collection ... or the legal marijuana advocate naming students that he'd sold drugs to.

Unfortunately, Dafoe's teacher found the unedited footage and thought he was shooting a pornographic film. As a result, Dafoe was kicked out of school and left his hometown shortly afterwards.

He voiced a puppet polar bear in frozen food commercials

It can often be strange to hear a major actor working in a commercial, especially if you never actually see them on the screen. Celebrity endorsements are one thing, but it would be weird to hear an Oscar-nominated actor like Dafoe doing uncredited character work in an advertisement, wouldn't it?

Well, a long-running campaign for Birds Eye frozen foods featured a puppet polar bear named Clarence who lived in people's freezers, extolling the virtues of Birds Eye's products. For years, Clarence was voiced by Dafoe. Talking to The Guardian, he explained, "The ad agency said, 'He may only be a glove puppet, but he needs integrity.' When they first pitched the idea to me, it sounded really cool. I thought it was going to be an animated polar bear, inside this refrigerator, scolding people."

He claimed that people found the charm in it, though he was confused why Birds Eye went with a weird puppet. "That's not my main work," he concluded.

Willem Dafoe lost his first role by laughing too hard

When Willem Dafoe sat down with Pedro Pascal on "Inside the Actor's Studio," the pair traced Dafoe's career to the very beginning. He got his first shot at the movies from "The Deer Hunter" director Michael Cimino, who was looking for "ethnic-looking faces" — a phrase that gets an eyeroll from Dafoe and a laugh from the audience — for the epic Western "Heaven's Gate." However insensitively phrased, it was necessary for Cimino's focus on the struggles of immigrants in the Old West. It also meant Dafoe was expected to audition in Dutch: "They didn't ask whether I spoke it fluently!" Fortunately, he had a friend who did speak the language and taught him just enough to recite his monologue in both Dutch and English. Even more fortunately for Dafoe, everyone in casting spoke less Dutch than he did.

Cimino expanded Dafoe's role throughout the shoot, and for a while, it seemed like Dafoe had faked his way to fame and fortune. But his big break came to an abrupt end one day. He was standing with the rest of the cast for a lighting setup, a process that took eight hours. To break the boredom, one of the actresses whispered a dirty joke in Dafoe's ear. It must have been a good one, because he started laughing, and he wasn't whispering about it either. It was at least loud enough for Cimino to hear, and as Dafoe recalls, "He said, 'Willem. Step out.' And that was it."

He pretended he could ride a motorcycle for his second role

If Dafoe learned one lesson from "Heaven's Gate," it was the power of faking it, and it took him all the way to his next role as the lead in the biker gang movie "The Loveless" — also an important debut for "The Hurt Locker" and "Point Break" director Kathryn Bigelow.

Dafoe told GQ, "I don't want to lose the part, so they say, have you ever ridden a motorcycle? O course, classically, what does an actor do? They lie." He was eventually found out when shooting began and he was called upon to ride a "1955 big Harley hog." He scrambled to find someone to teach him before he started filming, without any success: "That's before the internet, so I'm going to the library to get a book on how to shift. Is it one down, two up?"

By the time the moment of truth rolled around, Dafoe still didn't know the back end of a motorcycle from the front. So when he saddled the hog, he says, "It takes off with me. I go riding through the backyards of some fancy neighborhood in Connecticut ... I think they figured that out pretty quick, but they were patient with me and I learned how to ride." Apparently, the experience wasn't too traumatic for Dafoe to relive it a few years later: He'd play the leader of a biker gang again in Walter Hill's cult masterpiece "Streets of Fire."

Dafoe got trapped in the Philippines during the revolution

Willem Dafoe finally found his breakthrough role in 1986's "Platoon" as the saintly Sgt. Elias. But as the crew of "Apocalypse Now" would be happy to tell you, making a Vietnam War movie is never easy, even if you use the Philippines to stand in for the Mekong Delta. Director Oliver Stone flew his cast out to the archipelago to start filming, then the People Power Revolution broke out to topple the dictatorial regime of the Marcos family. As Dafoe told Vanity Fair, he arrived "on the last plane in," and all his bosses could tell him was, "Sit tight, the movie's canceled, we'll get you out when we can."

It wasn't the first time Stone abandoned his cast — Dafoe told Pedro Pascal that for their simulated boot camp, "They took us in a bus, drove out in the middle of the jungle, had us get out of the bus — and the bus drove away!"

The average member of Hollywood royalty would probably hide in a bunker somewhere if they found themselves in the middle of a revolution. Not Dafoe. He says he and the few costars who'd gotten in before the country locked down threw themselves into the thick of the action. Eventually, the people overthrew Marcos, and production went back on track. After the story resurfaced in that Vanity Fair interview, Dafoe became more popular than ever in the Philippines, leading, of course, to the obvious pun: "DaFoe of Marcos. DaFriend of Revolution."

He caught a nasty disease during Platoon

Dafoe's first major role in cinema came from being cast as Sgt. Elias in Oliver Stone's "Platoon." He'd appeared in other movies and television prior to the 1986 film, but his amazing performance netted him his first Oscar nomination and elevated him to a seriously in-demand actor. The movie is known for being a realistic interpretation of what life was like for soldiers during the Vietnam War. Unfortunately for Dafoe, he got a little too close to that realism while filming.

In a documentary about the making of "Platoon", several cast members recounted their experiences on the set. Dafoe told a particularly interesting story about how he caught a disease (something like cholera or typhoid fever) from contaminated water. As he put it, "I filled my canteen up and put these pills in — you know, purify the water, supposedly — shook it up. We walk about 50 yards upstream from where we were — I collected the water downstream, remember. There was a big, fat, dead pig in the water ... We got back, I was delirious for like, 24 hours."

These are the sacrifices some actors make for their craft.

Willem Dafoe has died in over two dozen roles

Willem Dafoe has over 100 acting credits to his name, and he's died in a lot of those films. As of this writing, he's kicked the bucket in at least 30 movies, two television shows, four video games, and a music video. That puts Dafoe up in the "Sean Bean" levels when it comes to actors who always seem to die.

It isn't just the amount of on-screen deaths Dafoe has suffered that's impressive. He's also had some iconic deaths as well. What's the image you think of when picture "Platoon"? That's Dafoe with his hands in the air. A vampire exploding in sunlight? Dafoe did it. Jesus Christ being crucified? You bet that's Dafoe on the cross. He even got killed in the original live-action Spider-Man.

In other words, we're saying that the man knows how to die, and he knows how to do it well.

He's a bit of a health nut

Willem Dafoe was born in 1955, so he's no longer a young man. That said, he's still a pretty impressive physical specimen, and he often takes on roles where he needs to portray an intimidating presence. That isn't too hard for him because, well, he is. But how has he been playing such larger-than-life characters for so long? Well, a big part of Dafoe's longevity is that the man is a bit of a stickler when it comes to health.

In an interview with GQ, Dafoe explained that he fell into Ashtanga yoga because, as he put it, "I got old." Dafoe regularly practices yoga to help maintain his balance and physical strength. He regularly meditates as well. Dafoe seems to be a very reflective, relaxed sort — a far cry from many of the intense roles he often portrays.

Dafoe also follows a "mostly vegan" diet, and he mostly tries to lead an unassuming private life because, as he told The Hollywood Reporter, "it makes it easier to disappear into roles."

Dafoe's impressive 'manhood' has caused some problems

Willem Dafoe is pretty well known for taking on challenging and bizarre roles, as well as not being shy about pushing boundaries with his characters. One role that embodies this philosophy was Dafoe's character in Lars von Trier's "Antichrist." It's a really strange work with tons of bonkers scenes, including one where Dafoe's character (known only as "He"), um, bleeds in a very unique and disturbing way.

It's not a movie for the faint of heart.

Even better was an interview with von Trier after the fact, where he discussed why they had to use a body double for Dafoe's manhood. He told the interviewer, "He's extremely well-equipped. And we had to kind of take the scenes out of the film, we had a stand-in for him, we had to take the scenes out with his own d***."

When pressed about why, von Trier says that Dafoe's was too big, and that "everybody got very confused when they saw it." They should put that on Dafoe's tombstone. "Here lies Willem. Devoted husband and father. His privates were so big that people were confused."

Willem Dafoe's bizarre feud with a reporter

Willem Dafoe has been working in Hollywood since the early 1980s, and his first Oscar nod came in 1986. He's had decades of consistent output since then, meaning he's spent a lot of time promoting movies and giving interviews. So it makes sense that he would occasionally run into someone who just doesn't like him, and in the case of one reporter, the feeling is mutual.

At the end of one interview with The Guardian, Dafoe requested of the reporter, "Don't make this into a crackpot profile, please. That's happened before." He then added, "Who's that awful woman?" When the reporter suggested journalist Lynn Barber, Dafoe exclaimed, "That's her! I think she thought I lived by the pool with all these flunkies, and her life is very hard, so she wanted to portray me as this useless bugger."

In 2001, Barber wrote a piece on Dafoe where she said she expected him to be attractive but was "terribly disappointed." She mocked the way he answered her questions and concluded the interview by saying she'd rather speak with a "talking clock" than Dafoe. So yeah, while it seems most people absolutely adore Dafoe, there are a few people out there who just don't get the charm.

Willem Dafoe thinks about murder a lot

From "Streets of Fire" to "The Grand Budapest Hotel," Willem Dafoe has portrayed some pretty sinister villains. But despite the unhinged characters he often plays, Dafoe seems like a pretty chill person outside of his work. That doesn't mean he never lets the demons out to play, however. In fact, Dafoe is more than happy to talk about some of his worst impulses, even if that gets him some side-eyed looks from interviewers.

In an interview with The Guardian, for example, Dafoe discussed that he hides a killer inside himself, saying, "I've thought about murder many times. I have dreams about murders. I haven't done it yet because I don't think it's my talent. I'd get caught. I'm the guy that if I've got some food in my luggage, and I get stopped at customs, sweat breaks out on my forehead. I'm not the murdering type. I'm not a natural killer."

Well, that's a relief. It's good to know that the only reason Dafoe hasn't killed someone yet is because he thinks he would be bad at it.

Dafoe learned to paint to play Vincent Van Gogh

Dafoe may have begun his career faking his way through roles, but as it went on, he found himself working with directors who wouldn't take anything less than the real thing. That was the case for "At Eternity's Gate," director Julian Schnabel's interpretation of the life of Vincent Van Gogh. It's easy to see why the artist's life attracted Schnabel, whose film career always took a backseat to his work as a painter.

It also explains why he expected Dafoe to do more than just pretend to paint. Most films would swap out the lead player for a professional artist in close-ups of the hands at work or have the star dab at a finished canvas. But Dafoe told Vanity Fair that Schnabel insisted on Dafoe doing the work for real, saying, "There was no stunt painter." This meant turning the "At Eternity's Gate" shoot into a combination film set and art school. But then, you could do worse for a teacher than a guy whose paintings hang in both the Museum of Modern Art and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Dafoe certainly appreciated the experience: "Julian taught me so much," he says, "Not just about painting, but about how to see things. I felt very alive making that movie." They say you can't teach an old dog new tricks, but the then-63-year-old actor was still learning new skillsets and loving it.