‘Down-to-earth’ and ‘timeless,’ actor and alum Willem Dafoe charms students

Anastasia Esther was graduating Sunday with a degree in film. But the most exciting moment of her weekend — and her five years at UWM, she said — happened Saturday, when she and a dozen other UWM students were able to ask actor and alum Willem Dafoe about his craft.

Dafoe spoke to more than 600 students, as well as dozens of faculty and staff, at a Saturday event modeled on the talk show “Inside the Actors Studio.” He was in town to speak the next day at commencement and to receive an honorary Doctor of Arts degree.

What traits, Esther asked him, are essential for a good director to have?

“Directing is what I want to be doing,” Esther said, “and I want to work with people like him. When I heard he was going to be the commencement speaker, I thought it was a prank! But somehow, it’s real.”

Actor Willem Dafoe talks to theater and film students at UW-Milwaukee

Dafoe attended UWM in 1973 and 1974 before leaving to become part of Theatre X, a faculty-student workshop that grew into an independent experimental theater company. In the ensuing decades, he became one of the most respected actors of our time, with four Academy Award nominations, as well as awards from the New York Film Critics Circle, National Board of Review, Los Angeles Film Critics Association and many others.

When he walked onto the stage at the Helene Zelazo Center for the Performing Arts, students welcomed him with thunderous applause. Chancellor Mark Mone asked Dafoe what he remembered about his days on campus.

“It’s fun to be back (in Milwaukee) and to see places that were here and how they’ve changed,” Dafoe said, recalling his introduction to arthouse cinema at the Downer Theatre. “But the truth is, because of the nature of theater production and that I was also working at the time, I didn’t do a lot of just hanging out back then. And when I was hanging out, I was often sleeping in the lounge of the theater department because it was more convenient than going home.”

Sleeping in ‘the fishbowl’

His response struck a chord with Abby Fuchs, a junior majoring in theater.

“When he said that, I just turned to my friend, and we both said, ‘The fishbowl!’” Fuchs said, explaining that even today, UWM theater students sleep in the theater lounge known as the fishbowl.

Dafoe demonstrated a sharp sense of humor. When Mone asked the Appleton native what people say when they learn he’s from Wisconsin, he quipped, “They say, ‘I thought you were English.’”

But he grew thoughtful in talking about his art. He told Esther that the relationship with a director is the most important one for an actor to have.

“I want to be in the room with those people who bring something out in me,” Dafoe said.

Learning from every role

He said he learns life lessons from every role, especially when he plays a real person, such as Vincent Van Gogh in “At Eternity’s Gate.”

More than 600 students, mostly from Peck School of the Arts, filled the Helene Zelazo Center for the event. (UWM Photo/Elora Hennessey)

“In doing those characters, it adds to yourself,” Dafoe said. And, he said, the arts “humanize us. They allow us a way to think about how the world can be better. When we watch films, we learn how to live from them. Generally, the arts force us to reconsider ourselves.”

Jacob Kaiser, a junior in theater, said he was impressed by Dafoe’s love-of-learning philosophy.

“He’s such a down-to-earth person,” Kaiser said. “He told us that he’s using all the same tools and techniques that our teachers have been telling us. And that’s really good to know coming from someone of his stature. It means so much.”

‘Roles become timeless’

About half of the students in the audience came from the Peck School of the Arts, while the rest represented a wide range of majors. Many students grew up watching the now 66-year-old Dafoe play the Green Goblin in the Spider-Man movies, the first of which came out in 2002.

“To hear that he was coming to UWM to give this talk, it’s insane,” said William Miles, a junior majoring in psychology. “I took time off from work so I could be here.”

Asked about playing “bad guys,” Dafoe said he doesn’t distinguish between good characters and bad because both are personalities that have to be developed, with good characters having some aspects of bad in them and vice-versa.

That made sense to Matthew Nowak, a double major in IT and film. “Look at how many of the characters he has played that have become pop culture icons,” Nowak said. “You can say ‘Willem Dafoe’ to anyone, and each person will have a different character they associate with him. How does he act so well that those roles become timeless?”

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