‘Find what you love and practice it,’ Dafoe tells UWM graduates

Jungle foliage paying tribute to the movie “Platoon.” An image of the Green Goblin’s alter ego, Norman Osborn. The mortar board decorations at this year’s commencement were unusual and star-powered.

They paid tribute to graduation speaker Willem Dafoe, who attended UWM in the 1970s before going on to make more than 100 films, including “Platoon” and the Spider-Man franchise, and to win recognition as one of the most fearless and talented actors of his generation. During the afternoon ceremony, Dafoe also received an honorary Doctor of Arts degree.

Like members of the Class of 2022, Dafoe had waited years for this moment. Chancellor Mark Mone said he invited the actor back to UWM four or five years ago, but Dafoe was busy making several movies. Then, the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Dafoe wanted to talk to graduates in person, not over video.

Actor and Alum Willem Dafoe Speaks at UW-Milwaukee Commencement

On Sunday, he stood next to the chancellor and shook hands or fist-bumped with hundreds of students as they crossed the stage. “Today is a celebration,” he said. “Enjoy yourselves. Congratulations!”

Kevin Schmidtke, who earned a bachelor’s degree in history, described the last four years as “a little tricky at times.

“I’m happy I made it through, and I think I did the best I could, so I’m pretty satisfied,” said Schmidtke, who plans to get licensed to teach high school.

Dafoe understands uncertainty. He described arriving at UWM as an “unsophisticated kid from Appleton, Wisconsin” and working a series of jobs to pay his way.

“My time at UWM was formative and positive,” Dafoe said. “It marked probably the first time I decided to pursue acting — not necessarily because I thought I could make a career of it, but more because I found what I loved to do.

“At 17 years old, I wasn’t concerned about making a living yet.”

Dafoe said he chose UWM because he liked the urban environment and the feel of a blue-collar campus “that was serious minded and in the world, as opposed to the bubble of a traditional college-town school.”

After two years of intense training, he left to become part of Theatre X, a faculty-student workshop that became an independent experimental theater company.

“Be at peace with yourself,” Dafoe advised the graduates. “Find what you love and practice it any way you can. Serve others, make every step a pleasure, and trust it will take you where you need to be.”

Among the students enthralled by Dafoe’s speech was Dominic Marr, who pasted an image of Dafoe as the Green Goblin’s alter ego, Norman Osborn, on his mortar board.

“He was really good,” said Marr, who graduated with a master’s degree in freshwater sciences and technology. “It was entertaining and what it needed to be.”

Melissa Schussman, who graduated with a master’s in environmental engineering, wore a Spider-Man bodysuit under her regalia. She described walking across the stage as both thrilling and stressful — and noted that the superhero franchise had helped see her through other turning points.

“During my thesis defense, I had a huge Spider-Man water bottle,” she said. “When I heard [Dafoe] was speaking, I had to wear the costume.”

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