My ten-year-old son asked if he’d seen anything Willem Dafoe was in. This is increasingly a question from him, when he hears I’m writing about someone. In this case, I had to consult IMDb before answering, mostly because I don’t think he’s seen No Way Home yet. My immediate thought, therefore, was “Almost certainly not.” There are several movies I’d let him watch that he hasn’t yet, but most of Dafoe’s career is Not For Kids. Just because I think The Last Temptation of Christ is an amazing film doesn’t mean I’m going to show it to them. Turns out he’s in Finding Nemo and Finding Dory, though, so at least my son knows his voice.
But Dafoe’s career is like that. He has wandered through the industry, an extremely busy man on an extremely erratic path. He voiced a fish for Pixar. He played a Christ-like figure in Platoon and, of course, Actual Jesus Christ for Martin Scorsese. He’s in the Wes Anderson stable and played a cruel reformatory guard for John Waters. He’s been on The Simpsons twice. The movie of his my son most wants to watch is The Fantastic Mr. Fox. He’s been in big-budget fare and indie fare and everything in between.
It’s not universally accepted, but it seems to me that he’s never the weak link in anything he’s in. He’s been let down by writing and directing, goodness knows, but if nothing else I’ve never seen him phoning in a role. He throws himself into them, and Gods bless him for it. He’s having enormous fun as Count Orlock in Shadow of the Vampire, and I’m willing to bet he’ll be having enormous fun as Totally Not Van Helsing in the upcoming remake of Nosferatu. Unlike Christopher Walken, who apparently acts a lot because he wouldn’t be doing anything else if he didn’t, Dafoe seems to act a lot because he’s having fun.
I don’t know what he thinks of his current status as a meme. I know he refused to be in No Way Home if he was just doing a cameo—honestly from what I know the time in the makeup chair alone wouldn’t have been worth it. (Norman Osborne’s teeth are fake, while the Green Goblin’s are Dafoe’s own.) But it’s true that it’s pretty well erased any other role’s possibility as being the first thing you think of with him, even though his many and varied performances are so noteworthy. He just sticks in the brain this way now, which I suppose is the original definition of a meme, after all.
I haven’t seen all his movies. I don’t want to see all his movies, and that isn’t just that I’m not a huge Wes Anderson fan. (This, clearly, is how one of my children is going to end up rebelling, and The Life Aquatic will end up playing in my house on a loop.) Still, I’m always at least a little interested when I hear he’s going to be in something, and that’s been true for years. And it turns out that his birth name is “William,” and “Willem” was a nickname he picked up in high school and mostly how he thinks of himself. It’s the Dutch version of the name. So now you know.